In contrast to the synoptic Gospels, John is clear that Jesus’ last meal with his disciples was not the Passover meal. Instead, it was the night before the day of preparation for the Passover, when the lambs for the ritual meal were sacrificed. In John’s narrative, that particular day of preparation was also the day before the Sabbath – so that particular Sabbath was a high holy day for the Jews (see John 19:31). This detail is important for understanding the symbolism for this writer of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Indeed, every detail from 13:1 to the end of the gospel is significant. Unfortunately, the gospel is nearly always cherry-picked in order to make a point of religious piety. The “last supper” is assumed to be the Passover meal. The breaking of bread and the pouring of the cup of wine described in Mark, Matthew, and Luke (and memorialized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25) gets conflated with the foot washing described by John. Maundy Thursday liturgies then become problematic: do we wash feet? serve Communion? dramatize our complicit shame as we leave the darkened church one-by-one?
The chapters following the last meal contain the heart of John’s argument that Jesus was the Anointed One sent by God to fulfill the longing of the Jewish people for deliverance from injustice, foretold for first century Jews in the book of Daniel. Raymond E. Brown proposes that Chapters 15-17 are not part of the evening meal; but are further reports of Jesus’ teachings added in to emphasize who Jesus was. Brown’s opinion is that 16 is a duplicate of the teaching in 14, and 17 follows logically from 15, so the sequence should be 14, 16, 15, 17.
For now, consider the last meal described in Chapter 13. There is no ritual of bread and cup. There is only the demonstration of a radical abandonment of self-interest. John writes, “Now that the devil had planted it in the mind of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to turn him in, at supper Jesus could tell that the Father had left everything up to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God.” Here is the apocalyptic claim. The One who would bring liberation from the Empire of Rome had come from God, and would be returning to God. There is no more time to waste in explanation – only a profound demonstration will do. So – apparently in the middle of the meal – Jesus gets up, assumes the role of a slave, and washes the disciples’ feet.
Peter (of course) doesn’t get it. The Master never washes the feet of the disciples. To do so disrespects the whole relationship. So he says “no way you’ll wash my feet!” And Jesus says, unless I do, you won’t have anything in common with me.” The NRSV says “. . . you have no share with me.” These words have been misunderstood since John first put them to parchment. Peter still doesn’t get it, nor have many since. This demonstration is not about being physically or mentally clean of “sin” or the dust of the road. Jesus’ action means there is no hierarchy among the followers of Jesus’ Way. Jesus says, “So if I am your master and teacher and have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.” Paul put it best in Galatians 3:28-29: “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer [even] male and female. Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.” No priests, no bosses, no financial “masters of the universe” who claim higher worth than anyone else; most especially no dominion over anyone regardless of gender or circumstance. Jesus spells out how things work in the normal course of civilization: “Slaves are never better than their masters; messengers are never superior to those who send them.” Instead he proposes the radicality of the kingdom of God. “If you understand this, congratulations if you can do it” – meaning, follow his example, not the way things are always done; and good luck with that!
Jesus then refers to Psalm 41: “The one who has shared my food has turned on me.” We think that means Judas, and at one level it does. But look at what Psalm 41 is talking about. This psalm deals with those who consider the poor – not the poor themselves, but those who “consider” the poor – i.e., those who do God’s work. After the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus’ disciples were confused when Jesus said he had food they knew nothing about (John 4:31-38). That “food” is doing the work that God sent Jesus to do. In the context of the apocalyptic legend of Daniel, the “food” that nourishes the spirit is deliverance from oppression; the restoration of God’s rule – God’s kingdom – God’s distributive justice-compassion. In the Psalm, the narrator confesses that he has not considered the poor. His enemies are certain that the worst will happen to him as a result. “They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my friend in whom I trusted who ate of my bread has exalted at my misfortune . . . But [God] has upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in [God’s] presence forever” (emphasis mine). Like Job, who knew he was a man of God, and maintained that identification no matter what happened to him, John’s Jesus claims his own integrity as the son, the servant, and the messenger of God: I AM, he says. “[I]f they receive anyone I send, they are receiving me; and if they receive me, they are receiving the one who sent me.”
Then Jesus becomes upset, and acts out the scene described in Psalm 41 by dipping bread in his dish and handing it to Judas. At that moment, in a direct contradiction of the meaning of the bread broken and shared in the synoptics, “Satan took possession of him,” and Judas leaves as soon as he has eaten the bread. “Satan” is God’s adversary – the personification of how the world usually works. Judas was unable to make the transition Jesus tried to demonstrate when he washed the disciples’ feet. Peter verbalized the confusion, but Judas acted on it.
When Judas had gone, Jesus says he is going where no one can follow – which seems to be a contradiction because we know the argument that is coming in Chapter 14: “If I go to prepare a place for you, I’ll return and embrace you, so where I am you can be too.” But the words that actually close the scene make clear what Jesus was trying to say all during dinner: “I am giving you a new commandment: love each other. Just as I’ve loved you, you are to love each other. Then everyone will recognize you as my disciples – if you love each other.”
The scholars comment in The Complete Gospels: “The ethic in this gospel has been reduced from the other gospels’ ethic of love of neighbor, even of enemy, and is restricted to love within the Christian community” (note, p. 239). That may well have been the case for John, whose community was under threat of being thrown out of the local synagogue. The problem with that interpretation for contemporary believers is two-fold: In the spirit of Psalm 41, John may have been claiming a level of integrity that he found lacking in those who did not accept Jesus as the Anointed One – leaving one of the most beloved of scripture verses standing for an exclusivity that the Jesus “everyone knows” would have rejected. Even worse, such a context risks reducing the commandment to the kind of verbal street defiance generally not acceptable in church sanctuaries.
Given the passion of John’s argument, and doing our best to avoid reading later Christian dogma back into John’s time and place, the scholars’ point is provocative and illuminating. But if 21st century progressive Christians can claim any part of this chapter as definitive for social and political transformation, then the more traditional interpretation must be used and expanded. John’s Jesus says, “. . . you are to do as I’ve done to you . . . If they receive anyone I send, they are receiving me . . . Just as I have loved you, you are to love each other.” Anyone – not just believers in Jesus – who are able to give up the kind of power conveyed by following society’s rules and can serve and love one another, will also serve and love others in the same way. Jesus’ reversal of roles demonstrated a radical abandonment of self-interest that includes relinquishing dominion over creation itself – biblical absolutists notwithstanding. And it is here and now, not in some “sweet bye and bye.”
Raymond E. Brown’s classic commentary on The Gospel and Epistles of John considers 11:1-12:36 as the last section of what he calls “Book 1 – The Book of Signs.” Brown titles this section, “From Death to Life and From Life to Death: Lazarus and Entry into Jerusalem.” The raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ final sign, and the ultimate proof that he is the expected, anointed One foretold in the apocalyptic prophecy of Daniel. Just as Lazarus was seriously dead, so will Jesus be seriously dead, so that God’s power and glory can be manifested in the raising of Jesus. For John, it seems incomprehensible that anyone would believe that Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead, yet insist that Jesus is not God’s son.
Scene 1 of John’s final act opens with the anointing of Jesus by the woman with the alabaster jar of precious nard – an essential oil of lavender – to prepare the disciples and John’s readers for Jesus’ death. The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with either tears or expensive perfume and then uses her hair as a towel has been written about, filmed, and debated for as long as the Jesus story has been told. This blog has dealt with all three versions of the legend that are included in the Revised Common Lectionary. Mark 14:3-9, considered for Palm Sunday in Year B, includes a Tenebrae Eucharist. John 12:1-8, considered for Monday of Holy Week in all three lectionary years, explores the nature of kenotic power. The Elves include 1 Kings 21:1-21; 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; and Galatians 2:15-21 along with Luke 7:36-50, for Proper 6, Year C. The commentary concludes:
Jezebel is a mythical character, but nevertheless is a powerful female presence – otherwise, she never would have been named. In the battle between the Hebrew God and Baal, Jezebel is a major force. She is also the anima – the dark feminine – for Ahab, and perhaps for God as well. When Ahab can’t bring himself to really act on his selfish desires, he projects it onto his wife, who acts for him. Have we heard this before? Didn’t Adam do the same with Eve? What is it with these patriarchs?
Acting outside the law is not the same as perverting the law, as Paul makes clear, and Jezebel’s fate illustrates. If sin (injustice) is indeed a product of the law, then the wild feminine outside the law must be the pure spirit of justice-compassion: grace, free gift (charis), the woman with her alabaster jar of precious essential oil.
The version in Matthew is never read – apparently the Elves had had enough of Mary Magdalene (if that’s who she was).
