Sunday, March 29, 2015

The theme of the Gospel of John: Who is Jesus?

The Gospel of John is the last-written of the gospels in the New Testament collection. But John has the same main idea as the gospel that was probably written first, the Gospel of Mark: Who is Jesus? As we saw last time, Mark carries the question on quotes from the Old Testament, on the testimony of John the Baptist, and largely on Jesus' miracles. It is only after a long build-up in Mark that we see Jesus address the question himself.

In John, we see a very different approach to the same main idea. In John, we have a whole collection of times when Jesus comments on the question of who he is. There are known as the "I am" sayings, and they are a common enough topic for study among Christians. Rather than study them individually here, I want to mention them as backdrop to another, closely-related point. Here are some of the key statements of Jesus from the Gospel of John:
  • I am the good shepherd
  • I am the bread of life
  • I am the vine, you are the branches
  • I am the light of the world
  • I am the way and the truth and the life
  • I am the resurrection and the life
At times we see things that sound like divine traits; after all, this culture took for granted that "The LORD is my shepherd". Throughout, we see claims of Jesus' unique place in our relation to God. But to get some perspective for what he is saying, take a look at some "I am" sayings that are not said:
  • I am your boss
  • I am the great and powerful
And when he comments on receiving the title "Master" from them, he makes those comments while he is washing their feet.

All of the "I am" sayings are about how he provides for us, guides us, leads us, helps us, pours out his life in love, and restores us to life. All of the "I am" statements show him as a blessing to us.

If our idea of "divinity" is master / boss / great and powerful, then it is not a claim to that kind of divinity at all. He rejects the self-serving approach to power -- not just for himself but implicitly on the Father's behalf as well. Jesus' sayings are a challenge to see God in a different way: that is who Jesus is.

And as he says, "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The theme of the Gospel of Mark: Who is Jesus?

"Who is Jesus?" may be the most debated question in the history of the world. The Gospel of Mark, probably the earliest written biography of Jesus, has the question of Jesus' identity -- and authority -- as one of its major themes. That question is the central point of many individual episodes, and a strong contender for the theme of the writing as a whole.

The action along that theme builds as we read:

  • Jesus' introduction makes you wonder who he is: his introduction by the biographer, by John the Baptist, by the voice from heaven
  • Jesus' actions make you wonder who he is
  • Jesus' actions make both his disciples and his opponents wonder aloud who he is (or who he thinks he is); the disciples do not yet openly discuss their questions with Jesus. 
  • Jesus privately raises the question with his disciples: "Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?" We get Peter's answer of "Christ" or "Messiah" on the table. 
  • After Jesus clears the Temple, at his next visit he is met by people wanting to know, "Who put you in charge?" In his reply he reminds them of John the Baptist -- basically where Mark had started his narrative, with John's testimony -- and the voice from heaven. 
  • Jesus publicly challenges the idea whether "Messiah" is really merely David's descendant. 
  • The question, "Who are you?" is a key part of the confrontation at Jesus' trial, where Jesus' answer has the high priest rending his robes at the blasphemy and saying they don't really need witnesses anymore. 

Mark records more events that address the same theme than I have mentioned in the sketch above.

I have read claims by scholars of some reputation, claims to the effect that the earliest Jesus remembered by the earliest followers was one who simply traveled and taught, and that his having some sort of special identity was a late addition tacked onto Christianity as time went on -- a late corruption by people who didn't really know Jesus. And yet Jesus' identity is a major theme of the Gospel of Mark, which is (to the best of current knowledge) the earliest biography that we have. A significant number of scholars are willing to admit a date for Mark that is before or near the date when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year AD 70, and well within the lifetimes of people who personally knew Jesus. So the question of Jesus' identity is there from the earliest stages.

What later gospels add -- the Gospel of John in particular -- is whether Jesus himself ever gave his own answer to the question. That will be the topic for an upcoming continuation of this post: in reviewing the "I AM" passages of the Gospel of John, there are some things that I have noticed now that had escaped by notice before.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Love and the problem of commanding it

It's such a human reaction: we're ordered to do something, and our first reaction is to say "No." We say it with all the thoughtfulness of a two-year-old who has just learned to use the word. We say it for the same reason: We don't see how else we can assert ourselves, other than being contrary. So if you tell a two-year-old, "Enjoy yourself!" you might well hear "No!"

