Sea Raven’s Year of Mark commentary on Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary lays out a path for a counter-cultural church that challenges the assumptions of Empire as usual. In contrast to conventional understandings of some of the most beloved Christian texts, Sea Raven reminds us that if we pay attention to Jesus’s original message we can change the paradigm in which we live from violence to non-violence, from exclusion to inclusion. We can choose active resistance to the normal course of civilizations and usher in a world where distributive justice-compassion holds sway. Her interpretations of ancient scripture are grounded in the best of Biblical scholarship, and bring foundational stories from both the Old and New Testaments into contemporary relevance. This three-volume series, Theology from Exile, is a valuable resource for Sunday morning worship, and serious Bible study.
–Rev. Robin R. Meyers, Ph.D, Senior Minister,
Mayflower Congregational UCC Church, Oklahoma City
–Distinguished Professor of Social Justice, Philosophy Department, Oklahoma City University
The Year of Mark, Volume III of Sea Raven’s series of commentaries on the Revised Common Lectionary, continues her challenge to the church to bring traditional scripture into the 21st century. This volume is especially important to an evolving Christianity because of the emphasis on the Gospel of John in lectionary Year B. This gospel, the most beloved, is also the most misunderstood. Amazingly, Sea Raven manages to relate the second century mysticism of John’s gospel to the 13.8 billion year Big History of everyone and everything in a way that honors the mystic in each of us without violating the intellectual integrity of evidential revelation. The series is a valuable resource for not only pro-science Christians who realize that it’s simply impossible to worship God without honoring Nature; it is also a significant contribution to the ongoing dialogue among all spiritual traditions looking to interpret factual faith and a modern cosmology in inspiring, soul-nourishing ways.
–Rev. Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution,
a book endorsed by 6 Nobel Prize-winning scientists and dozens of religious leaders…
The Rev. Dr. J. Carl Gregg, Minister
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick (Maryland)
In the context of the twenty-first century American Empire, Sea Raven helps us respond to the call to read the Bible through a lens of nonviolence and peace with justice. This lectionary commentary will empower your preaching with the insights of postmodern biblical scholarship, geared toward the liberation of ourselves, our society, and our world.
* * *
William H. O’Brien, M.A., M.Div., Director
The Nathaniel Center for Spiritual Growth
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Sea Raven displays the same irreverent approach to the religious establishment as Jesus Himself in His day. I lead a weekly guided imagery group based on Ignatian Contemplation. We enter a gospel story through the imagination. Often it is congenial for me to explore the passage beforehand in Theology from Exile to clear up any theological mysteries before we begin. I always feel rewarded for my efforts. Volume III: The Year of Mark continues the trend!
Since 1985 with the founding of the Jesus Seminar, the field of research on early Christian origins and the development of the New Testament must be described as “volatile.” With this third volume of commentaries the Westar Institute scholars version of New Testament translations of the gospels is more useful to the emerging theology than the NRSV. Quotations therefore may be assumed to be from “The Complete Gospels”(1) unless otherwise noted.
As an example of the transformation in the expected glacial progress of biblical scholarship, Marcus Borg agrees with the consensus that dates John’s gospel in the 90s; he also agrees with a theory gaining acceptance that John predates Luke, which is now thought to date from early second century.(2) The ground seemed to be shifting even more at the Westar Institute’s 2013 Fall meeting. The presentation of the report on the Acts Seminar included the suggestion by Joseph B. Tyson(3) that while scholars agree that the same person likely wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, Acts may have been written before the gospel. Even more dizzying for Christian tradition, the so-called “proto-Luke” known to and used by Marcion did not include Luke’s beloved birth stories and seems to end with the sharing of bread and fish on the road to Emmaus.(4) Faith as belief in the historical veracity of the accepted orthodox Christian understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus appears more and more to depend on political and cultural shifting sands. Faith as trust in the value of Jesus’s message to sustainable human life on Planet Earth stands on the rock of human experience with distributive justice-compassion – whether of the Buddha, the Christ, or simple, evolutionary, human empathy.…
Theology from Exile: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity: Volume I The Year of Luke (published January 2013); Volume II The Year of Matthew (published September 2013); Volume III The Year of Mark (to be published October 2014)
This series is for “believers in exile,” who are drawn to the social justice mandate found in Jesus’s teachings, but no longer find meaning in orthodox interpretations of Old and New Testament scripture. In addition to weekly commentaries are reimagined rituals of Holy Communion, and a Bible study for Holy Week on the meaning of kenosis. The project is grounded in the biblical scholarship of Karen Armstrong, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the Jesus Seminar, as well as the transforming work of Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, whose theology of Creation Spirituality has reclaimed Catholic mysticism for postmodern cosmology.
