Friday, February 28, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 14)

Amazingly, the author of this Gospel presents the people as having already forgotten about the bread that was in fact provided, though it has just been referenced by Jesus.  Interestingly enough, if one was to examine Jesus’ statement closely, which was “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted” (John 6:26), there might be an inclination to think that Jesus draws a distinction between the performance of miraculous signs and the provision of bread.  However, taking that step might be drawing the distinction a bit too sharply.  Surely the multiplication of the loaves must be taken as a miraculous sign---as much as was the provision of manna in the wilderness. 

So it seems as if Jesus is indicating that it was not the miraculous sign of the bread being multiplied that has caused the people to continue to come to Him, but rather the filling of their bellies.  This appears to function as a reflection upon Israel in the wilderness, in that even though daily bread was miraculously provided to the people of the covenant God, the story of their time in the wilderness is underlined by a startling lack of belief in their God’s ability to fulfill His promises. 

Even though the people were faithful to go out to gather the manna each and every day (excluding the Sabbath), they did not follow through on the deeds that their God required, which was a faithful belief in His ability to perform on behalf of His people, according to His covenant promises, as He worked out His intention to bring them into the promised land and set them on high as a kingdom of people to represent His glory (making Israel a new Adam in a new garden of Eden, as a microcosm of the Creator God’s intentions for the entirety of His created order). 

It might be the case that Jesus is here making the same type of point, while the author also shows Him reflecting back to the people’s desire to acclaim Him as their king, so that He might take on, overthrow, and drive out the Romans.  If Jesus would have acceded to the people’s demands, such would be yet another instance of Israel not following through on the deeds that their God requires, rather than operating on a faithful belief that their God will enter into history on His own terms and timing, to perform on behalf of His people according to what was understood to be His covenant promises to them.  The taking of actions against the Romans could be akin to the instances of Israel’s wilderness experience in which the people took it upon themselves to act to bring themselves into their God’s purposed kingdom, with these instances never turning out well. 

While all of these things are being considered, while also considering the fact that the author is making a presentation to a community that is hearing this in a single sitting, that is ensconced within a controlled oral tradition, and is well-versed in the history of Israel, it would not at all be a mis-step to consider the provision of bread, prima facie, as an act of love to which disciples of Jesus should aspire.  Even though it was not met with a proper response, or at least with the response that Jesus may have desired, Jesus still met a physical need.  He did so, as far as this Gospel is concerned, as an action of the incarnate God of Israel.  As a loving and compassionate God revealed Himself to His people on a continual basis through the provision of manna, and did so for His people in spite of what are reported to be consistent failings, so Jesus acted out of love and compassion to reveal His God in much the same way.      

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 13)

When it comes to the question of love on display, the fifteenth verse of John’s sixth chapter informs the reader that “Jesus, because He knew they were going to come and seize Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone” (6:15).  How does this show love?  There is a marked and remarkable self-restraint on the part of this man Jesus, as He refuses to succumb to the people’s desire to make Him king; and perhaps even the temptation to receive the acclimation must at least partially stem from the fact that an acclimation of Him as king is going to come with a declaration of war against Rome. 

Of course, the author writes from a position of the knowledge of what happened when the Jews rebelled against Rome a few decades preceding the time of the written composition of this work (though it is a possibility that the oral tradition that eventually took this written form preceded the written work by a number of years), whereas Jesus is presented as having an implicit knowledge of what will happen if He allows Himself and His people to travel the path that will follow from their desire to make Him king.  Not only will destruction come to Israel, but the plans for the kingdom of the Creator God, and how it is to be brought about, will be nullified.  Here, through this withdrawal, Jesus preserves His disciples, these people, and His nation, in a way that does not derail the purposes of the kingdom that He believes begins and is to be found in unity with Him.  So indeed, this could be looked upon as an example of love to be worked out, understood, and manifested by the community of those that claim allegiance to Jesus.   

The use of “miraculous signs” in the second verse of the sixth chapter of John has been mentioned, as it is this instance that took this study down this particular path.  The sixth chapter contains another usage of the phrase, and it occurs following the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  There, when pressed as to how it is that He had been able to make it to the place at which He was now encountered, Jesus says “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for Me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted” (6:26).  To that He adds, “Do not work for the food that disappears, but for the food that remains to eternal life” (6:27a).  Here, as in the third chapter and the conversation with Nicodemus that stemmed directly from His actions in the Temple as they were recorded in the second chapter, the witness of miraculous signs is tied to “eternal life,” which the hearers of this story know is linked to the need for belief in Jesus as the harbinger of the kingdom of Israel’s God. 

The notion that Jesus’ miraculous signs, especially as they relate to the provision of bread, are connected to the kingdom of God, is given further concretion by the people’s response, which is “What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires?” (6:28b)  This, of course, comes as Jesus expresses the love of His God, and as there is a desire on the part of the hearer or reader to know what it means to express love to and for one another in aspiration towards discipleship, as this is what Jesus is said to desire from His people.  Relating to the belief in Jesus in connection to the presence of the kingdom of the Creator, Jesus simply offers “This is the deed God requires---to believe in the one whom He sent” (6:29). 

Here, Jesus insists that belief must take on the form of a loyal allegiance to the Creator God and to His purposes to lead His people in an exodus (eternal life---the life of the age to come invading the present) and to bring them into that which He has promised to them, as the statement makes a push towards the previously mentioned reference to Moses.  This push towards Moses culminates with the response to Jesus’ statement about the deeds required by God, which is “Then what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you?  What will you do?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (6:30-31) 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 12)

To this point, the observation of “miraculous signs” has been limited to the plural.  However, its usage in the singular must not be overlooked.  It cannot be said that the singular phrase is limited to the Gospel of John alone, as a singular use is also to be found in Luke’s Gospel.  However, as it is a single instance, it does not appear to play a role in the overall structure and movement of Luke, but this most certainly cannot be said of its role in the Gospel of John. 

Adding the uses of the singular “miraculous sign” to that of the plural, one finds an additional five instances of its role in the Gospel, thus bringing the total number of “miraculous sign” language to fourteen instances.  Clearly, it is a key component of what is being communicated by this author.  This makes sense, especially when reflecting on the fact that the pre-supposition of this Gospel is a very high Christology, operating on the premise that Jesus is the incarnation of Israel’s covenant God.  The hearers then, especially with this presupposition at play in their own community, are not going to be surprised that miraculous signs follow Him. 

“Miraculous sign” makes its first appearance in the fourth chapter, following the healing of the son of a royal official.  This is recorded as “His second miraculous sign when He returned from Judea to Galilee” (4:54).  It makes two of its five appearances in the sixth chapter, which is heavy with “sign” language.  All told, between the singular and the plural, the listener and the reader encounter this language four times in this chapter.  Considering the fact that the chapter contains the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus making His walk on the water, and His discourse related to bread (which ultimately springs from the feeding), this is unsurprising.  Does love play a role in any of this?  In this chapter that is filled with miraculous signs, and references to the same, is it possible to make any additions to an understanding of what “love” means on John’s terms?  As is almost always the case, the qualifying answer is “perhaps.” 

In the fourteenth verse the author writes “Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, ‘This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”  This is an allusion to a statement from the book of Deuteronomy---a key component of the Hebrew Scriptures that weighed heavily on Jewish self-understanding in the second Temple period.  In the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, as Moses continues to address Israel, he can be heard saying that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you---from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him” (18:15). 

Because Moses, of course, was understood as the man that the Creator God had raised up to lead Israel out from under Egyptian oppression, these words, as reported by John, must be seen and heard in that light and context.  The people were affirming Jesus as the new Moses.  Therefore, He must also be the one that is going to lead them out from under Roman oppression and occupation.  For the crowds, this Moses-like leadership is confirmed by the fact that Jesus has miraculously provided bread to a multitude of people there on the mountainside, just as Moses (though it was Israel’s God at work---one can say the same for Jesus from the perspective on offer by John) miraculously provided bread to the nation of Israel in the wilderness following their exodus.

