Archive for May, 2020

Pentecost, What, is it?

Posted: May 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Pentecost, What, is it?

What ‘Pentecost’ is, is a script full of symbolism which just cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event may or may not lay behind this story. Wind and flames and a cacophony of languages! Flamboyant speech! Great drama! Some claim it as the birthday of the church!

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”  As an opening sentence for us in the time of Covid-19, is a bit ironic. In a literal sense, many of us are still isolating to a degree. Or at least taking proximity caution which makes it not prudent for us to be “together in one place.”  Even as we begin to gather again it still feels difficult to contemplate togetherness — much less celebrate a great feast day like Pentecost — in this context. 

But in another sense, we are in one place.  We are in a place of vulnerability and grief remembering the loss of lives that have taken place and the lives still being lost around the world. We are in a sense together in our uncertainty.  Together in our loss.  Together in our hopes and fears.  Across all sorts of distances — geographical, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic — we are bound together as one people, one humanity, one planet, still facing a common threat that knows no borders.  Like the disciples in our Gospel reading for this week, we are huddled together behind locked doors, waiting for Jesus to come among us and say, “Peace be with you.”  Waiting for him to breathe on us.  Waiting for him to speak the words we need so desperately: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 

Pentecost — from the Greek pentekostos, meaning “fiftieth,” was a Jewish festival celebrating the spring harvest, and the revelation of the law at Mount Sinai.  In the New Testament Pentecost story Luke tells, the Holy Spirit descended on 120 believers in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Jesus’s resurrection.  The Spirit empowered them to testify to God’s saving work, emboldened the apostle Peter to preach to a bewildered crowd of Jewish skeptics, and drew three thousand converts from around the known world in one day.  For many Christians, Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church.

In Numbers 11 we read that Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

The ideas behind the New Testament Pentecost have some traditional roots within Judaism. What is common is that the very different biblical stories of the first Pentecost experience, are told in the most expansive and descriptive ways imaginable. That told by the storyteller we traditionally call Luke, the accepted author of The Acts of the Apostles, is dramatic. A heavenly sound like that of a rushing wind. Descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame. Patterns of transformed speech allowing everyone to hear what was being said in all kinds of languages. A moment of conversion resulting in thousands of people being added to a tiny community of faith. That told by the storyteller we traditionally call John, is personal.

The Spirit of God brooding in the hearts and minds of people as it brooded over the face of waters in the story of creation. What storyteller Luke describes as happening over 50 days, storyteller John suggests it all happened on the same day! And we should not try to combine or debase them into some simple chronological event. Ever since the so-called first Pentecost, this day has been regarded as a significant moment in the life of the church, even though we know little about the movement becoming that which we know as church.

The story Luke describes is a fantastical one, full of details that challenge the imagination.  Tongues of fire.  Rushing wind.  Bold preaching.  Mass baptism.  But at its heart, the Pentecost story is not about spectacle and drama.  It’s about the socially driven desire for common community awareness transforming ordinary, imperfect, frightened people into a way of being.  It’s about the disruption and disorienting of humdrum ways of engaging the sacred, so that something new and holy can be born within and among us.  It’s about human agency awakening to another way of being and doing, carrying us out of suspicion, tribalism, and fear, into a radical new way of engaging God and our neighbour. Pentecost day is the potential we meet in any and every day.

Let’s for a moment, think back to our own Sunday School days. Some of us if not many of us will have had what we know as a Pentecost experience and along with that will have gone what we were taught about the Spirit of God. Some of us were taught that the emblem of the Spirit of God is the Dove. Indeed, the dove of peace. My own personal challenge to the use of this emblem was when I found the family crest to have a white dove with an olive branch in its beak on a green mound and that the family motto was La Paix (The Peace). Another was when the Uniting Church in Australia chose the descending whit dove as its emblem, believing that this new church was a Pentecost church. They also included the flames on the UCA emblem.

I did wonder if they were Canterbury fans as the colours are Red White and Black.

