Monday, March 17, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 30 of 30)

With that said, and at risk of being redundant, one cannot allow himself to drift too far from awareness of the fact that Jesus’ hearers, along with those for whom the account recorded in John is prepared (again, relying on both oral and written components of the Jesus tradition that became relatively fixed at a very early stage), would have been thoroughly immersed in a worldview that had the entire history of Israel that stretched back to Abraham (including the creation narrative in which Israel’s God orders the cosmos) in view, as the story was told and re-told (much like can be seen in the book of Acts).  This would have been true even of Gentile members of the church, as the story of Jesus would not have been presented without instruction related to proper background, lest the Jesus story become void of any real meaning. 

Without this immersion, and without this critical historical framework, Jesus would not have been able to be understood by His contemporaries.  If every attempt is not made to become immersed in much the same way, so as to be able to hear Jesus and the stories of Jesus with the same mental construct as that which was possessed by first century Jews and those who made up the early Christian communities, hearing the story of God’s redemptive plan as presented through Israel, there will be a failure to understand Jesus.  If there is a failure to understand Jesus, then there is a failure to understand the God whom Jesus shows forth; and, at least for the purposes of this author, if one fails in those things, then one fails to understand what is truly meant by love.     

So, getting back to miraculous signs and the Moses/exodus motif that is prevalent in this Gospel, consider the previously referenced signs provided by Moses before Pharaoh.  In the second chapter of John, after Jesus performs an action in the Temple, “the Jewish leaders responded, ‘What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?’” (2:18)  In the sixth chapter, after Jesus feeds the multitude, walks on water, and speaks about Himself as the bread of life, there one finds the inquiry of “what miraculous sign will your perform, so that we may see it and believe you?  What will you do?” (6:30)  What can be seen in Exodus?  In the seventh chapter, when the Creator God commands Moses to go before Pharaoh to demand the release of His people, He tells Moses that Pharaoh will say “Do a miracle” (7:9).  The miraculous signs come forth, but Pharaoh’s heart is hardened.  This same type of thing can be seen being played out in John, with Jesus obviously playing the role of Moses. 

Early on, Moses signs are mildly effective, but they are said to be matched by Pharaoh’s servants that are practiced in the secret arts.  Indeed, the signs aren’t quite good enough, which is also reflected in John.  Moses begins with the signs for Pharaoh, but then come the plagues.  Though these are meant to convince Pharaoh to set Israel free while also demonstrating the supremacy of Israel’s God and the impotency of Egypt’s gods (much like the creation narrative in Genesis is meant to, among other things, show forth the supremacy of Israel’s God over the gods of the other nations, answering their various creation mythologies with that which is presented as the creative action of the one true God), they have the greater role of proving to Israel that Moses is the deliverer that their God has provided, and that their God is acting on their behalf in faithfulness to His covenant. 

It is not difficult to imagine that faith in this fact---in Moses as God’s appointed deliverer---grew over time as the miraculous signs came forth.  With the signs, there is a growing tension between Moses and Pharaoh, and the final plague results in the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in which the freedom of the people is finally granted.  The people are given their freedom, though Pharaoh quickly attempts to rise up and re-assert himself to no avail, and even in the freedom there will be a long and difficult journey to their land of promise.  In John, the author indicates that Jesus signs are mildly effective, gaining him a following in which people begin to express their loyalty to him.  He even has John the Baptist as something of a mouthpiece, just as Moses had Aaron.  Within John’s narrative world, these miraculous signs culminate in the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  In that story, it is Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his family that prompts Him to act to raise him---to give him an exodus from the exile of death. 

This point does not go un-noticed in an attempt to comprehend the Johannine conception of love.  In the end, the author suggests that “the chief priests and the Pharisees,” quite alarmed by what has happened, “called the council together and said, “What are we doing?  For this man is performing many miraculous signs.  If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (11:47-48).  In this, does one not hear echoes of Exodus and of Pharaoh’s decision to pursue Israel?  There it was said, “What in the world have we done?  For we have released the people of Israel from serving us!” (14:6b) 

For the author of John (and the Johannine corpus), who appears to have a specific notion concerning love, this miraculous sign of raising Lazarus from the dead is a dramatic turning point, as it is said to be that which was responsible for the crowds gathering to hail Jesus in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, “because they had heard that Jesus had performed this miraculous sign, the crowd when out to meet Him” (12:18).  It is what ultimately leads to Jesus’ death on the cross, which was ultimately the supreme act of self-sacrificial love (going down into death to bear the curse of an entire people) to which the entire narrative points and upon which the fate of the cosmos rests.  This, of course, leads to the Resurrection, which, following His paramount act of love (endured in suffering and shame), is Jesus’ exodus to the long-awaited promised land of the redeemed creation of the Creator God, there to be joined by those that cast their lot with Him and share in a world now re-shaped and re-formed by the supreme ethic of love.  

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