Atomic: Trust

Who do you trust to give you guidance when it comes to faith and spirituality? Given how pervasive church baggage, and even worse, abuse are, it’s not always easy to figure out. It turns out, it’s not a new question. In fact, I think it’s the question that lies behind Jesus’ stories in John 10.

 

It’s a long, meandering passage, so, to save some space, I’ll let you give it a read on your own. Even if you don’t read it, you’ll likely recognize the main image Jesus uses: the good shepherd. He tells a series of stories and metaphors all about sheep, shepherds and thieves, most of which his audience doesn’t get.

 

If I’m honest, I don’t really blame them. The stories are all over the place. He keeps changing the metaphors and dodging questions that pop up. As storytelling goes, Jesus does a terrible job.

 

That’s probably because it’s not a modern story. It doesn’t fit our way of thinking. We expect stories to be clear, linear and with no wasted words. But Jesus’ stories are Semitic stories. They have their own way of working. They wander instead of being linear. They work on different levels rather than having one point. You have to walk around them for awhile. Often, you’ll walk in with one understanding and walk out with a completely different one.

 

So, to do Jesus’ shepherd stories justice, we have to walk around them. We’ll see what pops up and how it helps us know who to trust when it comes to faith.

 

Level One: Fight or Flight

There’s one level of the stories that speaks to one our most basic evolutionary tendencies: fight or flight. What kind of spiritual leader should we run from and/or resist? Wisdom on this pops up all throughout these shepherd stories.

 

First, check out the context of what comes right before John 10, when Jesus is talking to the religious leaders:

 

Jesus said to them, If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

John 9:41

 

Essentially, what Jesus is saying is that when it comes to spiritual insight, if you think you have a lot of it, you probably don’t. Jesus probably didn’t know it, but he was on to a pretty helpful principle of social psychology called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This principle says that in general, people who think they have an area of life figured out rarely actually do. The more know you about or have experienced something, the more you realize you don’t know about it.

 

This is what Jesus is saying about spiritual leaders. If you meet someone who thinks they know everything about God, they’re probably not worth trusting with your spirituality.

 

Next, Jesus gives us an obvious, but vital insight:

 

I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw.

John 10:1

 

This image is almost insultingly simple. If a spiritual leader looks like they’re being shady, they probably are. Trust your gut here. In religion, we write off our gut and let leaders get away with all sorts of sheep related shenanigans. Because it’s church, we give them the benefit of the doubt. Or if they’ve been helpful to us in the past, we think there’s no way they could be doing something out of line. Or everyone around us seems to be ok with what’s going on.

 

Sometimes we need a jarringly simple image to wake us up. If it seems like someone is breaking into the sheep pen, there’s a good chance that’s what’s happening.

 

Jesus has one final, and brutal, insight about poor spiritual leaders:

 

The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy.

John 10:10

 

Steal, kill, destroy. That’s some strong language. While those things certainly happen in church, don’t get caught up in the literal list. Poor spiritual leaders use others for personal gain.

 

People are objectified and expendable. This may happen maliciously, or it may be that a leader hasn’t dealt with their own wounds or pain. Some leaders simply want to see their institution or system survive, and they’re willing to sacrifice others for it. Whatever the reason, it’s toxic and certainly not worth our trust.

 

Level 2: Follow

Jesus’ shepherd stories speak to another basic need of ours: having someone to follow. At various stages of our lives, we need guides to show us how to move forward, and our spirituality is no different. So, the shepherd imagery speaks to the kind of leaders that are worth following, and how Jesus embodies those values.

 

This first place this pops up is easy to miss:

 

Jesus was in the temple, walking in the covered porch named for Solomon.

John 10:23

 

So Jesus liked porches. What does this have to do with who we can trust? Well, Solomon’s porch was an important place. It was the last place in the temple complex that everyone was allowed: men, women, Jew, Gentile. Everyone.

 

Jesus doesn’t wall himself off from anyone. When we think about who to trust, we should ask if everyone is allowed in their spaces and systems. If their spirituality is based on exclusion, then they’re probably tapping into some sense of superiority, not something sacred.

 

Next, Jesus says something pretty unique in religious circles:

 

If I don’t do the works of my Father, don’t believe me.

John 10:37

 

In a world of people shouting, “because God says so,” Jesus says, “If I’m not embodying something holy and worth following, you shouldn’t believe me.” He invites critique and expects authenticity from anyone who would offer spiritual guidance.

 

He does this right as some of the crowd wants to know if he has the qualifications to lead Israel. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in their titles though, and instead tells them to just look at what he does. And if it’s not from God, everyone should walk away.

 

Lastly, he gets to the heart of spiritual leaders worth trusting:

 

I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.

John 10:10

 

Jesus’ ministry was in service of something bigger: life to the fullest. He suggests he can be trusted because he’s just a means to the end that is a big, connected, deeply rooted life.

 

He also picks this up when he switches metaphors and calls himself a gate. He’s meant to lead us somewhere: the sacred.

 

At the risk of oversimplifying it, we can figure out if someone is worth trusting simply by asking, “Are they connecting me to the sacred?”

 

In church, we normally stop here. Trust Jesus. We’ve been told that’s the whole deal. But there’s more. There’s at least one more level here.

 

Level 3: Freedom

We tend to miss what was really revolutionary in these shepherd stories. What was controversial wasn’t that Jesus was trying to claim the authority of the religious leaders. It’s that he was trying to give it to everyone.

 

Check out these very similar sounding lines:

 

Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.

John 10:4

 

I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. 

John 10:14-15

 

For Jesus, being connected to God comes down to knowing. He’s not talking about cognitive knowledge, like we often think. Semitic knowledge was experiential. It was mystical. It meant trusting your experience.

 

Who do you trust when it comes to connecting with God? You trust you. Trust what you know to be true about God, not what you’re told. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that’s going to stick anyway.

 

I don’t think we choose what we believe or find compelling about God. We may be able to blindly defer to spiritual authorities and traditions for awhile, but those beliefs don’t have roots. When life gets hard, they’ll get pulled up.

 

This has been true in my life. My faith has changed a lot, but what I’ve known – deeply known – to be true and compelling about faith hasn’t changed. At the core of every meaningful faith experience has been love and awe. There were times where I falsely accepted the limits of fundamentalism to those things. I put conditions on my ability to be loved or to love others, like my LGBTQ neighbors. But, at its essence, what I’ve always known to be true in my spirituality hasn’t changed, only my understanding of it has.

 

So trust your experience. As a friend of mine says, we’re busy trying to show how much faith we have in God, but God is trying to show us how much faith s/he has in us.

 

But Jesus wasn’t done. Right when the crowd was about to kill him because they thought he was equating himself to God, he throws this out:

 

Jesus replied, “Isn’t it written in your Law, I have said, you are gods? Scripture calls those to whom God’s word came gods.

John 10:34-35

 

Jesus radically rethinks the divine human relationship by going…back in history? He quotes Psalm 82:6, which says, “You are gods, you are all sons of the Most High.”

 

He’s essentially saying, “If you’re going to stone me, you better stone everyone.” He reaches back into their collective history and levels the playing field. He’s not just saying he’s especially connected to God. He’s saying everyone is.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we are literally God. Please don’t go start a cult. It’s that we all have access to the sacred. So much so that the Psalmist, and Jesus, are willing to label us “gods.”

 

Now, before we all get big heads, there’s one more helpful insight that pops up:

 

I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen.

John 10:16

 

If we’re tempted to think that Jesus’ radical message of divine connection makes us and our tribe special, Jesus stops us in our tracks. He says he has other flocks. Spirituality is always bigger than we think.

 

While Jesus may call you a “little g” god, it doesn’t mean you’re the expert on spirituality. It means you have a piece no one else has. Your connection to the sacred can’t be replicated. And neither can your neighbors’. So we come together with our collective pieces of and perspective on God to get a bigger picture. We’re neither deferring to spiritual authorities, nor acting like we are one ourselves.

 

When we bring our collective insights, something really beautiful happens. We begin to experience what Jesus was leading us to all along: life to the fullest.

Questions to think about…

  1. Who are the people on your personal advisory team?  Who do you trust to give you relationship advice?  Parenting advice?  Financial advice? Medical advice?  Movie advice?  What convinced you that these people were worthy of your trust?

 

  1. Who are the people you trust to guide you in your faith and spirituality?  What convinced you that these people were worthy of your trust?

  

  1. Jesus was essentially slamming the Jewish leadership, saying they were not worthy of trust for a range of reasons.  One of the first things Jesus noted was that they were know-it-alls.  The Dunning-Kruger Effect understood from modern psychology essentially validates the idea that when people act like they have mastered something, it likely means there is much they don’t know.  When have you experienced being around a know-it-all?

  

  1. How do you determine if a person is a know-it-all versus a person who knows a lot?

 

  1. Jesus later advises his audience against following leaders who don’t pass the “smell test” – there’s just something fishy about them.  Have you ever experienced this with a person you trusted?  How did you know something was up?  How early did you realize something was amiss?

 

  1. Jesus shifts to more a more positive approach, speaking into the types of leadership criteria that warrants trust.  First, Jesus led by example, hanging out on Solomon’s Porch where everyone was welcome.  Why would this be a sign of someone worthy of following?

  

  1. Later, Jesus essentially told people to look at the actions of the leaders they are considering following to see if their behavior matches what we know to be true of the character and nature of God.  What would that include?

 

  1. How do you relate to Jesus comment about the sheep knowing the shepherd’s voice?  What do you suppose he means?  How has this been true for you?

  

  1. How do you make sense of Jesus’s statement about some sheep knowing his voice?  Who do you think he is referring to?  What would this have meant to the original audience?  What do you think it means for us today – what do we do with this?  What is the criteria for determining who is included?  Is there a criteria, or does this simply mean “everyone” is the same, or?

 

  1. Reflect on all of the questions we’ve pondered here.  What is the stickiest take-away for you today?

 

 

 

Study Notes (Gail O'Day, New Interpreters Bible)

 

The image of Jesus as the good shepherd has a perennial hold on Christian imagination and piety. Some of the most popular pictures of Jesus are those that depict him as a shepherd, leading a flock of sheep. This picture of Jesus has influenced the church’s images of its leaders, so that in many traditions the ordained minister is referred to as the “pastor,” and ministerial care of the congregation is referred to as “pastoral care.” Behind both of these understandings of ministerial vocation is the sense that the minister is called to lead in the image of Jesus’ leadership, to be the shepherd as Jesus is shepherd. Because these images play such an important role in the life of the church, it is critical for the interpreter of John 10 to distinguish among the various uses of shepherd imagery in the NT. The move to pastoral images of ministry, for example, belongs more to other NT texts (e.g., John 21:15–19; Acts 20:28–29; 1 Pet 5:2–3) than to the interpretation of John 10. The pastoral images of John 10 are primarily christological and ecclesiological, focusing on Jesus’ identity and his relationship to the sheep.

Because the picture of Jesus as good shepherd has such a rich tradition in the life of the church (for other NT examples of this image, see Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 3:4), there is a tendency to read John 10 as if Jesus’ self-revelation as the good shepherd is the only christological image in the discourse. As a result, the christological imagery of the gate (vv. 7–10) is subsumed into the imagery of the good shepherd (vv. 11–16). This move runs contrary to the text itself, however. The two “I am” statements of John 10 present the reader with two christological images whose theological integrity must be preserved. When the shepherd image is emphasized in isolation from the gate image, the picture of Jesus in John 10 becomes too easy to appropriate and loses its christological edge. When the gate imagery is dropped, the christological focus of the shepherd imagery can become anthropocentric. That is, Jesus as the good shepherd becomes a model for other shepherds who would lead the “sheep.” The text becomes as much about “us” as leaders as it is about Jesus as the shepherd. When the gate imagery is retained, however, this slide from the christological to the anthropocentric is more difficult.