This is not simply conjecture, because it is rather obvious that this is the way these things are meant to be understood.  To this point, later on in the sixth chapter Jesus is heard to say “I tell you the solemn truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but My Father is giving you true bread from heaven” (6:32).  This explicit mention of Moses (in the wake of the implicit mention of Moses in the fourteenth verse) in the midst of a section of the Gospel full of references to miraculous signs, calls attention to the single use of the plural “miraculous signs” that is to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  That use is in the one hundred fifth Psalm.  There, within a context of the Psalmist speaking about Moses and Aaron and the display of divine power that precipitated the Creator God’s delivery of Israel from Egypt, the Psalmist writes “they executed His miraculous signs among them” (105:27a).  Thus, one can surmise that John’s “miraculous sign” structure, especially here in the sixth chapter, plays on the exile and exodus motif (perishing and eternal life) that was established in the third chapter during the conversation with Nicodemus. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 11)

It is then appropriate to take a look at the uses of “miraculous signs.”  In the second chapter of John, this term is used in conjunction with the changing of the water into wine, as the author writes that “Jesus did this as the first of His miraculous signs” (2:11a).  This was said to have been a way in which “He revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11b).  Consequently then, the presentation of the signs are often linked to the issue of belief. 

In the twenty-third verse of the same chapter, the author reports that “while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in His name because they saw the miraculous signs He was doing.”  Interestingly, this mention of miraculous signs is not specifically connected to any particular account of the performance of miraculous signs.  It is simply an assertion on the part of the author that seems to rely on the knowledge of the miraculous as part of the Jesus tradition in the community for which this Gospel was composed. 

At this point in the record offered by the author of John, all that Jesus is said to have done in Jerusalem was the driving out of those changing money and selling animals (2:15), along with making a statement about the Temple being His Father’s house (2:16).  These would hardly be defined as “miraculous signs” in any respect.  In response to His activity in the Temple, unsurprisingly, Jesus is questioned by the Jewish leaders, with a demand to know why, and under what authority, He had done what He had done.  In fact, as it relates to the purposes of this study at this point, it is even asked of him “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” (2:18b)  Here, the use of “miraculous” is not offered.  Jesus is said to have responded to the query with the highly subversive and quite obviously proleptic “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (2:19), but there is certainly nothing in this story that approaches the level of “miraculous sign”. 

From there, John immediately moves to the story of an encounter between Jesus and a Jewish leader named Nicodemus.  With no chapter breaks in the original composition, and with it most likely designed to be delivered as an oral performance at a single setting, the listener is taken directly from Jesus speaking to a group of Jewish leaders, to Jesus speaking with one Jewish leader.  Presumably then, it is reasonable to understand Nicodemus as coming to Jesus as a direct result of what took place in the Temple.  It is probable then, for the purpose of this Gospel and its author, that the listener is supposed to presume that Nicodemus was himself present at the event in the Temple and heard what Jesus said. 

In his opening statement to Jesus, Nicodemus says “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with Him” (3:2b).  Once again, this talk of “miraculous signs” presumes a shared knowledge within the Johannine community, for there is nothing in the Jerusalem-situated narrative, to that point, that could truly be labeled as such. 

Jesus’ response to Nicodemus contains the first reported use, in the Gospel of John, of the all-important phrase “kingdom of God.”  Jesus said to Him, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3).  This will go on to tie in quite well with Jesus’ talk, within the same conversation, of perishing and eternal life (which, as has already been established, is linked to conceptions of exile and exodus, both of which speak to the nature of the rule of the Creator God over His people, and through them, the whole of creation), and of the salvation and redemption of the world that is part of the Creator’s design and purpose for the Christ.  Naturally, Jesus then goes on to speak about the need for belief (3:12,16,18), thus relating Nicodemus’ use of “miraculous signs” with belief. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 10)

Not only does Mary become the first to see Jesus, but she speaks with Him and is instructed to “Go to My brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’” (John 20:17b)  So “Mary Magdalene came and informed the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’  And she told them what Jesus had said to her” (20:18).  Interestingly and in an ironic contrast, there seems to be an indication that Jesus’ own disciples did not necessarily believe Mary’s report, whereas the Samaritans believed the report of the woman that came to her (naturally, one supposes it’s easier to believe things being said about a live man at a well, regardless of the source, than things being said about a man that one is certain was crucified and placed in a tomb) . 

This report of Mary’s message and the natural, incredulous response to such a message, also gives witness to the nature of the spread of the Gospel and of the church in the days of the composition of this Gospel narrative.  Taken together, these two instances of women evangelists provide a context that provides a better understanding of what “love” means for this author, for his community, and for the church. 

The events of the sixth chapter of the Gospel continue to add to the insights on love that have been gained through this approach to John.  This is where the Johannine account of the “feeding of the five thousand” is encountered.  Just before the author delves specifically into the account of the feeding, the reason for the large numbers of people that are following Jesus is given.  Verse two reports that “A large crowd was following Him because they were observing the miraculous signs He was performing on the sick” (6:2).  Surely this presentation of Jesus as being overtly concerned with the sick is a component of the defining of the way that the love of Jesus is to be on display by, for, and through His disciples.  At the same time, this use of “miraculous signs” is something in which an observer can take interest. 

As one considers that the Gospel writer has a structure in mind, and that, rather than throwing together stories and sayings haphazardly, that structure can be recognized as being carried out across the whole of the Gospel (think about the comparison between the story of the Samaritan woman and that of Mary Magdalene).  Thinking along those lines, this use of the term “miraculous signs” becomes something of a “trigger phrase.”  When it comes to the Gospel accounts, the phrase is unique to John, and it is encountered on nine occasions. 

Taken together with the preponderance of the use of “love” in the Johannine corpus, the repeated use of “miraculous signs” becomes significant, though going so far as to make a direct correlation that says that the miraculous signs are the evidences of “love” would be unwarranted.  Though it would be difficult to disconnect the miraculous signs from the conception of the love of the Creator God that was presumed to have been on display and outworked through His Christ, one cannot help but think that the “signs” are somehow closely related to the way that “love” is to be understood, and how it is to be expressed by those seeking to truly understand what it means to be disciples of Jesus. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 9)

What follows from Jesus’ declaration of His status as Messiah?  The woman returns to her town, saying “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Surely He can’t be the Messiah, can He?” (John 4:29).  In response to this, the author reports that “they left the town and began coming to Him” (4:30).  Effectively then, this woman becomes the first evangelist.  One should not underestimate how odd it would have been for John’s hearers to learn that “many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the report of the woman who testified” (4:39a), especially if considering that, in that time, a woman’s testimony was considered to be worthless. 

Additionally, one also cannot underestimate how significant it is that a group of Samaritans, at the instigation of a woman with what would have been a rather disreputable standing in the community (on top of the fact that she would have been considered to be a lowly woman, who would obviously have been paired with a man lacking honor standing in the community as well, as a man with any honor standing whatsoever would not have taken such a woman as his wife, thus magnifying this woman’s place near the bottom of the social spectrum) are apparently the first to believe in Jesus as Messiah en masse. 

This bit of information tells the audience something about the Johannine community, and does so on multiple levels.  On one level, it points to the early sensitivity towards the issue of Gentile inclusion in the church (the covenant people), effectively answering those that may have wanted to reserve the message of the Gospel to Jews alone.  On another level, the massive reversal on display through the story of this woman indicates that there may have been those who believed that women were not to have a prominent role within the church.  This serves to silence those that gave voice to such unwarranted opinions.  On a third level, it informs an observer that women were most likely already in prominent roles---including non-Jewish women, with the story serving to underscore the legitimacy of their honored status withing Jesus communities---a novelty introduced into the world through the personal and ongoing work of the Christ. 

Now, one may think that this may be reading too much into a single instance, but this fits quite well with what is to be found at the end of this Gospel, when Mary Magdalene is said to have gone to Jesus’ tomb.  She “saw that the stone had been moved away from the entrance” (20:1b), and “went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved” (20:2a), who was the un-named (but not anonymous) author of this Gospel, with a report that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb.  With this, a woman becomes the first witness to an empty tomb---effectively beginning the life of the church that has continued to proclaim an empty tomb since that moment.  Mary joins the Samaritan woman as representatives of what would be said of those who believed in Jesus as Lord of all (the Gospel), demonstrating the world being turned upside down.   

