‘The Jesus Shape?’

Posted: May 9, 2017 in Uncategorized

Easter 5A, 2017 John 14:1-14

‘The Jesus Shape?’

Rex Hunt tells of an experience he had when he was a student at Melbourne University in the mid to late 1960s. He was having lunch at a table in the student union café when a member of EU (Evangelical Union), a religious group on campus, came up to him and said ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’ He was a very intense, but earnest fellow student. Rex was a bit dumbstruck and didn’t quite know how to answer him. He remembers smiling politely, folding his meat and salad sandwich in its waxed lunch wrap, and getting up to leave. ‘He’s the way!  The only way to salvation!  Get on board before it’s too late!’ insisted the fellow student and Rex left the cafeteria, angry, embarrassed and frustrated. The desperation of the student’s certainty both frightened and angered Rex. Years later Rex said the sureness of conviction, and the exclusivity of it, still made him feel uncomfortable.

Sadly, Pope Benedict raised the issue again when in 2000 he issued the papal statement, Dominus Jesus, which “set off alarm bells in most other Christian communities, as well as giving offence to the adherents of every other religion on the face of the planet” (Jenks/FFF web site). His paper claimed a unicity and salvific universality that was wedded to a literal and outdated theological interpretation of scripture rather than unfold the text for today’s world. It is no longer acceptable to claim such universalistic domination for Jesus.

This brings us to our text for today from John and demands of us the asking of the question as to whether or not this heavy ‘salvation’ stuff is what the storyteller John was on about with today’s gospel story? And while the John story seems to have been set within the context of a debate over differences, that key thing is that that debate seems to have been between those who were Jewish followers of the Galilean and those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy. The debate was between Jews who viewed matters differently and not between Jews and non-Jews.  The other thing to remember is that these differences were in no way small. They were perhaps profoundly different yet also held within what it meant to be a Jew. Here we acknowledge that it is the story’s modern usage that seems to have taken these differences to extremes in terms of identity and philosophical views. So, its these extremes we might explore just a little.

From all that we read about Jesus we can come to the not too original conclusion that during his life time, Jesus/Yeshua resisted questions about his personal identity. We read that when he was pressed, he deflected those questions toward the central motif of his teaching… namely that: the compassionate God is already present, and that the demands of following his way were clearly of a radical nature and ‘counter cultural in terms of human living. However, it is also true that for many years when the words ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’… have been used, they have made Jesus sound like some sort of heavenly bouncer, whose task was to keep people away from God. Not unlike the result of the fervent student in the café. The reality is that use of those words has made it harder for those without faith, those with not enough faith, and those who express their faith differently. When for any reason, they have been unable to agree to that claim they have been excluded. Of course, this is not an attitude exclusive to Christianity as religious authorities and groups of every age and creed have often exercised their religion in two ways: One as a weapon against others, and two as a way of protecting God from others. History seems full of such ‘weapon’ stories and events: The Crusades. The Inquisition. Sudan. Middle East.  Indonesia.  Northern Ireland, just to name the obvious.

And the gospel stories are littered with ‘protecting’ stories: People who brought their children to Jesus, Women who touched, ate with, and who pleaded with Jesus. Someone once said that, ‘ethnic cleansing’ is just a more extreme form of this same motivation. So, what do we do with these words: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’?

Well! Let’s not beat around the bush! Scholars tell us that it is highly probable that Jesus never made this claim at all, that the words were put into his mouth by the storyteller John! So, to hear them, we need to hear them differently. They are John’s way of making a point about the identity of Jesus for sure but for us they are not about identity. We come after the orthodoxy has settle in and so they are a challenge to culture as opposed to the identity of Jesus. Remember the reading from Mary’s Gospel. They give us a different approach that suggests we might read these words in terms of relationship with the God rather than describing a content of dogma to be believed, or about the identity of Jesus. These words can be an invitation to us to be on the journey which Jesus chartered.

Here we might see that Jesus, as sage, provides a way of passage from one place to another in our understanding. That becoming and exploring and doubting, is a path forward rather than a condemning of or belting each other over the head. I want to go to Mary’s gospel and suggest she has a better handle on this.

I think she is saying that Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He is rather, the pathway into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship. He is a way… into the mystery of our common existence. As Mary’s Jesus says; “Peace be with you! “Bear my peace within yourselves! Beware that no one lead you astray saying, ‘Look over here!’  or ‘Look over there!’ For the Child of Humanity is within you! Follow it! “Those who seek it will find it. Go then and proclaim the good news of the realm.

I think she is saying that Jesus is the truth about that common existence. He uncovers what is hidden, and brings to light the last dimension of human existence. Mary’s Jesus says; “Do not lay down any rules beyond what I determined for you, nor give a law like the lawgiver, lest you be confined by it.” In other words, be compassionate, keep loving each other. When he had said this, he departed. But they were pained. They wept greatly saying, “How shall we go to the nations and proclaim the good news of the Child of Humanity? “If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?” Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, and said to her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be pained, nor doubt, for all his grace will be with you and shelter you. “But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us Humans.” When Mary said this, she turned their heart to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Saviour.

Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other. Being the way the truth and the life was about Jesus being the Good News Event that challenged our way of engaging change; through compassion for, rather than victory over, and through peace making that made no sense in a violent culture. John Shea gave a good summary when he said: “Jesus of Nazareth was the triggering centre of an event which restructured the God-self-neighbour relationship.  This event was not only healing and transforming but mysterious and overwhelming’ (Shea 1978:118).

The words ‘I am the way, the truth the life…’  are not about the identity of Jesus but rather about the way of being human and that is about being compassionate and open to another way and that is what life is all about. As Jesus challenged the dominate system of his day, so these words contend with the powers and principalities of our day. In this person, we see a concern for the marginalised and the vulnerable (which included both the poor and the wealthy), and a rejection of the belief that high-ranking people of power are the favoured ones of God. The good news then in this statement is, I am suggesting, not about Jesus, but about God and us in the spirit of Jesus.

Or as Bill Loader puts it in his comments on this story: “Trust that God is the way Jesus told us and demonstrated to us.  That means two things: we can trust in the God of compassion in which there’s a place for us, and we can know that the meaning of life is to share that compassion in the world – there’s a place for all!

But then this important suggestion: “We can join that compassion wherever we recognise its ‘Jesus shape’, acknowledging it as life and truth and the only way” (W Loader 2005/www site).

Notes: Shea, J. 1978.  Stories of God. An Unauthorized Biography. Chicago. The Thomas More Press.


Hunt R E http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/

Bill loader wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au

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