Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Gospel of John, Chapters 1-7

As the new session of our parish Bible Study gets ready to recommence, we are taking on the Gospel according to John. This Gospel, referred to as well as the "Fourth Gospel" stands apart from the Matthew, Mark and  Luke on a number of levels. The latter three are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, in that there are solid parallels that link them to each other with regard to both the structure and the content of their narrative. Of course, each Gospel is in a sense unique to itself. They were compiled from common sources, but each has a sense of beign written for, or from, a particular perspective. John is no different in this, but the agenda-if you will-of the editor takes us in some different directions from where the synoptics begin...and John challenges us with a Christ that is both transcendant AND immediate in his impact on our lives.

So, to kick things off, we will be taking on chapters 1-7. This session takes us through the opening movements of what I have come over the years to experience from John as something akin to a symphony, with movements, arias and a sense of progression that works on a standard, repetitive and even seductive theme....

Chapter 1: the Prologue....

When I was in seminary and taking New Testament Greek, our instructor got us started off in the texts of the NT with an immersion in the first verses from this chapter. It gave us an opportunity to work on both the conjugation and the context of the "to be" verb in the koine' dialect. It also got us into the poetry and the idiom of a writer who knew the Greek language and wrote for people to read/hear it as native speakers. The Gospel opens, and I can imagine the assembly gathered to hear it in its entirety during some night wathc, with a testimony that this story is about the Word, the divine Logos of the God who creates, redeems and sanctifies us from before the beginning of time. There is no birth narrative, because this Jesus is not "born" in the sense that we are. He was Before, and "through him all things were made." We are hearing testimony, first from the narrative, and then from John the Baptist, that this Jesus is the very light of God coming into the world. Shadows-and people working in the shadows-cannot overcome it/him. It's a bold start, and that start pays off immediately with a Jesus who speaks, walks and acts with an authority that is drawn from an eternal wellspring of love for the world...and is not subject to any human institution. Doesn't matter if it is the Roman occupation, or the Temple priesthood, or the Pharisaic Jews who wind up being a whipping post for both the powers of the world and the agenda of the Johannine communtiy's resolution of its own issues of having experienced rejection and expulsion from the synagogues not too long before the Gospel was compiled.

John the Baptist affirms he is not the Messiah, even when pressed. He is just "the voice of one crying in the wilderness." He points to Jesus, again and again, to any who will observe alongside, that Jesus is the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The first who follow Jesus were before that followers of John...and this points to a sense of succession in the Gospel narrative...as Jesus waxes, John wanes.

We are also seeing in this first chapter that Jesus has a way of being/seeing that goes just beyond the mundane and observable reality we share alongside the rest of humanity (and the disciples). He see Nathanael "under the fig tree" and he renames Peter as Cephas (Rock) before anyone perceives that strength and sense of him being a faithful redoubt for the nascent Church, at all.

Chapter 2: Cana, a wedding and the Temple cleansing...

Jesus begins his earthly ministry right off the bat with his manifestation of power in the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. This event also sets off what in John is a slightly tempestuous relationship between Jesus and his family, with the crowd (in Greek, the okloi, playing wedge). The same tension is ratcheted up in Jesus going to the Temple and making a scene with his angry action of expelling the money changers and vendors from the courts inside the temple walls. So, this Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of God, will serve three functions in this Gospel...he teaches/calls, he astounds and he provokes...all of us, and not just the Pharisees. Hold on to that.....

Chapter 3: Nicodemus, and being born again...

What does it take to enter the kingdom...to be born again to God? Jesus is tested, continually, in this arena. The first to articulate the question is a Pharisee who comes to him by night. A righteous man, Nicodemus is seeking affirmation of Jesus' nature as the messiah-seeing the dynamic acts and hearing the teaching with authority...he still holds back. How can one be born again, when one birth is all we are given in this life? Jesus points to the rebirth found in the spirit of God. There is a difference between spirit and flesh, and the regeneration of the human soul as it draws nearer the incarnation of the Divine is the result of this narrative running its course. It is all about origin right now...and our ultimate destination being the discovery of new life in Jesus Christ. Which draws us to....