The heavy concentration of OT pastoral images in this discourse, particularly images associated with God in the OT texts, points the reader to the discourse’s christological heart: Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s people. Yet Jesus is more than the good shepherd for whom Israel waits (Ezekiel 34), because he is also the gate for the sheep. Jesus is the way to life (the gate), and he leads the way to life (the good shepherd). While these are closely related, they are not the same thing. Jesus is the way to life because he is himself life (v. 10; cf. 14:6). Jesus leads the way to the life because he lays down his own life (vv. 11, 14–15). These are non-transferrable attributes; they derive from the heart of Jesus’ identity as the one sent by God.

The “I am” statements of John 10, then, deepen the array of images of Jesus available to the church. The images of Jesus as the gate and the good shepherd are intensely relational; they have no meaning without the presence of the sheep. These “I am” statements do not simply reveal who Jesus is, but more specifically reveal who Jesus is in relationship to those who follow him. The identity of Jesus and the identity of the community that gathers around him are inextricably linked.

The relational dimension of the christological images provides the bridge to the ecclesiological dimension of this imagery. The identity of the community is determined by the shepherd’s (Jesus’) relationship to it and its relationship to the shepherd (Jesus). There is, then, an anthropological dimension to the shepherd discourse, but it is an anthropology completely dependent on the discourse’s christology and expressed exclusively in communal terms. For the community of faith, human identity is determined by Jesus’ identity. Who Jesus is with and for the community determines who the community is.

What image of community life does this discourse present? Nowhere in this discourse are any who follow Jesus depicted as shepherds or even assistant shepherds. Rather, all who gather around Jesus receive their identity as members of the flock. The community that gathers around Jesus are the ones who share in the mutual knowledge of God and Jesus, whose relationship to Jesus is modeled on Jesus’ relationship to God (v. 15). Listening to Jesus’ voice is the source of its unity (v. 16). By taking Jesus as its point of access to God, the community receives abundant life (v. 10).

Most important, however, the community that gathers around Jesus receives its identity through Jesus’ gift of his life for them. In the end, to be a member of Jesus’ flock is to know oneself as being among those for whom Jesus is willing to die. The christological and ecclesiological images of the shepherd discourse become one around the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus also holds together the metaphors of gate and shepherd and shows how Jesus can be both things. In the freely chosen act of his death, Jesus shows the way to life (gate) and offers abundant life by the example of his love (shepherd). It is important that Jesus says he lays down his life for the sheep, not for his sheep (v. 15), just as in 6:51 he speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world. It is an inclusive, rather than an exclusive, gift, just like God’s love for the world (3:16). Jesus makes the love of God fully available by expressing that love in his death (vv. 17–18).

The shepherd discourse thus provides the contemporary church with the occasion to reflect on several critical theological themes. First, it asks the church to attend to the christological heart of its identity. Who the church is cannot be separated from who Jesus is. Reflection on church identity, then, always needs to be part of a serious christological conversation, a conversation that takes Jesus’ gift of his life as its starting point. Second, this discourse provides an occasion to reassess the assumptions that accompany the use of shepherd and pastoral imagery within the church, particularly about the church’s leaders. When that imagery sets the church’s “shepherds” apart from the rest of the sheep, the power of the pastoral imagery of community in John 10 is diminished, if not lost. Jesus uses pastoral imagery in this discourse to depict the lives of all believers, not just some, in relationship to him.

Finally, the discourse provides the church with a fresh vantage point from which to reflect on community practices. What does it mean for the church to live as Jesus’ sheep? What does a church that understands itself as Jesus’ sheep look like? How will its identity be manifested in the world? Jesus the good shepherd chose to make his identity manifest to the world through his death. The shepherd discourse calls the church to live out its life according to the model of community envisioned here by Jesus, a model grounded in the mutuality of love embodied in the relationship of Jesus and God. This model of community will be developed further in the Farewell Discourse, but the first glimpse of the community for which Jesus gave his life is available in this text.

 

 

John 10:22–42 brings the interpreter face to face with the decisive theological issue of this Gospel: the relationship of God and Jesus. As the commentary has shown, this passage says nothing about this relationship that has not been said before, but it says it in direct and concise formulations: “The Father and I are one”; “the Father is in me and I in the Father.”

There is a temptation to interpret these words according to the norms of later trinitarian doctrine, to read them according to what they became in the life of the church, rather than what they say in their own context. To do so, however, is to distort and diminish the theological and christological witness of this important text. The Gospel of John was an important resource for the theologians of the second and third centuries as they struggled to think through the interrelationship of the three persons of God, but their questions were not the Fourth Evangelist’s questions, nor were their intrachurch controversies his. As the Commentary on 10:30 shows, John was talking about the functional unity of God and Jesus in their work and power, not a metaphysical unity of nature and person. Later christology expressed this unity metaphysically by speaking of the one nature or substance, categories absent from John. The Fourth Evangelist’s primary concern was to articulate the relationship of God and Jesus in the context of Jewish-Christian relations, not Christian-Christian relations in the debates over christology.

The most important difference between the discussions of the early church fathers and the Fourth Evangelist about the relationship of God and Jesus is that the church fathers were developing doctrine and the Fourth Evangelist was telling a story. This does not mean that the Fourth Evangelist’s reflections are inherently any less theological, but because they are cast in a story, they have a very different theological intent. John 10:30 and 38 thus belong to John’s story of Jesus and cannot be abstracted from that context without altering their meaning. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” it does not come as any surprise to the Gospel reader, because that reality has been acted out throughout the Gospel narrative. Jesus has done the works of God, spoken the words of God, identified himself with the I AM of God. The relationship of God and Jesus is not a metaphysical puzzle for the Fourth Evangelist, but evidence of God’s love for the world (3:16–17). The wonder of the incarnation is that God is palpably available to the world in the person of Jesus, that those who believe in Jesus, who see the works of God in Jesus, have access to God in ways never before possible (14:7–11).

The question of the identity of the persons of God and Jesus would make no sense to the Fourth Evangelist, because he is clear throughout that Jesus’ incarnation and presence in the world are wholly the result of God’s initiative: God gave; God sent. The two distinct characters, God and Jesus, are essential to John’s proclamation of the gospel. In fact, much of the trinitarian conversation about natures and persons would probably sound to the Fourth Evangelist like the “Jews’ ” erroneous charge of blasphemy in 10:33, a conversation that misses the point about the unity of God and Jesus.

One non-negotiable point that John and the early framers of doctrine have in common, however, is that Jesus’ relationship to God is the crux and stumbling block of Christian faith. For the Fourth Evangelist, that relationship is the dividing line between Jews and Christians, and hence is the focal point of most of the controversy between Jesus and the religious authorities. For the second-, third-, and fourth-century theologians, it was the dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy. For contemporary Christians, it is the source of Christians’ distinctive religious identity in their conversations with one another and with people of different religious faiths.

In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus does not claim to be a second God or somehow to replace God or to “make himself” God. Rather, Jesus claims to know God as no human has ever known God, to be one with God in will and work for the salvation of the world. This truth, and the believer’s experience of it, is the ultimate shaping factor in the Fourth Gospel narrative. Everything, from the hymnic beginning (1:1–18) to Thomas’s confession at 20:28, works to show forth the incarnate presence of God in Jesus.

It thus requires a significant amount of interpretive imagination and effort to allow John 10:22–42 to speak to the church about the relationship of God and Jesus in its own voice, and not in the voice of church doctrine. In order to understand Jesus’ claims in 10:30 and 38 about his relationship with God, it is critical that the interpreter keep them grounded in the whole story of the Fourth Gospel. Jesus’ acts of healing and giving life, his words of teaching all demonstrate and embody the presence of God in the world. Taken out of that larger context, the theological and christological claims of John 10:30 and 38 become doctrinal propositions. Within that narrative context, however, they have a life and vitality that they cannot have as doctrinal propositions. They serve to guide the reader back into the story of Jesus, to remind the reader of the shape and character of the “grace upon grace” (1:16) that is available when Jesus makes God known.

 

Atomic: Q&A (John 9)

Think about some of the key things you have learned to do in your life that you can remember.  Riding a bike.  Driving a car.  Learning to play a musical instrument. Picking up a hobby.  Playing sports.  In every case, there is an incredibly awkward phase that makes us feel very insecure, with seemingly every part of us freaking out.  We’re usually lousy at the early stages and have to work through our insecurities, face into our ignorance, trust the new thing, and move forward with more and more learning. 

Q: How do you recognize this pattern in the types of learning described above?

Deeper things are like this as well.  Marriage-level relationships, adult parent-child relationships, workplace relationships – all of these come with learning new things about ourselves, discovering things we need to unlearn, embracing the new despite our fears and opposition (internally and externally), and moving forward.

Q: How have you lived out this pattern in the types of relationships described above?

Read John 9.

In the Gospel of John’s telling of the story of the man born blind who gets healed by Jesus, we see the same pattern emerge.  This story is more than a “simple” healing story – it is one that we can all relate to on one level or another.  For instance, we recall that the Johannine community of Jewish Jesus followers was ousted from the synagogue because they had learned and believed Jesus’ teachings which in some cases were very unorthodox.  The status quo didn’t tolerate the “new” ideas of Jesus and, as it nearly always goes with systems, the system kicked out what didn’t fit.  This had to be absolutely heart-breaking for this community.  They were being told, essentially, that God was not truly with them in their interpretation.  While they were being judged as ungodly and unwanted, they were experiencing the presence of God – they knew God was with them, despite what the “system” was telling them.  This pattern happened repeatedly in the early Christian movement (and with Jesus, of course): the new insight comes that challenges the previous ways of thinking (and all who believe in it), followed by tension, followed by the system trying to kick out the new thing (which often goes “binary”), and, if the system cannot absorb and integrate the “new”, it is kicked out into the cold to survive on its own, if possible.  Lots of good ideas and movements die there.  We have all been the blind man in the story in one way or another.  We all have known what it is like to face a system that doesn’t want to change.  Maybe it’s internal – like riding a bike when your body is telling you you’re an idiot – or perhaps it’s much more complex – like learning to literally marry two systems into one when you commit at the highest level of covenant relationship.

Q: What are some of your experiences of being the “new” in a system?  How did it go?  How does knowing that this is the way systems work affect your thinking and feeling about it?

The story, of course, is not just about systems theory – that concept wasn’t formalized until our current era.  This story of systems change is imbedded in a story about Jesus, a story that was probably a mish-mash of many stories represented by this one single story about the power of God at work through Jesus (thus providing legitimacy), and about one man’s awakening to the implications of his new capacity to see.  It starts with trusting what Jesus was saying and living into it.  It’s not as if Jesus and the disciples dog-piled an unsuspecting blind dude so Jesus could “punk” him by smearing the spit-mud on his eyes!  The blind man was a willing participant.  Nothing in the system had really been working for him his whole life (except that he was still alive, I guess).  That doesn’t mean there wasn’t something to lose in saying yes to Jesus’ invitation.  There surely was.  This might have represented the 100th time someone had a miracle cure – could he handle one more round of dashed hope?  Moving even toward health and faith is a legitimate risk.  We are used to the system that we’re in.  It’s home for us, even in terms of faith.  There are variables that help us move forward: inner conviction that change is needed, a sense that the future is worth the risk, and someone to be with us on the journey, among others.  This man evidenced great courage, his capacity to see was in play, and he was supported by Jesus (who would have been renown for healing by that time).  It worked!  He could see!  In truth, he saw everything differently.

Q: How have you had moment(s) like this when you “saw the light”?

