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).