Continuing at the tomb then, after Peter and the other disciple left, “Mary stood outside the tomb weeping” (20:11a).  She went inside the tomb, is reported to have had a conversation with “two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying” (20:12b) (which is something of an echo of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman), and then is said to “have turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus” (20:14b).  So it is a woman who becomes the very first person to see the resurrected Jesus.  This parallels the fact that, according to this same Gospel’s witness, that a woman (and a despised Samaritan woman at that) was the first person to hear an explicit declaration from Jesus that He was, in fact, the Messiah, while subsequently becoming the first successful evangelist. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 8)

Returning to the well in Samaria and to the unusual event there recorded, Jesus can be heard speaking to the aforementioned Samaritan woman and saying “Give me some water to drink” (John 4:7b).  The startling impact that this would have had upon the Samaritan woman should not be underestimated.  It is likely that she would have been completely taken aback by the fact of this Jewish man speaking to her. 

Unless an audience was familiar with the story of Jesus, and presumably John is initially composed and performed for a community or communities that were familiar with the Jesus story, this could be a bit surprising to a listener, especially if the one hearing or ready the story was from one of the Jewish communities of the diaspora.  Of course, the author provides a clue that this Gospel is composed for a mixed audience, as the author is compelled to include the fact that “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans” (4:9c), which comes on the heels of this woman, startled by the very fact of speaking and the request that it contained, says “How can you---a Jew---ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water to drink” (4:9b).      

Jesus, undeterred by the violation of cultural norms which are also put on display with the report of His disciples’ return and the fact that they were “shocked because He was speaking with a woman” (4:27b), engages in a rather in depth conversation with the Samaritan woman.  Not only is he speaking with a woman, and not only is He speaking with a Samaritan woman, but He is effectively engaging in a conversation that takes the shape of a rabbinic debate---which has great significance in and of itself, as a rabbinic debate would only take place among and between social equals (perhaps not equal in level of honor, but equal in that both sides were able to engage in the social honor competition, which was inaccessible for women in that day).  Of course, things like this simply do not happen.  In that day, women were not considered at all worthy to be involved in such things (honor competition or rabbinic debate), but here, Jesus elevates this woman to the status of social equal. 

The encounter begins with a request for water, and then moves to a conclusion in which Jesus utters words that would appear to be confirmation of His messianic status, with this following what should be recognized as a fascinating give and take.  Most often, the focus of the story becomes the content of the conversation---the questions of the woman, the responses from Jesus, her responses to His words, and the woman’s present marital status.  These are legitimate things on which to focus, but they can also create a situation in which one misses seeing the forest because of the time spent looking at all of the trees.   

With the conversation and its content, not only is Jesus doing cross-cultural ministry, but it must be reiterated that Jesus is elevating this woman.  In this conversation, which is reported by the author of John for in obvious accord with his narrative and wider purpose, Jesus flattens out the social dynamics.  This should prompt a reflection on the developed and developing theological tradition within the church that operated on the basis that there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  Is this not love at work?  Is this not an advance illustration, at least as far as the presentation of the narrative is concerned, of the power of the Gospel. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 7)

The second chapter of John begins with the story of Jesus and His disciples attending a wedding feast in Cana.  John’s report of Jesus’ actions at this wedding feast continue to aid in defining love on John’s terms.  There is not the space here to go into great detail (see the study entitled “Water Into Wine”), but when Jesus turns the water into wine, thus providing the best wine to those who are going to be served towards the end of the feast, He is making it possible for those at the lower end of the societal spectrum (less honorable) to enjoy something better than those at the higher end of society (the more honorable).  With his actions there, He provides an illustration of the last becoming first while the first become last, and in so doing teaches His disciples about preferring others, while also demonstrating what it will look like when the kingdom of the Creator God is present among them. 

In the fourth chapter of John, one encounters the story of Jesus and His conversation with a Samaritan woman.  This was taken to be a highly unusual event.  It is written that Jesus, while passing through Samaria, which was a customary practice of a Jew, “was tired from the journey” (4:6b), so He sat down next to a well.  The author reports that this well was known as “Jacob’s well” 4:6a), and that it was “near the plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (4:5b).  Because these are not haphazard presentations, but calculated theological treatises, mention of a well, along with mentions of Jacob and Joseph, are clearly designed to cause the listener or the reader to reflect upon the patriarchs of Israel (and indeed Israel’s self-defining historical narrative).  It is unsurprising to find this to be the case, as there has already been a reflection back to Jacob at the close of the first chapter (“heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”).

This talk of Jacob’s well is John’s Gospel is significant.  Without going into an exhaustive recounting of all of the instances in which they are to be found, let it be said that wells are a rather prominent feature of the Genesis narrative.  Wells are found in association with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Of course, the words that open this Gospel account, “In the beginning” (1:1a), indicate that the author intends the Genesis narrative to lie consistently in the background as the story unfolds.  Beyond Genesis, wells are mentioned in connection with men such as David and Samson, among others, so it only seems natural that the story of Jesus would also include a story about a well. 

In addition to such thoughts, a cursory glance at the narrative itself demonstrates that the treatise of John is deeply rooted in the history of Israel---giving it a historical depth, which is a consideration that should weigh on the mind of the audience that, in the end, the author indeed intends to convey a message about a man that actually lived, actually died, actually rose again, and is still, by the presence of His Spirit, alive, well, and an abiding force within and for this world. 

This historical rooting is amplified when taking note of the fact that questions about John the Baptist are couched within concerns related to the prophet Elijah.  Along with that, Israel’s history is called upon in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in the third chapter, as Jesus mentions Moses and alludes to Israel’s time in the wilderness following the exodus (which plays right into the exile and exodus theme that is found in John 3:16’s statement that contrasts perishing and eternal life).  So even though John offers up a very different type of historical narrative than that to which the modern reader may be accustomed, it is worth noting that the narrative is not to be looked upon as being ahistorical.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 6)

Why mention the Temple here and in connection with John’s conception of love?  It has to be mentioned because the presence of the Creator God among His covenant people, with Jesus understood to be serving as the Temple (especially in the light of the fact that at the time of these writings the Temple of Jerusalem no longer existed), signaled the end of exile.  The Creator God’s presence meant that exodus was at hand and that the new age of His rule on earth had begun. 

The Creator God’s personal presence in the Temple was the sign that Israel was free from its oppressors.  A new and glorious Temple (“the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth---John 1:14b) would cause a hearer or reader to hearken back to the construction of the first Temple, under the reign of Solomon, when Israel’s glory was believed to have reached its full height and extent, and all nations came streaming to Israel and to Solomon, paying homage and tribute.  This could be understood to be a component of the Isaianic vision of the messianic banquet (shared by Luke and seemingly embraced by Jesus Himself), which itself was a marker of the Creator God’s love for the whole of His creation. 

This could also call attention to what is to be found in Ezra and the story of the establishment of the second Temple, in that those that had seen the glory of the first Temple wept.  If this situation of glory in relation to the Temple was again in effect (and the language suggests such thoughts), then the messianic age---the kingdom age---had dawned in and with Jesus.  Consequently, the remainder of the narrative, including the notion of the love modeled by Jesus, which was to be meted out to and in and for the world by Jesus’ disciples, must be heard as echoes of that fact.  Jesus’ words and actions can then be understood within that context, as they serve to reveal the love of the Creator God while providing the model for love for one another that will be what marks out the fact of the presence of the kingdom of the Creator God on earth that was inaugurated commensurate with all that was included in the life and mission of the One understood as the incarnated Word. 

In light of all of this, it will be the concrete activities of Jesus, as reported within John, that identify what is to be the lived-out love of the Christian community.  Therefore, the first instance of Jesus’ activity, apart from Him coming to be baptized at the hands of His forerunner, is the call to follow Him.  Surely, the greatest example of love to be expressed between the Christ’s disciples is the ongoing encouragement to follow Jesus and submit to Him as the Lord of all.  Of course, the idea of what it means to follow Jesus (and therefore love in the way that He loves---which is the way that God loves) must be rounded out and given its full orb through the procession of the presentation of His life, which is precisely the path of John’s narrative. 

