Chocolate-covered Jesus

“Before Abraham was, I am.” John 8:58

I’ve heard there is a worldwide shortage of chocolate and now word’s leaking out about a bacon shortage as well. Forget global warming, this is a real crisis.

Ever since Mary Poppins suggested that a teaspoon of sugar helps the medicine go down, and probably before, there have been efforts to make Jesus more palatable to the masses. To be sure, perhaps because those people who pronounce so loudly that they know the ‘real Jesus’ are often so unloving in their portrayal  of Him, it is necessary to counter that message. Many of us try  to do a “not-but” as a message. In other words, we say, “Jesus is not xxx, but He’s xxx.”

As Anthony LeDonne pointed out in last week’s blog, the picture of Jesus in the Gospel of John is a pointed one. When he says, “I AM the Gate” or “I AM the Way, Truth and Life,” there are sure to be many who can’t take that type of pronouncement. The same holds true with what to do with traditional religious faiths who present themselves as originating from the same promises made to the patriarch, Abraham.

That doesn’t even speak to the influence that eastern philosophies have brought to western life through New Spirituality. I can’t even speak to that at this point. Hopefully, sometime this Spring.

During my adult life there have been two general outlooks on the person of Jesus and what to do with Judaism and to a lesser extent, Islam.  The conservative view has held that Jesus came to fulfill the Old Covenant requirements and, therefore, once and for all made them and their religious icons irrelevant. So, while conservatives hold to the primacy of Jesus as God, Son and Sacrifice, they uphold Israel’s place as a nation state in order that the prophecies about the end times will come true. Nevertheless, they see Judaism as unnecessary.  History is full of conservative religious leaders denouncing Jews as “Jesus-killers” and these leaders (including Martin Luther) have taught that unless Jews renounce their love for the Law, they will see damnation. As such, other than a Jewish remnant, Israel will be the battle ground for the end times.

More liberal Christian thinkers are not sure Jesus really was God but most certainly was the exemplar for God’s kingdom rule. Jesus, they suggest, taught us to love and share and rejoice in the prospect of a new society envisioned by God’s overriding view of humanity and earth.  So while liberals accept and welcome the diversity that Judaism and Islam bring to the language of love, they tend to humanize Jesus and downplay the nation state of Israel.  These are broad, crude sketches of the general outlook.

New thinkers like Anthony LeDonne, NT Wright among others suggest that you don’t have to take Jesus out of his Jewish roots to appreciate his divine calling and nature.  But they also suggest that there’s great deal of mystery to be found in the words of Jesus.  In his book, Simply Jesus, Tom Wright calls them words that are, “complex in meaning and dense in hope.” Wright points out that scholarship research around first century sources have been recently helped by skeptics who have brought new light to the word usage and translations of historical documents.

The sermon series of Jesus’ “I AMs” looks over eight statements Jesus made in the Gospel of John. I have jumped them out of order but they basically fit within the chapters of John 6-15.  This Sunday’s statement of Jesus, “Before Abraham was, I am.” is intended to show the complexity of his pedagogical reveal and works toward a greater understanding about who Jesus said He was.

It is tempting to solely portray Jesus as antidote or exemplar but when we dispense with the chocolate covering, I think we will find a new conversation between Christians, Jews, Muslims and skeptics.  It is precisely the conversation and the ensuing scholarly research that will delve into Jesus’ words and work.  I think we will all be impressed by the power and authority He has in life and love.  It is sure to be more useful than saccharine in bad medicine.

Toward the Divine Ontology, “I AM”

“Jesus of Nazareth” by Rembrandt vanRijn

Dr Anthony LeDonne is one of the bright, young faces in the world of religious scholarship. Through a generous grant from one of my Oakmont congregants, our church is fortunate to have him serve as Scholar-in-Residence during the Fall of this year. As such, he is helping me develop the study material for messages through 2013.

Beginning this Sunday, I will be offering a study on the “I AM” statements made by Jesus .  Anthony’s commentary in this blog, is meant as an introduction into the statements made by Jesus and quoted by John. They also serve as precursor to my blogs that will follow.

John’s Jesus: A Gospel of Exclusivity?
Exclusivity has become a dirty word. To be inclusive bespeaks tolerance, love, peace, coexistence, and acceptance. Not always, but exclusivity tends to represent the opposites of these virtues. It is for this reason that I find John’s Gospel so difficult. I am a child of the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” generation; I’m a member of the “coexist” crowd; I’m a celebrate diversity sort of guy; my faith communities have been “seeker sensitive”. But if I take the Fourth Gospel seriously, I cannot help but see a Gospel of exclusivity. John’s Gospel is black and white (literally); light and darkness are key themes for John. John’s portrait of Jesus has a very low tolerance for fence-sitters. Rather than welcoming those who stand at the threshold, John’s Jesus exposes them as outsiders. I find all of this very hard to swallow. How can a Gospel of exclusivity be “good news”? Shouldn’t it be about peace on Earth and goodwill to all humankind?