The significance of the Dove is quite strong in that many church bulletins covers also seem to think the dove is the right emblem or symbol for Pentecost…The “sweet heavenly dove” of the Holy Spirit is popular and after all, there is much to be said for the dove. Rumour has it, it was a dove bearing an olive branch that flew back to old Noah on his Ark, signaling the good news of dry land after the great flood.

The Spirit of God also descends “like a dove” upon Jesus at his baptism, according to Luke’s gospel story. Traditionally a nice white dove suggests innocence, purity and peace.

And in medieval times they used to release hundreds of them in the cathedrals on Pentecost day. It is also said that they discontinued that practice when the doves rained down on the congregation more than light and grace!

We see the dove as gentle, graceful, and seductive, but that, according to storyteller William Bausch, is its limitation. It’s too sweet and sentimental and, finally, wrong’ (Bausch 1998:474).

Recent legend has it the Irish had it right when it came to Pentecost emblems. It has been claimed (and disputed I might add) that in old Celtic traditions the Holy Spirit was not represented as a white dove – tame and pure – but by a wild goose. Geese are not controllable.  They make a lot of noise. And have a habit of biting those who try to contain them. Geese, fly faster in a flock than on their own. And they make excellent ‘guard dogs. Ian Bradley, former lecturer in practical theology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, might be historically accurate when he says he can’t find any evidence to substantiate such a tradition in Celtic folklore beyond the creative imagination of George Macleod of Iona fame…

However, if experience has anything to say it could be that the Spirit of God is like a ‘wild goose’ after all. It comes not in quiet conformity but demanding to be heard. Its song is not sweet to many. It drives people together, demanding they support and travel with one another. It shouts a truth many with power would rather not hear. And it often forces those on whom it rests to become noisy, passionate, and courageous people of the gospel.

As Patricia de Jong has suggested: “St Paul did not have the benefit of Hallmark Cards, which thinks doves are just like love-birds, billing and cooing come Valentine’s Day.  But St Paul knows for sure, that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love – not the love sold to us by Hollywood and the greetings card industry, but the love of God which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, binding an aggregate of different and unlikely people together, creating new community on new common ground in the Body of Christ”.  (de Jong/FCC Berkeley Web site, 2005)

Pentecost is the wild goose of the whistle blower, the meals-on-wheels provider, the hospital visitor, the protester, and those seeking welfare and education reform, and employment opportunities for all. Today in the throws of Covid-19 it is likely that Pentecost as wild goose is demanding a new way of being, a way of compassion, understanding and goodness.

It is not surprising, then, that as we gather to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost, our biblical readings have nothing to do with the innocence and purity and peace, associated with the Spirit as dove. But on the contrary, “this Spirit is the living energy, the creative vitality that stirs the waves and whispers in the wind, that warms the sun and eroticizes the moon, that vibrates in the sounds of nature, begetting novelty in every realm of [the universe]”.  (O’Murchu 2005:96)

So, in this time of evolving Covid-19 let us make a bold claim. Let us claim that the spirit of Pentecost is alive in this place where we are. Let us then continue to embrace new and different ways of worshipping and thinking theologically, so that we might reflect the challenging and unique diversity of Serendipitous Creativity God in the world. Let us also celebrate the Spirit of play and wonder in this place as we celebrate together, care for one another, push old theological boundaries, and go about the life of this community.

And finally, let us continue to embrace the dreams and visions of the future which we believe makes this place both unique and important. We could rest in nostalgia and our past, especially our past. We could also approach the realities of planning for a new beginning, believing that Pentecost is something more than a so-called past event.

It is the story of God’s continuing present-ness experienced again and again. The amazing story of people coming to awareness through reflection on the life of Jesus that the same Spirit that moved in him moved in them.”  (Morwood 2003:84)

Remember also the place of ‘the plural’ in the stories. It is not ‘incarnate’ in just one person, but becoming incarnate in us as community. Pentecost is as people dream dreams and see a vision of justice and compassion in the world. Serendipitous Creativity God with us, Our God is present now, for us, Our God is in our humanity and our God is in us. We are Co-creators with Serendipitous Creativity God living, involving and engaging us in being on the Way toward being fully human.