The Year of Luke is the first in a series of commentaries on biblical scripture found in the three-year cycle of Christian liturgical readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Instead of interpreting these readings as a precursor of messianic salvation from Hell, culminating in the exclusive Body of Christ and the imperial violence of the Church Triumphant, postmodern exiles from the premodern orthodoxy of the Christian church can begin to realize the radicality in Jesus’s original message, and join the struggle to find the courage to live it out in Covenant, non-violence, justice-compassion, and the deep peace that passes all understanding.
Here is what Arthur J. Dewey, New Testament scholar and specialist on the historical Jesus, says about The Year of Luke:
Now your book. Frankly, I have spent the last few nights enjoying it. It is not a mere commentary. It is really a genuine conversation – with the voices of the tradition and the modern tongues. All of which occur with a wondrous eye to an uncertain future. You do not do the usual things in a commentary; instead you often go for the heart of the matter (and the occasional pun). You challenge the reader to take seriously the multi-sided conversation around a text or three.
I appreciate your use of recent critical works (especially the Jesus Seminar entries and the work of Crossan, as well as the Authentic Letters of Paul, and even my commentary). You get a lot out of them. Your use of “the kenotic” theme is well done. I also like very much that you see that some texts can correct or at least unbalance others, especially when a text from the Hebrew Scriptures liberates a NT text. Good work!
I do wish many pastors and preachers would sit down with your words and wisdom.…
The Year of Luke is the first in a series of commentaries on biblical scripture found in the three-year cycle of Christian liturgical readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Instead of interpreting these readings as a precursor of messianic salvation from Hell, culminating in the exclusive Body of Christ and the imperial violence of the Church Triumphant, postmodern exiles from the premodern orthodoxy of the Christian church can begin to realize the radicality in Jesus’ original message, and join the struggle to find the courage to live it out in Covenant, non-violence, justice-compassion, and the deep peace that passes all understanding.
The project is grounded in the postmodern biblical scholarship of Karen Armstrong, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the Jesus Seminar, as well as the transforming work of Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, whose theology of Creation Spirituality has reclaimed Catholic mysticism for post-modern cosmology. Appendix One contains reimagined rituals of Holy Communion that reflect an invitation to commit to the ongoing salvation work of non-violent, distributive, justice-compassion.Appendix Two is a Bible study for Holy Week that explores in depth the meaning of kenosis.
The Year of Luke — now available on Kindle.
In the spirit of Lloyd Geering, Gaia Rising commentary now shifts to how progressive Christians can join the shift from gods to God to Gaia. There will be plenty of Bible study – maybe even more commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary. But the question for mystics and rationalists alike is, what is Secular Spirit.…
“Washington Legal: What Secretaries Know and When They Know It.” Behind the scenes in a Washington, D.C. law firm at the turn of the 21st Century, an unconventional Human Resources Director protects her secretarial staff from dysfunctional bosses, rolls with the punches of outsourcing and evolving digital technology, and uncovers a pre-9/11 international deal that leads to murder. This is a short, fast-paced, political intrigue: Yours for just 99 cents on your Kindle.
“The J’Argon,”is a full-length, future-fiction fantasy published in 2000 by iUniverse.com, now also available as an e-Book from Amazon. The J’Argon is the leader of a spiritual alliance that has voice but not vote in 22nd century global politics. She is the Fourth J’Argon and the first woman to hold the title since the Covenant of the Word was formed in 2047. Her long-time lover, partner, and soul friend, the Arch Deacon of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is a leader in the liberation underground. The Year is 2157. The United States has become a repressive theocracy, where a great evil holds sway. The Arch Deacon must open his prophetic Christian mysticism to the J’Argon’s ancient earth-based magic and awaken his own adept power so that together they can defeat the Dragon.
