For Easter 6
My best friend is a Rabbi. We meet every Tuesday for breakfast. We were college roommates in a third floor attic apartment fifty years ago. His long friendship has helped me to read scripture through the eyes of a Jew. Of all the blessings in my ministry this is one of the big ones.
The Gospel of John is particularly problematic when read through his eyes. The Rabbi is not going to accept Jesus as the son of Gd. He is not going to resonate with the idea that we are engrafted on the vine of the Christ. His insights inform my own. To be engrafted onto the vine of the Christ is to remember who we come from and who Jesus was and, for me, still is; a Jew.
This of course flies in the face of history and tradition and yet John’s Gospel is almost a mirror image of what was going on in the Jewish community after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. That event became the catalyst for the Jewish and Christian communities to forge a new identity, to find out who they were in this new paradigm.
The Pharisees gathered what was left of the tradition and became the school of the Rabbis. Every local community of Jews would now meet in a center for education and formation. The primary focus of the faith would be in the family and around the family meal. Celebrations such as Passover would be in the home, the elder usually male head of the family would lead the ritual reading. The mother would light the Sabbath candles and say the blessing. Observance of Kosher food laws and other ritual practices distinguished the Jewish people from their neighbors and inter-marriage with non-Jews was discouraged. Survival for the Jews required a new definition of who they were and are. Surrounded by a hostile world, its evidence an almost eternal truth, the Jewish community is setting guidelines and procedures for survival and a new identity in Gd.
John’s community faces many of the same tests to their identity and survival. Some of the early faithful have fallen away and returned to the Middle Eastern and Southern European gods. The Jews fed up with the proselytizing of the emergent Christians, expelled many of them from the synagogue. Persecution that came with their identity as a new religion that did not hold to the Roman pantheon and their close relationship with the Jewish community, led to many falling away or running for their lives.
John’s almost mystical Gospel of Jesus as the Son of God, the Word, the Truth, the light and the life, were his largely successful attempt to craft an identity for the People of the Way in the face of a hostile world. It was a minority defense of his faith in the One God and His Son, the New Christ. John’s Gospel is written for a persecuted church that is trying to survive under the Roman Imperium.
Once John’s Gospel becomes the text for a majority culture it loses its initial purpose. It can become and has become an instrument of persecution to those, who will not believe. For those of us who have listened to these words over a lifetime, we can become blind to the potential of these words for harm. Words that should be sung and prayed and contemplated may and have become the tyranny of the majority.
The words of John in John 14: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to the father except through me,” isn’t meant to be a club, but an invitation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Anyone who knows Jesus knows that confessing a faith with words and not living it out in its fullness is a mockery. They are an invitation to live with a heart of love, a refusal to conform to the fads and fleeting allures of the times, to live with integrity and to seek justice with mercy and humility. It means to follow the steps of Jesus toward his death and resurrection and to hold Jesus like Mary in our arms as he weeps over the suffering world.
I can only show the love of God by becoming the best Christ that is within me, looking straight ahead and not worrying who and how many are seeing the same way as I. If those I meet along the way behave with compassion, they are true followers of the Christ whether they confess him or not. for the leaven of the Christ is love. And isn’t that the Truth of the Christ of which John writes?
I met with the rabbi at our regular Tuesday morning outing. Trying to explain John as well as my lack of scholarship in the area, he said,
“I talk to Jesus.
I chuckled, “When did you last talk with him?”
“I’m serious, how recently do you want?” he said.
“I know you’re serious, I was chuckling at how familiar this conversation is for me.” I responded.
“I’ve been praying most recently to St Anthony to help me find my wallet.” He said.
We both laughed.