‘Into the Arms and Womb of God, (Almost)’’

This last week has seen us run into a number of Lectionary events that should be mentioned today. For New Zealand Methodists we had and have Covenant Sunday or Aldersgate Sunday and for followers of the Three-year Lectionary it is Ascension Sunday. After some 50 days, following an agenda primarily set by the storyteller Matthew, even though the majority of gospel stories have been told by the theologian/storyteller we call John, we have run out of Easter type stories. Ascension Sunday for many is a one-day Season. A Season which uses a heap of ‘up there’ mythical language “as naively as any passage in the New Testament” to quote 1960s ‘Honest to God’ John Robinson (Robinson 1967:76). So, for Three-year types we now ask what we are to make of the Ascension story in 2020?

Bruce Epperly reminds us that there is every possibility that some of those who first heard or read the story of Jesus being ‘raised in glory’ (like one of the ancient Greek heroes) 70 -90 years after the life of Jesus, actually believed he ascended to a literal heaven and would return from God’s throne ‘someplace up there’ at the end of time  (Epperly P&F Web site 2005).

While these ideas may not be absolutely accurate as literalism is a later development Greek and Roman cosmology would suggest that this is how they usually made sense of their world. But that is not how we understand our world today. So, the Ascension story is a bit of a test case of our ability to cope with strange language, and primitive cosmology.

The challenge for us, it seems to me, is to find new ways and new phrases of contemporary significance beyond the traditional literal images of ancient knowledge for the telling of both the Jesus stories and the God story.

We now question these so-called Western concepts of cosmology because story and poetry and imagination and image are believed to be as if not more important.

It is here that we begin our exploration of the text.

In light of the ‘otherworldly’ interpretations many of us will hear today we will begin by being quite clear that the heart of this particular Jesus story is not about some pre-scientific form of space travel… Nor is it about a past moment in time, or about some possible future event, usually called the Second Coming.

It is a story about our calling as Christians to heal and transform the world. Thisworld.
To live faithfully in this life on the journey that Jesus chartered. To follow the Way! Likewise, when we are engaged in our God-talk it too needs to go beyond our traditional literal images. It is here that my theology of ‘The Almost’ comes into play and offers a Way that recognizes a sort of purpose in all things including the cosmos yet resists the need to define that which should remain Mystery. It also recognizes that language, despite our utter dependence upon it, is never quite enough.

What follows is an attempt to talk about this Mystery in another way. John D Caputo, a Catholic Philosopher theologian I think provides a way of do this. He uses ‘perhaps as the alternative name of God that gives us a new less literal, more dynamic name for God He says that the name of God is the name of an insistent call or solicitation that is visited upon the world, and whether God comes to exist depends upon whether we resist or assist this insistence. The insistence of God means that God insists upon existing. If we say that God’s essence lies in God’s insistence, we mean that while metaphysics turns on the distinction between essence and existence, what Caputo is calling here a “poetics” of the “perhaps” and what I call a poetics and theology of ‘almost’ turns on the distinction between insistence and existence. God is an insistent claim or provocation, while the business of existence is up to us—existence here meaning response or responding, assuming responsibility to convert what is being called for in the name of God into a deed.

So, where metaphysics theorizes the distinction between of essence and existence, a poetics describes the “chiasm,” the “intertwining,” of God’s insistence with our existence. In a chiasm, each depends upon the other, neither one without the other. God needs us to be God, and we need God to be human. The insistence of God needs us for strength, even as we draw strength from God’s weakness. God’s insistence needs our existence to make any difference. Our existence needs God’s insistence in order to have a difference to make. God comes to exist in our response; our deeds constitute the “effects” the name of God has in the world. But we should be very careful not to attach any metaphysical baggage to such talk or confuse ourselves with God. A theology of the event is not supposed to end up in pantheism or reinventing “panentheism,” which is a fetching idea and very inviting, but in the end a bit too far-fetched, still more metaphysics.