Over the next hours he began to see more and more differently about the system he had been in, what Jesus had invited him into, and who he was becoming.  All wrapped in a story about faith.  In perfect form, the system challenged the “new” even though it was legitimate, because it was going to challenge the health of the system.  Even though it was a sick one, it was working and did not want to die.  It fought back.  It kicked the man out.  Jesus returned to him, reintroduced himself (!), and invited him to keep moving forward in following him. 

Q: How have you experienced the backlash of even faith systems after you started living out of your new vision?

This one story of a blind man’s restored sight is the metaphor of life and faith.  In terms of faith, there is much to see here.  While I don’t think we are born blind, I do believe we all have grown up in systems that train blindness and support our blindness.  The same Spirit of God that was at work in Jesus – the “Christ” part of Jesus Christ – is always inviting us to see, to trust, to follow toward healing.  Always.  When we say yes, my experience has been that it truly does open our eyes.  There is a reason why the first verse of Amazing Grace ends with “was blind, but now I see” – this is the way spiritual renewal, realized resurrection goes.  The “born again” thing from John chapter three is another way to articulate the same thing.

I know personally and as a pastor for nearly 25 years that we share the blind man’s path as we face the system that do not want us to change.  It fights back in myriad ways, even on good, healing things of God.  For many, this is an insurmountable impasse, and they shift back into their former state, the new vision fading to black over time.  For a relative few (honestly) the inner conviction, dream of a brighter future, and a sense of being supported coalesce into breakthrough.  New life and new vision propel the person forward to their next phase of resurrected life.  We stay there until we are invited again (and again and again and again) to trust once more to see anew, because we will find ourselves in more systems in which we find great comfort and stability.  The process continues.

Q: How do we know if we are stuck, blind once again, in need of saying yes to the perennial invitation?

To paraphrase a friend of mine who pastors a church in Santa Clara, Jesus was never interested in creating Christians. He was inviting people to simply follow him.  We as a church should not care much about making Christians.  We should, however, be clear on inviting people to follow.  The old-school word is disciples – learners and followers of Jesus.  For us it is the same.  The Spirit of God that inspired and informed Jesus is still coming alongside, still inviting us to trust and follow.  For our whole lives.  For our lives.  For all people’s lives.  For our healing.  For the healing of the world.  And so the invitation is before you…

Q: Do you want to see?

 

Study Notes:

Beasley-Murray (Word Biblical Commentary)

q  Sins of the parents visited on children a common thought, and even scripturally affirmed (Ex. 20:15; Dt. 5:9) 154

q  Some thought was present about children sinning before birth, using Jacob and Esau as examples of a struggle in the womb. 155

q  Light of the world reference is that Jesus is such for all humanity. 155

q  Saliva, especially that of a first-time father, was thought to have healing powers. 155

q  The washing in the pool of Siloam (Shiloah) may have been a fulfiment of scripture affirming Jesus’ position as the Messiah: “The scepter shall not depart from Juday until Shiloh comes (Gen 49:10). 156

q  The interrogation by the man’s neighbors signifies that something significant happened.  Interestingly, Jesus, who is absent from these discussions, is the centerpiece.  156

q  Jesus’ decision to perform this on the Sabbath created the dilemma: he broke Sabbath law (Dt. 13:1-5), but how could a sinner perform such signs? 157

q  The blind man was slowly beginning to see more and more – Jesus was a prophet, which was tied to Messianic prophecies. 157

q  The parents’ fear of the Jews was tied to the prophecy piece.  Being a miracle worker wasn’t too disruptive, but agreeing with their son that Jesus was a prophet may have meant expulsion from the synagogue. 157

q  “Give glory to God” is a demand to confess his sin of lying about his blindness and subsequent healing, and to admit the authorities are right and Jesus is a sinner. 158

q  The Pharisees illumine the disappearance of impartiality: they have made up their mind about Jesus, because they made up their mind about Moses – they know where Moses came from. 158

q  The amazing thing is the unbelief of the Pharisees, which the man is pointing out.  The Pharisees condemn themselves by noting the sinfulness of the man born blind, and therefore the truly miraculous nature of Jesus in healing him.  He is getting more and more bold with those who are opposing Jesus.  159

q  Jesus reveals himself as the Son of Man – the Messiah.  Compare the Samaritan woman.  The man’s response is to fall prostrate and kiss his feet.  159

q  Judgment is concomitant to grace.  To those who desire to see, Jesus gives light.  To those who do not, Jesus condemns to their chosen darkness. 160

q  This narrative exemplifies the progression from sight to insight, and also to judgment. 161

q  For those in contexts that are unreceptive to the Light, this text serves as comfort. 162

 

Borchert (New American Commentary)

q  For children with symptoms of sin, it was the parents’ obligation to confess on their behalf. 313

q  Jesus shifted the focus from placing blame on God to the grace of God in the face of need. 313

q  Jesus’ day/night discourse has a double meaning which the disciple’s do not yet grasp. 314

q  In giving the man specific instruction, Jesus makes the connection between experiencing God’s power and obedience. 315

q  Siloam=sent.  This is indicative of Jesus’ mission and his command. 315

q  Pool is also the source for water for Jerusalem, and specifically for the Feast of Tabernacles.  Even in times of siege, the pool provided water (Hezekiah). 315

q  The original intent of the text was not to support baptism, even though it was used later. 316

q  The crowd was looking for quick and easy answers to complicated questions. 316

q  Not wanting to give more attention to Jesus, the Pharisees shifted their attack to the man. 319

q  The man’s statement “This I know” is akin to a sworn testimony. 321

q  The man’s backlash on the Pharisees is because they failed to recognize the healing of congenital blindness, and the healer. 322

q  “This statement (30-33), therefore, is the man’s affirmation of the need for authenticity with God and his testimony was that the healer must be a God-authenticated person.” 323

q  Irony is that the Pharisees missed the point of the Tabernacles – hope and joy – and were, rather, still in a spirit of bondage as were those who died in the wildnerness even though they crossed the sea as a result of the Passover. 323

q  Believing meant the active commitment of himself to the Son of Man.  He had already believed without seeing, itself a sign of the believers who were to come after the resurrection. 324

 

Brown (Yale-Anchor Study Bible)

q  Blindness in the first century.  Popular theology held that people blind from birth had lost their sight because of sin on the part of their parents.

q  Washing in the Pool of Siloam.  Water as a miraculous agent was not unknown (Elijah and Naaman).

q  Confession of faith.  I once was blind, but now I see.  This simple confession was likely used by the early church as they celebrated baptism.

q  Light of the world.  Jesus was indicating that what was really being played out was a battle between good and evil, and that he would overcome.

 

O’Day (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary)

q  “In the Fourth Gospel, “sin” is not a moral category about behavior, but is a theological category about one’s response to the revelation of God in Jesus (8:21, 24; 9:39-41; 16:9)”. 653

q  Jesus’ making clay was significant, because kneading was one of the thirty-nine categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. 654

q  The interrogation provides the opportunity for the formerly blind man to bear witness to the healing. 656

q  The progression of the man’s ability to see is related to faith.  The point is that our belief must develop similarly. 656

q  Part of the man’s boldness was in his refusal to play the Pharisee’s game of legal interpretation.  The man kept at this original scheme, simply repeating what had happened to him. 659

q  The Pharisees get the tables turned on them, and they become the interrogates, bring much joy to the contemporary readers of John. 659

q  “For the Fourth Gospel, faithfulness to the grace and truth available in Jesus, not faithfulness to the law, is the decisive mark of true discipleship.” 659

q  Jesus not driving anyone away who comes to Him is in contrast to the attitude of the Pharisees. 660

q  Man’s belief progression: the healer, the prophet, the Son of Man. 661

q  His worship of God ironically fulfills the Pharisees’ request that he give glory to God. 661

q  Contemporary readers would recognize that “their confession of Jesus will secure them in community with him at the same time it excludes them from their former religious home.” 661

q  Jesus redefines sins as not the presence of an illness, nor the violation of the law, but as one’s resistance to Jesus. 661

q  “The story of the blind man has been used as a symbol of faith and new life throughout the history of the church.  The healing of the blind man appears as a baptismal symbol in second-century frescoes in the catacombs in Rome (as do the stories of the Samaritan woman and the healing of the man in John 5).  These same stories were used in Lenten baptismal liturgies dating at least as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries.  The blind man’s movement from darkness to light and his confession of his faith in Jesus provided a vehicle through which the church could celebrate the power of new life that begins in baptism.  The blind man’s word in John 9:25 also offer eloquent testimony to the transforming power of God’s grace in the hymn “Amazing Grace”: “I once was blind, but now I see.”” 665

Atomic: Truth

I was listening to a Radiolab podcast this week called “Loops”.  In it the story of three mathematicians’ work was briefly described.  Gottlob Frege was as much a philosopher as he was a mathematician.  He was convinced that math could inform logic, and logic could essentially eliminate the need for intuition and mystery in life.  Everything was explainable if you just worked your pencils hard enough.  He was largely overlooked during his life, but was later celebrated for his contribution by other well known mathematicians, including Bertrand Russel, who valued Frege deeply even though he came up with a scenario that Frege’s axiom could not handle, illustrated in the story of a town where all the men were clean-shaven.  Those who did not shave themselves were shaven by the town’s barber.  The logic works for every many in town but one: the barber.  If the barber shaves himself, he does not get shaved by the barber.  Wait a second…  Another mathematician/logician, Kurt Gödel, worked to address the unsolvable with mathematical references.  For instance, it is a held mathematical truth that every even number is the sum of two prime numbers.  And yet, it is impossible to know for sure because we can never get to the end of numbers to test the theory!  Like the Barber story, he simplified the problem with a single sentence: This sentence is untrue.  See the problem?  His work opened the door for thinking in news ways with the freedom that some troubling axioms cannot be disproved.

We humans like to keep things nice and orderly.  It helps us feel like we’re in control.  We’ve done a lot with this regarding religion.  Gödel was a theist who read the Bible every Sunday morning.  He said that he thought religion itself was good, but that religions were bad.  Why?  Likely because religions have a way of defining themselves so clearly that they leave no room for God.  Jesus was devout in living out the Jewish faith, and yet it was the living out his faith that eventually got him killed.  He favored religion over religions; he had room for God to be God – a great freedom that eluded the many who were content with their defined, exclusive religions.

In one dense exchange, Jesus spoke with a mix of Jewish people in Jerusalem – some who believed in Jesus and others who did not.  One thing he said makes its way now and again into graduation and political rally speeches alike.  It’s a good stand-alone statement, but, as is the case nearly always, knowing the context brings greater understanding and depth.  See if you can pick out the phrase in the exchange:

     Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
     “But we are descendants of Abraham,” they said. “We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?”
     Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message. I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.”
     “Our father is Abraham!” they declared.
     “No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.”
     They replied, “We aren’t illegitimate children! God himself is our true Father.”
     Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.” – John 8:31-47 (NLT)

Like so many in John’s Gospel, we see once again a group of people who aren’t on Jesus’ wavelength.  This particular group has become comfortable in their understanding of religion as being secured by the results of their 23 and Me results – they are genetically Jewish.  Moreover, since they follow the traditions of Judaism, they are surely legitimate.  Yet Jesus here is calling them to see themselves differently.  He is suggesting that they have adopted a different father than the one of their genes.  Rather than following God, they have unwittingly been following the way of the world.  The way of the world was “home” to them – they had built their identity on it even though it was a false one.  Unfortunately, because they associated their nation and their faith with God, and assumed God endorsed both, they naturally felt quite justified in whatever they did.  Kind of like some in our country who are so convinced that the United States is a Christian nation, so that God must surely be blessing us wherever we go and in whatever we do, even if that means horrible things for the people we meet.  Slavery, genocide, imperialism, followed by systemic inequality and inequity for select “browner” citizens – all endorsed by God?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think Jesus thought so for his contemporaries, either.