Jesus first calls men to follow Him in the very the first chapter of John, as He answers a question posed to Him by two of John the Baptist’s disciples in regards to where He was lodging with a simple “Come and you will see” (1:39a).  In the forty-third verse, Jesus speaks to Philip and says “Follow me.”  These disciples will go on to learn about what it will mean to follow Him, as He reveals to them the kingdom of His God through His own proximate functioning as the Temple, which will also be the experience of those that hear or read this Gospel record.  To that end, the first chapter of John closes with Him telling these newly minted disciples: “I tell all of you the solemn truth---you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (1:51). 

These words, with the use of “Son of Man” language, are likely designed to evidence messianic and therefore kingdom of Creator God sensibilities while building on the Temple language previously used, while also causing the informed hearer to think of Genesis and “Jacob’s ladder.”  In that story, following the vision of his dream in which angels were going up and down on the ladder or stairway (depending on the translation), Jacob exclaimed, among other things, that “This is nothing else than the house of God” (28:17b), thus prompting him to name the place “Bethel” (house of God).  By using these words, the author makes clear the fact that Jesus is presenting Himself as the Temple (Bethel – the house of God), thus defining Himself to these would-be disciples as the locus of the Creator God’s activity and as the ordering principle of the life of the covenant people.  All of this serves to prepare for seeing Jesus as the Creator God in the flesh, and by extension, the outworking of the love of the Creator God that is to be the model for living life in the way of Jesus.        

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 5)

At the same time, though having detailed the usage of “love” words, it is not necessarily the case that one can only grasp the Johannine community’s conception of love in conjunction with the use of those words.  That is to say, it is not necessary to limit an exploration of what love of one another will look like (again, on John’s terms) to those places in the Johannine texts that use related words.  The point was providing a simple chronicle of the growing use of “love” as a Scriptural and doctrinal motif, to illustrate the ascendancy of the notion of love for one another, now understood to be based on the Creator God’s love for the world (for both His image-bearers and His creation) within the context of His redemptive purposes, as something very close to the heart of what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus. 

Having established that the motif of relational love that demonstrates the fact that one is a disciple of Jesus is love functioning in a redemptive manner in relation to the establishment of the kingdom of the Creator God (mimicking Jesus’ love, which is the manifestation of the Creator’s redemptive and reconciliatory love for the world), it is now possible to move through the Johannine writings in a way that will allow for a determination what is truly meant by Jesus’ insistence that His disciples love one another as He has loved them. 

One must remember, when moving forward, that the type of love given voice in the declaration concerning the way that the Creator God loved the world, within this Gospel presentation that explicitly equates Jesus with the Creator God of Israel, will color the way that love is perceived by the recipients of this narrative telling of the life of Jesus.  Beyond that, the Creator God’s love for the world, with its connection to concerns related to exile and exodus (perishing and eternal life) and the fact that an overt presentation of Jesus as the very embodiment of the Creator God implies that Jesus was and indeed is the Messiah of Israel, is indissolubly connected to then prevalent notions about the messianic banquet (as envisioned in Isaiah and the fourteenth chapter of Luke), and of the types of things that will accompany the messianic-banquet-signaled in-breaking of the Creator God’s reign on earth. 

The declaration of the fourteenth verse of the first chapter of John, that “the Word became flesh and took up residence among us,” is not only an unequivocal declaration that Israel’s God was present among humanity and in the world as Jesus, but it is also an unmistakable use of Temple-related language, as the Temple was understood (by Israel and almost all Ancient Near East people) to be the place in which a god was understood to reside.  Because of that claim, an implied conflict with the Temple authorities becomes the explanation for the underlying source of antagonism between Jesus and those that present themselves as His adversaries, as well as the ultimate cause of His death (though the raising of Lazarus will be reported as the proximate cause of His death---though this is understandable, as the raising of Lazarus, historical or not, certainly underscores the claim that Jesus is the place in which the Creator God’s power is present and therefore the true Temple). 

Because the dwelling place of the Creator God was always thought to be the Temple (or the tabernacle prior to the Temple’s construction, or the whole of the creation according to the overt temple language of the Genesis narrative), the author makes it clear that everything that follows in His narrative (written probably a couple of decades after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in association with the Jewish revolt in 70 A.D., though it most certainly draws from traditions in circulation from the days of Jesus on), portrays Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Temple. 

This helps to make contextual sense of John the Baptist’s quite early declaration in the Gospel that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29b), as the removal of sin mentioned in this statement (in connection with the sacrifice of a lamb) that is provided its context by the Day of Atonement (without even getting into John’s own and possibly legitimate claim to the high priesthood), is something that was carried out in connection with the Temple.  When John gives voice to this idea, he is using overt Temple language. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 4)

Now, though it would be both challenging and entertaining, this study will not to explore every use of “love” or one of its derivatives within the Johannine corpus.  To do so would take go far afield of the primary task, which is ascertaining the way in which a disciple of Jesus is to define love, doing so based on the terms on offer in the various John writings and in accordance with Jesus’ command of the thirteenth chapter to “love one another.”  However, it is appropriate to begin with the first use of “love” in the Gospel of John, as it does lay the groundwork for what will follow. 

Following up on the assertion that the Creator God’s faithfulness to His covenant and His creation was foundational for His actions in and through His Christ, it only makes sense that the first use of love, as it forms the premise of the way in which to understand the insisted upon love for one another on John’s own terms, is the well-known sixteenth verse of the third chapter.  As this Gospel is presented orally (it would not be read privately be individuals), the very first mention of this foundational element for the Johannine community falls from the lips of Jesus as the audience hears “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” 

For John then, giving is demonstrated to be foundational for love.  However, it is not giving for the sake of giving, but giving that is purposed in the direction of redemption.  The concept of redemption provides the context for the tension between perishing and eternal life.  The interpretive framework that stands behind the contrast between perishing and eternal life would have been that of exile and exodus.  For a Jew of the first century (and it can be surmised that the author and the audience of John were primarily Jewish, and if not Jewish by descent, well- instructed in the history of the Jewish people, as it is only in being well versed in the story of the Creator God’s covenant and His activities for and through His covenant people, that the message of the Gospel of the Christ is going to make any sense whatsoever, especially in light of the fact that Christianity is simply a messianic Jewish movement centered upon Jesus), unlike the vast majority of overly Greek-influenced Christendom in the early twenty-first century, perishing would not have produced thoughts concerning an eternity in hell. 

The key is the contrast between perishing and eternal life.  Whereas perishing did not produce a connotation of an eternity in a fiery hell, so likewise, “eternal life” would not have conjured up thoughts of going to heaven when one died.  This was not about the post-mortem destination of one’s eternal soul.  Rather, perishing would have been equated to exile (according to Levitical and Deuteronomic curses, as well as the continued oppression of Israel under foreign powers), whereas eternal life would have been equated with exodus into a promised land.  Ultimately, when viewed through the lens of the Resurrection of Jesus, that promised land would have been understood as the Creator God of Israel’s renewed creation (His kingdom come on earth with all things set to right), enjoyed by those that have been resurrected to new life with bodies suited for that glorious age. 

Therefore, it should be understood that the love of God (for John) is to be comprehended in accordance with the coming of the Creator God’s kingdom on earth.  So immediately, based upon the foundation that has already been laid in this study up to this point, there is a sense that the love of one another that will evidence the fact that one is a disciple of Jesus is love that serves as a signal that the kingdom of the Creator God has come and is coming.  This would seem to be reinforced by Jesus’ statement that love between and among His followers would be modeled on His own love for them.  Since John appears to be operating with a very early and very high Christology in which Jesus’ is presented as the Creator God manifest in the flesh from the very outset (John 1:1), the love of Jesus for His disciples can be equated with the Creator God’s own love for the world.  So along those lines, it would not be a stretch to say that love, as desired by Jesus (according to John) must function redemptively.  Going forward, it is this thought that will serves as a guide. 