In John’s setting, Mary (the sister of Lazarus, not the Magdalene) confronts whoever is listening to John with the fact of Jesus’ inevitable, physical, irreversible death, and Jesus confirms this. “Let her alone,” he says, “Let her keep it for the day of my burial.” John sets up the hapless Judas for everlasting contempt. In an aside, John explains that Judas’ objection to the extravagant waste of the oil was not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief: “He was in charge of the common purse and now and again would pilfer money put into it.” The scholars’ translation suggests that Jesus’ comment about the poor as reported by John was likely not meant to say that poverty is inevitable. Instead it was probably an ironic jibe at Judas. “Funny you should be so worried about how much money is in the kitty . . . .”
The “huge crowds” continue to come out to see Jesus, who had raised Lazarus from the dead, but also to see Lazarus himself. So “the chief priests” decide to kill him too. Then, in a departure from the interpretation in the synoptic gospels, John throws in the entry into Jerusalem as a further illustration of how the “crowds” were flocking to see Jesus, and celebrating the raising of Lazarus. This just solidifies the determination of the Pharisees to get rid of both of them. “You see, we can’t win; look, the world has gone over to him.” As further proof that “the world” has shifted, some Greeks (non-Jews?) show up and ask to meet Jesus. This is the sign that Jesus’ time has come at last.
In yet another difference from the synoptics, Jesus fully embraces the role that God has laid out for him. There is no “agony in the garden.” Jesus says, “it was to face this moment that I came” – in contemporary words, “bring it on.” God responds with a rumble of thunder, and Jesus says “that wasn’t for me, it was for you. Now the sentence is passed on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And if I’m elevated from the earth, I’ll take everyone with me.” These words are right out of the scene in Daniel 7:9-14. The final judgment has arrived; the rulers of the world (Satan, or the Emperor) are defeated; the Son of God will be taken up to heaven, and everyone who believes in him will go along.
There is some left-over confusion from a few people, which allows John’s Jesus to reiterate the essence of his teaching, as John understood it: “The light is still with you for a little while. Walk while you have light, so darkness won’t overpower you. Those who walk in the dark don’t know where they are going. Since you have the light, believe in the light, so you will become children of the light.” When Jesus had said this, he went into hiding. End of Act 1, scene 4. The narrator comes onstage and drives the point home. People may have believed in Jesus – even members of the ruling class – but they were afraid the Pharisees would throw them out of their congregations, so they played it safe.
Twenty-first century progressive Christians might be tempted to jettison the Gospel of John. It is a time-capsule from the first and second centuries, possibly 80 or more years after the death of Jesus. The magic acts – changing water into wine, the remote healing of the government official’s child, telling the ungrateful disabled man to take up his mat and walk, the “feeding of the five thousand,” and the raising of the four-day-old corpse of Lazarus are barely useful even as metaphors without some fancy rhetorical footwork on the part of Sunday morning sermon writers. Dodging embedded anti-Semitism adds a further complication to reclaiming this Gospel, even with scholarly new translations.
But what was the Gospel writer trying to say? He (or she, if Sr. Sandra M. Schneiders’ suggestion is taken seriously) presents an impassioned argument that reads with some desperation between the lines. After all, if folks won’t believe the magic, what will they believe? This Gospel writer was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God, prophesied by the legend of Daniel to deliver the world from political oppression and restore God’s rule. Two thousand years later, progressive political, social, scientific, and religious leaders are equally convinced that humanity has so affected the balance of nature on the planet that what we do will determine whether or not life itself will be able to continue to evolve in sustainable ways.
With that thought in mind, consider what the narrator’s summary in John 12:44-50 might have to say to those among us working to end war, to stop mountain-top removal, to develop sustainable energy supplies, to eradicate poverty: If you believe Jesus, then you believe in the evolutionary process that produced such a mind; you are liberated from the darkness that prevails in the unjust systems of empire. He does not judge the ones who hear the message but don’t keep it. In the end, the message itself will be the judge. The message is that God’s intention – the order of the universe – is distributive justice-compassion. To live in the light is to transform water to wine: to bring healing to everyone, whether they are the children of collaborators with oppression, or ingrates that game the system. To live in the light is to step out with Lazarus from the realm of injustice and death into justice and life.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the final, last-gasp, over-the-top sign that John’s Jesus does. John’s point is clear: if the people don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah after this, they won’t believe him even if he comes back from the dead himself. John makes sure his listeners know that Lazarus was seriously dead. Lazarus’ sister Martha warns Jesus against taking the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. “But Master, by this time the body will stink; it’s been four days.” But Jesus looks up and thanks God for hearing him. “I know you always hear me, but I say this because of the people standing here, so they’ll believe that you sent me.” Then he shouts for Lazarus to come out, and out he comes, with his hands and feet still bound in strips of burying cloth, and his face covered. Jesus says, “Free him (from the cloth) and let him go.” Literal minds might notice that the dead body must have had to float out of the tomb, given that Lazarus was bound hand and foot; nor could he have seen where he was going, with his face covered.
No way this story walks on all fours, regardless of the century in which it was invented. But – tellingly – the “chief priests and Pharisees” believed it. For purely political reasons they decide they will have to kill Jesus. “If we let him go on like this, everybody will come to believe in him. Then the Romans will come and destroy our (holy) place and our nation.” Caiaphas – the famous capo di tutti capi — convinces the Council that they would be “better off having one man die for the people than having the whole nation wiped out” – which is precisely what happened in the year 70. Generations of Christians already know the symbolism of Caiphas’ seemingly prophetic words, because the writer tells us explicitly in a literary aside: “(He didn’t say this on his own authority, but since he was that year’s chief priest he could foresee that Jesus would die for the nation. In fact, he would die not only for the nation, but to gather together all God’s dispersed children and make them one people.)”
At the end of chapter 11, John sets up the final Act. “It was almost time for the Jewish Passover . . . ‘he certainly won’t come to the festival, will he?’” . . . stay tuned . . . .
For Revised Common Lectionary followers, Christian churches are now in Year B (the Year of Mark) and at the third Sunday in Lent. John 11 is only read on the fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (the Year of Matthew). The Elves combine John 11 with Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; and Romans 8:6-11. The following is from a series developed for Lent in Year A, Repent for the Kingdom.
Repent for the Kingdom V: Redeeming the Bones — 5th Sunday in Lent
“Dem bones dem bones dem-a dry bones . . . Now hear de word of de Lord.”
The sermon for this week is a cake-walk for literalists. Ezekiel: “And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves . . . I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil. . . .” John: “Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to [Jesus], ‘Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone . . . [and Jesus] cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out . . . .” Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord . . . If you, O Lord should mark my iniquities, Lord, who could stand? . . . I wait for the Lord, my soul waits . . . more than those who watch for the morning. . . . For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” Apostle Paul: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
All we have to do is repent from our post-modern skepticism and sin and believe that just as Ezekiel raised the army of dry bones in the desert using God’s command, so Jesus, the son of God, in his most astounding miracle of all, raised Lazarus from the dead with his own divine power. God in turn raised Jesus from the dead, and so also will the spirit of the Christ who is now one with God raise bodily – physically – those who believe. Those who don’t believe, as cherry-picked Paul says, “cannot please God. . . . To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Is that really all we need, heading into the denouement of Holy Week and Easter Sunday?
Very little of Ezekiel is ever included in the Lectionary readings. Five selections are used in Year A, and three in Year B. The prophesy about the army of dry bones is used for two of the five celebrations in Year A: the fifth Sunday in Lent, and the Easter vigil. It is used again in Year B at Pentecost. None of these are combined with readings that deal with the subject that Ezekiel was most concerned about, which is Exile. They are all used to bolster the Christian interpretation of salvation from hell through belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the conveying of the holy spirit upon those who believe.
In the post-modern, post-Enlightenment, post-Christian 21st Century, these readings are in real danger of being lost to ignorance of what they may have meant to the ancient Hebrew world and the early Christian way, and therefore lost to indifference about any prophetic relevance they may yet hold. But in a world bereft of meaningful metaphor that reflects current cosmology, Paul and Ezekiel may possibly be reclaimed. The story about the resurrection of Lazarus is more problematic.
Second Century people were no more likely that Twenty-First Century people to take such a story as literal truth, but nonetheless, to put it in contemporary terms, the story of the raising of Lazarus is perhaps about as useful as Elvis Presley sightings – except for one word that John’s Jesus says to Martha: I AM the resurrection and the life. The verb is present tense, not past or future. The power of Jesus’s message is the certainty of eternal life here and now, not there and then. That is a weak point to hang an argument on, even though Marcus J. Borg does so. “Martha spoke of the resurrection as future, as ‘on the last day.’ Jesus’s response shifts to the present tense. . . Martha thought of the resurrection as a future event at the end of time; but Jesus’s response corrects her misunderstanding and speaks of resurrection as a present reality.” Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary Harper One, 2006, p. 199. Nevertheless, Borg is the biblical scholar who has done the research. If the writer of John’s gospel had Paul’s extraordinary theology to refer to, all of Jesus’s I Am sayings have to be about present reality – realized eschatology – and are an invitation to join him in raising the dead.