Of course, we must remember that this Gospel was written from the perspective of a group of Jesus followers who had been ousted by their Jewish community.  Surely that informs their remembrance!  From their vantage point, they understood at a different level just how prescient Jesus’ words were about the truth revealed in their killing him.  Their religion would lead them to tear Jesus apart instead of honoring the heart of God who longs to brings things together, to re-ligament – the true goal of religion.

It’s not that Jesus was anti-religion; it was that he understood that God was the point of it all, and where religion was supposed to always point.  Sometimes, however, religion itself makes itself the focal point of worship.  When that happens, a whole lot of ugly follows.  The historical examples of this are too numerous to recount here.

What was Jesus getting at, then, with his Abrahamic conversation?  Abraham wasn’t devoid of cultic practices, but he did sense a call from God to leave his comfortable homeland behind him to start something new and different.  He was trusting the voice of God who was leading him, not a script or the orthodoxy he was leaving behind.  This new thing was based on a relationship with the Divine who was not bound by geographical constraints. God was faithful everywhere.  God was with Abraham everywhere.  God was faithfully good everywhere.  Following the voice of God led to good things for him and those under his care.

Jesus was living out a similar reality.  The truth that set him free – and anyone else – is that this God is deeply with us, in us, for us, guiding us, energizing us, comforting us, and so much more.  This inner relationship led to faithful expressions on Jesus’ and Abraham’s part.  Jesus’ practice of the Jewish faith had things in order – the religion was made for humanity to become more connected to God.  Humanity was not made for religion, as if it was ever meant to be the constraining straight-jacket so many find it to be when the cart gets before the horse.  This is why Jesus was so often in trouble with religious folks who recognized his breaking rules.  Jesus was called by God – a higher authority than the Law.  To freely live the way Jesus lived, however, means we become more open, more stretchy in our understanding of God, relying on the indwelling of God to guide us.

The Apostle Paul never met Jesus, but he surely encountered Christ.  He understood that they whole point of religion was to connect people to God in relationship, not religiosity, not dogma, not exclusivism.  Read some of the things Paul said:

     In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 (NLT)

     But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. – Galatians 1:16 (NIV)

     Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? – 2 Corinthians 13:5 (NRSV)

Paul was beaten repeatedly for daring to live in this new reality.  Freedom always challenges forms of oppression.  When we let go of our limited thinking about God, we find life.  More from Paul:

     …recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We're free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. – 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 (The Message)

If we aren’t paying attention, our relationship with God (as with other important relationships) will drift into mechanics and lose the heart, the life that we once enjoyed.  We will find ourselves going through the motions, still caring, but not animated like we once were.  When we find ourselves there, we will be comfortably at rest in religion, which is not the same as being alive in Christ with Christ alive in us. 

Where are you in this regard?  How do you monitor your spiritual health?  Do you know that God is within you?  How are you living as though it were true?  How are you allowing that reality to change the way you see yourself, value yourself, care for yourself?  How are you letting the reality that God is also in the people we encounter affect you?  How are you thinking and behaving is if it were true? 

Bob Goff let this reality really sink in, and it changed him.  Because it changed him, incredible good is happening in more and more people around the world.  In a chapter about making the most of the time we have with people – even if only three minutes at a time – he offers the following insights:

     When we draw a circle around the whole world like grace did and say everybody is in, God’s love gives us bigger identities than we used to have.  With our newer, bigger, identities, we can draw even bigger arcs around people’s lives. We start to see that our time here isn’t meant to be spent forming opinions about the people we meet.  It’s an opportunity to draw the kind of circles around them that grace has drawn around us, until everybody is on the inside.

     We don’t decide who in line is in and who’s out, and we don’t need to waste any more time engaging in the kinds of arguments some people get sucked into. People who are becoming love don’t swing at every pitch. We start by meeting people just three minutes at a time. – Bob Goff, Everybody Always

 

To conclude, a benediction from Paul:

Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope! – Romans 15:13 (The Message)

Reflections from Gail O’Day (New Interpreters Bible)

John 8 presents the reader of the Gospel of John with some of the Gospel’s most difficult interpretive issues. The Jesus who emerges from these verses speaks with staggeringly sharp invective to his opponents and holds nothing back in his attack on his theological adversaries. It is very difficult to harmonize this picture of Jesus with the images of him that shape our theological imaginations: Jesus as the one who eats with outcasts and sinners, who cares for the lost sheep, who is the model of how we are to love. Complicating this picture of Jesus is the fact that he speaks this scathing language to a group John identifies as the “Jews,” so that Jesus’ words in this chapter have become a pivotal text in discussions of Christian anti-Semitism.

Because this text has played such a controversial role in shaping Jewish-Christian relationships, it is the interpreter’s moral responsibility to look the language of this chapter and the image of Jesus squarely in the face. It does no good simply to whitewash the intensity of the invective, nor does it do any good to continue to treat the anti-“Jews” language in this text as if it were license for anti-Semitism. The interpreter is called to ask hard questions of this text in order to discover what it is saying and what it is not saying. The interpreter must work diligently and carefully to understand the text in its original social and historical context in order to avoid making simplistic and destructive extrapolations to contemporary church settings. The commentary has attempted to provide the interpreter with some of the historical, social, and cultural contexts necessary to begin this work. This Reflections section will begin by reviewing the historical and social data as they pertain directly to the appropriation of this text and then, on the basis of this review, to examine the critical issues with which this text confronts the interpreter.

Two historical/social issues bear directly on the appropriation of John 8: the relationship of the Johannine community to establishment Judaism and the role of invective in first-century intra-Jewish debates. As has been noted many times in this commentary, the relationship between Johannine Jewish Christians and Judaism is one of the decisive issues for the shape and perspective of the Fourth Gospel. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus’ antagonists are regularly identified as the “Jews.” The work of J. Louis Martyn and others has helped us to see that a rupture(s) with the synagogue occurred sometime in the last quarter of the first century that decisively changed the fabric of Johannine Christians’ religious lives.

Prior to the decisive break, Johannine Christians were able to hold together their participation in the liturgical and cultural world of Judaism and their faith in Jesus. (It is important to note that this joint identity was not unique to Johannine Christians. For example, in Acts 2, Luke depicts the developing Christian community as participating in temple worship as well as conducting their own worship services.) The exact course of events that led to the break cannot be charted, but the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE was one of the pivotal factors.

Without the Temple, Judaism was forced to reconstitute itself around a different center, and the Jewish Scriptures became that center. The synagogues, therefore, took on more importance, because they were the sites where Scripture was taught and preached. Moreover, those Jews who professed faith in Jesus also took the Scriptures to be of the utmost importance, because they understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of God’s promises as made known to God’s people through Scripture. The conflict was joined, therefore, around the question of who could lay claim to God’s promises and to the status of God’s people. This conflict is apparent in the adversarial language of Matthew 23, for example, but the group of Christians who seemed to have experienced this conflict and struggle most intensely in their day-to-day lives was the community of Christians for whom the Fourth Gospel was written. The Fourth Gospel makes repeated reference to Christians’ being cast out of the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2) and the fear and danger this produced in the community’s life.

The Johannine Christians thus understood themselves to be outcasts, people whom the Jewish establishment no longer considered to be Jews, a community forcibly removed from its roots and the symbols that formed its identity. Their self-identity was as a marginalized community that stood powerless in the face of the power of the dominant religious group, the Jews. The Gospel of John contains many attempts by the Fourth Evangelist to reclaim his community’s relationship to its Jewish roots. The Fourth Evangelist makes repeated references to Jewish feasts and demonstrates the ways in which Jesus is the true fulfillment of those feasts (e.g., 7:37–38; 8:12). Most of the Fourth Evangelist’s primary metaphors and images are drawn from the language of the Jewish Scriptures, and John 4, 6, and 8 revolve around comparisons between Jesus and Jacob, Moses, and Abraham, respectively. The wealth and depth of Jewish scriptural allusions in the Fourth Gospel show that the Fourth Evangelist is not antagonistic to Jewish traditions. Rather, he is antagonistic to the Jewish power structures and political forces that have attempted to cut his community off from these traditions.

The virulent language of chap. 8 must be read against this backdrop of being cast out of the synagogue, of being excluded from the religious centers that had once helped to define one’s religious and communal identity. The language of this chapter is the language of the minority group spoken in protest to the majority culture. The Johannine Jewish Christians had no way to back up this language—that is, they had no power to take any actions comparable to their own exclusion from the synagogue. They were outnumbered by the Jewish community and had no political resources at their disposal. Their only “power” rested in the force of their rhetoric, in their ability to denounce those who had excluded them.

In the Commentary on 8:44–47, Qumran texts were cited in order to place the invective of these verses in their full cultural context. The Qumran community, too, used very strong language to speak against other Jews whom they sensed were depriving them of their religious heritage and polluting God’s promises to God’s people. One important difference between the Qumran sectarians and the Johannine community is that the Qumran sectarians initially chose to exclude themselves from the Jerusalem community, whereas the Johannine community was forcibly excluded. The persecution that the Qumran community endured after their separation, however, was not of its choosing and positioned them as a community oppressed by establishment Judaism, like the community for which the Fourth Evangelist wrote. The Qumran analogue is important, because it helps the interpreter to see how the language about the Jews in chap. 8 functions as intra-Jewish invective in its own cultural and historical setting.

What is the significance of this historical context for the contemporary interpreter of John 8? First, it reminds the interpreter that one must attend to the specific situation of a biblical text in order to make the move to potential contemporary appropriations. The issues in John 8 have a very specific cultural context, and the only way that this text can have a place in the life of the church is if the specificity of that original context is honored. One must understand the originating context and then look for modern analogues to that context. That is especially critical with a text, like this one, that has had such a disturbing place in the history of interpretation.

Second, attention to the historical and social contexts of John 8 compels the interpreter to work more carefully at assessing the function of the negative language for the original readers and thus assists the interpreter in distinguishing among the many painful issues with which this text confronts the modern reader. It helps the interpreter to see that simple condemnations of Johannine anti-Semitism, for example, do not begin to touch the complexity of this text. In order to honor the complexity of this text, the interpreter must begin to think separately about two distinct issues that are often treated as one issue in contemporary conversations about this text: (1) the relation of John 8 to Christian anti-Semitism; and (2) the social function of religious invective. It is to the contemporary dimensions of these two issues for the life of Christian faith that we now turn.

1. As the historical review made clear, the Fourth Evangelist understood his community to be persecuted by the power and theological politics of the Jewish establishment. Moreover, this community was itself without power in the face of what it understood to be its oppressors. The harshly negative language about the Jews in this chapter, then, needs to be taken first and foremost as the language of a group without the means—economic, political, military (note the references to the police sent by the Pharisees in 7:32, 45; cf. also 18:3)—to act out its virulence. It is the language of a Jewish-rooted minority that is no longer allowed to claim its Judaism, speaking against those who have denied them their heritage.

When the words of John 8 become the weapons contemporary Christians use in a crusade against Judaism, this critical social fabric is overlooked and, indeed, distorted. First, contemporary Christians have come a long way from the intimate ties with Judaism that shaped the Johannine community. The majority of Christians today are Gentile by heritage, not Jewish, and so the language of John 8 belongs to a context foreign to contemporary Christian experience. When Jesus speaks about the Jews the way he does in John 8, giving voice to the Johannine community’s needs and anger, it is intra-family language. Contemporary Gentile Christians who use this language against Jews are not members of the family and hence their language carries a different weight. Contemporary Christians have not been hurt by the Jewish religious establishment the way the Johannine Christians perceived themselves to be, rejected by those they took to be their brothers and sisters in faith, so that the pathos that drove this language in its own context is missing in ours.