Luke’s Gospel is the pet of those who desire to extend the Kingdom of God to outsiders. Luke is fond of role-reversals. Quite often, Luke will flip the Kingdom upside-down and show that the poor are blessed, while the rich are cursed. Luke will extol the actions of outcasts, and Luke points out that folks beyond the borders of kinship and religious homogeny are welcome at God’s table fellowship. This all sounds very “inclusive” and theologians like John Howard Yoder gained a great deal of fuel from Luke’s Gospel of inclusivity.
But isn’t this just a new definition of exclusivity? Don’t the elite, and the rich, and the pious get a taste of outer darkness in Luke’s vision? The Kingdom of God is just better news for some folks than it is for others.

Perhaps then, the Fourth Gospel isn’t all that different. Take, for example the episode with Nicodemus:
If we follow John’s line, Nicodemus is a “ruler from the Jews”; a “teacher of Israel” (v. 10). Nicodemus represents the classic “insider” within a particular power system. He is elite, he is educated, and he is of the right heritage. And yet he finds himself on the outside of the Kingdom looking in according to the Fourth Gospel.
Indeed, according to Jesus, if Nicodemus wants to become an insider, he must be “born again”. For someone who has achieved much status by way of his birth-rights, being born a second time isn’t all that attractive. Could Jesus be saying that Nicodemus will remain an outsider until he gives up all of the privileges of his birth status? – Perhaps, but I think there is more to it than that.

A distinctive feature of John’s Gospel is the relative lack of Kingdom language. In Mathew, Mark and Luke, Jesus speaks less about the “Kingdom of God” and more about “eternal life”. This makes the Nicodemus episode quite unique in the Fourth Gospel because Jesus uses this very phrase: Kingdom of God. Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3: 5).
Now, many of us have heard this story so many times that we forget how nonsensical this sounds. Nicodemus reacts like many of us would have reacted. “Born a second time” sounds absurd!
But if you’ve read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus often uses parables and riddles to talk about this kingdom. Johannine scholar, Tom Thatcher has argued that many of these sayings are riddles that guard key truths from outsiders.

As much as I hate to admit it, Jesus seems to have repelled more people than he attracted with this style. While I’d like him to be a seeker-sensitive Jesus, this is just not the Jesus I read about in the Gospels. Jesus made it difficult to be one of his followers. Folks like Nicodemus were treated like outsiders to force them into a hard decision.

This, I think, is the best way to contextualize Jesus’ famous “I AM” sayings in John: “I am the bread… I am the gate… I am the good shepherd…” etc. Each of these sayings is meant to force the reader into choosing Jesus — and Jesus alone — as the central symbol of God. And this is done to the exclusion of other religious symbols. This might be a hard word to hear (it is for me).

Enjoying the Mystery

My evangelical roots helped me stay connected to the Holy Scriptures and to the message of individual calling and salvation. I’m thankful for that. Later in life, I came to appreciate a broader palette for the Good News. Not that the early days and ways were incorrect but that the thinking and frame of reference was singular in a world of multiples.

The epistle of James shows that the mystery of the Gospel integrates the whole plan for the universe and humankind’s central role. It is an internal call for righteous connection to the Godhead and an exercise in participation for the communion of the saints. The plan for salvation brings listening to the primary place in the believer while always maintaining a quality of wholesome talk in our relationships.

The snapshots of duality are obvious in the reading. Listen/speaking. Outward work/inward holiness. Action/sitting in silence. Judgment and mercy. While it is tempting to portray James as a listmaker intending to exhaust the devotion of the faithful, his real challenge is to remind the believer that the mystery of Christ’s ownership on the earth has not yet been fully revealed. What Jesus did and claimed for his own is a world and a people uniquely tied to himself. We discover that mystery the longer we stay connected to him.

Until we see him face to face we will not know the complexity of his plan and of his work. So, like patient farmers, we await the revelation.

This morning our fellowship participates in Holy Communion as an exercise of obedience. The exercise presents the mystery of substantial and metaphysical, of heaven and earth, of physical and spiritual. Certainly of personal and communal. We participate in the communion fully aware that God is the one who is delivering the mystery and we are the recipients of the favor.