Love On John's Terms (part 3)

Combined, the remainder of the New Testament letters make mention of “love” in some variation an additional seventy-four times.  This means that, outside of the Johannine texts (this excludes Revelation, which appears to have a different author than the Johannine works), there are one hundred fifty eight words variously translated as “love,” “loved,” or “loving” (133, 22, 3).  Added to the seventy-two instances to be found in the Gospel and Epistles of John, “love” appears in the New Testament texts two hundred thirty times.  Nearly a third of the total number of uses are located in the Johannine texts.  While it should be noted that not all of the uses of “love” are presented in a positive sense, there is little reason to wonder at the reason that the doctrine of love became foundational for the life of the Christian community.

One can observe the development of the doctrine as it take center-stage for the followers of Jesus.  Over time, and as the writings of the New Testament era are generated, love begins to define the life of the community, as Christians attempted to put into practice what they believed was implied by the Resurrection and the inauguration of the Creator God’s kingdom on earth.  Putting aside the letters, the majority of which pre-date the written forms of the Gospels, it is worthwhile to make note of the use of “love” in the earliest Gospel, which was that of Mark.  Mark makes use of “love” only three times.  Matthew and Luke, both of which rely heavily upon the Markan narrative while also drawing on other sources (both oral and written), expand the usage of “love,” with Matthew offering up ten instances of the term, and Luke employing the vocabulary of love on twelve occasions.   

By the time that the Gospel of John is composed (by the “disciple whom Jesus loved”), with the letters bearing the name of “John” most likely being roughly contemporary with the Gospel, it is love that has taken the field as the driving force that underlies the living out of the life of allegiance to the claims of Jesus and the response to His Resurrection and His kingdom.  That is evidenced by the narrative of the life of Jesus, who is recognized from the beginning of the Gospel as the embodiment of the Creator God, that has been constructed by the author of the Gospel of John.  It is reinforced by the sensibilities of the Johannine-related community which are revealed by the Johannine letters. 

It is patently obvious that the controlling ethic of love has taken center-stage for the Christian community to which the John writings are directed (and perhaps for the wider Christian community as well), and this is reflected by the narrative of the global Christian community that has been passed down through the centuries.  It is also possible that the author wanted to push the community in the direction of love, but with the growing presence of “love” in the synoptic Gospels as they are developed, it seems more likely that John’s structure is a response to a direction that has been previously taken.     

At the time of the writing of John, it seems clear that the high Christology of the Creator God in the person of the Christ has been worked out quite fully.  This would be, in no small part, due to the efforts of men such as the Apostle Paul, whose preaching, teaching, and letters had been a major influence in the development of what could be referred to as Christian orthodoxy.  It was the love of the Creator God, demonstrated by His grace and mercy while being firmly rooted in His faithfulness to His covenant and His creation, with all of this happening in and through Jesus, that best explained the whole of the Christ-event (incarnation, ministry, death, Resurrection, ascension).   

Monday, February 17, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 2)

Working backwards then, when coming to the words of Jesus there is an almost automatic presumption that what Jesus means when He commands His disciples to love one another accords neatly with pre-constructed opinions about the nature of love.  However, it behooves the reader to approach these words of Jesus apart from his or her own terms.  These words of Jesus are not to be approached based upon what is believed to be Jesus’ terms (defined self-referentially through subjective ideas concerning love), as outlined by the portraits painted by the authors of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), or by the path laid out by New Testament authors such as Paul, Peter, James, Jude, the author of the letter to the Hebrews, or John the Revelator.  Rather, one must approach these words of Jesus and attempt to understand their full import according to the terms that are presented by the author of this particular Gospel. 

Thus, it is necessary to hear the witness of the Johannine community concerning love, doing so through the Gospel and the Epistles that bear the same name.  Jesus’ words must be heard from within the narrative construct and presentation of Jesus that is offered by this author as He seeks to present a specific picture of Jesus.  Love must be allowed to be defined on John’s terms.  When this is done, the reader is them positioned as a disciple that is ready to adequately respond to Jesus’ command to love one another and so be identified as a member of the people who have thrown their lot in with Him.   

If one is going to attempt to come to grips with the concept of Christian love, then the New Testament’s Johannine compilation is a reasonable place to turn.  If one is looking to ascertain the conception of love, and to do so on the terms of a particular New Testament author, while considering the topic as vital to Christian living, then the collection of “John” writings should be the preferred destination. 

In the Gospel of John, a term that is translated as “love” is employed twenty times.  “Loved” appears twenty-one times.  Adding the epistles of John, one finds “love” used an additional twenty-eight times (twenty-three for 1 John, three in 2 John, and two in 3 John).  The epistles employ “loved” three times, with all three appearances in the first letter of John.  In total, “love” or “loved” is employed a total of seventy-two times in the Johannine corpus.  This is unsurprising, as the author refers to himself in terms of love.  He is known self-referentially as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”

By way of comparison, a quick glance through the synoptic Gospels provides a total of twenty-five variations on “love” (love-22, loved-2, loving-1).  Surprisingly, while it details the activities of the early church, the Acts of the Apostles contains no mentions of “love” or any of its variations.  The New Testament letters however, excluding those of John, are well-represented in this area of “love”.  Romans, the letters to Corinth, and the letter to the Ephesians all reach into the double digits in their employment of the term. 

In the sixteen chapters of Romans, “love” or “loved” appears on fifteen occasions (twelve and three respectively).  The first Corinthian letter uses love thirteen times (six times in the “love chapter”).  The second letter to the Corinthian church scores twelve uses of “love” and “loved” (eleven and one).  The relatively short letter to Ephesus (though, because it does not contain the types of specifics to be found in other Pauline letters, and because it doesn’t seem to deal with any particular vexing issues or pressing matters within a particular church, as it may have originally been a circular letter designed to be shared by a number of churches) clocks in with nineteen mentions of “love” or “loved” (fourteen and five) within its scant six chapters. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 1)

I give you a new commandment---to love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples---if you have love for one another. – John 13:34-35  (NET)

Most certainly, these words represent a very familiar saying that is attributed to Jesus.  Some might insist that this statement represents the cornerstone of what it means to live as a Christian, and it would be difficult to disagree with that assertion.  Surely, those that lay claim to a confession of Jesus as Lord would and should have a desire to live out the prescription of these words, thereby showing themselves to be functionaries within the community that has oriented their lives around Jesus and His pronouncement of the kingdom of His God. 

These words are reported to have fallen from the lips of Jesus at what is generally referred to as the “Last Supper,” and the statement is immediately bracketed by Judas’ departure for what is revealed to be the purpose of executing his plan to betray Jesus to the Temple authorities, and Jesus’ insistence that Peter is going to be shortly offering his own betrayal in the form of a three-fold denial of his Lord.

So what is meant by these words?  What is implied?  What will it look like when Jesus’ disciples are loving one another?  Quite rightly, each person comes to this text and these words with ideas concerning what it indeed it means to love.  Due to the fact that humans are relational creatures, formed in community with other relational creatures, love generally comes to be defined in relational terms---love of and for other people.  For the most part, for good or for ill, humans formulate their conceptions about love primarily according to that which is received from parents and family (regardless of who or what plays those roles). 

The love of fathers and mothers (or lack thereof from whomever plays those roles) readily serves to shape and define the parameters that are placed around the concept of love.  The love of a father or a mother is generally considered to be the strongest type of love.  It is this type of love, which is largely and ideally of the completely unconditional variety, that is simply presumed upon and taken to be an unalterable matter-of-fact.  It is this ideal of love that most people desire to cultivate in their relationships, regardless of the type of relationship. 

The model of love that is associated with mothers and fathers, whether it is a good model to which should be aspired or a faulty model which might possibly need to be avoided, lies behind the age-old adage (within societies that do not participate in arranged marriages) that insists that women most often marry men that are like their father, whereas men desire to marry women that remind them of their mothers (think of the song lyrics “I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad”). 

