Seeing and Walking in the Woods

John 12:20-36    

John’s Gospel belongs in a Sesame Street song.

One of these Gospels is not like the others
One of these Gospels just doesn’t belong
Can you guess which Gospel is not like the others
Before I finish my song 

Come on, Grover; they’re ALL circles.

But Grover would be right about John if he said that John was not like the others. The fourth Gospel portrays a different Jesus and weaves a story together that reads less like an account of actual events in the life and death of Jesus, but more like a spiritual fable.  Perhaps that’s why, not long after it was written, people called it the spiritual gospel. There are many reasons as to why John doesn’t belong with the three Synoptic Gospels [Mark, Matthew, Luke], but let’s focus on a few that exist in this chapter 12 of John.

In the other three Gospels, when Jesus heads to Jerusalem, we know the story is about to end. It’s one and done. Ride into town on a donkey; throw tables in the temple; eat Passover meal with disciples; get arrested; stand trial; suffer; die on a cross.

Not so in John’s story. In this case, Jesus goes to Jerusalem more than once. We’re looking at John 12 [the second time]. And Jesus doesn’t actually make it to the Passover meal. Instead, John has him eat a meal with his disciples the day before Passover. Why? Because the storyteller Gospel wants you to recognize that on Passover, thousands of lambs were slaughtered for the big feast. So for the story’s sake, Jesus is on the cross, slaughtered like all the lambs on Passover day; because from the very beginning in chapter one, John calls Jesus the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. No other Gospel does this. Jesus is the lamb lifted up on the cross, reaching across generations of Jews, reminding them of the Exodus story and the passing over of the Spirit of God in Egypt when all their doors had the blood of a lamb on them.

The lamb lifted up was also an invitation to non-Jews, who had historically been considered pagan for their rituals and unable to enter the temple and excluded from religious festivals like Passover.

All this talk of lamb and Greeks reminds me….

Sorry–couldn’t resist. I have some Greek on my mom’s side of the family.

Anyway, notice that the Gospel of John’s appeal is wider.

Perhaps that’s why, if you look closely at Western Christianity, John’s view of Jesus dominates theology, church doctrine, and Sunday school teaching.  The reason for that is because of something you might have heard of:

The creeds.

I’m not a huge church history buff, but it is important to know about the fourth century. Constantine, emperor of the West, figured out, so says the legend, that if he put the Chi-Rho symbol on his warrior’s shields and military equipment, they would be victorious. Some historians say that Constantine converted to Christianity. I’m not really convinced of that, but at the very least, he was convinced that Christianity would help the Roman Empire. So the Roman State became a Christian state.  Because war and weapons and food provision are quite influential, there were mass conversions. Look at this map illustrating just how much Roman Christianity spread during this time.

mapRomanChristianity.jpegSo back to the creeds. Just like in the 1st and 2nd century, 4th century people argued about who they thought Jesus was. So now that Roman Christianity had been established as a religious power, things like “ecumenical councils” started happening. In short, people argued about Jesus and ways to think about God, and which so-called Christians were too “out there” to be called Christians. So in the end, creeds like the Nicene and the Apostle’s Creed [after various revisions], became mainstream.

The creeds, for many, were a written expression of the belief that the Gospels were a literal account of the life of Jesus. So you can imagine how that becomes a problem–especially if you consider that John’s Gospel is more allegorical and symbolic.I say all this, hopefully not to bore you, but to remind anyone who claims to be “Christian” that much of our beliefs are rooted in a pretty narrow interpretation of the Gospels, centered around one century and the Roman empire. We don’t realize it, but this 4th century creedal thinking is embedded in many of the hymns churches still sing and in church doctrines—including the most modern, mega churches.

All this to emphasize that John’s Gospel appealed to non-Jews back in the 2nd century and still appeals to many Christians today. I’m not criticizing the Gospel per se—but I am simply pointing out that the John perspective about Jesus is dominant, and has been for a long time. And I think we should keep that in mind; it will help us to understand context and motivation.

It will also help us to look at our own perspectives and how they are shaped by what we hear, see, and read.

The end goal is to have a more balanced view of the Jesus—considering all the Gospels, and considering our own context. No one should just accept 4th century perspectives [or any other person’s, for that matter]. Instead, I hope that you will discover how your own worldview shapes your view of Jesus and the Gospels. Accept that the people of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine ate different foods, wore different clothes, practiced different religions, and saw the world so, so differently than you. Likewise, the people of the 4th century in the Roman empire were so, so different from those 1st and 2nd century folk in the Middle East.

So we have freedom to see Jesus differently.

