Christmastide 2 (5-1-2020)

Bringing Light into a Darkened World

Read John 1:10-14

John the Gospel writer, is an interesting theological storyteller. From John we hear some of the most memorable sayings attributed to, or about, Jesus:

  • God so love the world that he gave his only son…
  • In my Father’s house there are many mansions…
  • I am the Way and the Truth and the Life…

John’s audience was made up mostly of Judeans influenced by a multicultural lifestyle shaped by Greek thinking.  His primary purpose in being a storyteller is to get this audience to think theologically on various God-events. 

Writing 90-100 years after Jesus was born, there is little or no ‘historical’ Jesus material in these writings.  Instead, Jesus is nearly always presented as ‘divine.’ According to John, Jesus voices the fully-developed Christian conviction about who he is, very much in contrast to the other three gospels.  So that’s the first thing we need to remember when we hear or read John. It’s the stuff orthodox religion (or ‘correct’ belief) and the Nicene Creed are all about: Jesus being divine!

The second thing we need to remember is that John begins his reconstructed story of Jesus within the context of late first-century Judaism, a culture dominated by the actions and power of the Roman Empire, and characterised by:

  • military power, the monopoly or control of force and violence; 
  • economic power, the monopoly or control of labour and production; 
  • political power, the monopoly or control of organisation and institution; 
  • ideological power, the monopoly or control of interpretation and meaning.

John wrote:  “In the beginning the Word was with God…”  (Jn.1:1)

When I was a youngster, passages like this were usually related as history. As a result, I tended to dismiss them simply because that which I heard in church did not match my experience of the world. The result was that I got an impression that I did not belong. I felt like an outsider because I could not believe what I thought other church people believed. Nevertheless, I stayed with the church: an outsider on the inside.  Why? Because the church was full of really nice people and I liked to sing. 

Though I formed my theological viewpoint as a naive adolescent, it has been reinforced over and over again through both scientific and theological study and, more importantly, years of living. I came to this conclusion fairly early: if we are going to successfully communicate the gospel in the 21st century, we need a story that reflects the fact we are living in a scientific, pluralistic age in which images that made sense to middle eastern peasants 2000 years ago sound like primitive superstition to modern ears.

The old cosmology of much of the biblical stories, spanning over a thousand years, and the traditional hymns and prayers shaped by those stories and their sense of the ‘supernatural’ or ‘divine’, is now found wanting, particularly by the people “out there”; the ones with whom we want to communicate. Our new religious story must be credible in the light of scientific understandings.  We need to feel at home in our expansive and changing universe.

While we, individually and culturally, are created and nourished by our past, generally speaking, we actually live in the present. Therefore ,we need to come to terms with the major problems we now face if the human race is to survive into the future and flourish in that future.

Today our world community is facing many crises:

  • environmental crises of pollution and climate change, particularly evidenced by the current extreme bushfire season;
  • political crises often fomented by terrorist groups;
  • economic crises of unemployment and burgeoning national deficits.
  • human crises; the displacement of large groups of people seeking refuge from war, hunger, oppression, et al.

On the other hand there are also many positive breakthroughs:

  • in medical science and technology;
  • in new developments in political systems;
  • exciting new insights as to how to live our lives.

So I am firmly of the belief that the old religious story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus, as conveyed by biblical John in the Fourth Gospel, has lost both its appeal and authority to shape present-day human lives.  It certainly has very little to say to me, and I am quite sure that I am not alone. Yet we still need a source of hope in face of disaster and despair.

And hope is indeed the light that even now breaks forth into the smoke-shrouded atmosphere of East Gippsland or the Snowy Mountains or southern NSW. There are no supernatural miracles to be found in the face of super-nature at its destructive worst; nevertheless God is there, creating new stories of incarnation. God is at work in people risking life to fight the fires, in the sacrifice of ordinary people on behalf of strangers, in courage of those who stay to protect their homes and animals.

As old myths and religious stories are increasingly viewed as intellectually implausible and morally irrelevant, they become less likely to fulfil their original purpose: to give people answers and provide a sense of stability and peace in daily life; to give us the hope we need to keep moving into the future. We need to harness our new stories to carry on the work Jesus and his early followers started. Given John’s stated purpose for writing his gospel, “that you might believe…and have eternal life,” stated his last verse, I have little doubt that if he were alive today, he would share my concern, and might well be co-authoring his next book with a modern theologian, such as Gordon Kaufman from Harvard University.

For Professor Kaufman, the ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness. In this understanding of Jesus, he suggests:

“…no supernatural authority or extra-human power… is invoked to compel our attention… The important point to note is that if we decide to order our lives in terms of the [human] Jesus-model, whether as churches and communities or as individuals, it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take – or fail to take – the steps to carry out that decision…  Only in this way will we be living and acting with a proper openness to, as well as accountability for, not only the religious and cultural pluralism of today’s human existence but the human future as well” (Kaufman 2006:32-34).

Together, let’s continue the journey into a new Christianity  in 2020 (at least for as long as I am here). I am pleased we have had this opportunity, so early in the new year, and via a story from John, to remember that we are on that journey. For as the Jesus of The Gospel of Mary is reported to have said: “The child of true humanity exists within you.”  I hope this is inspiration enough for us to start asking the big questions again.

An open, virtual door to the world