Raising the dead is not about bringing back Elvis. Raising the dead is about returning from Exile.
Millions of people on this Planet are in political, physical, and economic Exile from homelands, and from the basic needs for human survival: food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care. Millions more are in spiritual or religious exile, no longer able or willing to suspend disbelief in the premodern gods and cosmologies that continue to prevail. Still more are in personal exile from sustainable relationships, estranged from family, friends, and social networks. Nearly all of us think we are exiled from the interconnected web of our own biosphere.
For this reason, it is vastly unfair – if not unconscionable – to cherry-pick Paul’s words from Romans 8 in order to perpetuate the very misunderstanding that John’s Jesus gently pointed out to Martha. It is equally unfair to the shamanic experience of the ancient prophet Ezekiel, whose purpose was to encourage – that is bestow or invoke courage – on the demoralized Hebrew captives in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. We in 21st Century United States are no less exiles than those of the 6th Century B.C.E. from distributive justice, represented of old by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, and described by Jesus and interpreted by Paul as “the Kingdom of God.” God will act to restore the people to their own land, promises Ezekiel. God will act to restore distributive justice-compassion, and the writer of John’s Gospel and the Apostle Paul proclaim that God has acted through the life and death of Jesus, and continues to act to this day whenever anyone – believer or not – chooses to accept the invitation.
If the Elves had allowed us to read to the end of Romans 8, the entire argument for this 5th Sunday in Lent would have been moot. “[I]n all these things we are more than conquerors,” says Paul – more powerful than imperial rulers, because “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The exile is over. The dead have been raised. The bones of the martyrs to injustice are redeemed and justified.
Further, if John Dominic Crossan’s interpretation of Paul’s letters is correct – or at least on the track – the dry bones raised by Ezekiel become a metaphor for those who died in the service of God’s justice; those who died working to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion to God’s earth, and who themselves never saw the transformed earth. The army of dry bones is an army exiled from justice. Fairness demands that if Jesus was resurrected into an earth transformed into God’s Realm of justice-compassion, then all the other martyrs who died too soon should also be raised with him. “But in fact,” Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” It is the Christ – the transformed and transfigured post-Easter Jesus – who has started that general resurrection, which restores justice-compassion to a transformed earth. The transformation has begun with Jesus, and continues with you and me – IF we sign on to the program.
This is a far cry from feeling sorry about petty sin, (which is the dumbed down meaning that most people think “repentance” means); it is also a very far cry from the deep and unforgivable sorrow that somehow we are personally responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion (substitutionary atonement). Petty sin, feeling sorry, even deep sorrow over an impossible responsibility, do nothing to empower people to radically change the way we live. Further, when that sorrow is experienced as “unforgivable,” the whole point of Jesus’s message is overturned.
Finally, there is a fascinating anachronism in John 11:2, if John’s Gospel is to be read as a chronological narrative: “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” This only makes sense if John was writing to a group of Christians who already knew the stories from Mark. …
John’s appropriation of Jewish festival metaphors continues throughout chapters 9 and 10. Jesus again declares his power greater than the torches used to light the women’s court: “So long as I am in the world I am the light of the world.” The man born blind washes Jesus’ healing mud from his eyes in the waters of Siloam – which were used in the ritual prayers for winter rains – and is able to see. In chapter 10, after the lengthy and, to later eyes and ears, confusing argument about sheep, shepherds, gates, and folds, Jesus preempts the winter season Festival of Lights. This is neither accidental nor insignificant. The Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) celebrates the Israelite victory over Syrian-Greeks in 167 bce, and the reconsecration of the Temple in 165 with sacred oil that miraculously lasted 8 days.
A connection that is not usually made with John’s Gospel in the context of the festivals of Tabernacles and especially of Lights (Hanukah) is the apocalyptic story told in Daniel. This story is set in the time of the Exile; but it was written during the Maccabean uprising and defeat of the Syrian-Greek invaders of the 160s bce. John’s Jesus says “I and the Father are one”; and “do you mean to say to the one the Father set apart and sent to earth, ‘You’re blaspheming,’ just because I said, ‘I am God’s son’? If I don’t do my Father’s works, don’t believe me; if I do, even if you can’t believe in me, believe in the works, so that you’ll fully understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” At the end of chapter 10 John’s Jesus returns to “Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan” (likely a fictitious location), where John the Baptist had first baptized, “and there he stayed. Many people came to him; they kept repeating, ‘John didn’t perform any sign, but everything John said about this man was true.’ And many came to believe in him there.”
But not in the gospel writer’s conflicted community. If the writer of John’s Gospel believed that Jesus was the savior described in Daniel who would come to earth to liberate the people, be raised to heaven to wait until God’s rule was established on earth, and then return to a transformed earthly kingdom of God (Daniel 7), the continued celebration of the festivals of fire and water would have been a waste of time and a denial of prophetic scripture. That the religious leaders in his community refused to believe Jesus was the fulfillment of the liberation of the people described in the legend would have seemed incomprehensible to those who subscribed to the Baptist’s apocalyptic view.
Most of these two chapters are likely examples of the conflict among factions in John’s community, and between “believers and non-believers” in Jesus as the Anointed One. The man born blind whose sight is bestowed on him is thrown out of the synagogue by the end of the story. Then Jesus takes off on what can only be described as a diatribe against people who sneak in and attempt to steal the sheep. But, John says, the sheep know the true shepherd’s voice. Not only that, there are other sheep in other folds who also will recognize his voice. Much of this was probably clear to John’s community, not as a declaration of a universal kingdom of God, but that all factions should unite under Jesus.
So what should 21st century progressive Christians do with all this?
The number of sermons on the man born blind delivered to captive audiences world wide and spanning three milennia must number in the trillions. Unfortunately, plenty of mischief has been done by cherry-picking specific passages, not knowing (or caring) what the history or the context was. For example, “He was born blind so God could display his work through him.” This is first of all terrible theology, not to mention that this Jesus must be a total megalomaniac. The idea is monstrously unjust that a) God would create a blind baby so that the “savior of the world” would one day prove God’s glory and power by conferring sight; b) Jesus would claim to be the one designated by God to actually perform this magic (for the glory of God of course); and c) the parents and the child would feel blessed while they are stigmatized and traumatized for years by a society that wants to know “who sinned” and caused this misfortune. Yet even today this thought is pervasive among grief-stricken people and victims of accidents whether biological, medical, or mechanical. Many are able to work through their circumstances and arrive at wholeness despite their illness or injury. But that difficult journey is different from glib and pious judgment about the meaning or purpose of life’s “burdens.”
Another favorite verse is 9:4-5: “We must carry out the work of the one who sent me while the light lasts. Nighttime is coming.” These phrases have found their way into a beloved hymn: Work for the Night is Coming! The point is to bring people to Jesus and save their souls because an apocalyptic end is coming soon. What John likely meant was that so long as Jesus was on the planet, he had to do as many miracles as possible because his death was imminent.
At the end of chapter 9, after he has been thrown out of the synagogue, the man born blind finally realizes that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus says he has been sent into the world “to hand down this verdict: that the blind are to see and those with sight are to be blind.” This is Old Testament judgment. God often deliberately “hardens the hearts” of people so that God’s power can be realized. The most famous example is Pharaoh in Exodus 4:21. Later, after Moses’ death, in the summary of Joshua’s conquests (Joshua 11:16-23) the narrator tells us “Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
John’s opponents in his fledgling Christian community could not get a break. “If you really were blind,” John’s Jesus says, “you would be free of sin; but now since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin is confirmed.” John has decided that not only is the blindness of the Pharisees willful; God himself has caused it. The religious leaders know the law and the prophets, and they refuse to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of it. By the end of chapter 10, Jesus has given up. “The work I do in my Father’s name is evidence on my behalf. But you don’t believe me because you’re not my sheep.”
Preachers have turned themselves inside out trying to make chapter 10 into some kind of call for a universal Christianity, or a parallel with the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14), or worst of all, a slur against Jews or believers of other religions who try to climb into the sheep pen (heaven) through another way. But despite all the imagery about sheep and gates and flocks and shepherds and who recognizes whose voice, Chapter 10 is not about anti-Semitism. The chapter continues the attempt on the part of John to describe who Jesus was. “Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I give my life for my sheep. Yet I have sheep from another fold, and I must lead them too. They’ll recognize my voice and there’ll be one flock, one shepherd. . . . I have the power to give [my life] up and the power to take it back again.” Here again is the apocalyptic promise of Daniel 7.