After 25 years as a legal secretary in Washington, D.C., Sea Raven moved to the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia in 2002. She is now a volunteer chaplain with Hospice of the Panhandle in Martinsburg. Her work as a free-lance writer, musician, and worship leader is grounded in post-modern Christian scholarship, and focused on justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. Sea Raven is an Associate of Westar (the Jesus Seminar); a board certified Associate Clinical Chaplain (College for Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy); and a designated Lay Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland.
The “great discourses” from the Gospel of John end with the prayer of John’s Jesus for the protection of his followers from the hatred of “the world.” Just as Jesus and God are one, so the followers of Jesus are one with Jesus and therefore with God, and those in the future who come to know Jesus through the message of the followers will also be admitted into the wholeness of God, Jesus, and the followers of Jesus. Jesus consecrates himself – he prepares himself to be the sacrifice – that will in turn consecrate the followers and those who accept the followers’ message, and will reconcile and unify all these elements: God, Jesus, followers, and future believers. This is the heart of John’s theology and the theology of the Church that eventually was established by the Council of Nicea in 325 c.e. The rest of the story completes the metaphors of water and wine, baptism and communion, and the conferring of the Holy Spirit (the “spirit of truth”).
Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox worked out a theology that makes sense for post-modern, 21st century mystics who want to honor the Christ of John’s Gospel without forcing the text into impossible literalism. Fox’s “Cosmic Christ” evokes responsibility for the condition of all forms of life on Planet Earth, and confers the power to carry out the work that arises from that responsibility. Taking John’s Jesus at his word, when we know who Jesus was, we know God; we know the Christ – the wisdom and the spirit of truth that was one with God from the beginning. We then can know our own selves at that same level of wisdom and truth. We are then one with God, one with the Christ, and we ourselves then can take on the power and responsibility of being – embodying, incarnating – the Cosmic Christ. Fox writes,
Because we are Cosmic Christs and because we are called to birth the yet unborn Cosmic Christ, we are, like Jesus, prophets of order (justice) over chaos (disorder and injustice). This is why [Meister] Eckhart can declare that “all virtue of the just and every work of the just is nothing other than the Son – who is the New Creation – being born from the Creator. In the depths of our being, where justice and work are one, we work one work and a New Creation with God.” . . . There is only one work – the work of the Cosmic Christ who declared in the person of Jesus, “I and the Creator are one . . . Whatever the Creator does the Son does too. The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, pp. 138-139.
The difference in theology between the writer of John’s Gospel and progressive/liberal Christian exiles from traditional doctrine is that this identity with the Cosmic Christ is available to anyone who signs onto the work, whether that person accepts the first century myth of the resurrection or not. The work is justice-compassion. In Fox’s thought, justice must be combined with compassion, or it becomes chaos – injustice. But beyond justice-compassion lies non-violent, radical fairness. Non-violent, radical fairness makes justice-compassion distributive because retribution is no longer part of the discussion. John’s envelope has now been pushed to its 1st century limits.
In 21st century terms, to encounter the hatred of the world, to experience oneself as alien in the world, as John’s Jesus describes his followers, means to be engaged in the struggle for distributive justice-compassion. This struggle is not restricted to assuring economic safety-nets for the poor and elderly; those are the easy fights. Where alienation and hatred are met head-on is in the attempt to understand that unjust systems are the underlying cause of war and violent crimes against persons or property; and in attempting to create life-affirming consequences that can interrupt those continuous loops of injustice that give rise to crime and war. Taking the part of the shooter at Virginia Tech, or the one who opened fire on a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee, invites a collective social wrath that is justifiable from a systemic point of view, but completely misses redemption that is only possible in non-violent, radical fairness. In contrast, the response of the Amish community toward the man who slaughtered their children in their own schoolhouse stunned conventional thinking, perhaps because it came from a spiritual ethic that seems to elude most of us.
