Monday, 1 September 2014

John’s Gospel Revisited

Ian Harris                            Otago Daily Times                August 29, 2014

One of the great things about Christianity is that the moment you think you have it sussed, something emerges that makes you think again. Or rather, should make you think again – lots of people in the church and out of it will resist the invitation and stick with convictions arrived at long ago.

An example of this is the recent re-appraisal of the gospel of John. In the other three gospels Jesus comes across as reassuringly human, but in John he is disquietingly other-worldly. Instead of beginning as a human baby born to a human mother, for example, Jesus is here retrojected right back to be alongside God in the busyness of creating of the world. He therefore doesn’t need (and John doesn’t give) a Christmas story.

That provides a clue to how John’s gospel should be approached. It is not an eye-witness account of Jesus’ life and ministry, but rather an extended parable about the import of Jesus. John doesn’t set out to record the actual words and deeds of Jesus, but to convey the religious significance his followers were finding in him 60 years and more after his death.

The authors (there were more than one) achieve this through highly creative stories of incidents that never happened and words Jesus never spoke. Yet in a powerful, almost mystical way it is entirely true to the spirit of Jesus and to the inwardness of religious experience.

John also reflects the bitterness which Jesus’ followers felt after the rabbis ejected them from the synagogues around 88 AD. Till then Christians had worshipped alongside Jews and looked for synergies between traditional understandings and their experience of Jesus. Now they were out on their own.

Right, one can imagine them musing, if the Jews of the old Israel reject Jesus as messiah, we’ll just have to get on with establishing a new Israel, centred on Jesus, without them. Tragically, this repudiation of “the Jews” in John’s gospel was in later centuries lifted out of its 1st-century context and used to fuel a virulent anti-Semitism. 

That was a deplorable fate for a book which American Bishop John Spong, for one, sees as shot through with Jewish mysticism. The target was the hostile authorities in the synagogues, not all Jews. The writers were themselves Jews.

A major part of this gospel comprises seven “signs”, all pointing to the possibility of living life more fully and at depth when people enter into the kind of God-presence which Jesus’ followers experienced in him. 

Typical is the sign or story of a man born blind. According to the lore of the day, such a fate had to be the consequence of sin. But whose sin, asked Jesus’ disciples. Not the newborn baby’s surely? His parents’, maybe?

Neither, Jesus answered and, declaring “I am the light of the world”, he gave the man his sight.

People who came across the man later were incredulous – he had to be a lookalike! “Not at all,” he told them. “It’s me, all right! Jesus opened my eyes.” If this was a regular miracle story, it would end there. But the point is still to come, set squarely in the fraught circumstances of the time.

The leaders of the synagogue grilled the man who could now see: “Who did this for you? How? Such things are forbidden on the Sabbath, so that rules God out of it. A prophet, you say? There’s something murky here – what can his parents tell us?”

But they could add nothing. Meanwhile word was getting around that the rabbis were determined to expel from the synagogue anyone who thought Jesus was the messiah. The authorities concluded that Jesus must be a sinner to heal on the Sabbath, and told the man so. “I know nothing about that,” he replied. “All that matters is that I was blind, and now I see.” And he cheekily asked whether they would like to be his disciples, too.

“Never!” they bellowed. “We are true followers of Moses. Now get out of our synagogue.” And the man joined the fledgling Jesus community.

That bruised and defiant company would know exactly how to understand this story, because it was actually about them. They were like the man born blind in all the years before Jesus opened up to them another way of seeing.

So the “sign” is about the choice between darkness and light, between being blind to new possibilities for life and faith and embracing them, between the old Israel and the new. Echoes resonate still.

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