For better or for worse, humans are programmed to seek out love based on the terms of love that have been presented to them from the time of their birth.  Unsurprisingly then, it is this type of love (painting with an overly broad brush), that people desire to offer up as part of the experience of their relationship with the Creator God.  Conversely, it comes to be believed that such is the type of love that the Creator God desires to share with them---defining the God of love based upon (generally) parentally constructed concepts of love.  Of course, this does not hold true one hundred percent of the time. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Proclaim The Lord's Death (part 2 of 2)

In the second chapter of the first letter to the Corinthian congregation, Paul reports that he “decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (2:2), while also mentioning that if the rulers of the age truly understood the message of Jesus, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8b).  Though thoughts of the resurrected Christ naturally permeate the entire background of the letter, as there would be no church apart from a resurrected Messiah, and though there is a reference to the raising of Jesus in the fourteenth verse of the sixth chapter, the movement of this letter suggests Paul’s desire that the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) be closely (and foolishly, as he will point out) associated with the crucifixion, and therefore the cross.

Why should this be the case?  Why is it that Paul apparently believes that it is the crucifixion, rather than the Resurrection, that should be the locus of attention and proclamation when the church comes together to take up the bread and the cup (share an egalitarian meal)?  Is it because the cross, rather than being looked upon as a thing of beauty and as an object of grace, was considered to be the lowest place of ultimate suffering and complete shame?  Might this be a reflection on the traditions then in circulation in which Jesus is understood to have instructed His disciples to take up their cross and follow Him---willfully going to the places of suffering and shame, because Jesus is Lord, as the means by which the kingdom of the Creator God is made manifest, established, and advanced? 

Putting aside the fact that it was rather obvious that there were individuals in the church at Corinth that needed to be reminded of the willingness to endure suffering and shame that is demanded of those that proclaim loyalty to Jesus, which is made clear by the language that precedes Paul’s recitation of the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, the focus on the death of the Christ situates those who sit together at the meal table at the foot of the cross, as they are become identified with their crucified Lord, and are branded as He was, as foolish and shameful---as failures according to the way the world has always looked at such things.

What will it mean to be identified with a crucified Christ?  As the new age, signaled by the Resurrection, looms large in the background, what will it mean to truly proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes?  Paul provides his hearers with a guide in the fourth chapter of the letter.  As the believer listens and considers the communion in which he or she gratefully participate, this guide is indelibly stamped by Jesus’ crucifixion as Paul writes “For, I think God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as men condemned to die, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to people. We are fools for Christ… We are weak… we are dishonored!  To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, brutally treated, and without a roof over our heads.  We do hard work, toiling with our own hands.  When we are verbally abused, we respond with a blessing, when persecuted, we endure, when people lie about us, we answer in a friendly manner.  We are the world’s dirt and scum, even now” (4:9-13). 

May the believer indeed be empowered to be the spectacle of the cross to an on-looking world, proclaiming the Lord’s death at His table and in the world in which He reigns---demonstrating that reign by living as part of a community that embodies the cross (suffering and self-sacrificial love).  Let not the members of the congregation of those that proclaim allegiance to Jesus as Lord take up the bread and the cup alone to signal their union with the Christ, but indeed, let there be a commitment to taking up that vile instrument of death and of the power that attempts to stand against the purpose of the Creator, gladly enduring its foolishness, its suffering, and its shame so that the Lord and God, Jesus the Christ, might be glorified and His kingdom might be extended.  When sharing in the cup, let it be done as a sincere and faithful attempt to always and forever remain the humble tradents, adherents, and servants of the crucified King and the cruciform kingdom.                

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Proclaim The Lord's Death (part 1)

For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. – 1 Corinthians 11:26  (NET)

Here in the first letter to the Corinthians is what appears to be the very first, surviving, written record of the what has come to be referred to as the Christian practice of communion.  Though it was undoubtedly something that took place as part of a communal meal---as it refers to actions instituted by Jesus that took place at a meal, for the majority of modern believers, it exists primarily as a ceremony involving the bread and the cup, minus a meal. 

Even though the element of the community meal has been largely lost by the church, the communion demands to be understood within the context of the Passover, stretching the hearts and minds of its participants all the way back to the time of Israel’s Egyptian exodus.  Thus it serves to remind those that partake of the elements of the extraordinary, intervening power of the Creator God, and of His actions undertaken on behalf of His covenant people. 

Surely, the Christ-event was and should be thought of along such lines.  In addition to that, owing to what came to be understood as Jesus’ messianic presentation of Himself, as He did and as He taught (to borrow a sensibility from the opening of the Acts), the communion itself, when it is reduced to simply the bread and the cup, becomes a microcosm of the messianic banquet, which Jesus Himself was likely to have been consciously enacting every time He situated Himself at a meal.  The messianic banquet signaled, among other things, that the Creator God’s rule on earth had been established.  When Jesus joined a meal, and especially when He offered teaching and parables that had the kingdom of the Creator God as its subject, this also should be taken as a signal that said kingdom had come in and through Him, and that a new age had dawned---eclipsing the old age as the Creator God had begun reconciling all things to Himself through the presence of His Christ. 

As one considers the message that surrounds the Apostle Paul’s presentation of the Lord’s Supper, as he mentions his having received from the Lord what he had already passed on to this church community prior to the occasion of the writing of this letter, it is curious that he concludes his recollection with the insistence and directive that “every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  It should be noticed that Paul makes no explicit mention of the Resurrection. 

Though there are Passover and messianic banquet sensibilities at play, along with all that is implied by those things, and though it is obvious that a resurrected Christ is implied in the phrase “until He comes,” Paul seems to restrict the proclamation of the communion to an invocation of the Lord’s death.  By focusing on the Lord’s death, quite naturally, there is a focus on the cross---on crucifixion.  It seems to, at least at this point as Paul writes to this particular community and as an attempt is made by an observer to be situated alongside this community so as to be able to hear the voice of the Spirit of the Creator God that was presumed to be at work through the Apostle, elevate the cross of the Christ to a position of primacy in relation to the Christian meal table and its celebration of communion. 

Though at first glance this seems a bit odd, especially when one considers Paul’s overt pre-occupation with the Resurrection and its implications (not to mention the great dissertation of the Resurrection that will shortly be heard by the recipients of his letter).  However, when observing the structure of the letter that Paul has provided to this point, there is a realization that this focus is not odd in the least.  In the first chapter of the letter, the Apostle writes “Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he?” (1:13b), along with “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, so that the cross of Christ would not become useless” (1:17).  Shortly thereafter, he adds that “we preach about a crucified Christ” (1:23a).  This letter kicks off and would appear to be premised by the message of the cross.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Presentations Of Jesus (part 2 of 2)

Take, for instance, a story that makes its way into all four Gospel portraits of Jesus, which is the feeding of the five thousand.  All four of the Gospel accounts present the feeding in much the same form.  However, after the story of the feeding, Luke diverges completely from the story-line on offer in Matthew, Mark, and John.  John maintains the same story-line following the feeding, though it differs in a significant detail as it relates to the purposes of this study. 

In each case, it should be acknowledged that the author uses the story of the feeding, along with what follows, within the goals that they have set for the overall presentation of Jesus that they intend to set before the respective audiences for which they are composing their written account (which will be based on a hugely reliable oral tradition and likely other ironically and potentially less reliable written records---an oral tradition was subject to correction and maintenance by the community, whereas a written record could be used to propagate and disseminate information that stood outside of the oral tradition, with no means for immediate correction). 

As Mark’s narrative is generally considered to be the oldest, being foundational for both Matthew and Luke, it is worthwhile to take a look at what is to be found there.  Operating within a full realization that there is a purpose related to the structuring of the narrative, the sixth chapter of Mark records that Jesus feeds a multitude through the multiplication of bread and fish, doing so by the Sea of Galilee.  Then, drawing the feeding together with what comes after, and doing so for the purpose of the author’s narrative, Mark goes on to report that “Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He dispersed the crowd” (6:45). 