But neither that legend nor Jesus’ arguments about the business of herding sheep make sense in the 21st century. These chapters are of little use to progressive Christians except as artifacts of early Christianity — metaphors of blindness notwithstanding. In their own context, these stories are interesting. Warped to fit 3rd Century Christian dogma, they represent Christian triumphalism at best, and anti-Semitism at its most insidious. Unfortunately these chapters are required reading for the 4th Sunday in Lent in Year A (Matthew) and the 4th Sunday in Easter in all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary.
John 7:1-52; 8:12-59
With chapter 7 the anti-Semitism that has haunted Christianity for centuries seems to become unavoidable. Perhaps that is why only two verses are ever read by followers of The Revised Common Lectionary, and even those are considered alternative choices for Pentecost in Year A (when the emphasis is on Matthew’s Gospel): “On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and shouted out, ‘Anyone who’s thirsty must come to me and drink. The one who believes in me – as scripture puts it – will be the source of rivers of life-giving water.’ (He was talking about the spirit that those who believed in him were about to receive. You realize, of course, that there was no spirit as yet, since Jesus hadn’t been glorified.)” John 7:37-39; the parenthesis is in the text. When these verses are plucked out of the context of John’s impassioned proof that Jesus was the Messiah, preachers can do whatever they want with them. For example, pair those verses with Isaiah 55, and you have the ingredients for a beautiful liturgy: The fires of transforming spirit and the waters of baptismal grace.
When the Revised Common Lectionary is used to determine the weekly scripture readings in many (if not most) churches, not only is the drama that occurs in chapter 7 ignored. The iconic scene with the woman caught in adultery is also left out of all suggested RCL readings for the entire three-year cycle. Seminarians already know (or should know) that the incident known as “the woman caught in adultery” (KJV: the “adulterous woman”) at the beginning of Chapter 8 is not considered to have been part of John’s original. (For a classic commentary on John, see The Gospel and Epistles of John by Ramond E. Brown.) While most modern translations put it there, some put it after John 21:25, and others place it after Luke 21:38. The Westar Scholars put it in a section of The Complete Gospels titled “Orphan Sayings and Stories.” According to the Scholars,
The sayings and anecdotes . . . are all fragments, which, over the course of the transmission and production of early gospel manuscripts, were introduced by various scribes into particular known copies of the canonical gospels. Their poor attestation . . . indicates that they do not belong to the original text of the gospels in which they are found in the odd manuscript . . . For this reason, most scholars disregard them in the study of the canonical gospels . . . . The exceptions would be the story of the woman caught in adultery . . . and the traditional Longer Ending of Mark (16:9-20), which, for traditional or sentimental reasons, are often retained (p. 457).
Regarding “the adulteress episode – 7:53-8:11,” Raymond Brown writes,
This story is missing from the best Greek manuscripts. While for Catholics it is canonical and inspired, almost certainly it is out of context [at the end of chapter 7]. . . . The Greek style is closer to Luke than to John. We may have here an old story about Jesus preserved by a hand other than that which gave us the rest of the Gospel. The Gospel and Epistles of John, p. 51.
When the incident is left out, the dramatic tension in John’s narrative proof of who Jesus was comes into its own.
After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and Jesus’ discourse on being the bread of life, John reminds his listeners (or readers) that Jesus moved around Galilee, and did not go into Judea “because the Judeans were looking for a chance to kill him.” John has written this assertion and others about the “fear of the Judeans” back into the story of Jesus from the time when John was in a fight for his spiritual life with the local synagoguge; it would have been common ideology among the members of John’s community who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps part of the reason for skipping chapter 7 may be the blatant anti-Semitism that has come from misunderstanding and mistranslating what John wrote.
John sets this episode in the fall season of Sukkoth. Everyone who’s been to Sunday School knows about the festival of “booths” (Tabernacles). What we never learn is what the festival was all about. Raymond Brown sets the scene:
The discourse at Tabernacles takes on added overtones if we are familiar with the ceremonies of this week-long feast . . . celebrated in September/October at the fall harvest in order to pray for early rain in the winter season. . . . (a) the people lived in huts or bowers to recall their ancestors’ sojourn in the desert; (b) to symbolize the need for rain, there was a daily procession from the pool of Siloam bringing water as a libation to the Temple; (c) the court of the women in the Temple was lighted by immense torches (Gospel and Epistles pp. 48-49).
True to the cynical assertion that no prophet is respected in his home country (Mark 6:3-4), Jesus’ brothers apparently don’t believe he really can work miracles. They want him to go to Judea to really put Jesus to the test. Jesus says he’s not going to the festival because “my time has not yet arrived.” Then he goes in secret. So Jesus is now back in Judea, where he healed the lame man on the Sabbath. So far there have been four signs in Galilee vs. one in Judea (Jerusalem). John keeps implying that Jesus’ home was Judea (Bethlehem), but “everybody knew” Jesus was from Galilee (Nazareth). Jesus’ secrecy plays into the idea that no one will know who the Anointed One is, or where he comes from. The “crowds” at the festival also are conflicted about who Jesus is because they know who his family is.
John quickly gets down to business, as Jesus confronts the representatives of Jewish law: “Anyone who sets out to do what God wants knows well enough whether his teaching originates with God . . . All who speak on their own are out for their own glory . . . for the one who speaks for God, ‘there is nothing dishonest about him.’” In John’s opinion, the Judeans not only don’t believe the law, they are determined to break it by killing Jesus. Then on the last and most important day of the festival, presumably when the procession from the pool of Siloam brought water into the Temple, John’s Jesus (perhaps with some audacity) says that the one who believes in him will be the source of rivers of life-giving water. John suggests parenthetically that Jesus is talking about the spirit that would be received after Jesus’ death. Jesus seems to be foretelling his own death and the gift of the spirit, which will destroy the legitimacy of festival rituals for rain.
This is in-your-face polemic on the part of John. But it gets worse.
Debate continues among the people about whether or not Jesus is the One. Is he from Galilee or Judea? Which is more important, the miracles (signs) or the teachings? The temple police are called to arrest Jesus, but they don’t because “no one ever talked like that before!” The Pharisees are disgusted with this, but then Nicodemus appears and argues that if they kill Jesus without allowing him to speak for himself, they will be breaking their own law. This allows Jesus to testify on his own behalf, and he once again disses the festival – this time inferring that the torches may be lighting the women’s court, but “I am the light of the world!” The Pharisees declare his evidence is invalid, and the sparring continues.
In John 3:20-21, the narrator (or Jesus) says everyone who does evil things hates the light; “whoever lives the truth comes to the light so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” Here, Jesus claims that God himself will offer evidence on his behalf. That evidence, John’s community knew, was Jesus’ resurrection. The Pharisees attempt to trap him in language about human versus heavenly “fathers”; they take him literally when he talks about the Pharisees being “at home in this world [while] I’m not at home in this world”; and how “If you don’t believe that I am (what I say I am) you will die in your sins.” This is an infuriating, outrageous, and dangerous claim. Jesus has invoked the name of God (“I Am”) in reference to himself.
Finally, as the heated dialogue with the religious leaders escalates, the claim that they are children of Abraham is invoked, and John’s Jesus goes over the top. When taken out of context, even in this latest translation, these verses are among the most insidious in terms of what became Christian libel against Jews. John’s Jesus says,
“Why don’t you understand what I’m saying? It’s because you can’t hear my message. You are your father’s children, all right – children of the devil. And you are bent on satisfying your father’s cravings. He was a murderer from the start; he is far from truth. In fact, there’s no truth in him at all. When he tells his lies, he is expressing his nature, because he is a liar and breeds lying. But since I tell the truth, you don’t (want to) believe me. Who can charge me with sin? If I speak truthfully, why don’t you believe me? Everyone who belongs to God can hear God’s words. That’s why you don’t listen; you don’t belong to God.”
The Judeans are speechless. All they can do is accuse Jesus of either being an enemy Samaritan, or demon-possessed. Jesus says not only is he not demon-possessed, but “Abraham [himself] would have been overjoyed to see my day; in fact he did see it and it made him happy.” The Judeans scoff at this, but Jesus finishes with an astounding blasphemy: “Before there was an Abraham, I Am.” They pick up stones to throw at him, “but Jesus disappeared from the temple area.”
