FINDING RELEVANCE IN TODAY’S SET TEXT?
Some parts of the Bible are a real challenge for those seeking guidance for current real life challenges. Sometimes it is pure happenstance that a particular set reading coincides with a current issue. And let’s face it, John’s lectionary story set for today has Jesus, prior to his crucifixion, talking about impending everlasting glory, which seems curiously inappropriate to inspire his followers facing today’s current world situation.
The unfolding disaster centers on the Coronavirus pandemic which creates threats of economic disaster, and, in what we sincerely hope would just be the worst hit areas, finds unexpectedly piled up bodies in the morgues and freezer trucks not to mention exposing long hidden failures of our Christian communities to ensure the fair distribution of the means of protection for the vulnerable.
I guess at least some of us have come today reflecting on those news bulletins over the last month where we have been watching some leading economies of the world (including that of the US) begin to totter. Further, some have gradually realized poorer nations are in a more precarious situation. And yes, we too in New Zealand are part of the world’s supply chains and may also be more vulnerable to that of those who live in richer and more powerful nations. Certainly some of the weaker nations now face total disaster. Consider for example the unfolding devastation about to be wrought in the world’s refugee camps, which can only be serious in the extreme.
In summary, at least at first encounter, today’s set passage doesn’t match today’s main issues.
Perhaps Jesus here is intending, not so much to come across as awfully other worldly and disconnected from real life problems, but rather showing that, even when faced with disaster (which for him included crucifixion), that there might be something more important. Yet before we get to thinking about the implications of his words we need a quick reality check.
A number of scholars I follow, suggest that here, John, or at least the author responsible, is almost certainly using a standard Jewish ploy of putting last (or almost last) words in a respected leader’s mouth in such a way as to pick up main themes in his (or her) life. I find it quite reasonable to suspect at times the New Testament writers, writing years after the events, were in part, creatively imagining the words Jesus might have spoken, and the sort of issues he would have needed to address. This offers a form of life perspective.
I know this would worry some who have been brought up with a literalist acceptance of the Gospel yet there are three inescapable difficulties in insisting John simply reports accurately on what it is known that Jesus said.
Firstly when the text of John is examined, when it comes to the words of Jesus there are disagreements between the Gospel writers as to what was said in the same settings, (this includes last words spoken on the cross) and in noting difference in the order and sequence of events including a basic disagreement as to whether it was a one or three year ministry.
Secondly the changes in style of Greek within the Gospel of John suggest evidence that some parts were added later (perhaps different authors or editors?).
Thirdly these words were supposedly recounted by John “the beloved disciple”. Since the majority of commentators put the date of writing at more than fifty years after Jesus was off the scene, it is a tall ask to expect, even a disciple, to have a total recall of words spoken so long ago.
Regardless of the previously mentioned reservations we should at least acknowledge this passage contains some sections that are most helpful as reminders to anyone prepared to follow the teaching of Christ in a modern setting.
Look for example at verse seven. “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you”. It should be clear that anyone following the Gospel accounts would be aware that what Christ was recorded as teaching was consistent with his actions. He taught compassion, servanthood and forgiveness and demonstrated that these were practical possibilities. They also happen to be badly needed attributes for those of us intending to deal with today’s concerns.
Now we get to the key phrase that I find resonates with my impression of Christ is when he reminds current or aspiring disciples: 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Here John’s gospel is definitely not claiming that Jesus is in a position to do our work on our behalf. Our required actions are something to be lived by us because we are still in the world.
Think about it. Jesus is no longer in the world yet we as his aspiring followers are in the world. In other words, an unexpected virus, a break-down in trust between nations, the act of unexpected terrorism, whatever the injustice or potential disaster threatening, nothing should be passed off as something that Jesus will sort for us on our behalf.
Following through John’s version of the words of inspiration we are reminded that Jesus came bringing the gift and challenge of life in relationship. Because John consistently used the metaphor of God being love, we find ourselves recalling the challenge to relationship with our neighbours, and even with the concept of love itself representing our God.