Second, and more crucially, Christians, particularly in North America and Europe, are no longer the minority group, rejected by the Jewish religious establishment because of their beliefs, but are the majority group whose religious practices and values dominate contemporary culture. The balance of power between Christians and Jews is the exact opposite of the situation in which the Fourth Evangelist lived and wrote, and for contemporary Christians to point to John 8 as justification for their attitude toward Judaism is a false and dangerous appropriation of the biblical text.

The danger of the misappropriation of the Fourth Gospel’s type of invective in a situation where the power relationships between Christians and Jews are reversed was tragically evident in the actions of the Third Reich toward Europe’s Jewish population. In that situation, the Germans had the military, economic, and political power to act out the language of hate. It was no longer a question of a minority group’s using strong language to defend its right to exist and worship as it chose, but the majority culture’s exercising its might to exterminate a less powerful group it found offensive and falsely perceived as a threat.

For the Fourth Evangelist, the situation was one of a spiritual and theological battle, in which the Jewish religious authorities were dictating the shape of the Johannine Christians’ faith lives. No such situation holds today; Christianity is not at risk because of Judaism, and for contemporary Christians to overlook this critical social distinction is to do misservice to the gifts and promises of God that Jews and Christians share. The Fourth Evangelist experienced his community as being on the verge of losing access to those gifts, and so the Johannine Jesus speaks with intensity about the Christians’ claim to those gifts and promises as distinct from Jewish claims. Jewish-Christian relations are completely different today, however, and the Fourth Gospel’s invective against the Jews has no meaning in a world where Christian claims and practices rest secure.

2. When the questions of anti-Semitism and religious invective are distinguished from one another, it becomes possible to look at the social and theological function of the language of John 8 as an issue in its own right. One then can ask how this language serves the needs of this religious community. What does this language accomplish? What are its implications for contemporary Christian communities?

As noted earlier, the primary theological function of the invective in John 8 is to defend the Christian community’s claims against the perceived assault of the Jewish religious establishment. Its closely related social function is to establish the identity of this faith community over against those who deny the community’s right to exist. The absolute character of this language and the sharp lines it draws between those who share the community’s beliefs and those who do not are frequently pointed to by scholars as evidence of the sectarian quality of Johannine faith. That is, the Johannine community understood itself as a minority religious group at odds with the dominant religious culture. If Johannine sectarianism is perceived as a primarily intra-Christian phenomenon, then the description is not altogether apt, because Johannine christology and theology are not wholly distinct from other early Christian traditions. If, however, Johannine sectarianism is perceived as Jewish sectarianism, as the above discussion would suggest, then the designation is both apt and helpful in clarifying the social function of the invective in John 8. The way in which the minority, religiously oppressed community of the Fourth Gospel grounded its identity was to reject those who had rejected them first and so establish the boundaries of their community.

The social intent that drives the invective of John 8 is not an isolated phenomenon. On the contrary, the rigidity of community identification it reflects and the language of hate that often accompanies it is evident across the globe in racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts. The divisions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland is an excellent example of the odd mix of religion, power politics, and community identity that fuels the invective of John 8.

The invective of John 8 confronts the interpreter with very disturbing questions—questions whose answers may be even more difficult to determine than the questions about John 8 and the “Jews.” The primary question is this: Is it necessary to exclude others so absolutely and hatefully in order to establish community identity? This may have been the only avenue that presented itself to the Fourth Evangelist and his community, but is it the only avenue available to us? The NT contains a variety of models of community formation. Paul, for example, who also struggled earnestly with the relation of the developing Christian community and Judaism, developed a model of community formation that attempted to break down barriers rather than to strengthen them (e.g., Gal 3:28). Contemporary Christians, therefore, have a rich set of options as they think about their identity as a faith community, options that move beyond the strident language of John 8.

For an oppressed community like that for whom the Fourth Evangelist wrote, the language of John 8 may have restored a sense of their own power and dignity in the face of persecution. It may be that for communities in similar situations, this language still presents a viable model of community. Yet even when the language is contextualized that way, one still feels a sense of pain and regret at the damage that language like that found in John 8 can cause. The invective found in John 8, and the misuse that later generations of Christians made of it, may bear its most powerful witness as a cautionary tale for present and future Christian communities.

 

Welcome, LGBTQ, and Everyone Else

In light of the recent United Methodist Convention decision to exclude LGBTQ people and punish pastors who are or officiate same-gender marriage ceremonies, it seemed wise to remind whoever listens to this that there is another way to study and interpret the Bible that offers plenty of room for inclusion. The same interpretive method (hermeneutic) makes room for equality and equity for all who have been kept down some. Women, immigrants, people of color, divorcees - all are welcome at the table AS EQUALS at CrossWalk. Spread the word!

Note: This teaching was offered in March, 2015, which was similar to a message given in 2009. In November 2018, Pastor Pete officiated a same gender marriage ceremony and was subsequently released from his leadership role with the denomination’s region, Growing Healthy Churches, which is part of the American Baptist Churches, USA. Not long after, we were encouraged to leave the region., which we did. We are still part of the very broad American Baptist Convention, and will tie in with a like-minded region in the near future.

Atomic: Eat!

Why do you practice your faith the way that you do?  Have you ever practiced part of your faith because you thought that doing so would get or keep God on your side?  Or perhaps to encourage God to answer a prayer?  It’s pretty normal to practice faith this way.  But it comes with an undercurrent that might go unrecognized that could lead to some surprising, negative results.  Gratefully, Jesus came to offer a different orientation…

After a dramatic narrative where Jesus heals a lame man on the Sabbath, followed by a heated exchange with Jewish leaders and a soliloquy discourse of sorts in John 5, we find another incredible story in John 6, followed by an interesting exchange and another soliloquy.  Here’s how it went down:

     After this, Jesus crossed over to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias. A huge crowd kept following him wherever he went, because they saw his miraculous signs as he healed the sick. Then Jesus climbed a hill and sat down with his disciples around him. (It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover celebration.) Jesus soon saw a huge crowd of people coming to look for him. Turning to Philip, he asked, “Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?” He was testing Philip, for he already knew what he was going to do.
     Philip replied, “Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!”
     Then Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up. “There’s a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?”
     “Tell everyone to sit down,” Jesus said. So they all sat down on the grassy slopes. (The men alone numbered about 5,000.) Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks to God, and distributed them to the people. Afterward he did the same with the fish. And they all ate as much as they wanted. After everyone was full, Jesus told his disciples, “Now gather the leftovers, so that nothing is wasted.” So they picked up the pieces and filled twelve baskets with scraps left by the people who had eaten from the five barley loaves.
     When the people saw him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, he is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force him to be their king, he slipped away into the hills by himself. (John 6:1-14 NLT)

The feeding story shows up in all four Gospels, which is a pretty good indication that the story stuck in the minds of the earliest communities of Jesus followers.  It’s a pretty amazing story, for sure.  Who wouldn’t remember it?  How could anybody forget such a miraculous display?

Depending who you read, however, determines how you understand what miracle took place.  At face value, it appears that Jesus took five dinner rolls and a couple of sardines, said one hell of a prayer, and voila – the loaves and fishes multiplied like the trouble with tribbles on Star Trek (anybody with me?), producing way more than was needed.  John tells us that this was around the time of year that Passover was celebrated, which would bring to the mind of all good Jewish people on the hillside the time in their history when God provided the bread-like manna from heaven as the people made their exodus from Egypt toward Israel.  They would see in Jesus a reflection of Moses, the first to be used of God to pull off some pretty amazing miracles of God’s extraordinary breaking into our ordinary lives.  Bread was once again coming from heaven!  What an endorsement of Jesus’ identity!  And the bread was made of barley, considered a “sinners offering” – what a communication about grace for all!

There is a different interpretation that focuses the spotlight on a different kind of miracle, which has God doing something amazing in a different kind of way.  Have any of you ever gone to the coast for the day?  Maybe Bodega or Stinson or Goat Rock?  Let’s say you leave Napa around 9:30 or so, and you plan to head back around 3:00.  What do you pack?  If you say a swimsuit, sunscreen, and a beach umbrella, that tells us all that you are a tourist.  A parka?  Hand warmers?  Insulated boots?  Now we’re talking NorCal beaches…  I digress.  You would pack whatever beach gear suits you.  What else?  You would likely bring something to drink and something to eat, right?  Or at least money to buy food and drink on the way?  Jewish people in antiquity were apparently known for their lunchboxes.  It’s what the boy was carrying.  A small basket just big enough to hold enough for the day, carried by a strap over your shoulder.  What do you think?  If people are going to spend the day listening to Jesus talk on a hillside by the lake, do you think they would go without packing food?  Of course not!  In this view, the miracle is that they shared with each other instead of holding onto their resources for themselves alone, encouraged by the generosity of the kid who gave up his lunch.  The crowd was generous enough to allow for the leftovers to be collected – 12 lunch baskets full.  A nod to provisions for the 12 disciples?  A metaphor for the feeding of the 12 tribes of Israel?  Or one basket for every inch of a footlong Subway sandwich?  Okay, nobody thinks the last one has merit…  Our nature is to hoard, not give.  It’s still miraculous, the stirring of God in their midst.  Maybe this miracle is more like one needed today where there is more than enough food to feed all the people in the world, and yet one in seven people do not have enough food for a healthy life, and one third of available food is wasted. Do it again, God!

Miracles are never the point in and of themselves – they are meant to point to something else.  The crowd, in this case, got ahead of themselves and wanted to run with the little they knew – they had a miracle worker in their midst! – and needed to slow down, take a deep breath, and go deeper.

Jesus followed up with them:

“I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs. But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval.” (John 6:26-27 NLT)

Jesus goes on to build on what he is saying here, but they don’t get it.  He talks of the importance of eating the bread as a symbol of his body.  People freaked out. We would, too, if we took him literally.  What he was getting at was deeply connected to spending energy on seeking the eternal life he came to proclaim – a life infused by the eternal Spirit of God, not heaven after life is over.  What he was getting at is actually quite profound, and it has to do with who is eating.

Have you ever wondered why primitive cultures lit up burnt offerings in worship to God?  Grain offerings.  Birds.  Goats.  Cows.  Sheep.  Humans.  It was to appease the gods with a meal of sorts, something to satisfy the gods’ wrath by satisfying their hunger for vengeance. Literally.  That’s how people thought.  That’s still how a lot of people think.  Maybe we don’t literally burn stuff, but we are very naturally transactional in our thinking about God, largely related to our lizard brains and religious traditions which continue to perpetuate the view.  So, we wheel and deal to get what we want.  We even buy a line of Christian orthodoxy which erroneously boils things down to saying the magic words to insure you get into heaven.  Hint: it’s off point and against everything Jesus was actually about.

When Jesus was saying that we had to eat the bread as if it were his body, he was turning the tables on the whole paradigm.  Instead of us sacrificing stuff to get God to not kill us or perhaps help us, God is wanting to be taken within us, to be ingested, to become a part of us as intimately as possible.  Actually, the Spirit of God is already intimately part of us – the bread is perhaps a reminder for us to believe it and live in its truth.  Stop trying to get God to not kill you – that’s never been God’s intent.  Stop trying to win God’s favor – you’ve always had it.  Live in the identity that God is forever with you, loving you, longing to restore you when you’re a wreck, celebrating when you reach new heights.