Two other people who have attempted the task of new images and concepts are Shirley Murray and Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan. Both are contemporary composers whose work invites us to imagine God or the sacred, differently, and to experience faith with some different accents. We know of some of Shirley’s creativity as her contemporary hymns are often included in our liturgies. But Richard’s work is new to me as it might be to others. One of his songs, “Ground and Source of All That Is“, has these image based words (three verses only):

Ground and source of all that is,

one that anchors all our roots,
Being of all ways and forms,
deepest home and final truth.
We live and move in you
We live and move in you…

Lover of ten thousand names,
holy presence all have known,
Beauty ever welcoming,
Mystery to stir the soul. 
We live and move in you
We live and move in you…

Nature by whose laws we live,
author of our DNA,
All compelling call to life,
drawing one and all the same.
We live and move in you
We live and move in you… 

(Originally from Upper Room)

Another who offers creative work is Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and theologian. Her continuing invitation to us all is to consider the feminine image of God.
Not in some cheap Hallmark Mother’s Day card theology, but addressing God in relational ways. In one of her many reflections she offers this:

The God of history,
The God of the Bible.
is One who carries us in Her arms
after carrying us in Her womb,
breastfeeds us,
nurtures us,
teaches us how to walk,
teaches us how to soar upward
just as the eagle teaches its young
to stretch their wings and fly,

makes fruitful,
brings to birth,
clothes the lilies of the field,
clothes Eve and Adam with garments newmade,
clothes you and me
with skin and flesh
and a whole new level of meaning
with the putting on of Christ…

(Winter 1987:20).

These offerings of ‘Miriam Therese Winter’ provide a different way of thinking theologically and imagining God but in reality, they not very new ways, because the feminine image of God, has been around for generations, and sadly was successfully buried by church patriarchy as ‘pagan’. So, thinking theologically, which the biblical stories of the Ascension requires us to do, means more than just interpreting our given orthodox biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past!  (Sallie McFague). But in the ‘orthodox’ world of certainty, belief and literalism this can be dangerous stuff. Rejection of ‘Good News’ in favour of control and single truth was and still is far too easy, not because it was or is good, or bad, but because it was and is new!

So here we are at a level two Covid-19 driven event, on the verge of what promises to be a new or changed life which after all, is the purpose of Easter Season and so, maybe we might imagine this time as the ‘womb’ of God birthing us to be wonderful, creative, and caring human beings… Born in the image of God the ‘Almost’; Living creative creatures born in doubt, uncertainty and in the vulnerability of human reality and yet always that which is yet to be always with potential and purpose. Pilgrims living the questions and exploring the adventure of being human, ‘on the Jesus Way’ The Way being an ‘Almost’ Way; a not-so-easy journey which Jesus first chartered. He gave his life to what it meant to be human in his time, on the front line of healing, exorcising and political and economic exclusion and ultimately death as in living life to the fullest.

Faith in God is as Caputo suggests; where God; the ‘Almost’ is not a safe harbour but rather a risky business. God is not a warranty for a well-run world, but the name of a promise, an unkept promise, (almost, a yet to be.) where every promise is also a risk, a flicker of hope on a suffering planet in a remote corner of the universe. We do not have to believe in the existence of God but rather in God’s insistence. We do not need to say God “exists,” but rather that God calls — God calls upon us, like an unwelcome interruption, a quiet but insistent solicitation. A theology of ‘Almost’ Amen

Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Book, 1967.
Winter, M. T. Woman Prayer Woman SongResources for Ritual. Oak Park. Meyer Stone, 1987.

Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) . Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.

God? That Which Comes to Expression in Us. Living?

I am aware that my sermon last week about the words put into the mouth of Jesus by the storyteller John: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’, and the interpretation I offered, may have been a bit technical and maybe even challenging to some of you. I am told that this phrase is often the subject of much debate in the pages of somechurch magazines.

If what I said, was a bit technical last week it was in perhaps the reliance on interpretation of language and not what some of you have read or heard others say before. And, it would be ok to say that this might have caught some of you unawares, but then it may have perhaps stimulated your imaginations.

For those of you who missed last week I wrote a little about how can we make sense of the claim: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’. Traditionally, these words have often been used, and come across, as exceedingly exclusive. As if Jesus, in the guise of a benevolent but first century ‘Terminator’, is making an ambit claim against other religions. Or is some kind of heavenly bouncer, keeping people away from God. Especially those without faith. Those with not enough faith. And those who express their faith differently.

The sermon was an attempt to say that Jesus is not the ‘way’ in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He was and could be the path-way the ‘Way’ into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship… Into the mystery of our common existence. Jesus is the ‘Truth’ about that common existence. It is what makes sense given what we know about human life. Uncovering what is hidden, and bringing to light another dimension of human existence is the true living. Jesus is ‘Life’ because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other. The collective, interdependent reality of being human. The plural ‘you’. The non-isolated and living individual.

So, the challenge for those of us who live comfortably with the title ‘progressive’, and let’s face it, that is not everyone, is not the existence of other faiths claims. For the most part, most of us happily embrace religious pluralism and spiritual diversity, so long as we don’t have to explain it too deeply but the extreme of diversity is a distortion.

The challenge, it seems, is our surrendering of the Christian story to exclusive cults and preaching gurus, to fundamentalists and members of the ‘religious right’, and to the new neo-conservative evangelicals. And that is not relivatism or surrendering to the moderate but rather acknowledging and celebrating the dynamic living evolving peace-based pathway. But that was last week.  What about this week?

Maybe I need to apologize beforehand because today’s gospel story – John’s prelude to Pentecost might be just as complicated as it is about the continuing present-ness of God.

One possible way into this story is to sense the differences between the religion of Jesus, and the religion about Jesus.

The religion of Jesus is without much text available to us and so it is found in the echoes of the sayings he spoke and the stories he told, not as law, but about how to live,  and by that I mean how to treat one another, how to re-imagine the world. Some might say living the golden rule ‘Do unto others etc.….’ is enough to understand the way Jesus lived, but his humanity suggests that there is more to it than that and it is this that we seek.

The religion about Jesus has often been the religion of literalism and fundamentalism. In this path we find ourselves leaping forward in the history of the Christian movement and the institutionalisation of Christianity and then its politicizing as the state religion. And when this path has been followed it is believing a certain story about an interventionist God, with the promise that if you do believe, you’ll be saved some day after you die.

The religion of Jesus however, is not a ‘supernatural’ story.  It is a real and applicable story. It is about how you can be made more whole, here and now, as a human being, and how you can help make the world more whole, here and now. From our very best guesses (thanks to the work of amateur sleuths and scholarly critics), we can say the message of the religion of Jesus was one of liberation and empowerment and compassion. It was about seeing the alternative way of living, the other opportunity of life freed from cultural prisons and seeing the economic, social, religious and political options within human systems of life. The religion of Jesus was about providing new or different pathways to experiencing and serving God in daily life, this life.

And from all we have puzzled over and learned, we can also say the message from the religion about Jesus was one too often aimed at implanting and maintaining fear as a motivator and thus frightening or controlling people, hating those who are different, skeptics who asked questions about the ethics or the benefits to whom. Look out is you were a zealot of any kind or an assertive woman.

The religion about Jesus emphasizes the ‘noun’ and sanctifies belief as concrete and immovable whereas the religion of Jesus emphasizes the ‘verb’ and celebrates the dynamic, living, moving, evolutionary nature of life itself. As some have said: The religion about Jesus is ‘Easter’. The once only moment of new life and the religion of Jesus is ‘easter-ing’. Crucifixions are real and happen whenever we trap something in its context never allowing it to evolve and be interpretive. “It’s about the miracle of new life coming from old, life out of death, right here and now.  There is nothing supernatural about this understanding of the relationship with the divine even though it feels so magical when it happens…  Life is about honouring that spirit of life that comes and goes as it likes, but when it comes our way it can make all the difference between feeling dead and feeling alive…” (Davidson Loehr UUAustin Web site, 2008). 

The stories we heard this morning from Philip and from John, are more about ‘easter-ing’ than ‘easter’. They are not about bigger miracles or stricter commandments or watertight creeds. They are about a dynamic, creative, evolving ‘present-ness’ in our midst. The truth is that the stories are conditioned and shaped by the language of their day: the earth is flat for them, bad things that happen are coined as sin and sin causes sickness, God as all powerful and distant. The three- tier universe supports this because Nature is part of the mystery but so are our stories conditioned and shaped by the language and imagination of our day.