With this powerful sequence, John’s case against “the Judeans” for Jesus’ death begins to gather strength. Perhaps this section of John’s Gospel (without the orphan story in 8:1-12) is left out of the lectionary readings for this reason. But if John’s Gospel can be reclaimed for the 21st century, the solution is not to cherry-pick metaphors that translate easily into 21st century cosmology, or phrases that support Christian belief. Nor is the solution to throw out the entire Gospel. Instead, it should first be read and understood on its own terms.
John 6 is the foundation for the orthodox meaning of Christian Eucharist. The chapter opens with John’s version of the “feeding of the 5,000,” or “miracle of the loaves and fishes,” followed by the first of the “I Am” statements attributed to Jesus by John; John then presents an extensive argument about what exactly the “bread of life” means. This is too much for some of Jesus’ followers, many of whom “dropped out and would no longer travel with him.” Jesus is left with “the Twelve,” which includes “Judas, son of Simon Iscariot . . . who was going to turn him in.”
A thorough discussion of Mark’s version of this story can be found in the series titled “Ordinary Time,” contained in commentary on Propers 9 through 16 of the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B. The following excerpt sets the scene:
John’s version of the loaves and fishes miracle differs in significant ways from the original parable as told by Mark. The context for John’s version of Mark’s stories is “about the time for the Jewish celebration of Passover.” This sets up a ready reference to unleavened bread, and to the legend of manna, which magically appeared every morning to supply the exiles returning from Egypt with food for the journey. Anachronistically, it evokes Christian Eucharist. Further, it establishes the context for the first of the declarations that define Jesus’s mythic identity: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the good shepherd, etc.
Instead of the disciples noticing there is need for bread, (Mark 6:35-36) John’s Jesus asks, “Where are we going to get enough bread to feed this mob?” Five Gospels translation. The disciples discuss how much money it would cost; then Andrew says, “There’s a lad here with five loaves of barley bread and two fish.” So “Jesus took the loaves” from the kid and magically multiplied the amount. This is a major change from Mark’s Jesus: “Give them something to eat yourselves.” The followers object on economic grounds (as do the ones in John’s story), but they come up with five loaves and two fish among their own provisions. Only after his followers have come up with food to share does Mark’s Jesus bless the bread, break it, and give it to them to distribute among the crowd.
Then Jesus orders the disciples to “gather up the leftovers so that nothing goes to waste.” The followers collect 12 baskets of scraps from the 5 barley loaves. Nothing is said in either story about what was done with the over-abundance of food. The point of both the original story and John’s version seems to be that there was not only enough, there was more than enough. But in Mark’s story, the abundance comes from the willingness of people to share. In John’s story, the abundance happens by the direct intervention of divine miracle. That intervention, it should be noted, confiscated what was needed from a child in the crowd. John’s Jesus did not ask the boy if he was willing to give up what he had. Perhaps the writer assumes a kind of natural altruism in the innocence of a child. Perhaps he was familiar with the idea that children are the ones who naturally inhabit God’s kingdom (Mark 10:14). Whatever it might mean, that detail carries moral and theological implications about the nature of the realm of God as well as the “body of Christ.”
The next major difference is that in Mark’s original, Jesus sends his disciples ahead in the boat while he disperses the crowd. After that, Jesus goes off alone to the mountain to pray. But in John’s gospel, once the people had seen the miracle, “Jesus perceived that they were about to come and make him king by force, so he retreated once again to the mountain by himself.” After he has gone, the disciples decide to row across the lake to Capernaum. Darkness has fallen, and a strong wind has come up. Jesus is seen walking toward the boat over the water. The disciples are terrified. But just as they decide to take him into the boat, they are magically transported to the shore, boat and all. Mark has no such magical transportation. Instead, by the time Jesus has climbed into the boat, the winds have died down. Mark says the disciples were dumbfounded. Then he adds parenthetically, “You see, they hadn’t understood about the loaves; they were being obstinate.” They did not want to realize their own role in the transformation of normal life in the Empire to God’s rule.
The writer of John’s Gospel was given a major clue about the meaning of Mark’s parable, but – like the disciples that Mark constantly complaints about – John didn’t get it. As a result, Christians have a choice about what the stories might mean. [The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary] are clear that interventionist miracle and magic is what it takes to bring about God’s Kingdom, God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion. There is no work involved, only “belief” or – for postmodern minds – the suspension of disbelief.
John’s Jesus tells the people that they were so distracted by having bread to eat that they missed the obvious miracle (John 6:26). Then – in an echo of what he said to his confused disciples in 4:32-34 – he tells them “Don’t work for food that spoils, but for food that lasts – food for unending life – which the Human One will give you.” After his encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, Jesus’ disciples plead with him to eat something; he says “I have food to eat you know nothing about . . . Doing the will of the one who sent me and completing his work – that’s my food.” But neither his disciples, nor the “crowd” who later follow him across the sea to Capernaum understand what he means.
John’s argument seems circular to post-modern minds. When the people ask “what do we have to do to accomplish the work God wants done?” Jesus tells them that the work is “to believe in the one whom God has sent.” When they demand a sign (apparently not satisfied with the multiplication of loaves and fishes), he says that he himself is the sign:
Let me tell you this: it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven; rather it is my Father who gives you real bread from heaven . . . I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry again, and anyone who believes in me will never again be thirsty.
Throughout Chapter 6, the people (“crowd”), the Judeans (Jesus’ hometown neighbors, the opposition in John’s local synagogue), and Jesus’ disciples all take what Jesus says literally. Jesus says he is “the bread that came down from heaven” and the Judeans ask, “Isn’t this Jesus son of Joseph? Don’t we know both his father and his mother? How can he now say, ‘I’ve come down from heaven’?” Jesus says, “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Those who feed on my flesh and drink my blood remain in me, and I in them.” The disciples respond: “This sort of talk is hard to take. Who can take it seriously?”
Indeed, those very words have been used as proof that Jesus was establishing cannibalism as the defining Christian ritual. Because a literal interpretation of John’s Gospel soon became established church dogma, finding a place outside of that interpretation is challenging. As the series from Year B makes clear, any interpretation other than the literalist tradition is precluded by the combinations of readings that comprise the Revised Common Lectionary.
One scholar who has created a theology outside the box of conventional Catholic dogma is Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox. In The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Fox created a Christology for the third millennium that grounds Christian mysticism in modern cosmology. Fox says that the Cosmic Christ reveals the “divine ‘I Am’ in every creature. This is the doctrine of incarnation that leads to the return to the secular that Lloyd Geering suggests in Coming Back to Earth. Fox asks,
How are we the bread of life or living bread to each other? . . . The Statements that “I am bread” and “I am wine” ground our reverence for food and drink, wheat and wine, soil and vineyard, the processes of photosynthesis and all that makes things grow in an ultimate reverence. . . . In this revelation of the divinity of the bread and wine lies that part of compassion that is celebration . . . To celebrate our “I am” is to put our being before our doing or having or proving. . . . An “I am consciousness also affects our attitude toward time. The past and future are not what exist; it is the now moment that exists most richly. It is the divine “now” that is ours for the drinking (pp 154-155).
John’s Jesus says, “I am the life-giving bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the world’s life is my flesh.” This late first-century writer may have been talking about the popular dream that God would act to restore God’s justice to a world crushed by the Roman empire. In that apocalyptic legend, the savior of the world would be taken up to reside in heaven with God until the end of time. Then the savior – Messiah – Son of Adam – Human One – would return to a world transformed into God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion that would last forever. John’s Jesus speaks through the gospel from the point of view of the crucifixion. The catalyst for the ultimate transformation from earthly injustice to eternal justice, John says, was Jesus’ own flesh and blood.
For 21st century activists, from Occupy Wall Street regulars to poets such as Drew Dellinger, theologians such as Spong, Crossan, Borg, and Fox, the way to distributive justice-compassion for all beings on the Planet is our own flesh and blood.
Before getting too much deeper into the Gospel of John, some definition is in order. The translation that is used for these commentaries is The Complete Gospels, The Scholars Version, Fourth Edition (Polebridge Press, Salem Oregon, 2010). In a cameo essay (pp. 203-204), the scholars clarify the meaning of the Greek word Ioudaios, traditionally translated as “Jew.” That traditional meaning has led to centuries of abuse of Jews by Christians world-wide, because the Gospel of John seems to blame “the Jews” for the persecution and death of Jesus. The scholars spell out three uses for the Greek word in the current translation:
(1) A neutral sense, as when the customs, rites, and particularities of the people of Judea are described or referred to. Here “Judean(s)” is used.
(2) A sense that implies some ethnic interaction and competition. In some instances in which Ioudaios has this sense, the word carries hints of what later became the Jewish/Christian separation. Here SV uses the term “Jews” and “Jewish.”