What does that look like?  The story itself gives us some examples to work with.  First, we have Jesus, who simply raises the consciousness of the disciples with a good question.  Philip let’s everybody know they’re running short on cash to clarify what won’t be happening.  Andrew recognizes what is available, what might be built on.  He brings a kid to Jesus.  The nameless little boy offers his meals for the day – was he there with his family to listen?  Now he simply offers what he has on center stage.  Crowd members respond in kind, inspired by the kid’s act of love born out of something within he cannot yet articulate.  All characters stirred by the same spirit operating within them to do their part to make something beautiful happen.

What can you offer?  What questions can you raise to bring awareness to the needs around you?  How can you be helpful in bringing clarity to the situation?  How can you be used to bring someone else into the equation who might love getting involved?  How might you offer what you have in faith, something you may deem insignificant yet might make a world of difference?  How might you be someone in the crowd who “gets it” and responds to the prompt of the spirit to do the inspired thing?

To eat the bread – to really eat the bread – is to accept the very real presence of God anew in your life while at the same time embracing the opportunity to respond with the love you’ve been given.  Take and eat, and then use its energy to draw others to do the same.

 

Stuff to think about…

1.       How do you interpret the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000?  Why?

2.       What is the message of the miracle if the loaves and fishes literally multiplied before everyone’s eyes?  What is the upside of this interpretation?  What is the downside?

3.       What is the message of the miracle if the loaves and fishes did not multiply, but rather the hearts of the people miraculously opened up?  What is the upside of this interpretation?  What is the downside?

4.       How did you resonate with the characters in the story?  Which one seems to hit home right now for you?

5.       What do you learn from the other characters in the story?  How do they inform your sense of what God might be calling you to do?

Select Academic Notes…

Gail O’Day, The New Interpreters Bible

6:5–15. The miracle story proper contains elements standard in the miracle story form: an introduction (vv. 5–9), the miracle itself (vv. 10–11), the aftermath and results of the miracle (vv. 12–15). The miracle is initiated by Jesus (v. 5). Just as Jesus initiated contact with the Samaritan woman (4:9) and initiated the healing of the man by the pool (5:6), so also here he anticipates the hunger of the crowd. His question, “Where are we to buy food?” is asked to test Philip (v. 6). Jesus knows the answer to the question—he knows what he is going to do—and he wants to discover whether Philip does. As noted earlier, the whence of Jesus’ gifts is an important christological question in the Fourth Gospel (e.g., 2:9; 4:11); if one knows the source of Jesus’ gifts, one comes close to recognizing Jesus’ identity (cf. 4:10). Neither Philip (v. 7) nor Andrew (vv. 8–9) is able to answer Jesus’ question, however. Instead of seeing that Jesus’ question is about himself, the two disciples interpret the question on the most conventional level and so give conventional answers: There is neither money nor food enough to feed so many people.

This exchange between Jesus and his disciples prepares for the miracle in several ways. Philip’s and Andrew’s responses communicate how daunting the size of the crowd is and hence the huge quantity of food that would be required to feed them. More important, the disciples’ answers show how traditional categories cannot comprehend in advance what Jesus has to give. Conventional expectations offer no solutions to the crowd’s needs; Jesus alone knows how to meet those needs.

 

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The gathering of twelve baskets full of fragments (v. 13) is standard in the tradition (Matt 14:20; Mark 6:43; Luke 9:17) and serves to emphasize the prodigiousness of the miracle; not only did the people eat their fill, but there were leftovers as well (cf. 2:6; 4:13–14). (Seven baskets of fragments are collected in Matt 15:37 and Mark 8:8). Jesus’ words in v. 12 are unique to the Johannine version of the miracle and make an important connection between this story and the manna story of Exodus 16. In Exod 16:19, Moses asked that the people not leave any extra manna around, but the people disobeyed Moses and the leftover manna “bred worms and became foul” (Exod 16:20 NRSV). Jesus’ words in 6:12 seem to caution against a repetition of Exodus 16. The connection between the feeding miracle and the manna story, so pivotal to 6:25–59, is thus introduced early on.

 

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In v. 15 Jesus displays his omniscience (cf. 1:48; 2:23–25; 4:16–18) by knowing in advance the crowd’s intent. The people’s desire to make Jesus king by force resolves the ambiguity of v. 14 and confirms that the people’s response cannot be trusted. The kingship of Jesus is an important theme in the Fourth Gospel, first introduced in 1:49. Israel’s desire for a king is part of its messianic expectations, the hope for a second David. Jesus will be “king” in the Fourth Gospel, but he will be king according to his definition of kingship (18:36–38), not forced to fit the world’s definition. The kingship theme reaches its resolution in the crucifixion narrative of John 18–19. (See Reflections at 6:16–24.)

 

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Jesus’ words in v. 20 are the key to understanding the miracle of 6:16–21. The words “I am [ἐγώ εἰμι egō eimi]; do not be afraid” are found in all three accounts (Matt 14:27; Mark 6:50) and hence belong to the common fund of oral tradition, but they have a particular meaning in the christological context of the Fourth Gospel. A good case can be made that egō eimi should not be translated as a simple identification formula (“It is I,” NIV and NRSV), but should be translated as an absolute egō eimi saying, “I am” (see Fig. 10, “The ‘I AM’ Sayings in John,” 602). As Jesus walks across the water, he identifies himself to his disciples with the divine name, “I AM.” The background for this use of the divine name can be found in the LXX of Second Isaiah (Isa 43:25; 51:12; 52:6). The Fourth Evangelist portrays Jesus as speaking the way Yahweh speaks in Second Isaiah. This reading of egō eimi is supported by Jesus’ second words to his disciples, “Do not be afraid.” These words, too, are spoken by Yahweh in Second Isaiah. They are the words of the salvation oracle, words of comfort spoken to end the distress of God’s people (e.g., Isa 43:1; 44:2, 8). “Do not be afraid” is also a standard element of theophanies (e.g., Gen 15:1; Matt 28:5; Luke 2:10). Jesus’ words in v. 20 confirm that his walking on water is a theophany and that this “manifestation of the divine” is the source of the disciples’ fear.

 

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…The Fourth Gospel does not narrate the stilling of the storm (cf. Matt 14:32; Mark 6:51) because John 6:16–21 is not a nature miracle, a demonstration of Jesus’ power over the forces of nature. It is a miracle of theophany, of the revelation of the divine in Jesus.

The theophanic focus of this narrative is confirmed by the density of OT allusions and images in this passage. In addition to the echoes of Second Isaiah in v. 20, the story builds on a variety of OT texts that describe God as the one who walks upon the water (Job 9:8 LXX) and who makes a path through the sea (Isa 43:2, 16; Pss 77:19; 107:23–32). God’s dominion over the waters of chaos is a symbol in the OT of God’s sovereignty and care, and in John 6:16–21 that symbolism is applied to Jesus. This story thus illustrates the truth of John 5:19–20: Jesus shares in God’s work and identity. Many of the sea allusions in the OT texts that form the background of vv. 16–21 also contain allusions to Israel’s safe crossing of the Reed Sea at the exodus (e.g., Isa 43:2), and those exodus allusions are appropriate for the setting of this miracle in John 6.

 

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Reflections…

The two miracles of John 6:1–15 and 16–21 present the interpreter with two vivid enactments of the revelation of God’s grace and glory in Jesus. On the one hand, this grace and glory are revealed outside conventional human experience and expectations—in the miraculous feeding of over five thousand people with five loaves and two fish; in Jesus’ miraculous walking on water. On the other hand, the occasions where Jesus’ grace is offered and his glory revealed are familiar occasions of human need—the need for food, the need for safety and rescue from danger. The fears and needs that Jesus’ miracles meet belong to the common fund of human experience.

As in the healing of 4:46–54, Jesus’ grace is not revealed in a “spiritual” gift, but in a tangible, physical gift. A hungry crowd sat on the grass and ate bread and fish. Their spiritual needs were not the presenting problem for Jesus; their physical needs were (6:5). The interpreter, therefore, needs to be careful lest he or she adopt a purely symbolic interpretation of John 6:1–15 and cast its corporeality aside. The miraculous feeding dramatically demonstrates that Jesus has gifts and resources to meet the full range of human needs. He supplies the daily bread that people need to sustain life (cf. Matt 6:11; Luke 11:3). The feeding of the crowd thus confirms that Jesus is the source of life (cf. 6:33, 35, 58).

Jesus’ feeding miracle so impresses the crowd that they declare him to be a prophet (6:14) and intend to make him king (6:15). The crowd’s reaction shows how difficult it is to receive Jesus’ gifts on his terms without translating them immediately into one’s own categories. Jesus’ gift of food, the offer of his grace, provided the crowd with a glimpse of his identity, but they immediately tried to twist that identity to serve their own purposes. To make Jesus king is to take his grace and twist it to conform to pre-existent systems of power and authority. To make Jesus king is to judge him according to human glory (5:44) rather than to see in him God’s glory. When Jesus withdrew from the crowd (6:15), he showed that he would offer his gift of grace without claiming worldly power. In that moment his glory was revealed, because true glory has nothing to do with worldly power. In John 6:1–15, Jesus’ gift of grace thus becomes the vehicle for the revelation of his glory.

In John 6:16–21, by contrast, the revelation of Jesus’ glory is the vehicle for his gift of grace. If the crowd’s intention to make Jesus king distorts Jesus’ glory, then Jesus’ walking on water and his words to his disciples (“I am; do not fear”) counterbalance that distortion with a true picture of his glory. In 6:16–21, Jesus reveals himself to his disciples as one with God, sharing in God’s actions (e.g., Job 9:8; Isa 43:2), identifying himself with God’s name (e.g., Isa 43:25), speaking God’s words. Yet this manifestation of the divine in Jesus is not bravura, not a moment of glory for the sake of glory, but a moment of glory for the sake of grace. Jesus reveals himself to his disciples in order to allay their fears, to ensure their safe passage, to remind them that God has been, is, and will be their rescue. Jesus’ glory is not revealed for power, but for grace-filled pastoral care.

These two miracle stories raise important questions about the balance between grace and glory. In 6:1–15, the heart of the story is Jesus’ grace, Jesus’ extraordinary, unprecedented gift. Yet the crowd is intrigued by the possibilities of glory, and they want to force Jesus to be king. John 6:16–21 narrates the most dramatic self-revelation of Jesus to this point in the Gospel; yet it occurs in the solitude of his disciples’ fears. Jesus will not allow his grace to be controlled by the crowd’s desire for glory, and so he hides himself. But he will not hold back his glory from those in need, because this is his mission: to make God known (1:18). How believers hold the grace and glory of Jesus in balance is critical to the life of faith. The grace is destroyed if one tries to harness it for false power and authority, and the glory is lost if one does not recognize its presence in the quiet places of Jesus’ grace. Both the grace and the glory are essential to God’s revelation in Jesus: “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14).

 

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Figure 10: The “I AM” Sayings in John

Absolute “I AM” sayings without a predicate nominative:

4:26                     Jesus said to her, “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.”

6:20                     But he said to them, “I AM; do not be afraid.”

8:24                     “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM.”

8:28                     “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.”

8:58                     “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM.”

13:19                   “I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I AM.”

18:5, 7                 Jesus replied, “I AM.” When he said to them, “I am,” they stepped back and fell to the ground.

“I AM” sayings with a predicate nominative:

6:35                     “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

6:51                     “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

8:12                     “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

9:5                       “I am the light of the world.”

10:7, 9                 “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.”

10:11, 14            “I am the good shepherd.”

11:25–6              “I am the resurrection and the life.”

14:6                     “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

15:1, 5                 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”

 

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George Beasley-Murray, Word Biblical Commentary

The Feeding of The Multitude (6:1–15)

That the event was an act of compassion on the part of Jesus is not mentioned by John (contrast Mark 8:2–3), but may have been assumed. The Christological emphasis within the chapter is emphasized from the outset in the initiative taken by Jesus (v 5), his knowledge of what he intends to do (v 6), and even his distribution of the bread and the fish (v 11; no mention is made of distribution through the apostles).