What we have in common with the so-called Luke’s version of Paul, is that we too can claim: God is ‘not far from each one of us.’ Our God is present and active everywhere on earth… As Progressives our God is closer to that which is human. The incarnation is more intimate than theirs perhaps, or humanity and divine are less objective and more subjective than they were. Things in common are found in the slow development of human cultures and societies, the growth of knowledge, and the constant search for meaning as women and men tell stories and share their connectedness, and in the urging of us to love graciously and generously, to break down barriers between people, and to put an end to religious elitism and religious wars.

A progressive imagining may be for a more creative, compassionate, loving and vulnerable humanity. And rather than an attempt to control, extend and condition happiness and human achievement, we might embrace and rejoice in the knowledge that our God lives and comes to wonderful expression – in us, as us. Missing pieces we might have, vulnerable we might be, at the whim of serendipitous reality we might be and as ‘at risk’ that we are. In this might be a theology of illness that enables us to engage with the Covid-19 virus and take responsibility for our effect on the climate of our world and on its future as a planet where human life evolves. So, we might say, long may this species we know as human live, long live human living as we know it. If living can be a living of Jesus rather than about Jesus then so may it be! Amen.

John 14:1- 7

‘It’s What he Didn’t Say That’s Important’

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

One of the most pervasive and misconstrued texts in John’s Gospel is the suggested reply Jesus makes to Thomas’s questions about Jesus’s future. “We don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way?” And Jesus answers saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. The trouble is that it is almost certain that Jesus did not say that at all. It is on much scholastic work, agreed that the text is the author’s words seeking to argue that Jesus is ‘The Christ’.

One of the most horrible outcomes of this mis-construal is what we are seeing in the United States and in many places around the world today. Lack of tolerance with difference and the resurgence of racism, sexism, and an acceptance of belligerent bullying attitudes. Individualism gone mad perhaps.

Rev Hunt tells of what happened for him when he was a student at Melbourne Uni. In the mid to late 1960s. A member of EU (Evangelical Union), a religious group on campus, came up to his lunch table in the student union cafe of the university. ‘Do you believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life?’ asked a very intense, but earnest fellow student. Rex was a bit dumbstruck and didn’t quite know how to answer him. So, he just smiled politely folded his meat and salad sandwich in its waxed lunch wrap, and got up to leave.

‘He’s the way!  The only way to salvation!  Get on board before it’s too late!’

Here we have an inkling of what the power of a misconstrued text is. When read as justification for exclusivity ‘I am” ‘‘The only one” “believe or else” it creates an environment of, belligerence and intolerance and the escalation of disagreement.

Rex left the cafeteria, angry, embarrassed and frustrated. The desperation of the guy’s certainty both frightened and angered Rex. Years later the sureness of conviction, and the exclusivity of it, still makes me him feel uncomfortable.

Returning to our text we have to consider what John has Jesus say is bad advice. John Kirwan the former all black in promoting an honest engagement with men’s depression suggests that the ‘harden up mate’ and the ‘toughen up get over it’ response is bad advice

In our therapy-infused culture, this is considered horrible advice.  Feelings should not be “held in,” but expressed openly.  The author of John must have missed that lecture.  He gives a message not unlike the one that John Kirwan rubbishes.

“Do not let your heart be troubled.”  John has Jesus urging his disciples to move beyond their anxiety and to “trust into God and trust into me.”  (The word is pisteuein, more properly translated as “trust” or “faith” rather than “believe.”  Also, the preposition is eis, which means “into,” not “in.”)  John has Jesus asking his disciples to put their “troubles” in the proper perspective and to see them in light of God’s power.  This is not a lot different from “smile and get over it.”  See your pain, or your troubles, disappear by believing in what I say about this guy Jesus.