Just as Jesus challenged those he met into this form of duality of relationship, the implicit message is that disciple-hood means carrying the same attitudes, and the same challenges to those we meet.
Here we need to be very honest. While there is plenty of evidence that new converts are often prepared to throw themselves into the challenge of following Jesus example, his injunction to be one hasn’t worked out too well in practice. Forget for a moment our failure to accept refugees of different faith. We can talk blithely of the Ecumenical movement and of being one in Christ, but try to get mainstream Churches to accept one another’s communion, styles of worship or even the other’s ordination and it seems well nigh impossible. At low points in Church history Churches have even resorted to violence to try to force others to their particular version of what it means to be following Christ.
And what of individual Church congregations when it comes to being at one? Our local Methodist Synod asks two questions of each congregation at the start of process of matching presbyters with new parishes. Is your parish an inclusive parish? Almost invariably the answer is “yes”. Second question….. would your Parish accept a homosexual presbyter? The answer is often “no”… Perhaps a new meaning of inclusive?
Telling potential followers that they should be one as we are one deserves some inward reflection, particularly when some of our biggest denominations are traditionally reluctant to yield even a little authority. Issues like caring about the problems of food and welfare facing our neighbours, acceptance of women priests, acceptance of homosexual clergy, and caring about disadvantaged groups in our community. If these all happen to divide rather than unite, would this make it something of a nonsense of claiming to be extending love to one’s neighbour.
Perhaps reflection about how far the various branches of the Church have strayed from this part of the gospel during dark periods of Church history should send us back to this part of the gospel teaching with new understanding for its significance.
History teaches that as the early Church came into being, strong rivalries between different interpretations about what Jesus means, and which theologians to accept were common. Paul refers in several places between rifts between the rival groups and the date of John’s gospel places the writing in the very midst of these emerging struggles. It is easy to see that as the writer was recording that particular section of today’s passage that he was trying to bring his hearers back to the essence of Christ’s teaching. It is unfortunate that then – as now – there was no real understanding that the call to relationship actually matters, and its neglect risks making a nonsense of that which Christianity sets out to be.
Given that many of the troubles in a political sense occur because communities throughout the world focus on real or at times even imagined difference, if the Church has anything at all to offer, if it turns down the unity option, at the very least it must be able to model how such differences can be recognized without endangering acceptance of the other.
We lose the right to offer assistance in matters of dispute if the ill-feeling between different groups merely mirrors our own inability to accept others, or for that matter when our ability to be peacemakers is hindered by our own vested interests.
The readiness of the super-powers to impose their will on vulnerable poor nations is a regular challenge self-claims Christian nation’s UN representatives. If we want to be counted among those who follow Biblical principles of compassion it is ourselves not the one to whom we pray to solve the injustices.
Perhaps we should be bringing the lack of oneness even closer to home. Officially we welcome newcomers to this country. So how come new immigrants who struggle with the language are often left isolated and cut off from social contact in our neighbourhoods.
We may be uneasy about putting politics so overtly into a Bible reflection, yet surely the whole point of following Christ is that it should speak to real lives, political realities and actual relationships.
Let me quote you something from Bill Loader’s commentary on today’s passage. “Unity is not a strategy of convenience and economy here nor just a strategy for marketing …….It is not a cleverly ambiguous ecumenical declaration which papers over differences. It is rather an extension of John’s understanding of what eternal life (or salvation) means. It is not about a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal so much as about a relationship”.
If, as Jesus is reported saying, that we should be one, and when we look at how we are doing and find we are not one, I would assume that what we do from that point is up to us.
We come Sunday by Sunday to affirm that we follow Jesus and his teaching. We presumably see ourselves as offering compassion and assume our willingness to be one with one another is measured in part by the way we treat fellow followers of the faith. But our treatment of political and religious neighbours also matters. If Jesus’ injunction for oneness is a legitimate and important part of his teaching, and if honest self evaluation concludes at least in part, it is not being followed, perhaps we need to treat this as a challenge.
Those hearing or reading these words may be able to suggest what the next step(s) should be.