Chapter 4: The woman at the well.....Well? Give me some of that water.....

One of the more moving elements of John's Gospel in my experience is the radical way Jesus, as witnessed by those closest to him, radicalizes the call to community between human beings, each other and God. This is epitomized by his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. There are SO many reasons why these two should not even be on the same planet, Jesus and the woman, and yet he engages her. As he sits by a well, waiting for his disciples to bring back lunch from a nearby town, a woman approaches. She is coming to get water in the midday, not a usual time (is she avoiding her neighbors?). There is no one around, except a strange man. She should go...she should avoid speaking or touching him (he is clearly Galilean and Jewish, and male). There should be NO connection. And yet, something in the way he asks for water, something to drink, stirs a response. Jesus chooses to connect, and more...he offers her living water-water that ends thirst for ever. With that, a connection is made. He knows her, she responds and leaves her jug at the well, goes back into town and begins to preach about this man who "told me everything I have ever done!" What feeds us in the kingdom? What gives us something to drink? Relationship with the Divine Word, with God through Jesus. The chapter concludes with a return to Galilee, and the display of another sign, this time of healing as the son of a government official is healed. Jesus heals a woman "below" him. Jesus heals a family "above" him. Jesus heals and breaks down barriers that separate and divide.

Chapter 5: Breaking the Law....

With these signs, the stakes are being raised. Jesus is walking with his students in Jerusalem and winds up healing a man who is lame, telling him on the Sabbath to take up his mat and walk...Two broken rules. He heals on the Sabbath (work), and then commands the man to carry (more work). Breaking the law...by what authority does he perform these works? Why does he flaunt tradition, why does he seem to toss all that means anything to anyone out the window? At the heart's core of this journey is the question of authority. What role will the Son of Man play in this new kingdom, and by whose agenda will he operate. Human beings have a way of projecting onto their leaders (and please remember that there were no distinctions in the ancient world between religion and politics-they were one and the same) their own expectations of action, posture and attitude. Jesus has to deal with their projections, even as he seeks to continue to articulate for us just what it means for him to be in relationship to his Father in heaven, and for us to be in relationship with him.

Chapter 6: You should have eaten before we left.....

What images in this chapter. Jesus and his disciples not only feed five thousand with five loaves and two fish ( a boy's lunch), they also gather up twelve baskets of leftovers AFTER the fact, and after all had eaten their fill. Those listening would hear (as is later evidenced in Jesus discourse on the manna that the people ate when they sojourned with Moses in the wilderness), a hearkening back to the ways God has provided for people in the past. God is "a very present help in time of need." No doubt of that...but Jesus is also challenging the people to understand that he IS the bread. He IS the one come into the world to save, to end the suffering of those who hunger. Even as the Samaritan woman was promised water of life that would end thirst forever, Jesus is offering a repast that puts to an end the NEED people have in this life. The kingdom is a place of plenty, but not in a strictly flesh-based sense. Jesus indicts the sarx, the flesh that withers, ages and dies. He points to the body that is eternal; the one that is, that was and that is to come. Hard teaching, difficult to accept; so hard, in fact that some turn aside. Again, the Johannine community is one split and divided. There are those who remain and those who have departed. Explanations have to be made, and purpose needs to be felt in the wake of these fractures. Some won't be able to accept this teaching, and will depart.

Chapter 7: ...and so it begins....

Jesus enters that city of Jerusalem in secret during the Festival of the Booths. He works his way to the Temple and begins to teach. The result? Continued polarization and rising conflict. If this were the present day, then we would see the press having a "field day" with the controversy. "Talking heads" would be on the air. Some would be supporting him, other vociferously demanding that someone step forward to pull his teeth and make him stop this dangerous, inciting behavior that is upsetting the crowds. Still, what keeps us moving forward is that as he teaches, as he offers truth, and in himself, Truth; then people are bound to be affected by his presence. Those who opposed cannot lay hands on him. They just aren't able to do it, "because his time had not yet come." The conflict is rising around Jesus. Something is going to happen as people become either passionately "for" his teaching, or "against" it.

Next week....

Chapters 8-12

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