14th January, 2018
The Gospel of John is an altogether different gospel. The stories, the characters, the language, metaphors and even the way the story is told, set it apart from the other three Gospels found in the bible. Written between 80 and 100 years after the events it records, it is considered the least historically accurate of the biblical gospels. Yet it has been incredibly influential in Christian history and continues to be. Why is this the case?
To answer that question we need to consider when the Gospel was written, but more importantly, who this Gospel was written for. Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John was less concerned with recounting exactly what happened and when it happened, and is far more interested in the question of just what it all means. John’s gospel is seeking to explain the meaning of Jesus to a new generation of the early church members.
We know this because of the view that John was written somewhere between 90 and 110 CE. 80 plus years is a long time in the life of a religious movement. In that time people have gone from simply talking about what happened, to exploring the bigger questions of why it happened, what it meant then, and what it all means for us now.
More than that, the membership of this religious movement changed a great deal in that first century. Only a few decades before John was written, a majority of the followers of Jesus were of Jewish descent. By the time John’s Gospel was written that had changed with an ever increasing number of gentiles being converted and baptised. It was for these new gentile converts that this gospel was created. A gospel that not only recounted some events of the life of Jesus, but was explicit in claiming that Jesus was not only the Messiah, but was the Word of God who had existed with God since before time began. No such claim can be found within the synoptic gospels.
Now the reason I have given this background this morning is because it helps us to understand some of the more cryptic statements found in this morning’s Gospel reading. Upon meeting Nathanial, Jesus proclaims, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” It’s the beginning of an exchange that would have held a particular meaning for the Gentile communities who heard this story in the first century – a point I will return to in a moment.
When Jesus addresses Nathanial in this way, he is not simply suggesting that Nathanael is a good and honest person, he is calling to mind the Jewish patriarch Jacob who was remembered as something of a deceitful person. The particular story being referenced is that as a child Jacob and his mother conspired to deceive Jacob’s father Isaac to bestow his blessing on Jacob instead of on his older brother Esau. For those who know the story of Jacob, we know that despite this particular deception and the fallout from it, Jacob more or less triumphs in the end. Following many different struggles Jacob is bestowed with a new name, Israel, which denotes a person who has struggled with God. It was from this name that subsequent generations came to call themselves Israelites, suggesting a people who have struggled with God.
So when Jesus calls Nathanial, “…an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” he is invoking the memory of a person and of a nations identity. But Jesus then moves on to reference another moment from the story of Jacob. When Jacob’s brother Esau discovered his brother’s deception and that he had lost his father’s blessing, he was, I think somewhat reasonably, furious with his brother. Thus, Jacob was sent away to live with another relative, primarily to ensure his safety. On this journey Jacob had a dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending from heaven. This is where we get the expression Jacob’s ladder. At a certain level this story affirms that Jacob, and therefore by proxy his descendants, have a special connection with heaven and consequently with God.
This is the context into which Jesus says his somewhat strange final sentence of today’s reading. “…you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Whereas Israelites understood their connection to God coming through their ancestor Jacob, Jesus now claims that he is the ladder, he is the direct connection from earth to God. For gentiles in the first century, they would have understood this story as affirming that connection with God is found through connecting with Christ, rather than through being a descendant of Jacob. This is a story of inclusion, probably created by the writer of John’s Gospel to affirm that while this religion began as a Jewish movement, everyone is now welcome.
I do not think it is important if this story really happened, or if it was an invention of the gospel writer. To paraphrase Marcus Borg, I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true. It is true in the sense that Christ is the connection between us and the divine.
But the deeper meaning found in pulling today’s reading apart, is that the questions of who Christ was, and who Christ is for us today, remain. The process that led to Gospel writers wanting to make Christ alive and relevant to new communities is ongoing. Our engagement with the biblical text requires us to ask who Christ is for us here and now, while understanding that the answers we find may be different to the answers discovered by previous generations.
As Archbishop John pointed out at the end of last year, the imagery of Christ the King was elevated in the Roman Catholic church in the 20th century as a response to the rise of extremism in Europe. It was a way of speaking about Christ in a way that challenged political realities of that time. Similarly, in South America in the 1970’s theologians recovered the idea of Christ as liberator, an understanding that Jesus stood alongside the poor in the face of overwhelming poverty and military dictatorships.
So who is the Christ we discover and who is the Christ we need today to respond to some of our present day realities? Is it possible to speak of the Christ who longs to heal the world in a time of ecological crisis? Do we need the Christ who challenges economic systems that benefit a tiny minority while oppressing billions? Or perhaps we need the Christ who affirms the worth and dignity of all people and reminds us that all are equal and precious in God’s sight? Maybe there is no one single image, but rather a collection of understandings that connect with our increasingly complex world. Or perhaps the Christ who speaks to this world is one who reminds of simplicity?
The point is, if we mean it when we say Christ is alive, then we must allow Christ to fully live in our lives. To live is to engage with the world, to experience it, to be changed by it and to learn from it. The living Christ wants to do exactly those things, through each of us and through our community. The Christ for today is already here among us, waiting to be fully discovered. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant