When Context Confuses: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 22 May 2011

Revised Common Lectionary page for 22 May 2011 (Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A)

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10John 14:1-14

This passage reminds me of two common sorts of Bible-citing Internet personalities.  One likes to post the words of John 14:6 as magic words, the sorts that stop discussion cold.  The other likes to complain that people cite John 14:6 out of context.  I’ve not done the field research, but my hunch is that on the safe side, one could find just this exchange happening about once every three days or so and probably more than that in the weeks since Rob Bell’s book started causing waves.

What makes the gospel of John in general and the Maundy Thursday discourse so difficult, though, is that as a text, John constantly maneuvers the meanings of words, retreating here and flanking there and in general making very difficult the task of pinning their meanings down.  In other words, the impulse to say that a prooftext probably misses the larger conversation that a saying of Jesus responds to is right, but when one makes that move in John, the movement is not from isolated anarchy to situated clarity but from small-scale confusion to larger-scale confusion.  Such should not be too surprising; John is one of the toughest books in the New Testament, much harder than Revelation as far as I’m concerned.

The difficulty here is that the verbs won’t hold still long enough to mean what they normally mean.  The discourse begins with something as simple as “to go”: Jesus first uses it to refer to his fate in conventional travel terms.  Jesus is going somewhere, and his followers kn0w how to get there.  Then, when Thomas (who tends to ask reasonable questions) asks the reasonable question, “Where are you going?” Jesus changes the terms of the discussion: now Jesus is not going anywhere but stands as the way for someone to go to some person, namely the Father.  In the way that a road “goes” but does not “go,” so Jesus stands as the “way” to the Father as well as “life” itself and “truth” that is not a sentence but a person who just washed people’s feet.  Already in six short verses Jesus has implied the answer to a few questions and rendered those questions and more unintelligible.  Then things just get more confusing: the action is no longer going but seeing, and Father no longer names a destination but an object of knowledge, then as soon as that possibility is spoken, an object of sight.  The disciples have known Jesus, so they will know the Father.  But Jesus names that object of sight not as something that they have seen or that they will see but something that, from this point forward, they already have seen.

Now Philip chimes in, asking to see the Father.  And it’s not an unreasonable question, given that Jesus claims that, even though they haven’t left the room, from now on they’ve already seen something.  At this point, were my own feeble mind among those in the room, I wouldn’t even have enough presence of mind to know whether Jesus were speaking controversial words; I just wouldn’t be sure whether they made any sense or not.  Those who know the Thursday discourse in John know that things only get more confusing as the grand storm of prepositions, John 17, approaches.

Such confusion, of course, is not lost on the gospel text: the way John tells the Jesus story, Jesus revolutionizes reality to such an extent that even the laws of grammar seem to break down.  In the centuries to come (and it took about six centuries and not a few ecumenical councils for most Christians to agree how to read the gospel of John), the Church would set down guidelines for which claims flow genuinely from this confusing text and which ones stand as anti-Christian teachings.  But entering into the way that John in particular frames the moment, when the reality of the person Jesus renders linear thought and basic predication impossible, I have to imagine a scene at least as earth-shattering as any of the exorcisms in Mark, the healings in Luke, or the “but I say” sayings in Matthew.  Each of the four gospels shows a Jesus who stands as new wine, and for John, the old wineskin is the framework of language itself.  No wonder the Church started talking about the paradoxes of Trinity in the wake of this text.

Engaging closely with texts like these make me ashamed that, in moments when I was younger, I sometimes played the roles of the Internet Bible-citation-generator.  By the time I got involved, I was more the “show me the context” type, but that’s no better, given the sort of text that John is, than the one-verse wonders who still roam the digital plains.  Now, in my mid-thirties, I’ve taught through the gospel of John in four or five adult Sunday school and Bible study settings, and it still melts my mind when I get to chapter 13.  I’m more convinced than ever that this dizzying text is divine revelation, and I’m more convinced than ever that my job as a teacher is to name and articulate what makes the text dizzying, letting those whom I teach enjoy the text for what it is rather than robbing them of the Job-flavored humility that such a text ought to inspire.

May our talk about God stand unwaveringly on the gift of Scriptural revelation, and may our humility speak truthfully that Scriptural revelation outstrips our capacities to interpret.

 

 

6 thoughts on “When Context Confuses: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 22 May 2011

  1. Nathan, I appreciate your comment that John is a tough book; it saddens me to see the I AM and and the ONE WITH THE FATHER sayings dummied down to bumper stickers, or to hear secularist ridicule them.

    Without knowing your view of it I am one who takes joy in Christian mysticism; however, it requires the work of faith and love. I say “work” because the real mysticism of Christianity is not easy. The challenge of being one with the Father and being light in a world that does not recognize the light is one that cannot be met with a simple mental assent. Mental assent does not take one beyond one’s self.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, John.

    I agree with you on the mental assent part–one can assent to the articles of the creeds, but as I noted in the post, I’m not even sure to what one would assent in John 14, much less John 17. I actually preached John 17 a couple years ago, and the sermon title was “A Modicum of Mysticism,” so I certainly agree that the latter chapters of John (even more so than the book as a whole) require that sort of mindset to appreciate.

  3. Hi Nathan,

    Just recently started listening to the podcast, and it has quickly become my favorite.

    I definitely can connect with your comments on John; it intrigues me, and is one of my favorite books in Scripture, though I can’t say I have a hold on it. As a recovering proof-texter, I find more and more that when I go back and look again, the context proves that Scripture is usually not answering the questions we want it to, but doing something else entirely.

    That said, I do have to ask about your use of the word, “mysticism.” While certainly affirming that Christianity is essentially based in mystery, mysticism usually means something somewhat different. Would you be willing to define how you are using the word?

  4. First, thanks for listening and commenting, Carter. You came on right at the end of the school year, when things slow down until August, but I assure you that we’re planning to ramp up again come August 2011.

    Second, when I call for a certain kind of mysticism when reading John, I’m trying to name a constellation of phenomena that includes St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich and involves, among other things, a transcendence of normal predication in language dealing with God. So, for example, St. John of the Cross writes of seasons of aridity in Obscure Night of the Soul even though, in normal conversations, souls are immaterial and therefore not subject to wetness or dryness. Or, to go an entirely different direction, Julian writes of the pity of Christ for the sinner in terms of a vision of a divine mother even though the historical Jesus of Nazareth was, by all accounts I’m aware, a man rather than a woman. Or, to take it back to the gospel text, Jesus in John 14 begins talking about himself as a traveler, who is normally distinct from the road (Greek hodos, which means “road” or “way”), but then he calls himself the road (hodos) itself. Then he makes a statement about seeing not in standard past-tense (“you have seen”) or future tense (“you will see”) but as a sort of double half-pike future-perfect (“you will always have seen”). Those sorts of moves are the things that I call mystical.

  5. Thanks for the respond, Nathan. Okay, so it’s the stretching of language beyond it’s normal meaning in order to describe what is essentially indescribable. Is that a fair summary? Is this similar to Aquinas’ analogical approach to language? Do you see this mystic approach as necessary when describing God?

    Sorry if these are stupid questions, this is an area I’m not very familiar with. I appreciate the interaction.

  6. Certainly that’s one aspect of mysticism, and certainly that aspect that helps me to read John without succumbing to the temptation to reduce the stark contradictions in the text to more manageable paradoxes.

    I think you’re right to point to Aquinas here–his analogical approach to theology is, I think, one of the more faithful ways that the Christian tradition has approached such strange moments in the revealed life of God.

    And no, they’re not stupid questions, unless I’m also wrestling with stupid questions. 🙂

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