The Gospel of John defines a life-and-death struggle between the world ruled by Satan and those who live in God’s love as revealed through the Anointed Jesus. John’s Jesus goes to God, leaving his followers to deal with the world until he comes again. The mandate is to love one another, and do the same work of distributive justice-compassion in this life that Jesus did. The power to do that is granted through the Holy Spirit, conferred upon the followers at Jesus’ death. The promise is that Jesus will come back and take to God all who follow him, and believe that he was the one Anointed by God to restore God’s rule. But the work is to be done here and now.
John’s 1st century Gospel speaks to post-modern, 21st century cosmology to the extent that we experience God, the Christ, the Spirit, and humanity as one. To the extent we experience ourselves as the embodiment – the incarnation – of the Cosmic Christ, we experience John Dominic Crossan’s kenotic god, whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death.
In what may have been an addition to the original Gospel, the writer states unequivocally that Jesus is the true, real vine, and God is the vine-grower/farmer. Throughout the Old Testament, the vine and the vineyard refer to the land and the people of Israel. (Psalm 80; Hosea 10:1-2; Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:2-6; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15:1-6, 17, Ezekiel 19:10-14). Whenever the people turn away from God’s demand for radical fairness (justice-compassion; righteousness), God threatens to either cut off the vine or burn the vineyard. Ezekiel and Jeremiah assumed the Babylonian Exile was the result of the failure of the people to produce the fruit of God’s justice. Because of the refusal of the Judeans to accept Jesus as the Anointed One, John implies that Moses and the people of Israel have been overthrown as chosen and favored by God (cf Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel and Epistles of John, pp. 82-83; see also Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV) note 15:1-6, p. 2033).
The Elves avoid the implied anti-Semitism by attempting to change the subject to love whenever these passages are read as part of the Year B Easter season. The Revised Common Lectionary pairs 1 John 4:7-21 with the Gospel reading of 15:1-8, softening the declaration that “I am the real vine.” In the Epistle John writes, “Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God, for God is love.” But the reading from the Epistle is also conveniently cherry-picked. The Elves ignore the first 6 verses of chapter 4, which deal with “testing the spirits” to discern the “anti-Christ” that exists in the world among those who do not “listen to us” – i.e., those who believe in Jesus. If the canon is to have any integrity at all, these contradictions must be dealt with.
Chapter 15 contains some of the most beloved words in Christian scripture: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another” (NRSV). Pairing these words with the Epistle reading seems to universalize the message: “Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God, for God is love,” John’s letter explains. But John wasn’t talking about everyone; he was talking about the community of people who accepted Jesus as the Messiah – or, in contemporary conservative language – those who accept Jesus as Lord.
Those who do not accept Jesus as Lord John describes in the very next paragraph as “the world”: “If the world hates you, don’t forget that it hated me first. . . . I have chosen you out of the world; that’s why the world hates you.” This is an exclusive, defensive, and dangerous foundation for a religion, and it is the grounding language for the fundamental conviction that drives contemporary, 21st century, conservative Christians to claim persecution on the part of “liberals,” and threat to their freedom on the part of secular, humanitarian government. Jesus concludes, “they hated me for no reason,” and it was God’s plan from the beginning. “This has happened so the saying in their Law would be fulfilled – they hated me for no reason” (Psalms 35:19 and 69:4).
Once again, progressive practitioners of liberal religions – especially Christians – are confronted with the dilemma of whether to reclaim and reframe the theology and Christology of John’s Gospel. The insights of liberal scholarship provide exiles from traditional doctrine the means for reinventing a Christianity that speaks to social justice based on the synoptics and the sayings gospel of Thomas. But doing so weakens the liberal/progressive argument in two ways: First, what might be called the “spiritual high ground” is ceded to the fundamentalists. By focusing on the nuts-and-bolts practicalities of transforming human life from fear and greed to love and sharing (homeless shelters, feeding programs, lobbying Congress), the mystic-minded are left to fend for themselves when it comes to extra-rational activities such as prayer, revelation, vision, and other numinous experiences.
Second, unless the Gospel of John is embraced, understood, and reframed, liberal/progressive religions will continue to write-off as deranged or irrelevant people who take the gospel literally. The result is 21st century human progress held hostage to an anachronistic, irrelevant, erroneous 1st century cosmology. We have only to look at how close the current Republican primary electoral process has come to selecting an anti-Semitic, Dominionist associate of Opus Dei as their candidate for the next president of the United States.
