We form memories in our heads of events and people—long after the moment passed or the person passed. These memories, uniquely ours and certainly not entirely accurate—become the reality we place on that event or person.
I can tell you plenty of stories about my childhood and adolescence—even a story from a few weeks ago! My story, my memory of what happened, is a creative weaving of thoughts, feelings, images, sounds, smells, and cognitive processes. But my memory isn’t perfect. Sometimes I put two events together and make them one. I combine sensory experiences with other moments in my life, even though they don’t belong together. I remember eating a goat cheese romaine lettuce salad three months ago and actually, it wasn’t a salad that I ate, but in fact sautéed kale with pine nuts. I tell stories about my high school days and how my friend Derrick did this thing or another thing, but actually it wasn’t Derrick, it was my other friend Ralph.
This doesn’t mean that we all just lose our minds as we get older, because kids do it, too. I was reminding my nephew George the other day of a hilarious thing he said a few months ago. We were talking about candy and George said:
Uncle Josh, we don’t get much candy here…we’re vegetarians.
Of course, when I told George this story, he made a face and pointed at me, saying:
No, Uncle Josh, I didn’t say that…you did!
Only time will tell if George will remember my version of the story, or his own.
Now that isn’t to say that all of our memories are just relativism. Yes, we all have our own memories of people and events, but most of us accept particular, well-known facts about experiences and people. For example, someone dies on a certain day. We typically know and accept the date. Someone graduates from school. We also have a date for that. A person lives in a particular city, speaks a certain number of languages, etc. What matters more than the simple, surface facts is how we organize our memories. Do we remember that there was love in a person’s life? And how do we know that for sure? Was something funny or sad? Do we have regret about something or do we think it was all worth it? Did an experience have a purpose or was it just random?
Today is a good day to explore this because we’re going to talk about Jesus of Nazareth again, and boy do we ever enjoy assigning memories to that guy and the stories about him.
Overall we remember Jesus and the stories about him according to how we feel about them, who told us the stories, and what meaning we assign to them.
Enter Sarah Polley, a Canadian actor and director.
Polley recently made a documentary called ”Stories We Tell.” The basic premise: Sarah sat down with relatives and friends and interviewed them, asking them to talk about her mother Diane Polley, who died in 1990 when Sarah was eleven years old. Here is a trailer to give you a taste:
It’s a documentary worth checking out. I am intrigued by the questions Polley poses:
Why do we have this need to tell stories? Why is it so essential to us? And why do we have this sort of desperate attachment to our versions of the past? And how do we allow for or do we allow for other versions of that past?
I think that this is particularly important as it pertains to religious stories, because sadly, throughout history, there have been too many people who have tried to say that there is only one version of the stories in our sacred books. And their version is promoted, and pushed on you, and shoved down your throat, and if they are rich and powerful enough, their version of the story becomes the version.
Sadly, such domineering storytelling can also lead to awful behavior. Sometimes the way people tell Bible stories can cause great suffering in people—some interpretations can hurt, push down, marginalize, and even bring about violence.
Appropriate now that we are exploring the Gospel of John of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. This Gospel of John has actually been the basis for the dominant view of the story of Western Christianity, actually. Yes, you may remember such passages like: I am the way, the truth and the life; for God so loved the world that God sent his only begotten son…yep. And I’m sure you have heard of such things as the Trinity [Father, Son, Holy Spirit] and the divinity and sinless nature of Jesus? These ideas come from John.
Yes, this 4th Gospel, written after the other three Gospels and not consistent with the others, is a basis for much of the theological and structural thinking of the modern-day Christian church.
I want us all to remember, though, that all the Gospels are not biographies. They are stories told in a certain way to bring about memories of Jesus in a certain way, and they are all storytelling to a particular audience.
This idea is expanded after years of research on the Gospel of John by author John Shelby Spong, in his recent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.
Spong argues that John should be read as entirely symbolic and is never meant to be taken literally. Spong, along with many other Biblical scholars, state that no one person wrote John’s Gospel [or a disciple as many think], but at least three people wrote it over a period of 25-30 years. Also, the words attributed to Jesus were most likely not actual things he said. This includes all the “I am” statements. Further, the miracles recorded in John were not meant as historical evidence of actual events. Spong continues: likewise, the characters mentioned by name in John were not real people, but characters in the story, never meant to be thought of as actual persons of the 1st Century. In fact, John’s Gospel itself, argues Spong, seems to laugh at any literal interpretation of its own stories.
That view, of course, challenges the view of many who read John so literally and as a historical book. This perspective also contradicts hundreds of years of institutional church teaching that eventually created the Christian creeds and orthodoxy.