(3) Ioudaios could be used to slur an opponent because rather than the primary indicator of social identity (such as “Israelite,” “descendant of Abraham,” “of the tribe of …”) it was a term that foreigners commonly applied to Israelites. In these cases Ioudaios is better translated as “Judean” to convey or suggest a demeaning intent. One could put down fellow Israelites using a term that does not convey the richness of identity and social pedigree. One’s opponent is thus diminished by being given a foreigner’s label.
After Jesus returned to Cana, Galilee, following his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, a “government official” from Capernaum “approached Jesus and pleaded with him to come down and cure his son, who was about to die.” The encounter is simple. The official asks Jesus to heal his son. Jesus seems exasperated. He says, “You people refuse to believe unless you see signs and omens.” The official insists that Jesus come before the child dies. Jesus says, “Go home, your son will live.” The official believes him, and on his way home learns that at the exact moment when Jesus said “Your son will live,” the fever broke and the child’s life was saved. John is careful to point out that this was the second sign Jesus performed “after he had returned from Judea to Galilee.” Remember, those people who lived in Judea, where Jesus was born, had no respect for him (confirmed in Mark 6:4, Matthew 13:57, Luke 4:24, and Thomas 31).
Next, “on the occasion of a Jewish festival, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Now comes the well-known miracle of the disabled man who was never able to get into the Bethesda pool in time to be healed. This is a favorite of Christian worship leaders and Sunday School teachers. Most often, we learn that Jesus first asks the man if he wants to get well. We assume the man says “yes,” because after the man explains that “while I’m trying to get in someone else beats me to it,” Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk. There is some interplay between the Judeans and the man – who has no clue who Jesus was. Once he figures it out, he tells the Judeans. Good little boys and girls used to learn fairly quickly that “therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day” (KJV).
John follows this miracle with an extensive defense of Jesus by Jesus, which contains what became the “dogma” that Jesus is God: “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:21-23, NRSV); “How can you believe when you accept the glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (John 5:44, NRSV).
Before any of this can speak to 21st century post-modern, post-enlightenment, post-Christian minds (if it can), first remember that John’s Gospel is an extended proof – an argument. It is possibly a last-ditch effort to avoid a schism in John’s synagogue. So it is no mistake that the first miracle in this section of the gospel happened to a foreigner – or possibly a collaborator. This foreigner/collaborator “government official” came to Jesus asking for healing. The second miracle concerned a man “crippled for thirty-eight years.” But in this case Jesus came to him and asked him if he wanted to get well. The man never says yes. He just complains that he has no one to put him into the pool, and when he does try to get in on his own, somebody else gets in first.
Enter “the Judeans.” Here, John uses the term as a put-down – equating local Jewish religious leaders with foreigners. Remember that we just encountered a “foreigner” (or a collaborator with foreigners) who believed in and accepted Jesus because of the miracle. But these religious “foreigners” object to the formerly disabled man carrying his mat around on the Sabbath. The man has no clue who cured him, but he is quick to claim that the one who cured him told him to break the law. Then the man points out Jesus to the Judeans. Jesus then claims that “My Father never stops working, and I work as well.” This adds insult (claiming to be equal with God) to injury (healing on the Sabbath, or causing people to carry their mats on the Sabbath, thereby “working” on the Sabbath). Jesus then launches into his defense. The defense ends with the charge that the Judeans don’t believe their own tradition. By now it’s strike two against the religious leaders: Nicodemus’ spiritual ignorance was strike one.
In an interesting detail, before the formerly disabled man identifies him, Jesus finds the man in the temple area, and warns him: “Don’t sin anymore, or something worse could happen to you.” A non-sequitur, which either points to Jesus as Judge in the following defense, or indicates that Jesus knew it was a sin that disabled the man in the first place (as he knew the Samaritan woman had six husbands), or that the sin was that the man was quite comfortable in his role as victim. He never says “yes,” when asked if he wants to get well. He blames others for his plight. Then when Jesus the “do-gooder” offers healing, the man gets into trouble with the law. The man can’t get a break. Jesus then delivers his warning about sin, and the man decides, “Screw this!” and denounces Jesus to the religious authorities.
Certainly plenty of fodder for sermons can be found in the contrast between the government official (collaborator, foreigner) who trusts Jesus (and by metaphorical inference “life”) and the complacent victim who seems comfortable blaming others for his condition. But the underlying twist in the plot is that the government official, the possible collaborator with Roman occupiers, the outsider, would not be expected to trust Jesus’ power, yet he did. The disabled victim at the water’s edge, presumably an insider, a member of the Jewish community, betrayed the one who offered healing and wholeness.
John’s first lengthy defense of Jesus contains little that makes sense for progressive Christians, let alone contemporary religious skeptics. Perhaps the only relevant verses for the 21st century are 5:39-40. John’s Jesus says, “You pore over the scriptures because you imagine that in them there’s unending life to be had. They do indeed give evidence on my behalf, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Presbyterians and other “insiders” continue to quarrel about inerrantcy of scripture, while denying human and civil rights to GLBT members of our communities. Entities associated with the Southern Baptist Convention even pulled Bibles off the shelves at Walmart when they discovered the proceeds went to Planned Parenthood. Better total scriptural ignorance of the so-called “savior of the world” than allow women access to life-saving medical care. Catholic institutions have been put to a true test of morality because the Affordable Care Act requires coverage for birth control for non-Catholic employees, whether they are believing insiders or not.
John’s Jesus says, “Don’t suppose that I’ll be your accuser before the Father. You have an accuser, and it’s Moses – the one you were relying on.” Moses brought God’s law to the people: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This, Jesus reminded the people, is the first and most important of God’s laws. The second is,“You are to love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:28-31). John’s Jesus confronts establishment hypocrisy head-on: “since you don’t really believe what [Moses] wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”
John 4:1-46; Malachi 3:1-12
Everyone knows the Sunday school lessons about the Samaritan woman at the well. The Samaritans were the enemies of Israel, the standard story goes, so for Jesus to “convert” the enemy woman was quite an accomplishment. To make the lesson even more pious, Jesus magically “knows” that she is not married to the man she is currently living with, and [gasp!] has had five husbands before this one. She runs away and brings all of her friends back to meet “a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?” (KJV). The standard message seems to be that Jesus, like Santa Claus, “knows when you’ve been bad or good,” and certainly this woman must have been some kind of bad to be living with a man who is not her husband, after somehow getting rid of five others. The proof that Jesus is the Christ is his ability to see through all of our pretenses. “The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things” (KJV).
The Sunday school interpretation of the confusing stuff in the middle about not worshiping God on the mountain or in Jerusalem skirts the edges of anti-Semitism. God wants the real Christians to worship him, and always tell the truth. The test for who is or is not a real Christian is clear. “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (KJV).
But the Gospel of John is not about piety. It is an impassioned and powerful first century argument for a transformed world. Rather than looking at the gospel in cherry-picked pieces – as the Revised Common Lectionary does in order to support orthodox Christian teaching – consider the interior plan, which only becomes apparent when the gospel is read in its own context.
Water as transformation carries the argument for two and a half chapters. At the wedding in Cana, water is transformed into wine; Nicodemus – the expert on religion who should know this – is invited to transform himself; Jesus and his disciples baptize more people than the Baptizer; Jesus meets the enemy woman at Jacob’s well and offers transformation (living water); Jesus’ disciples don’t get it (surprise), so Jesus attempts the metaphor of food, which he defines as “doing the will of the one who sent me and completing his work” – begun by the prophets, and to be completed by Jesus’ followers; the Samaritans (unlike the pharisee Nicodemus) listen to Jesus and realize that “he really is the savior of the world”; and the sequence ends as it began: “Then he came back to Cana, Galilee, where he had turned water into wine.”
The times were changing at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century. Jerusalem was sacked; Temple Judaism had perforce become displaced; competition between the factions that believed Jesus to be the Messiah and those who clung to the old tradition was fierce. Much the same as the 21st century, when – as Lloyd Geering proposes – humanity is in the midst of the transition not from theism to atheism, but from theism to secularism. Fundamentalists of all varieties of Abrahamic faiths – Jews, Christians, Muslims – have declared holy war on that transition. There is a place for John’s story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, but only if the metaphors are reclaimed for 21st century cosmology.
John’s metaphor of water into wine, which frames the vignettes with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, represents not just “transformation,” but “transmutation.” To follow the teachings of Jesus means that one’s life becomes something fundamentally different from what it was before. John did not use the metaphor of the refiner’s fire, which purifies, clarifies, decontaminates, as the prophet Malachi claims God’s messenger will do (Malachi 3:1-5). Malachi was warning the priests of Israel that the representative of God’s covenant was coming soon to “purify the descendents of Levi” who had stopped following God’s rule: “‘I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerors, against the adulturers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me,’ says the Lord” (NRSV).