Jesus’ practical teachings in the synoptic gospels are the grounding for a change in paradigm from greed to sharing, from fear to love. John’s Jesus is the Cosmic Christ, the genuine light, who enters the world as the divine word and wisdom. John’s Cosmic Christ is the vine, and those who embody the paradigm are the branches – the incarnation of the Cosmic Christ. Theologian Matthew Fox who wrote the book on The Cosmic Christ, puts it this way:
These revelations of “I-am-ness” [the way, the truth, the life; the real vine] challenge us to name (or claim) our lives and beings in a similar fashion. How are we the bread of life or living [water] to each other? How are we the light of the world, the real vine, the resurrection and the life? . . . To struggle to birth one’s own “I am” is also to experience the divine “I am.” . . . Is not the purpose of the incarnation in Jesus to reveal the imminence of the Cosmic Christ in the sufferings and dignity of each creature of the earth? As we discover our own “I am” and the ecstasy and pain of the Divine One in us, we gradually grow into an “I-am-with” others (Emmanuel, “God-with-us”). We grow into compassion and in doing so the divine “I am” takes on flesh once again. Since God alone is the Compassionate One, as we grow into compassion we also grow into our divinity.
The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, pp. 154-155.
John’s Jesus is judgmental throughout chapter 15: “. . . without me you can’t do anything. Those who don’t remain attached to me are thrown away like dead branches; they’re collected and tossed into the fire, and burned. . . . if you obey my commandments you’ll live in my love . . .” These words cannot be taken literally. Instead, the question is, What are the consequences of knowing the truth, but not living it out? Jesus says, “If I hadn’t come and spoken to them, they wouldn’t be guilty of sin but as it is, they have no excuse for their sin. . . If I hadn’t performed these feats . . . they wouldn’t be guilty of sin. But as it is, they have witnessed and come to hate both me and my Father. . . .”
Last week’s commentary cited The Authentic Letters of Paul, for a definition of “sin” (Greek: hamartia). The Westar scholars translate the word as “the corrupting seduction of power,” or the “seductive power of corruption.” Neither John’s Jesus nor the Apostle Paul is talking about rotting corpses. They are talking about the kind of corruption that arises between people, and in government or economic empires that leads to systems of injustice. In that context, John’s Jesus is saying that once anyone is aware of the seductive power of corruption, there is no excuse for continuing to participate in it. Here is the basis for prophetic words from contemporary preachers like Jeremiah Wright; from liberal media such as the New York Times; and from Christians who live out the mandate to love others, such as the Sojourners Community, led by Jim Wallis.
The parallels between Jesus’ words in John 15:18-25 and the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans – written 50 years earlier – are striking (Romans 8:1-11):
. . . For the rule of the spirit of life that was in the Anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by seductive corruption and death. For by sending God’s own “son” – a participant like us, in an earthly life attended by seductive corruption – to deal with that corrupting power, God did what the law of Moses – weakened by the conflicted character of earthly existence – was incapable of doing: God condemned the corrupting power that attends our earthly life so that the just requirement of the Mosaic law might be fulfilled in us who live not according to the ambitions of a self-serving earthly life, but according to God’s purposes and power. . . . To set your minds on worldly things means death, but to set your mind on God’s power and purpose means life and peace . . . It is not possible for those who are pre-occupied with worldly self-advancement to please God . . . If anyone does not have the spirit that was in the Anointed, that one is not one of his. But if the Anointed lives in you, although your body is in the grip of death because of the seductive power of corruption, you spirit is alive because of God’s reliability. And if the power of the One who raised Jesus from among the dead resides in you, the One who raised the Anointed from among the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through the power and presence of God that resides in you. The Authentic Letters of Paul pp.228-229.
Paul is not talking about life after death. Paul is talking about embracing the challenge of distributive justice-compassion –“the great work” – here and now. John’s Jesus assures us that “the spirit of truth will testify on my behalf,” not about the insane claim that he was God, nor about the resuscitation of a corpse. The spirit of truth testifies to the unjust systems that hold sway in the world, and will not let us remain silent. “And you are going to testify because you were with me from the beginning,” Jesus says.