The statement as to the nearness of the Passover (v 4), the identification of Jesus as the prophet who should come (cf. Deut 18:15), and the discussion on the bread from heaven within the discourse (vv 31–33) combine to indicate that the feeding miracle is understood as falling within the fulfillment of the hope of a second Exodus. This flows together with the thought of the event as a celebration of the feast of the kingdom of God, promised in the Scriptures (Isa 25:6–9). The eschatological significance of the sign is thus doubly underscored, and is part of its fundamental connection with the Lord’s Supper, which also is eschatologically oriented (cf. especially Luke 22:16, 18, 20, 29–30; within the discourse vv 39, 40, and esp. 54).

14–15 That the feeding was not a purely natural event, prompted for example through an encouragement to share available resources, but an act of God is assumed throughout the narrative, and underscored by the response of the crowd described in vv 14–15. It is scarcely to be doubted that the Evangelist viewed the attempt to make Jesus king as causally connected with the sign. The step from a prophet like Moses (v 14), the first Redeemer and worker of miracles, to a messianic deliverer was a short one for enthusiasts in contemporary Israel to make. Horsley has traced popular messianic movements in Israelite history that reflected the continuity of the hope among the populace, especially the peasantry, of a king who should lead them in a movement of liberation from their oppressors—from the kind of tyrant that Herod was, as well as from the Romans in the time of Jesus. Josephus speaks of leaders of popular revolts in this era, who “donned the diadem” or “claimed the kingship” or “were proclaimed king” by their followers; these, comments Horsley, were “clearly messianic pretenders, to be understood against the background of longstanding Jewish tradition of popular anointed kingship” (“Popular Messianic Movements around the Time of Jesus,” 484). Montefiore, in an article linking these expectations to the feeding miracle, suggested that the falling away of the disciples in 6:66 is strongly connected with this feature; Jesus’ refusal to accede to the multitude’s demands must be reckoned as one of the turning points in his ministry, for from this time Jesus and the crowds parted company (“Revolt in the Desert?” 140–41). Dodd strongly supported this understanding of the event; he suggested that the danger of Jesus being made a leader of a movement of revolt by the turbulent Galileans was a feature that the evangelists preferred to gloss over, but which John chose to preserve (Historical Tradition, 213–15, 221–22). In that the Evangelist did choose to mention it, the function of the discourse to reveal the nature of Jesus’ messiahship and his function as giver of spiritual bread of the kingdom of God is very much in place. This may well have contributed to the Evangelist’s decision to place the sacramental teaching in this setting and not in the Upper Room.

The Walking On The Sea (6:16–21)

The reason for the disciples’ departure alone is not stated by the Evangelist in v 16, but it is fairly evident: they were sent by Jesus out of the dangerous situation described in v 15. The disciples, too, were Jews, sharing their contemporaries’ understanding of the Messiah and his work, and they needed to be prevented from becoming embroiled in a threatened messianic uprising.

19 Contrary to Bernard (185) and many others since his writing, we are not to understand that when the disciples saw Jesus walking ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης, he was walking beside the sea. Certainly we read in 21:1 an appearance of the risen Lord ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης, where the context makes it plain that Jesus was on the shore (21:4 states that Jesus stood εἰς τὸν αἰγιαλόν “on the beach”). Mark 6:47 uses precisely the same wording as the Fourth Evangelist, following the declaration that the boat was “in the midst of the sea” (6:47); Matthew writes first that Jesus was walking ἐπὶ τὴν θάλασσαν (accusative), then that he was walking ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης (Matt 14:25). Had our Evangelist wished to correct an earlier misstatement or misunderstanding of the event, he could easily have written that Jesus was walking παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν (so Giffort, “ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης,” 36; for examples of that phrase cf. Mark 1:14; Acts 10:6). In reality he was concerned to do something quite different, as v 20 makes plain; there he records Jesus as appearing to his disciples on the sea with the words Ἐγώ εἰμι. He may have had in mind Job 9:8, but more obviously Ps 77:16, 19, which speaks of God coming in powerful theophany to the aid of his people at the Exodus: “The waters saw the, O God, they saw the and writhed in anguish.… Thy path was through the sea, thy way through mighty waters.…” The Evangelist was describing an event in which he saw Jesus as the revelation of God coming to his disciples in distress—in the second Exodus!

20 For the meaning of Ἐγώ εἰμι, see the lengthy note of Bultmann, 225–26, in which he conveniently summarizes the ways in which the phrase was used in the ancient world. He distinguishes four chief usages: (i) as a presentation formula, which replies to the question, “Who are you?” and in which the speaker introduces himself as so and so; (ii) as a qualificatory formula, which answers the question, “What are you?”, to which the reply is, “I am that and that”; (iii) as an identification formula, in which the speaker identifies himself with another person or object; (iv) as a recognition formula, answering the question, “Who is the one expected, asked for, spoken to?”, to which the reply is, “I am he.” In this last, unlike the previous three, the ἐγώ is predicate, not subject. In Bultmann’s view, the Ἐγώ εἰμι statements of John 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 15:1, 5 employ the recognition formula, while those of 11:25 and 14:6 are probably an identification formula.

The absolute use of the expression is particularly striking (in 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19). While it is clear that in 6:20 Jesus is identifying himself to the fearful disciples, the usage in the passages just mentioned indicates a unique relation to God, recalling the divine name in Exod 3:14 and the affirmations of Deutero-Isaiah (e.g., 43:10–11; 45:5–6, 18, 21–22). In these affirmations of Jesus we find not identification of himself with God, but an expression of himself as “God’s eschatological revealer in whom God utters himself” (Schnackenburg, 2:88). The combinations of Ἐγώ εἰμι with various symbols (Jesus as the bread of life, light of the world, door (of the sheep), the good shepherd, the resurrection, the way, the truth and the life, the vine—seven utterances!) may be said to summarize his role in revelation and in salvation. For further discussions Isa 43:10 is particularly significant in this regard: “You are my witnesses, says the Lord … that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.” This last phrase, in Hebrew אני הוא (anî hû), is rendered in the LXX as ἐγώ εἰμι. In this context “I am he” is an abbreviation for the expression in the next line, “I, I am the Lord”; not surprisingly אני הוא “I am he,” can appear as a substitute for אני יהוה (anî Yhwh), “I am the Lord.” There is indeed evidence that the expression אני הוא came to be regarded as the name of God. Isa 43:25, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions” appears in the LXX as ἐγώ εἰμι ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ἐξαλείφων τὰς ἀνομίας σου, “I am ‘I Am,’ who blots out your transgressions.” There were other related developments in the use of the divine name among the Jews which must be noticed later; it suffices here to observe that there was a direct line from אני הוא through the LXX ἐγώ εἰμι to the ἐγώ εἰμι of the Fourth Gospel (so E. Zimmermann, “Das absolute Ἐγώ εἰμι,” 270–71). The occurrences of ἐγώ εἰμι in sayings of Jesus indicate not an identification of himself with God but a solidarity or union with him, expressions of himself as “God’s eschatological Revealer in whom God utters himself” (Schnackenburg, 2:88). The combinations of ἐγώ εἰμι with various symbols may be said to summarize his role in revelation and salvation. For further discussions concerning the expression see E. Schweizer, Ἐγώ εἰμι (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck, 1939); D. Daube, “The ‘I am’ of the Messianic Presence,” The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, 325–29; Dodd, Interpretation, 93–96, 349–50; H. Zimmermann, “Das absolute Ἐγώ εἰμι als die ntliche Offenbarungsformel,” BZ NF 4 (1960) 54–69, 266–76; Brown, 533–38; Schnackenburg, 2:79–89.

 

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Atomic: Blind

Someone once said that people don’t see things the way they are, they see things the way they are.  When the disciples passed her on their way back to Jesus from a nearby village, they saw a very lost soul.  A heretic, actually, defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma.”  If they had been forthcoming with their biases and prejudice, they may have made it known that they actually loathed her based solely on her faith.  In their opinion, she was loathsome, rejected by God, not worthy of respect (or even acknowledgement).  When they passed her, they were undoubtedly silent.  Little did they realize that she was coming from where they were going – a Jewish historical site – Jacob’s Well in the middle of a country that was no longer their own: Samaria.  They would soon discover that they had seen things as they were, but not as they were.

Jesus had just finished speaking with her – a conversation he initiated.  A triple foul by all accounts.  First, she was a woman, and he was recognized as a Rabbi.  In First Century Israel, that didn’t happen.  Second, she was a woman who was Samaritan – a people group ancient Jews loved to hate because they wove the religion of surrounding cultures into their version of Judaism, creating a hybrid religion that won them the term “bastards” in every Jewish circle.  Half breeds.  Thus, the silent treatment on the part of the disciples.  Third, she was a woman, a Samaritan, and one with a difficult past.  A past so disturbing that it resulted in her being at the well at the wrong time of day, and all alone.  Alone because the women of the village did not welcome her earlier in the morning when it was cool, when they all traveled together in community to get water for the day.  She knew she wasn’t welcome.  All they could see was her checkered, questionable past – multiple husbands, and now living with a man to whom she was not married.  So many reasons to distance themselves from her, to exile her to the hellish heat of the day to labor in isolation.  To everyone else, she was a label, or labels, as it were.  Because people saw things as they were.

Jesus saw things as they were, however, through a lens corrected by God.  A woman?  Yes.  Samaritan faith?  Check.  Hard past life?  Yep.  But so much more than that, Jesus saw a sister, a beloved human being made in the image of God.  Inherently worthy of respect.  Innately valuable beyond measure. This holy one deserved the honor of being recognized as present with him, not to be ignored.  This child of God was worthy of being included in conversation, not condemned in silence.  This daughter was meant to be embraced, not exiled.  Seeing her with the eyes of God, his words, tone, and heart followed suit.  He broke the ice, asking for water, which took their chat to deeper things of God and life.  Reading everything about her clearly, he gave insight into her life, which signaled to her that she was dealing with someone with a bit more God going on than most.  Wanting to shift attention off of her painful past, she decided to talk religion, taking a shot at a central contentious issue dividing the two religious perspectives.  As their conversation ensued, Jesus respected her (and himself) enough not to engage in theological battle, but to agree on truth they could both believe in.  Much more than avoiding a fight, Jesus cultivated shalom as he showed her tremendous honor in sharing with her the nature of God and what God desires for everyone: people living in and by the Spirit of God, worshiping God in their lifestyle, in their attitude, and in their behavior.  Not an argument about who’s belief is more right, but a shared striving toward believing in the right way – a more genuine orthodoxy than most dared to voice.  To top it all off, Jesus let her know that he was the one anointed by God to bring this good news. He was the Messiah, the Christ many were hoping for, and she was the first person he told according to John’s Gospel.  She had come crawling to that well thirsty for life and love.  She left more hydrated than she could have ever dreamed – when she ran back to the village, she left her water jar behind.  She was so full of life that when she told her hateful and hurtful village what happened, her charisma overcame their prejudice and led them right to the feet of Jesus to hear for themselves and eventually believe.

When we see ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, we are no longer bound by the blindness of our own self-loathing or the lens of the cultural context that shapes our sight.  Shame gives way to grace.  Loneliness finds itself in the company of God.  The mourning of a painful past is given in exchange for the gladness of hope.  When we give into such love, we claim the words of the prophet: God gives beauty for ashes, strength for fear, gladness for mourning, peace for despair (Isaiah 61:3).  We you and me and the collective we embrace this love that is always available to us, and is there waiting for us without condition.  We are blinded by the Light of God to finally see ourselves as we really are: glorious and beloved.