John is not satisfied with cleansing and polishing. John says, whoever believes Jesus is the Anointed One is changed (in the apostle Paul’s words “in the twinkling of an eye) – from injustice and death to justice and life: from water into wine. For 21st century non-theists, this means a fundamental shift in mind and paradigm from fear to love; from greed to sharing; from unjust systems that are the normal consequence of civilization’s laws to distributive justice-compassion.
Just in case anyone thinks that John has made Malachi’s list irrelevant, consider the following update: political leger demain, sex trafficking, corporate bait-and-switch tactics, union busting, blaming the poor for their plight, and hating anyone who looks, speaks, or acts different from the prevailing population. Further, if “God” is seen as “Gaia,” we can apply the same list of atrocities carried out against people to the earth itself. With that understanding, the wrath of God that Malachi invokes with his threat of refinement “until they present offerings in righteousness” can be seen as the consequences of misplaced dominion over earth’s resources. Until we stop mountaintop removal, deep-sea oil extraction, “fracking” for natural gas, and unchecked pollutants pouring into the earth, the air, and the water, we can expect continuing climate change, disruptions to growing seasons, famines, floods – the mythic four horsemen of the apocalypse wreaking havoc on life as we know it.
When we experience a sustainable earth as the one that provides all life-forms with “living water,” and join the work of distributive justice-compassion (“food” the disciples knew nothng about), then we can talk about worshiping “in spirit and in truth” in the King James language, or “as [God] truly is, without regard to place” (The Complete Gospels scholars translation).
John 1:1 -2:25
The Complete Gospels (Polebridge Press, 2010) breaks the Gospel of John into two parts. Based on the work of earlier scholars (R.T. Fortna, and U.C. vonWahlde), the Jesus Seminar scholars propose that this Gospel was developed from an earlier, “signs” gospel (similar to Q), which was a theological proof that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah. The signs were woven into a narrative which included John the Baptist, Jesus in Galilee, Jesus in Jerusalem, the culimination of Jesus’ signs (the Council’s plan; Jesus in the Temple), the prelude to Jesus’ passion, the passion narrative, Jesus’ resurrection, and the conclusion. Jesus’ miracles include
Water into wine (2:1-11);
An official’s son healed (2:12a:4:46b-54)
A huge catch of fish (2:1-14)
Loves and fish for 5,000 (6:1-14)
Jesus walks on the sea (6:16-21)
Lazarus raised (11:1-45)
A blind man give sight (9:1-8)
A crippled man healed (5:2-9)
The problem with the proof was that the so-called Messiah, God’s own Anointed One, was murdered by the Roman authorities. Eventually, those who persisted in believing that Jesus was the Anointed One either left the synagogues on their own volition, or were thrown out. A savior convicted and executed as a terrorist simply did not make sense. Paul’s arguments to the contrary either did not make the rounds, were equally dismissed as lunacy, or reinterpreted in a way that completely changed what Paul was talking about. (See, e.g., “Reclaiming the Victory: Easter Sunday 2011”; see also The Authentic Letters of Paul, Polebridge Press, 2010.)
What became the Gospel of John was addressed to a Greek and Hebrew-speaking community, who saw themselves “as a beleaguered but divinely vindicated minority . . . within the decade or two following the centralized Jewish decision to expel believers in Jesus from the synagogue, that is, during the last fifteen yearsor so of the first century. . . . The author, like the three other gospel writers, is anonymous and only a century later was identified with John, the son of Zebedee (and he with ‘the disciple Jesus Loved’).” The Complete Gospels p. 207.
The gospel writer wastes no time establishing Jesus, not John the Baptist, as the Anointed One. The Baptist himself witnesses to the first sign: “I have seen the spirit coming down upon him like a dove out of the sky; that’s the one who baptizes with the holy spirit. I have seen this and I announce: This is the son of God.” Within a few paragraphs, Jesus has called his disciples, and claimed even greater signs and wonders to come: “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You’re going to see a lot more than that.”
The Gospel of John is the work of a mystic. The writer argues for mythos, not logos, from a 1st century cosmology. He understands the universe as heaven above – from where God rules – the earth in the middle, which belongs to God, and the realm of the dead below the earth, where God and God’s light do not exist. He brings his listeners (or readers) from the dawning of earth’s existence, when Wisdom was there and was what God was, to the genuine light that cannot be mastered no matter how great the darkness. “The law was given through Moses,” John writes, “mercy and truth came through Jesus the Anointed One.” That is the whole argument. The rest is proof.
For 21st Century mystics, the Universe is far greater than anything John could have imagined. But John’s metaphor still holds power. John the Baptist assures everyone that he is not the One, not Elijah, and not the Prophet. The Baptist anoints with water those whose hearts are changed; God’s Anointed transforms water into wine. Wine is a gift from God that “gladdens the heart” (Psalm 104); it is the pay-off for honoring the Lord “with the first fruits of all your produce; then . . . your vats will be bursting with wine” (Proverbs 3:9-10); it is a sign of God’s grace: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55); it is a sign of the restoration of justice: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when . . . the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel . . . they shall plant their vineyards and drink their wine . . . and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God” (Amos 9:13-15).
The Gospel of John may be a last-ditch effort to preserve Jesus’ message of salvation as deliverance from injustice in this life, not a free ride to glory in the next life. My colleague in the struggle, John Shuck, is also exploring the Gospel of John with his congregation in Elizabethton, TN. His sermon for January 8 discussed John 1:19-51:
[An] important word for John is world or cosmos. Depending on the context, it can mean earthly existence, life, or more often than not, it is a word for what [Walter] Wink calls the “domination system.” Jesus says, “I am not of this world.” What does he mean? I do not think he is saying that he is from another planet or from another place like heaven, or that he is of another spiritual incarnation or some spooky notion like that. It means that he does not conform to the values of the dominant system.
Lest there be any doubt, when I care about Jesus or about the Gospel of John it is not because I care about heaven or hell or reincarnation or resurrected corpses or supernaturalism or any of that stuff. I think all of that is a distortion of the original impulse of Jesus and of those who caught what he was saying and doing. We have literalized first century symbolism and thus distorted it.
The historical Jesus and the imaginative creation by John’s Gospel is an invitation and an exhortation to respond to the “world” by becoming a human being. I don’t want to be anything less or more than a human being. Being a human being means that we expose the values of “this world” for what they are—death values.
More than being a “human being” on this earth, John’s gospel calls for a transformed life: water into wine; a temple made of distributive justice-compassion, not gold and stone. The writer follows the miracle of water-into-wine with the snapshot of Jesus clearing the Temple of the representatives of injustice – perhaps those who do not acknowledge him as the Messiah he claims to be. “Destroy this temple and I’ll raise it in three days,” he says. Jesus’ disciples later remembered what he had said, and applied it to the story of his death and resurrection.
But “Jesus didn’t trust himself to them, because he understood them all too well. . . he knew what people were really like” (John 2:21-25). The writer spells it out in the first few lines: “Although [genuine light] was in the world, and the world came to be through it, the world did not recognize it. It came to its own place, but its own people were not receptive to it” (John 1:9-11).
In order to reclaim the Gospel of John for post-modern, secular minds, the underlying bitter feud has to be understood between John’s community of exiles from Judaism and the resurgent, synagogue-based Judaism that survived crusades, pograms, ghettos, and holocausts. The Gospel is not anti-Semitic, nor is it the blueprint for Christian exclusionary belief. Like Paul’s letters that laid out his world-changing Christology, it may well be a first-century attempt at crossing the barrier between what is and what can be; between rational, linear argument for change (logos) and mystical, intuitive leaps into transformational possibility (mythos).
Progressive, non-theistic Christians may wonder what is the point to Advent in the 21st century. There were no angels bringing astounding news to an unmarried girl; there was no “virgin birth.” But in Luke’s story, there was a subversive undertone. As foretold by the Hebrew prophets, and prayed for by Luke’s contemporary Jewish friends, because God is just, and the world belongs to God (not Caesar) God took direct action against the oppression of the Roman Empire. In a parody of the story of Caesar’s birth, Jesus of Nazareth was heralded by angels, and born of a virgin. We can still hope for direct action against oppressive Empire and for distributive justice-compassion; against a greed world and for a share world; against zero-sum gaming of every system devised by humanity, and for a radical abandonment of self-interest.