Having retired to the mountain to pray after sending off His disciples, it is said that from His vantage point Jesus could observe His disciples on the water.  “He saw them straining at the oars, because the wind was against them” (6:48a).  Mark then reports that Jesus came to His disciples, “walking on the sea” (6:48c), which caused great fear amongst those men.  Ultimately, “He went up with them into the boat, and the wind ceased” (6:51a).  Matthew reports nearly the same story, but adds Peter’s attempt to walk on the sea, which is not to be found in Mark.  That’s not to say that somehow one of the authors got it wrong, but that the authors had different purposes for their tellings of the Jesus story. 

Luke moves in a different direction, omitting the second part of the story that is found in the other Gospels, not because he did not believe it, but because it did not fit with his overall movement and aims.  John’s is fundamentally the same, reporting a rough sea and a strong wind (6:18), though there is no report of the ceasing of the wind once Jesus gets into the boat.  Instead, John reports that “immediately the boat came to the land where they had been heading” (6:21b).  Clearly however, John’s report, like that of Matthew and Mark, is meant to demonstrate the power of the Creator God at work in Jesus, which is to be expected if He is indeed the Messiah of Israel. 

So what’s the point?  It is at this point that one returns to the idea that the Scriptures were undoubtedly searched by both Jesus and those that would write the Gospel accounts, so as to make sense of the mission and of the reports of that mission.  Such thoughts, together with the stories of the feeding of the multitude, the walking on water, and the calming of the wind, lead to the Psalms.  In the seventy eighth Psalm, keeping in mind the purposely structured Gospel narrative of feeding and then the control of nature and the desire to show forth their understanding of Jesus as the manifestation of the Creator God in the flesh, while also acknowledging that this was a reflection on the exodus and wilderness experience of Israel, marked similarities with the Gospel accounts of these occurrences are to be found in the reading: “He rained down manna for them to eat; He gave them the grain of heaven.  Man ate the food of the mighty ones.  He sent them more than enough to eat.  He brought the east wind through the sky, and by His strength led forth the south wind” (78:24-26). 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Presentations Of Jesus (part 1)

As Jesus “grew and became strong,” being “filled with wisdom, and as “the favor of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:40), and as He began to live out the life of the Messiah within a community that generally believed that the Messiah would be the fleshly embodiment of their covenant making, creative, and providential God, He would undoubtedly have searched (or at least asked for assistance in searching) the collected Hebrew Scriptures for guidance in living according to messianic expectations.  Naturally, Jesus was concerned with how to go about revealing the Creator God to His covenant people. 

That said, it is quite right to here contemplate the “suffering servant” of Isaiah (despised, rejected, suffering pain, held in low esteem/honor, stricken, afflicted, pierced, crushed, punished, wounded, etc…).  With knowledge of the way in which Jesus lived, the way He performed His ministry, the people with whom He surrounded Himself, the subversive challenge that He offered to the powers-that-be of the day (politically, religiously, socially, and culturally), and the way in which His choice of messianic presentation would lead to the way in which He would come to meet what was His presumed demise, it seems to be rather clear that He took the notion of Isaiah’s suffering servant as rather foundational for His mission. 

Likewise, the authors of the Gospels, as they lived in the early days of the church that was growing and serving humanity and enduring threats and persecutions in the wake of Jesus’ Resurrection and ascension and the telling of that story, and as they did so in a time in which oral traditions (possibly informed by smaller written collections of Jesus’ words or deeds) concerning Jesus were circulating, sought to tell Jesus’ story within the framework of messianic (king of Israel/God in the flesh) conceptions (the suffering servant being one mode of telling) that were on offer within the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Just as Jesus, to whom believers are able to look as the Creator God in the flesh, was concerned with properly revealing His God to His people, so too would His biographers be concerned with structuring their stories of Jesus with an eye and an ear to the very same thing.  This notion is not necessarily talking about making Jesus fit within a certain mold, or telling His story so as to make it appear that He is the fulfillment of centuries-old prophecies, but rather, utilizing certain portions of the accepted Scriptures (and the self-understanding that shaped, was shaped by, and governed the reading of those Scriptures) that served to inform the people about the nature of their God, Jesus’ biographers, who believed themselves to be telling the story of the Lord and Master of the whole of the cosmos, shaped their presentations of the stories of Jesus so as to align with the nature-of-God-revealing statements that were part and parcel of the writings of Israel’s prophets, poets, and historians. 

Surely, it is not at all difficult to understand that the Gospels offer an exceedingly small glimpse into the life of Jesus, so one does well to consider why it is that what was selected for recounting to and for the church communities, was in fact selected.  Most likely, the structure of the presentation of events in the life of Jesus is taken for granted, with believers enjoying the narrative on offer without ever wondering why certain events follow one another within the Gospel presentation. 

If one takes seriously the fact that Jesus lived as part of a community that took its story very seriously and understood itself according to the story recorded in its Scriptures, while also understanding themselves as the covenant people of the Creator God that routinely and often dramatically enters into history to act for or towards His people as they looked towards a great and seemingly final intervention, then this notion must be brought to a reading of the Gospels which then shapes the way that the remainder of the New Testament is read (though the Gospels and Acts would have been composed and circulated in written form after almost all of the rest of what would come to comprise the New Testament has been composed, though certainly the stories recorded in the Gospels and Acts circulated in what was likely a moderately controlled oral form before the written records were produced).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 27 of 27)

By informing this body of believers that they should not be glad about injustice (1 Corinthians13:6), Paul not only comments on what was possibly a pervasive mindset, but he also reveals to them the fact of their unjust behavior.  By tagging his mention of injustice with “but rejoices in the truth” (13:6) he also appears to remind them that they should be glad that he is correcting them in a way that is designed to lead them into the truth that will come to be exercised in both word and deed, so that (again, considering his words within the flow of the letter) they will not be judged (11:31,34). 

In the light of Corinth’s receipt of truth, so that they might understand the way that love will actually look when it is put in practice, which was contrary to what was on display at what they also may have been referring to as their “love feast” (a fact which also helps to explain why Paul takes the time to make this explanation about love), Paul then adds that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (13:7-8a).

Throughout the whole of this letter, Paul builds and builds and never wavers from the subject at hand, never ceasing his offerings of correction while expressing his desire that this church over which he has so dutifully labored.  With their location in an important and somewhat influential city, they were to be a shining light of the kingdom of heaven, but were falling short of that call.  However, while he is being critical, one should not imagine that the problems to be observed here in this church at Corinth were somehow unique to them---when the eye and ear are properly attuned, these issues can be found throughout the New Testament letters

When Paul’s letters are read (along with the rest of the New Testament) while keeping in mind that the Gospel of Jesus as Lord and ruler of all and the kingdom of the Creator God was being preached in a world that was ruled by the Caesar as the Lord of all and the glory of the empire of Rome was paramount, which was shaped by glaring and pronounced social divisions (by no means is this reducing the message of the Gospel to merely a social gospel) in which the lines of demarcation (ethnic, religious, economic, etc…) between peoples were carefully drawn and tacitly enforced, it should not be surprising to find Paul and others hitting on this problematic theme of divisiveness in the church on more than one occasion (the letter to Laodicea in the book of Revelation springs to mind). 

Chances are, however, because most that are reading this study find themselves in a western world that is so far removed from a societal context that would allow this to be easily recognized (which means that many are terribly handicapped, with this made even more problematic because so many believe themselves to be in a position of superiority in Scripture interpretation), Paul’s treatment of similar situations has been read dozens and hundreds of time without ever considering the social and cultural realities of the world into which it was delivered.  Just like has so often been done with the Corinthian letter, many believers have heard Paul’s words in the context of the cultivation of an individual spirituality and focused pursuit of personal holiness that will result in achieving heaven (and avoiding hell) at death, rather than hearing Paul in the context of a responsibility to cause the Creator God’s will to be done on earth, which is the call of those that confess Jesus as Lord. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 26)

What then was the injustice inside this church?  Has Paul mentioned it to this point?  Of course he has.  He has already written “For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper.  One is hungry and another becomes drunk… are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:21,22b)  This may seem trivial at first glance, but when placed in perspective, the fact that there is an element of injustice at work can be easily perceived, and it is being perpetrated by the members themselves.  It should most certainly be the case that inside the gathered body of Christ, and especially as they were coming together for a meal that carried a considerable amount of theological weight, that all share equally in the meal. 