When we choose to see things as they are – as God sees – empathy moves us to love deeply, across party, cultural, religious, and gender lines with great love, respect, and dignity.  When faced with people of differing ethnicity, religious beliefs, and life experience, may we see so clearly as Jesus did, and may we love so dearly.  All moved by the Spirit of our faith, because, as Bob Goff noted in his book, Everybody Always, “loving people the way Jesus did is always great theology” (72).  When we choose to see through the eyes of Jesus, we are blinded by the Light of God to finally see others as they really are: glorious and beloved and worthy of our love and respect.

Atomic: Stretch

The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 is rich, deep, and full of linguistic surprises for English-readers. The first surprise is that the highly educated member of the Jewish leadership council (the Sanhedrin), came to Jesus in the dark. More than an indication of the time of day, this was telling us about his level of awareness and consciousness.  He knew a lot, and yet was not yet awake to what Jesus was seeing.  The ensuing conversation was going to serve as a wake-up call.  Nicodemus likely hit the snooze button many times en route to his awakening – as we all do.  This presents an opportunity for all readers to ask themselves, how awake are we?  In my experience, honestly asking the question is the first and greatest step toward becoming more awake and staying awake.  When we don’t ask the question, we are very likely to settle into the cozy comforter of where we currently are.  We may never even hit the snooze button, because we won’t even hear the alarm.  I used to have trouble waking up – particularly in high school.  I set up a mechanical timer to turn on my stereo at my wake-up time, which would force me to get out of bed to turn it off.  If I had to physically get out of bed, I would stay up.  Hitting the snooze button was too easy – I needed help waking up.  How awake are you?  Or are you setting yourself up by your lifestyle to remain asleep in the dark?

Nicodemus heard the alarm with Jesus’ words: “Unless a person is born [again, from above], it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to—to God's kingdom.” The Greek word, anōthen, is where we get the English word for “again”.  But Greek doesn’t always translate easily into English, and things are missed.  In this case, anōthen could be translated as either “again” or “from above” – two very different renderings.  In his darkened state of mind, Nicodemus was stuck on the former understanding, while the enlightened Jesus was referring to the latter.  Nicodemus was going to be stuck from the get-go because nobody can literally re-enter the womb, as he notes.  Jesus was talking about a new perspective that hails from something more than what meets the eye.  God is Spirit.  To see God requires a new kind of eyes.  This gives all readers pause to ask, which eyes are we using in our faith?  Are we focused on flesh-and-blood when we really need to develop more spiritual vision?

After reminding Nicodemus of what he surely knew but hadn’t recently accessed, Jesus gave the most succinct statement about what faith is all about than anywhere else in scripture: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again” (John 3:16-17, The Message).  To put it in a very short statement, Jesus is telling us to believe in love if we want to really, truly live.  This may sound more like a Coke commercial, but it is actually deeply theological and infinitely practical.  Once again, our English language does not serve us well in translating the Greek.  The central subject is love – God’s love (agapaō in Greek), which is the highest source of all love.  The goal is a quality of life (aiōnios in Greek) that is heavenly – the best we can hope for.  The means by which we experience that life is in believing.

The Greek word, “pisteuō”, is what gives us “believe”.  In our modern understanding, we generally equate believing with intellectual agreement.  For many Christians, believing means agreement about orthodox positions about Jesus.  The Greek word, however, actually has three facets of meaning.  Like a three-legged stool, in order for the word to stand, all three legs have to be in place.  Intellectual agreement is the first of those legs.  A second is emotional assent, and the third is vocational.  The emotional leg has to do with a gut-level conviction, a passion about the subject of belief. Think of being in love with a person.  On paper, the object of your love may not be any different than 6M other people, yet there is something about that one that stirs your heart.  That’s what we’re talking about.  The vocational challenges our tendency to settle for lip service.  Back to being in love with someone…  When we are in love with someone, or someone is in love with us, we know it not because of a rational argument or strong feelings of passion.  We know it because of action.  The love notes, the hand-holding, the new priority of our time and energy – all are expressions of our intellectually founded and emotionally impassioned love.  None of my college friends had to wonder if I was in love when I met Lynne.  They knew it because they rarely saw me anymore.  Why?  I was in love.  This is how we need to think about believing in God.

How do we fall in love with God?  How can we fall in love with someone/thing so abstract?  The love referred to is the Greek agapaō from which we get agape love.  Agape is the highest form of love – it simply exists.  It is the foundation of all other loves, in a sense.  In a later letter to the churches, John says that God is love – that God’s character and nature are that love.  So many times in the Old Testament, when a person would experience God they would give God a new name that described their experience.  Many of those experiences and subsequent names reflect that love, and it was nearly always a surprise.  Isn’t that really how falling in love works?  It’s more than sex appeal.  At some point, we begin to see someone in new ways, with new eyes, with new appreciation.  When we’re open to it, we see beauty all over the place in this person, which takes us deeper into love.  I would submit to you that creation itself – and all people in it – reflect the creative force we call God.  Incredible beauty.  When we sow into what we know is love, we see lovely things come from it, which only motivates more love.  This God-as-Love is bigger than the universe, yet more intimately infused in us than we can ever really appreciate.  God is both far away and as near as can be.

What happens when the three-legged-stool of believing is focused on the source of life itself?  A life that is more and more infused with the same life-giving nature of love that is the generating force of creation itself.  Why is it a whole and lasting life, as Eugene Peterson’s translation suggests?  Because the life is rooted in that which lasts forever, and love, by its very nature, is interested in being whole, not fragmented.  If you want a life that is rich, deep, whole, and ties into the very fabric of the universe (which means it makes a positive difference for all of creation), Jesus is telling us to follow in his footsteps that bring all three legs of belief into motion.  It is not always aligned with the surrounding culture, but it is good and works for everyone.

If you read the full text of John 3, you will come across some very negative language, and the use of words like condemnation, judgment, and wrath.  It’s not as ugly as it sounds.  First, realize that the eternal life promised in John 3:16 has nothing to do with afterlife – it’s all referring to life lived on planet earth.  Same with the negative stuff.  If we’re not sowing into life and love, then we’re not going to reap the fruit of life and love.  Instead of harmony and wholeness, we’re stuck with discord and fragmentation.  No need for God to meddle – this is just common sense.

A final note about light and darkness.  As noted, Jesus’ most succinct statement of what faith is supposed to be about is wrapped up in John 3:16-17.  It’s predicated on understanding God as agape writ as large as the cosmos itself.  But we are lizard brained creatures, and we easily resort to more fear-based faith where God is a judge waiting to bring down the hammer on all the evildoers.  Both messages exist in the entire Bible because the authors of all the books of the Bible are human beings who struggle with the tension.  Nicodemus was in the dark in part because he was rooted in that fear-based faith.  Are we?  Is our motivation to be faithful based on the fear of God’s retribution if we fail?  Or is our motivation for faith based on our increasing love and appreciation for the countless expressions of God and love and life that call us to engage it all in loving, life-giving ways?  The former cowers in shadow.  The latter dances in the light.  Which one are you choosing?  Which one is stretching you?

Atomic: More

There is so much more to the story of Jesus turning water into wine than a really cool – and apropos – party trick.  The writer of the Gospel of John, of course, using different source material for his remembrance of Jesus, is the only one with this story and, since he writes with greater theological depth using symbolism throughout, we must take time to notice.  Not to do so would be akin to walking as fast as possible through the Louvre in an effort to see it all.  In the end, you may have seen everything, and yet you didn’t really see much of anything.  This Gospel is a masterpiece.  Rush if you wish, but know that if you do, you are only opting for the most obvious and basic gift it offers, and are missing the heart of the book and in fact, the reason for its writing.

There is so much more to this story than meets the eye in a casual reading of John’s second chapter.  The context of a wedding that brings to memory and imagination not just this moment, but THE moment to come at the consummation of history when the great marriage finally takes place between the Creator and the Created.  The entrance of Jesus just when the wine was running out, when joy was running out, just in time – at the right time – to help and send a message to all about the hopeful presence of God.  Mom/Mary who brought the shortcoming to consciousness, and then instructed the servants to be faithful to Jesus’ instructions.  Faithful servants who found themselves in the miracle – not just bystanders.  A head waiter who probably needed to tell the bridegroom that Jesus’ label was finer than the Charles Shaw that ran out.  An unknown number of guests who were responsible for the wine running out who were now enjoying great wine unawares of its origin.  This was all part of the first sign.  A sign that communicated great hope when it seemed to be running out – more than more-than-enough.  Inherent statements not just about the focal point, Jesus’ connection to the Spirit of God, but about how we engage and interface with the Spirit working in our midst.  It seems experiencing “more” is an option.  We can get in on it or we can just stand around and suck (wine).  But wait, there’s more…

John’s Gospel then brings a strange twist: Jesus going nuts in the Temple, overturning tables and causing a great mess.  John is the only Gospel that puts the story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of the end.  Most contemporary scholars agree that John probably was off on the timeline, but did so purposefully to provide a allusion to what was to come: conflict with the Temple’s leadership.  Spoiler: Jesus ends up getting killed thanks to the Temple leadership’s scheming.

Why include this story here, so closely tied with the wonderful, joyful wedding at Cana?  It’s because Jesus wasn’t just about keeping the good times going at a wedding – he came to get the good times going for all.  Jesus was an underdog.  Jesus was a champion of the underdog – the poor, the foreigner, the outcast, the judged, the widows, the children – all of whom were in their own way at risk.  When Jesus cleared the Temple, he was sweeping away a filthy expression of human greed in the most inappropriate space.  The Temple was supposed to be a space where people could feel connected to God.  It had become a “den of robbers” where the poorest of the poor were taken advantage of to line the pockets of those in power.  Jesus’ ministry was much more than a feel-good campaign with free food and great wine.  His ministry was deeply political and provocative all for the sake of calling out injustice and standing up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves.  Jesus’ mission wasn’t simply about getting people to heaven, it was much more than that – it was about helping as many people on earth experience as much heaven here and now as possible.  An experience of equality and equity, of being loved and respected, of being given dignity.  This is an intractable part of what Jesus was about. To not see this and not accept it as part of the package Jesus came to offer is like entering a marriage only for the purpose of procreation.  Sex.  It’s like saying to Jesus, “I’m a yes so long as we’re only talking about sex (and on my terms) – I’m not really interested in anything beyond that.”  I’m afraid the popular cultural understanding of what it means to be a person of faith – to be a Christian – is like this, where we essentially want God for our enjoyment alone, with little regard for relationship or wanting to be involved with what God wants. Just give me some more wine, please, and please stop saying things that upset the status quo. We know we’re not guilty of such spiritual hedonism when we join God in God’s work in the world out of love for God and the world.

I hope you see that Jesus is so much more, and invites you into so much more.  The Good News is that God is with us now and forever, bringing joyous hope where we thought it was running out, and inviting us to get in on the action so that we can experience it all more fully.  Bringing that hope means bringing it to those who don’t have so much hope, which draws attention to such a reality, which also draws attention to the system which allows and perpetuates the disparity to continue.  Sometimes that means flipping some tables.  Yet that’s where Jesus is, because that’s where the Spirit of God is, because God’s heart is for everyone, and when the deck is stacked against some, God moves in their direction.

Some of you have opted for more already.  You’ve chosen to be like the servants who filled the water jars and took the new wine to the emcee.  Some of you are like the emcee, who let people know what they were tasting because they might not otherwise.  Or you are like Mary who encouraged faithfulness on the part of others.  Maybe you’re even like Jesus, being used of the Spirit to bring hope and joy and equality and equity where it was needed.  Or maybe you’re just standing around sucking.  I hope you always choose more.