In a series of essays (Coming Back to Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia) Lloyd Geering describes a spiritual and religious progression in human consciousness. Pre-modern people lived in what might be called an enchanted world, in which everything from the rocks, the rivers, the trees, to animals, birds and humans – embodied spirit. This was followed by the so-called “axial age” when people realized there was a difference between living creatures and inanimate objects, which gave rise to the paradigm-shifting concept of one god. Geering brings humanity full circle from the enchanted world of pre-modern people living a seamless existence, not separated from the natural world, to the possibility of a re-enchanted world, in which“secular” means –once-again – earth-centered. He concludes: “We came from the earth. We remain creatures of the earth. The hope of our species for a viable future depends on our mystical re-union with the earth.”
In The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Matthew Fox writes:
It is not enough to celebrate the Cosmic Christ as “the pattern that connects” and the “bearer of coherence” as expressed in Jesus. There is a real sense in which the Cosmic Christ is not born yet. Even in Jesus the Cosmic Christ has yet to come to full birth, for those who say they believe in Jesus have scarcely brought forth the Cosmic Christ at all on the mass scale that Mother Earth requires. One might speak, then, of the already born Cosmic Christ (realized eschatology) who we see only “in a mirror and darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) and of the not-yet-born Cosmic Christ (unrealized eschatology) who is the Christ of justice, of creativity, of compassion in self and society that yearns to be born and is eager to be born in us. “What good is it to me,” Meister Eckhart asked, “if the son of God was born to Mary 1400 years ago but is not born in my person and in my culture and in my time?” . . . The name “Christ” means “the anointed one.” All of us are anointed ones. We are all royal persons, creative, godly, divine, persons of beauty and of grace. We are all Cosmic Christs, “other Christs.” But what good is this if we do not know it? . . . We are all called, like the Cosmic Christ, to radiate the divine presence to/with/from one another. pp. 136-137.
So here is the raw material from the natural world for a 21st century cosmology that can apply to Advent and Christmas 2011 – We will not see this sequence again for many earthly years: The Full Moon December 10 wanes to Dark December 23, is “void of course” and sun-synchronous so still invisible at the New Moon 1:06 p.m. (U.S. EST) December 24 – Christmas Eve. The Sun wanes, the light vanishes, the Earth pauses in its eliptical swing out, pivots, and starts around the other side of our life-giving star. The Winter Solstice – when the Sun stands still – happens at 12:30 a.m., December 22 (mid-Atlantic U.S.) and seems to last until early January. Here’s why (from EarthSky.org):
The December solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and longest day in the southern hemisphere. But the earliest sunset – or earliest sunrise south of the equator – seems to defy logic when it happens before the solstice. The key to understanding is to focus on what is called true solar noon – the time of day that the sun reaches its highest point, in its journey across the sky, not the clock time of sunset. In early December, true solar noon comes nearly 10 minutes earlier by the clock than it does at the solstice around December 21. With true noon coming later on the solstice, so will the sunrise and sunset times. This discrepancy between clock time and sun time occurs primarily because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun. Because Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle, when Earth is closest to the sun, our world moves fastest in orbit. Our closest point to the sun (perihelion) actually comes in early January. So we are moving fastest in orbit around now, slightly faster than our average speed of 18 miles per second.
The precise date of the earliest sunset depends on the latitude. At mid northern latitudes, it comes in early December each year. At northern temperate latitudes farther north – such as in Canada and Alaska – the year’s earliest sunset comes around mid-December. Close to the Arctic Circle, the earliest sunset and the December solstice occur on or near the same day. The latest sunrise also comes in early January. The exact dates vary, but the sequence is always the same: earliest sunset in early December, shortest day on the solstice around December 21, latest sunrise in early January.
This may be why our human ancestors – tied to an earthly point of view – thought that the sun stands still at the Winter Solstice. Fires were lit, sacrifices made, to make certain the sun would continue its journey, and the light would return.
Progressive Christians can use our 21st century, post-modern, post-enlightenment sophistication to find earth-based metaphors for a kenotic god, whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death.
LITURGY FOR CHRISTMAS EVE
WELCOME – Explain the evening.
Four altars will be established at the cardinal directions. Room is set in a quartered circle, with four pathways and a center open space. In the center will be a Central Candle. A hooded figure enters, riding a hobby horse (a broom horse). The Hobby Horse goes to each of the four altars and invokes the directions, beginning with the North: Tune played with recorder and/or violin: Abbot Bromley’s Horn Dance. As the hobby horse arrives at each altar, the tune stops while the spirit is invoked, then starts up again until the hobby horse arrives at the next altar . . . etc.
ONE: [Approaches the North portal
Spirit of the North Stone
Ancient One of the Earth
I Raise You and Call you to attend this Circle
ALL: Charge This by your Powers, Old Ones!
[The North Candle is Lit]
ONE: [Approaches the East portal]
Spirit of the East Stone
Ancient One of Air,
I Raise you and Call you to attend this Circle.
ALL: Charge this by your Powers, Old Ones!
[The East Candle is Lit]
ONE: [Approaches the South portal]
Spirit of the South Stone,
Ancient One of Fire
I Raise you and Call you to attend this Circle
ALL: Charge this by your Powers, Old Ones!
[The South candle is lit]
ONE: [Approaches the West portal]
Spirit of the West Stone,
Ancient One of Water
I raise you and call you to attend this circle
ALL: Charge this by your Powers, Old Ones!
[The West Candle is lit] – the Hobby Horse takes a seat
INVOCATION OF THE GODDESS AND THE GOD [from the central altar]:
ONE: Gracious Goddess You who are the Queen of the Gods, the lamp of night, the creator of all that is wild and free; Mother of woman and man; lover of the Horned God and protectress of all the People, Come to us and bring your Lunar ray of power upon our Circle here.
ONE: Blazing God You who are the King of the Gods, Lord of the Sun, master of all that is wild and free, father of woman and man, lover of the Moon Goddess and protector of all the People, Come to us and bring your Solar ray of power upon our Circle here.
PROCESSION (9 people, each carrying an unlit votive or tea light come in, and take places in the front rows, surrounding the central altar)
Congregational Hymn: On This Day Earth Shall Ring (Personent Hodie)
CELEBRANT: Think of a time, not so very long ago, when all you knew was what you saw happening around you. The seasons come and go; the moon waxes and wanes; the sun rises and sets; the stars circle the heavens above, the earth sits solidly below, and under the earth is the realm of the dead. The Druids tell us that the fires we light on the hilltops call the Sun into its journey through our skies. As the Winter approaches, the Sun retreats as the God sends his power elsewhere. Perhaps he visits the Underworld? Perhaps he will not return. In the very early times we turned to the Moon Goddess for light to hunt the deer and the boar. Their rich fatness kept us warm as we waited to see if the God would return.
SONG: In the Bleak Midwinter (Verse 1)
CELEBRANT:We gather in the early morning darkness to watch where the light will fall as the Sun rises this day. The Druids tell us that the SunМs first ray will fall precisely in the center of the Temple we have dug into the Hill. Listen to the Story:
READING: “Sun” from The Universe Story (Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, Harper SanFrancisco, 1994) pp. 63-79
When the universe flared forth it was capable of a particular spectrum of activities. When the laws for the fundamental particles were stabilized, the universe’s capability for creative action advanced to a new set of rich possibilities … In the Milky Way galaxy four and a half billion years ago, the disc of stars was relatively rich in all the elements. Rushing through this sea were two great spokes of density… whose velocity at the edge of the Milky Way was 20 miles per second. As these invisible waves spun, they drew forth millions of star bursts, each new star with its own particular destiny. But now we focus on one branch of this galactic evolution, the one leading to our Sun. In the area of space-time where the sun emerged, the density wave passed through every one hundred million years. The most massive stars exploded as supernovas and enriched the interstellar matter. By the time of the Sun’s birth, perhaps one hundred passes of the star-making wave had occurred. Eventually a wave swept through that triggered the burst of some ten thousand stars all at once. … One of these subclouds was destined to become the Sun of our solar system … This formation would be finished in five hundred thousand years. The subcloud, freed from interactions with the others, gathered itself into a state of increasing nonequilibrium; matter fell into a center, creating a great deal of heat that radiated out from the collisions. After several hundred thousand years, the central core became thick enough to trap its own light and began to heat up even more rapidly. … The pressure of the plasma core grew to match the gravitational pressure. When the temperatures reached ten million degrees, the hydrogen at the center began to form helium. Our Sun was born….
[Light the Central Red Pillar Candle]
The vast majority of the gas that did not make its way to the Sun’s core … was blown off, but not all. Spinning around the Sun was a disc of the original subcloud just large enough to resist these cosmic rays from the Sun.…