Recognising the Jesus Shape

Posted: May 3, 2023 in Uncategorized

Recognising the Jesus Shape

A young woman I know from a little time back contacted me online a few weeks back and after catching up on life events she asked me about the exclusivity of the text that taken literally make some pretty exclusive claims of Jesus of Nazareth. ‘I am the Way The Truth and The Life, and its only through me that you make it’ (Paraphrased) I remember my feelings when thinking about how to respond to her in a way that would encourage her to keep asking those sorts of questions without feeling scared of what she might learn.

Rex Hunt tells a similar story from his university days in the mid to late 1960s. He tells of a member of EU (Evangelical Union), a religious group on campus, coming 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?’ he was 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. The earnest friend called after him ‘He’s the way!  The only way to salvation!  Get on board before it’s too late!’

Rex left the cafeteria, angry, embarrassed and frustrated. The desperation of his certainty both frightened and angered him. Years later the sureness of conviction, and the exclusivity of it,
still made Rex feel uncomfortable. While my friend wasn’t in any way certain and she was genuinely asking because she wanted to know for herself how to deal with this text, I however felt the weight of the tradition and the hundreds of years of question becoming doctrine and then worse dogma. How does one share the good news when it is buried in historical power and control and hidden behind years of Super-naturalism, Interventionist deity escapism, ecclesiastical ordering and hierarchical posturing.

And still more years later, this issue was again raised when in 2000 a former Pope of the Roman Catholic Church issued a papal statement, Dominus Iesus, 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).

Rex reminds us to ask this question of today’s text: Is this heavy ‘salvation’ stuff what the storyteller John was on about with today’s gospel story?

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 (often called ‘revisionists’), and those who were Jewish followers of Jewish orthodoxy. They viewed matters differently.  Perhaps profoundly so. A significant challenge here to see that even among followers of the Way there was difference of thought and maybe even belief. What seems is that this story’s modern usage is been taken to extremes. So perhaps we might explore this first.

One of the learnings from examining, the text is that during his life time, Jesus/Yeshu’a resisted questions about his personal identity. And when pressed, he deflected them toward the central motif of his teaching… e.g., 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.  I think this is where literalization (the taking too literally) limits and distorts meaning. Recent studies of the years pre Christianity and pro Jesus movement perhaps show a wide range of differing ideas and interpretations. If we thought diversity is new then we are sadly very wrong. And this statement about the exclusivity of Jesus suggests that difference of opinion was still strong and perhaps even more so as the Gospel moved from the Jewish world into the gentile world. We note that this was a gradual slow evolutionary development of thought also. We also note that 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, to name but a few. 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…

As someone pointed out just recently when talking about racism and justice in New Zealand land wat times ‘ethnic cleansing’ is just a more extreme form of this same motivation. The ownership of certainty, of fact of absolutes is a dangerous thing. So, what can we do with these words: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’…

Well, we need to be strongly upfront but not dogmatic or lacking in humility. Scholars tell us it is highly probable that Jesus never made this claim. That the words were put into his mouth by the storyteller/mystic John! In the 2nd century in response to his perception of the context he knew at the time. So, to hear them, we need to hear them differently from that of John’s hearers. If these words can be read in terms of relationship with the God rather than describing a content of dogma to ‘believe’ , these words can be an invitation to us to be on the journey which Jesus chartered. The Way of Jesus has great value because it is an alternative to the orthodox, a new Way of being in the world. The truth is bigger and more complex than simple fact, A different Way of relating to with and for the world. Not unlike the call of science re climate change and a sustainable planet. A Way that is aware of the dangers of making things out of values. Love is not just making oneself vulnerable to another it is that which changes things forever.

That Jesus, 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 being suggestive, rather than bullying Jesus into what he is not. • Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or dare I say it a preferred model of leadership. He is as ‘Way’ the pathway into the depths of the God/self/neighbour relationship which is always more than the sum of the thoughts or actions. Perhaps as Rex suggests The Jesus Way is the way… into the mystery of our common existence. Jesus is the truth about that common existence, not the exclusive owner of it. 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. He is an example of the social interdependence at the core of all human relations

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 they were culturally socially a religiously and ideologically challenging and that’s likely why the author of John used them and exposed them to literalization and cultural distortion. 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. Empires are human organizations subject to human distortion by the search for power and control.

The good news then in this statement is, Rex suggests and I concur is that it is not about Jesus, but about that which we name 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. Stories of God. An Unauthorized Biography. Chicago. The Thomas More Press, 1978.

Rex Hunt Website


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