The Gospels did, so why shouldn’t we?  Let’s return to the story with this in mind. John’s retelling of the Jesus story would be more appealing to non-Jews who previously might have been disinterested because they saw Jesus as a Jewish prophet or Messiah.  It’s no secret that the storyteller gospel was speaking to the Hellenistic world. And the narrator lets us know. Some Greeks were headed to Jerusalem to crash the big Jewish Passover party. Add another layer of context—the Greeks and Jews weren’t actually all that different. They both believed in a god; both would be considered “monotheistic” in modern-day terms. Both conducted religious sacrifices in very similar ways.

But as you know, really religious folk often criticize other religious folk who are like them; we have a tendency to make truth claims about our particular religion, asserting that how we “do” religion is better or that how we think about god is the one true way.

In this case, things haven’t changed much since the 2nd century.

The Greeks weren’t welcomed into religious circles.But according to John, they now had a way in. The Greeks go to Philip [a Greek name, of course] and say: We wish to see Jesus. Notice that they don’t go to the temple; they know they’re not allowed there.They go to the “shepherd” who cares for “other sheep” who don’t belong to his own fold.

Background note: there is a particular audience now. Considering history, the Gospel seems to be referring to certain followers of Jesus who were in conflict with the followers of John the Baptist; they were also painfully separating themselves from Judaism.  So what does Jesus say to these Greeks?

The hour has come to be glorified and lifted up.When a grain of wheat dies, it bears fruit.

The falling leads to lifting up, which leads to life. But it’s a different kind of life. Here, John actually borrows from Mark for once. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. And there’s more Mark, this time the Markan story of the garden of Gethsemene, when Jesus gets agitated because he knows that he’s going to be betrayed, arrested, and then killed. Curiously, though, in John’s version, Jesus is not in the garden of Gethsemane. Remember, he’s still in Jerusalem city with Greeks. Recall that in Mark, Jesus is the suffering servant. In John, Jesus is the one who is glorified and lifted up. So even though Jesus is troubled, he isn’t really according to John, because he already knows what’s going to happen. He’ll be lifted up by God, because that’s his purpose. His death will simply affirm that which Jesus knew from the beginning—that he was the Word of God, the logos. And now, because of God’s love for the world, Jesus will be lifted up.

Then John plagiarizes Mark again, but strangely. It’s the baptism story. Jesus hears a voice from heaven, this time not at the River Jordan but in Jerusalem, with Greeks. And it isn’t just Jesus who hears the voice, but everyone else, too. That’s why the Greeks think it’s thunder or an angel. But according to John’s Jesus, the voice wasn’t meant for him, but for the people themselves. Jesus already what was coming—they did not.

And then the sign: lifting up. In John’s, signs are a recurring theme. Water to wine: sign. All the healings: signs. Lifting up: a sign.  And notice John’s universalistic viewpoint: Jesus will draw all people to himself [that means Greeks, too].

So what are we to make of all this?

John, and all the Gospels for that matter, present a certain view of Jesus. It’s more than that, though.

You and I, the readers, are supposed to not only see Jesus, but to see ourselves.

The journey into the woods, for every character, is a journey of acceptance.If we see ourselves as we fully are, without the tampering of how we have been conditioned by others and our past, we then can take responsibility for our own lives. In the woods, some destructive behaviors and harmful thoughts come to the light. But if we are willing to see the light, we can walk in the light. And if we walk in the light, we can face all our fears, behaviors, and thoughts.

We can face them.

So many people since the 1st and 2nd century and up until now have asked this question:
Who is Jesus?

I wonder, though–is this life really about us trying to define someone we can only guess about? Or, is this life really about learning about ourselves, discovering light in and around us, and thus not fearing a path into the deep woods?

Maybe the question we should ask is:

Who am I?

Friends, see the light.
Even in the darkest part of the woods.

Walk in that light.
Notice others on the journey with you.

See and accept yourself, as you are.
Then walk in that light.

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Josh grew up in the Midwest before completing a B.A. in Theatre at Northwestern College [IA] and a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ [UCC], Josh has lived and worked in the Midwest, East Coast, Hawai’i, and Mexico. He is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Welcome Project PA, host of the Bucks-Mont PRIDE Festival, and he is Pastor of Love In Action UCC, an open and affirming congregation featured in a Vox Media episode of Divided States of Women with Liz Plank and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Josh has 20+ years of nonprofit experience, including leading workshops and training in corporate, medical, and academic settings, focused on diversity & inclusion, grant writing, fund raising, and program management. Josh is a fellow of Interfaith Philadelphia, and designs and coordinates HS and University student groups for interfaith immersion service-learning weeks. Josh also co-facilitates Ally trainings for LGBTQIA+ inclusion and interfaith cooperation. He is a founding member of The Society for Faith & Justice, and a Collaborator for Nurturing Justice, and a member of the Driving PA Forward team via New Sanctuary Movement. He also performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, and has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in religious and secular settings. Josh also enjoys running, singing, traveling, learning languages, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philly.

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