If the church itself was unwilling or unable to feed those inside the body, and if the church itself was unwilling or unable to be sure that those that were counted as brothers and sisters of the kingdom of the Creator God did not go hungry, then how could it possibly find itself in a position to do the same thing for the world?  Some members of the gathered congregation eating and drinking and doing so to their fill while others went hungry, with this hunger and thirst occurring within plain sight of those that ate and drank to their fill, who were themselves in a position to exercise a very small amount of the self-sacrificial love that took Christ to the cross by sharing so as to insure that nobody went hungry, was nothing short of an injustice that has no place inside the church. 

Indeed, Paul was right to bring up the issue of shame.  If the church was not the example that it needed to be in modeling out a different kind of living, and if it did not put that different mode of living on display at the meal table in recognition of the demands of its Lord, where it could be easily recognized by those both inside and outside of the church (no divisions, no separations, no stratifications, no inequality), then how was that church going to inspire the viewing world to change its mode of living and to recognize its true Lord?  If those that were supposed to be representing the end-time kingdom of the Creator were more than happy to eat and drink while their very own brothers and sisters in the covenant went hungry, then they were certainly not operating in love. 

Now, this is not to say that there is anything wrong with eating and drinking, but it is to say that those that lay claim to a confession of Jesus as their Lord, who are ambassadors for the existing kingdom of heaven while serving in anticipation of its consummation, are called to a position of conscientious love.  Believes are very much within their rights to enjoy that with which they have been blessed (in food and drink and in all other areas), but this enjoyment should be done in a way that is tempered by an understanding that there are those, perhaps through no fault of their own, who go without much of that which is basic to life. 

Perhaps the position here called for is to offer praises to the Creator God for His bountiful provisions, while also offering a lament for the evil that is active in this world (in so many ways) and which is working against the proliferation of the provision of the God that shows forth His rule through the Lord Jesus and through His church (His body) that is active in and for the world as an extension of the Creator’s care.  Of course, it is not enough to praise, and it is not enough to lament.  Both suggest a call to dutiful action by the church, for the world, in humble and loving service to its Lord and its God.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 25)

At the same time, one should not hear these words about love first as that which is to be achieved as an individual.  Rather, they are first to be heard within the context of the community that is to be defined by love.  As they are heard and understood communally, especially in relation to the kingdom of the Creator God, they are then put in practice on an individual basis by those who desire to participate in this community.  
When Paul writes about love being patient and kind in this letter, the reader knows that patience and kindness were not being exercised towards all in this church in a uniform way, but based on constructs of honor and shame.  Thus when Paul tells them that love does not brag, is not puffed up, is not rude, self serving, easily angered or resentful, it is possible to confidently assert that there was a great deal of bragging, puffery, rudeness, self-service, anger, and resentment at work in this church.  This was presumably being put on display through direct actions, while the separating and dividing actions that were part and parcel of the meals and therefore the life of the church were probably engendering anger and resentment from those on the receiving end of the hurtful and deleterious behavior that truly had no place amongst those called to represent the kingdom of heaven come to earth. 

In a similar vein, Paul insists that love “is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth” (13:6).  While this phrase, as others, can certainly make an independent stand, and it can be agreed upon that it is inappropriate to be glad about injustice while also concurring that the truth is something in which all should rejoice, this, like everything else in this letter (and in the whole of the collected works of Scripture), demands to be first understood within its editorial context before pulling it out as an isolated aphorism by which to construct dogma and make dogmatic assertions. 

If Paul is instructing this group of people that love is not glad about injustice, then it can be presumed that there was a certain gladness about injustice being exercised by this congregation.  It is probably not the case that Paul is here thinking about injustices being perpetrated outside the church (though that can be a proper extension once one rightly consider this statement in context and learns what it means for the church as a body), but rather that the injustice that is being perpetrated inside the church.  This would occur as the rampant injustices of the world outside the church infiltrates that which is to function as the living, breathing, present body of the Christ. 

Considering the fact that Paul would not mention it if it was not an issue, those injustices were likely being found on display at the church meal that is supposed to be evocative of the Passover and its liberation of the people of the Creator God, of the messianic banquet and the liberating rule of that God in the world, and especially at the Lord’s Supper portion of the meal that was to serve as the very explicit reminder that the rule of the Creator God of Israel is currently taking place through the Lordship of Jesus.  It was to be understood, with that understanding displayed by the way that believers treated each other, that those that come to the Lord’s Supper to take the bread and the cup, are agreeing to submit to that Lordship and to participate in the advance of that kingdom. 

That kingdom has as its mission statement (though these would have been circulating in oral form at the time of the writing of the letter to Corinth) words such as “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19), along with words like “For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in, I was naked and you gave Me clothing, I was sick and you took care of Me, I was in prison and you visited Me…  I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of Mine, you did it for Me” (Matthew 25:35-36,40b). 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Corinth's Communion (part 24)

Having persuaded this church to recognize the facts that they have allowed distinctions and divisions to creep in and become established, with this critique extended to the entirety of the church, as all (whether perceived as being high or low within the church ) would have to tacitly agree to participate in such arrangements, Paul promptly dissuades them from any sense that this is appropriate by delivering the words “But you should be eager for the greater gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31a).  By making reference to the “greater gifts,” Paul has diminished all of the things about which they are boasting and are using in their spiritual honor competition and associated hierarchical arrangements based on their spiritual gifts (some of which, such as speaking in tongues, were prevalent in society at large before the advent of the church, and thus already had certain types of honor attached to their performance as part of a group). 

Before continuing on to what comes next, a reminder  to maintain the proper mindset must be observed, if one wants to be able to properly discern Paul’s message and his intent.  Yes, presuming and surmising is taking place in this study, and such things are being done in hope of being able to make educated guesses in the process.  A failure to grasp details can result in missing out on major points.  However, by attempting to become immersed in the culture, and attempting to become situated within a church community of first century hearers in the city of Corinth that is a part of and is shaped by the Greco-Roman world, rather than as private twenty-first century readers that occupy a world that is, for the most part, vastly different from the world occupied by Jesus, Paul, and the members of the Corinthian church, offers a greater chance of success in determining the problem, the message, and Paul’s intentions associated with the delivery of the message that his letter to this church communicates. 

It is upon this declaration concerning the “greater gifts,” which followed his rhetorically purposeful diminishing of the “spiritual gifts” that were prized by the congregation and being used for inappropriate stratification and spiritual honor competition, that Paul enters into what is thought of as his great soliloquy upon love.  While beautiful in and of itself, it cannot and should not be considered apart from what comes before and after, or apart from a consideration of Paul’s somewhat contentious communication to this church.  When Paul insists that “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious” (13:4a), it is incumbent upon an observer to hear these words as would Paul’s original hearers. 

If this is accomplished, it is done with a knowledge that most believers are missing the mark in the exercise of spiritual gifts, and that what is referred to as love is actually nothing more than individual and selfish pursuit of honor and its attendant of a better position at the table, that all may bask in the performer’s glorious spirituality and ultimately come into submission to a hard-earned spiritual authority.  Re-calling attention to the possibility that this is being read at the symposium portion of the meal that would have been this church’s regular time and mode of gathering in that time and place, Paul goes on to write “Love does not brag, it is not puffed up.  It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful” (13:5).  This statement would have come as a stark contrast to Paul’s words of chapters eleven and twelve, through which the congregation would have been forced to recognize their rude and self-serving behavior.  

When one hears the words of the “chapter of love,” they are heard according to the tone of the letter as a whole.  There is much instruction taking place throughout the letter, and much of the instruction is in the form of correction.  The correction, of course, implies that there are problems that need to be corrected, indicating a need to alter an existing course of action or accepted situation.  So as Paul writes about the nature of love, which must be tied to the correction that is on offer from him, he is not simply espousing a set of free-floating ideals to be met, or thinking of words that will eventually come to be read at weddings (though there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with this), but pointing out to his audience where it is that they are falling short of the ideal that is tied to their all-important and paramount confession of Jesus as Lord.