But I present to you this view of the story because it is in fact valid.
It has been a silenced view due to the louder voices who have read John as a history book.
Some have argued [and I agree] that right now, in 2014, in spite of having more archeological evidence and textual study that provides evidence that religious stories are meant to be read symbolically—
Many, many people are interpreting religious books more literally than ever before.
The earliest Christian communities did not take these stories literally. It was their tradition, both oral and written, to tell stories and to interpret events differently. How one person told stories about Jesus did not have to match another person’s story.
Why does this matter?
Because the Gospel of John [and other Bible stories] have been used over time to push people down, to make people feel guilty, to control, manipulate, and sadly, the stories have been used to justify horrific acts of violence, genocide, slavery, and prejudice. That is why you must recognize your freedom as you read the sacred stories. Do not be limited by what I say or write, or what someone else tells you to believe. John’s story was not meant to be read one way.
And we are not meant to see Jesus in the same way, to form the same memories, and to tell exactly the same story.
Instead, we are meant to see, hear, and experience the symbols in the story and to focus on the way Jesus lived.
But there’s still a white elephant in the room.
Actually, it’s a white lamb.
We’re conditioned to think that the lamb is sent to slaughter. We are conditioned to think of Jesus in the same way.
I am a sinner, you are a sinner, so Jesus must die.
Blood must be spilled.
But John’s Gospel writers were shaped by entirely Jewish thought and religious practice. There is a special day in the Jewish liturgical calendar, known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  During Yom Kippur, you can find the phrases lamb of God, died for our sins, and washed in the blood of the lamb in the religious rites. This idea is Jewish.
But over the centuries, Western Christians applied Yom Kippur symbols to Jesus. This led to the idea that you and I deserve to be punished for our sins. That’s why, some say, that God sent Jesus to take the punishment as the sacrificial lamb.
But Yom Kippur isn’t about this at all. Yom Kippur is about turning around and leaning towards the divine. It is about the human yearning to be one with God, in other words, to discover God’s love fully and honestly, so that this love can live inside you. The John community saw in Jesus a person who fully lived with love and offered love to all people. He was light. This Jesus gave them courage to love God and their neighbor.
This Jesus had shown them that to recognize God in yourself was to recognize your full humanity.
Look, I’ve always been inspired by John’s Gospel, but not because I think the stories are literal. I am inspired by John because Jesus of Nazareth stood with and up for the forgotten, the suffering, the prisoners, the hated, and the pushed down— all those our cultures push to the margins. This Jesus doesn’t make me feel guilty at all, actually, but Jesus’ story moves me to speak up for justice, to walk with someone when no one else will; to never stay silent about injustice, and to love people as they are, above all else.
I am also inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I remember memorizing his speeches in junior high. I remember watching videos of the march and reading his writings from prison. Each year in this country, of course, students and others participate in service projects in observance of MLK day. That’s fine, I guess. But one day out of the year doesn’t tell the story that needs to be told. King’s life and work changed the lives of so many who were suffering horrific discrimination. Violence. Torture. Death. I cannot understand that myself. All I can do is remember something King once said:
But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…this is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.
Reconciliation is still needed badly in our world [an understatement, I know]. Beloved community is hard to find. An overflowing love that seeks nothing in return? This is rare! No, racism has not been eliminated. Yes, discrimination is alive and well–even if it takes different forms and is called by different names.
So all of us have work to do, and it will take a LOT longer than one weekend! You see, the legacy of MLK is so much more than famous quotes and speeches, service days, and book reports. His life is meant to inspire us to reconcile the broken relationships and communities in our lives. We ought to be inspired to allow our love to overflow out of our comfort zones and into the lives of people who are different than us. We ought to build bridges of mutual understanding and trust and stand up against racism, prejudice, and oppression anywhere in the world.
And so it is with this Jesus, friends.
Why would it be any different?
Jesus’ life and work were and are so much more than quotable quotes, or names we attach to him, or church dogmas and doctrines. You see, everyone reads his story a bit differently and that’s okay. But the story of Jesus must move us to compassionate action and reconciling love, regardless of how we interpret the story.
So may the story of Jesus move you to treat everyone in your workplace with dignity, respect, and acceptance. If there is injustice, may the story move you to stand up even if it’s dangerous or unpopular.
At school, students may the story inspire you to never stay silent when a kid is being bullied, pushed down, or made fun of. May the story move you to love freely and to accept everyone as they are.
Don’t put up with racism or any kind of prejudice.
Don’t be silent when injustice is loud.
And in life, may the stories remind us of illuminating light, and of flowing waters of justice, and of beloved community, and of reconciling mercy and love.
And then, the story will not just be told, but it will be lived–again and again.