What God requires of us -- that is met in loving each other. Think about what God is telling us to do, the lives he is telling us to build. Do we want reconciliation with our families, a large circle of friends, a rich network of fulfilling personal relationships? Do we want to be a positive force in the world and in each others' lives? Do we want to become skilled and accomplished at lifting up other people? Do we want to learn to speak words that people will hold onto like a life-raft when life swamps them? Do we want the pure joy of having a hundred people that are the "friend that is closer than a brother"?

In some ways, God's command is that we live out our deepest desire.

Why exactly do we have such a problem with it?

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Love with mind: The value of remembering

In my quest to explore the mind's role in love, I'm considering the value of remembering.

Here are things we might remember:

* The name of someone we just met
* Someone's birthday or anniversary
* Someone's favorite food
* Someone's usual order at a restaurant
* Someone's pet peeve
* A time that the other person helped us
* A time that the other person accomplished or achieved something
* The kind words that they spoke
* The favor that they did
* Someone's favorite musician or song
* Someone's favorite book, author, or movie
* Someone's favorite outfit, if they're into that kind of thing
* Someone's favorite hobby
* Someone's favorite game
* Someone's favorite topic of conversation
* Someone's area of expertise

Our minds can help us focus on noticing the other person. If we value them, if we consider it worthwhile to get to know them, then we will become familiar with them. We will notice and remember their likes and dislikes.

This is the internet, so it bears mentioning: this is not to be done in an intrusive, stalker-ish way. It is not love to pry or dig for information that the other person has not given us. Instead, whenever someone reveals or shares information, we can consider that as worthwhile, and keep the knowledge and understanding of the other person as a treasure.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

God's love in action - and the tie between understanding and forgiveness

I had the privilege this weekend to meet Bob Miller, founder of Texas Equusearch. In itself, the organization is extraordinary, having earned a place along others in the "God's love in action" series where I have highlighted some of my personal heroes. His organization searches for missing persons and is financed completely by donations. They have recovered many people alive. In other cases, they have recovered bodies, bringing the families the only things they can offer at that stage: support and closure. To hear him speak, Miller is deeply moved by his Christian faith. He is also moved by his own tragedy: some thirty years ago, his teenage daughter Laura went missing. It was over a year before her body was discovered. He knew not only the nightmare of having a missing child, but also how much room there was for somebody to be doing something more. He vowed to be that something more, that no other family should go through it alone, as his family had. So from his own tragedy, that organization was born. The organization did not come right away: first, there was the heartbreak and the devastation. Miller spoke movingly of how close he came to suicide. It's from that depth of anguish that he has come back.

So for all the hundreds of families he has helped over the years, he has never forgotten his daughter, Laura. Her photo is part of all the publicity work for the organization. His daughter's body was one of several found in a serial killer's dumping ground. They have yet to positively identify Laura's killer, but Miller believes he knows the identity based on the evidence and the police work to this point, regardless of whether there is enough evidence for a court case. What is his reaction to the thought of his daughter's killer? He feels sorry for him. He has read the man's childhood history, and feels compassion for him. He says he forgives him. (A photographer at the event where I met him was openly disdainful when Miller said that -- or was the disdain at the the part where Miller said he believes good is stronger than evil? Anyway.)

Knowledge -- loving with the mind -- led Miller to compassion. The mind has a reputation for being cold and detached. And here, that may have been the only thing that opened the door to understanding: the mind's ability to put enough room to breathe between itself and the visceral pain of having lost his daughter. He still feels that visceral pain, let there be no doubt. But with his mind at work, he was able to gain understanding, gain perspective, react with wisdom and grace rather than raw pain alone.

Real forgiveness comes from love. And compassion is built on understanding. So it seems that, if we want to forgive someone, we need to understand them: not excuse them, but understand.