I am the vine, you are the branches. In vino veritas
John 13:36-14:31; 16
John 14 is the core of traditional Christian theology. When the Revised Common Lectionary is followed, John 14 explains Jesus’ death and resurrection (5th and 6th Sundays of Easter, Years A and C), and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost, Year C) after his post-resurrection, apocalyptic, bodily ascension into the sky, as reported by the intrepid Dr. Luke (24:44-53). John 14 is most often read at the bedsides of the dying, at funerals, and to comfort grieving families. The phrase “s/he went to be with the Lord” – a clear reference to 14:3 – is common in 21st century obituaries. “Don’t worry,” John’s Jesus is supposedly saying, “There are plenty of places to stay in my Father’s house. . . . and where I am there you will be too.”
The only condition for this promise is to keep Jesus’ commandment to love one another (13:34-35). John’s Jesus says, “Those who accept my commandments and obey them – they love me. And those who love me will be loved by my Father; moreover, I will love them and reveal myself to them . . . Those who don’t love me won’t obey my words” and will not be part of that heavenly home. As a reward for accepting Jesus as the way to God, the truth about God and the life in God’s realm, Jesus says “At my request the Father [God] will provide you with yet another advocate [in addition to Jesus], the spirit of truth who will be with you forever.” The power of the Holy Spirit to do miracles even greater than Jesus himself comes to those who believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead and will come again. The magic words, “whatever you ask in my name, I will do for you” were so important to the gospel writer that he repeats the mantra using the magical power of three: first in 14:13; then in 16:23 (which recapitulates 14), and finally in 15:7. To underline the exclusivity of the promise of both a place in God’s heaven and the receipt of the holy spirit, Jesus says, “The world is unable to accept this spirit because it neither perceives nor recognizes him. You recognize him because he dwells with you and will be within you.”
The Gospel of John set the stage for exclusive theologies ranging from Catholicism to Calvinism to fundamentalisms that have resulted in pogroms, witch trials, accusations of heresy, mass murders by fire (autos-da-fey), the wholesale slaughter of indigenous populations of people world wide, and the continued insistence that the “church” holds the ultimate authority over the health and welfare of women. The mandate extends to threats of nuclear war in a cynical defense of Israel. In a total corruption of the eternal longing for justice that produced the original prophecies of Daniel (which framed the apocalypticism of all four gospels) and the later Revelation of John, fundamentalist Christians believe that Israel’s ultimate conversion to their theology will bring Jesus back to end the world and usher in the “Kingdom of God.”
What possible use can progressive, liberal Christians make of John 14? Certainly none of the gospels can be read literally, and most assuredly, not the gospel of John – as we have seen. As always, when attempting to reclaim ancient writings for contemporary minds, reading meaning back into it from our own point of view is not only a temptation, but is probably inevitable – even for scholars who know how to keep a wary eye on the work. The disastrous results that can come from such anachronism were spelled out above.
The first order of business is to realize and accept the fact that the Gospel of John reflects the cosmology of the 1st and 2nd centuries, c.e., not the cosmology of the 21st century. We have known since Copernicus that if there is a god out there somewhere, it shares the “heavens” with a lot of other stuff. Further, we know without a doubt that Jesus was seriously dead. All the gospels make that point emphatically – the resurrection stories are not ghost stories. John’s own parable of the raising of Lazarus graphically foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection. Nor are we talking about some kind of Zombie-like resuscitated corpse, still lurching along the highways and byways, terrorizing or shaming people into salvation.
Second, all of the gospels reflect the times they were written in and for. Specifically, the gospel of John was an extended, impassioned, possibly desperate argument whose purpose was likely twofold: first to convince the community that the longed-for One, prophesied to be sent by God to restore God’s kingdom of distributive justice-compassion was indeed Jesus, who had been executed by the Romans; and second to somehow keep the community who did believe it from exile.
The way to possibly reclaim Chapter 14 (in fact all three of these chapters at the heart of the gospel) is to revisit the Prologue.