Another concern about misconstrued text is the fact that in the English language, the word “you” serves as both the second person singular and the second person plural.  Most other languages, however, have a distinct word for the second person plural.  Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of all uses of the word “you” in the Greek New Testament are plural.  To put it another way, if we read these texts as being individually addressed to us, we are mistaken.  They were not addressed to individuals, but rather to a community. When John has Jesus say, “Do not let your (pl.) heart be troubled.”  The disciples, collectively, have a “troubled heart.”  In Johns gospel, Jesus himself had also been “troubled” on three occasions.  He was “troubled” at the reaction to his raising of Lazarus (11:33), the approach of the cross (12:26), and Judas’ betrayal (13:21).  Now, this emotion is ascribed also to the community itself. “In the house of my Father, they are many habitations.”  The word translated as “habitations” is monai.  In the popular imagination, this is often taken to mean that the Presbyterians will have a room–indeed, a mansion–and so will the Catholics and the Baptists. 

Monai actually means a temporary resting place for a traveler.  It was associated with caravans.  In those days, there would be a contingent of folk who would go ahead of the caravan to “prepare a place” so that when the caravan arrived there, the camp ground had been prepared, the water supply located, and food prepared.  The travelers in the caravan would have a place of comfort to spend the night.

So, Monai is less about getting some fancy room in the hereafter, in a house separate from the people you can’t stand, and more about welcome, hospitality, and community for people traveling on a journey. This sentence is reminiscent of Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy 1:33 where he says that the Lord “goes before you in the way to choose a place.”  Just as Moses led the people into the Promised Land, so Jesus will lead his people to the place where he himself is going.  (“I come again and I will take you to myself so that, where I am, I and you might be.”)

Then we come to ‘The Way’:  “And you know the way–hodon–to the place where I am going.”  The concept of “the way” had been around awhile.  Moses had used the phrase “in the way” in the Deuteronomy passage.  Likewise, the Psalms refer to the Torah as “the way” (Ps 119: 29-34).  Moreover, according to the book of Acts, the Christian faith was first known as “the way.”  The word hodos, or “way,” is used over 100 times in the New Testament.  Its use here, however, is the only time it appears in the fourth gospel. 

Thomas is taken aback.  “We do not know the way,” he says.  When Jesus had announced, in chapter 11, that he was returning to the Jerusalem area, a place of danger, Thomas fatalistically declares that they might as well go with Jesus and “die with him” (11:16).  Thomas knew “the way” that led to death well enough, but not “the way” that leads to life.

Jesus spells it out.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Earlier in the fourth gospel, we were told that Jesus is truth (1:14), and “the resurrection and the life” (11:25).  Now, he is also “the way” itself. This is another ego eimi saying, which means that the most important words in this important sentence are the first two–“I am.”  Ego eimi is an emphatic way of saying YHWH, God’s own name, in the Greek language.  Lest anyone miss the point, the fourth gospel has Jesus also say, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

Thomas had asked, “How can we know the way?”  Here, the fourth gospel uses the word oida for “know.”  Oida is the kind of knowledge that you get from first-hand, physical experience.  It is the kind of knowledge that is objective and demonstrable. 

Jesus responds, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”  In this sentence, Jesus uses ginosko, which is the kind of knowledge one gets through intimate experience.  This is a kind of “mystical knowing.”  Thomas’s “knowing” is of the everyday variety.  Jesus’ “knowing” is the kind that comes “from above” (3:3).  This is consistent with an over-all theme of the fourth gospel, which is intimate relationship and mutual indwelling between Jesus and his followers. 

8 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

A translation of verses 8 through 14 is:  Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  Jesus said to him, “I am with you a lengthy time and you do not know me, Philip?”  The one who has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not trust that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak from myself, but the Father abiding in me does his works.  Trust me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.  But if not, trust the works themselves.

“Truly, Truly, I say to you, the one trusting into me, the works which I am doing, that one will do also, and that one will do greater than these, for I am going to the Father.  And whatever you might ask in my name, that I will do so that the Father might be glorified in the Son.  Whatever you might ask in my name, I will do. Do you see how the exclusivity and thus the fostering of belligerence and authoritarianism, is overcome by the inclusiveness of the plural you and the sharing of tasks or the glorification of the Father in the Son. It is the togetherness that the Author of John loses in modern use of the text.

Taking this plural, you further we see the concern for community when Philip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough–arkei–for us.”  Philip had earlier worried that they would not have “enough” (arkousin) food to feed the large crowd (6:7).  In his only two utterances in the fourth gospel, Philip is portrayed as fussing that what they have is not enough.  The food had not been enough, and now Jesus is not quite enough either.

John has Jesus responding with, “I am with you through a lengthy time–chronos–and you do not know–ginosko–me, Philip?”  The word chronos refers to earthly, chronological time.  It is distinct from kairos, which is “special time”–the in-breaking of God.  In ordinary experience, in ordinary “time,” one cannot “know” Jesus in an intimate, mystical way.

Jesus tells them that his words are the same as the “Father’s works.”  Then, he tells them that if they cannot believe his words, they should turn to his works.  What’s more, they will do even greater works than Jesus! 

A question this raises is “What could they possibly do that would be “greater” than what Jesus has already done in the fourth gospel?”  Jesus has healed the sick and raised the dead.  What can they do to top that?  Well maybe one thing remains:  They have not yet established an on-going community centered in Jesus, which follows him, and does his works.

Jesus assures the disciples that, even though “the way” may be difficult, they can call on him and he will do “whatever you ask in my name.”  This is not, of course, a flinging about of Jesus’ name as some kind of magic talisman in order to get what a person wants.  That is mere egocentricity.  It asks in our name, but not that of Jesus. 

To ask in Jesus’ name, as Ray Brown has said, means to be in union with Jesus.  To ask in Jesus name is, as Paul put it, having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2).  What would Jesus ask?  What would Jesus think?  Indeed, what would Jesus do?

In summary then, ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ is not about believing Jesus as the only one, and more about the need to be collectively motivated, and empowered.

The Way is not about right behaviour and more about a journey one takes as one trusts and the personalization is less about the individual and more about the relational communal reality of human life. And this makes the understanding of salvation, evangelization and exclusive identity very different indeed.

While the John story seems to have been set within the context of a debate over differences, that debate seems to have been between those who were Jewish followers of the Galilean (called ‘revisionists’), and those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy.

They viewed matters differently.  Perhaps profoundly so. But the story’s modern usage seems to have taken these differences to extremes. From all that we can read we have to have come the conclusion that during his life time, Jesus/Yeshua resisted questions about his personal identity. When pressed, he deflected them toward the central motif of his teaching…

  • the present-ness of a compassionate God, and
  • the radical or ‘counter culture’ demands he made on human living.

But it is also true that when the words ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’… have been used, they often make Jesus sound like a heavenly bouncer, keeping people away from God.  Especially from those without faith, those with not enough faith, and those who express their faith differently.

Religious authorities and groups of every age and creed have often exercised their religion in two ways: – as a weapon against others, and – by protecting God from others.

History seems full of such ‘weapon’ stories and events: The Crusades.  The Inquisition.  Sudan. Middle East.  Indonesia.  Northern Ireland. And the gospel stories are littered with ‘protecting’ stories: People who brought their children to Jesus, but… Women who touched, ate with, plead with Jesus, but…

One has to ask if ‘ethnic cleansing’ is just a more extreme form of this same motivation.

So, what can 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 it is highly probable that Jesus never made this claim at all. The words were put into his mouth by the storyteller/mystic John! So, to hear them, we need to hear them differently. If these words can be read in terms of relationship with the God rather than describing a content of dogma to be believed, these words can be an invitation to us to be on the journey which Jesus chartered. We can be people of the Way!

The Jesus of the Way as sage, provides a way of passage from one place to another. Becoming and exploring and doubting, rather than condemning or belting us over the head.

So rather than bullying Jesus into what he is not.

• Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership. He is the pathway into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship. This is the way… into the mystery of our common existence.

• Jesus is the truth about that common existence. He uncovers what is hidden, and

brings to light the last dimension of human existence.

• Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other.

As storyteller John Shea puts it: “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).

It is in this context that the words of Jesus, as suggested by John, come. ‘I am the way, the truth the life…’  And as Jesus challenged the dominate system of his day, so these words contend with the powers and principalities of this day.

In this person, we see a concern for the marginalized 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, 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” (WLoader 2005/www site).


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