In the beginning there was the divine word and wisdom. The divine word and wisdom was there with God, and it was what God was. . . . In it was life, and this life was the light of humanity. Light was shining in the darkness, and darkness did not master it. . . . Genuine light – the kind that enlightens everyone – was coming into the world . . . but its own people were not receptive to it. But to all who did embrace it, to those who believed in it, it gave the right to become children of God. . . . The Law was given through Moses; mercy and truth came through Jesus the Anointed One. No one has ever seen God; the only son, close to the Father’s heart – he has disclosed (it).
God is defined as “divine word and wisdom,” revealed to everyone in the life and teachings of Jesus. John says, echoing the apostle Paul, “the Law was given through Moses [but] mercy and truth [justice-compassion] came through the Anointed One.” So the very nature of God is seen to be not the easy justice of retribution and pay-back, but the far more difficult distributive justice that includes mercy, compassion, and a transformation of thought: water into wine; food that nourishes the spirit because it is the work of establishing or restoring God’s radical fairness. John 14 may be taken as an illustration of John Dominic Crossan’s definition of a kenotic God – whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death. Certainly that is the meaning that might be taken by 21st century non-theists, reluctant to condemn anyone for not “believing” literally the legend about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Living in the absence of justice has been and continues to be a living death. Just ask the parents of Trayvon Martin; the ancestors of Emmet Till; refugees in the borderlands of Somalia and Sudan; Karilyn Bales.
John’s Jesus possessed within himself the confidence in the nature of God as distributive justice-compassion that eliminated any anxiety about death, whether physical or metaphorical. The judgment that is expressed regarding those who do not believe that to encounter Jesus was to encounter God is simply the statement of a fact of life: those who do not love one another, who hate others, and do not live in distributive justice-compassion will suffer the consequences. They will not experience the peace that Jesus says he will leave behind. “What I give you is not a worldly gift,” he says. The world with its systems of injustice and greed is not interested in creating systems of justice and sharing. To create such a world requires a radical abandonment of self-interest that few are willing to attempt.
Chapter 16 is possibly a later edition to the gospel, which seems to elaborate on and explain the discourse in 14. Chapter 16 concentrates on the “advocate” – the Holy spirit – which can only come to Jesus’ followers when he leaves. John’s Jesus begins by saying, “I’ve told you these things to keep you from being misled. They are going to throw you out of the congregations . . . they are going to do these things because they never knew the Father [God] or me.” In a paragraph that the Westar scholars footnote “is notoriously difficult to understand,” Jesus says, “When the advocate [holy spirit/spirit of truth] comes, he will show the world how wrong it is about sin, righteousness, and judgment: about sin because they don’t believe in me; about righteousness because I am going to the Father and you won’t see me anymore; about judgment because the ruler of this world stands condemned” (The Complete Gospels, p. 243).
In The Authentic Letters of Paul, the scholars define “sin” (Greek: hamartia) as “the corrupting seduction of power,” or the “seductive power of corruption.” Paul is not talking about rotting corpses. He is talking about the kind of corruption that arises between people, and in government or economic empires that leads to systems of injustice. John 16:9 uses the same word – hamartia. Human beings are actually born with the “spirit of truth” that tells us immediately what is just and unjust. We lose our ability to discern what is truly just and fair when we succumb to the power of selling out for what looks like our own self-interest. So in that paragraph, in plain English, Jesus is saying that the spirit of truth (the advocate) shows us how wrong the world is about the seductive power of corruption, justice as retribution and pay-back, and the consequences for this error. It is not about “believing” the impossible, literal resurrection of Jesus, nor is it about “believing” that Jesus was the literal “son of God.” Instead, “the ruler of this world” – where injustice holds sway – stands condemned to reap the consequences: war, famine, disease, and death in exchange for plundering the environment, coveting our neighbor’s homes and territories, and murdering whole populations because they don’t look like us.
Jesus’ disciples finally get it in 16:29: “Now you’re using plain language rather than talking in riddles. Now we see that you know everything and don’t need anyone to question you. That’s why we believe that you have come from God.” Jesus responds, “I have told you all this so that you can enjoy peace in me. In the world, you’re going to face persecution. But be brave! I have triumphed over the world.”