Posts Tagged ‘Christ’

JOHN 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

The true vine is a gardening metaphor that helps us better understand our relationship to the ultimate reality named Love. In the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, the believer is a branch that abides in and grows out of Christ, “the true vine,” who is in turn rooted in the deep supply and source of Life, the divine ground (in John’s Gospel, “the Father”).

Just as the “true vine” draws its nutrient from the ground and metabolizes this nutrient into its own living structure and process, so each branch that grows from the main stem receives the material energy it needs from the true vine and further transforms it into leaves, fruit, and seeds. Just as Christ relies upon God, each believer depends upon Christ – and, notice, Christ (and God through Christ) depends also upon the believer for the produce that signals health and secures a reproductive future for the plant entire.

In other words, the Gospel writer sees God, Christ, and the authentic believer as together comprising a mystical and organic unity. Beneath everything as the ground of all being is God. Rooted in and growing out of this ground is Christ, who carries upward into embodiment the essential Love that God is. And branching forth from Christ are the believers, men and women just like you and me who further this Love-energy into the fruits of justice, compassion, and forgiveness.

How do we know that these virtues in particular are the genuine fruits of God-as-Love? One word: Jesus.

ROMANS 1:16-17, 3:22b-31

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

22For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

The apostle Paul is credited with the “invention” of Christianity. He is the one who proclaimed Jesus as the long-awaited messiah of the Jews and introduced him to non-Jews (Gentiles) as the “Lord and Savior” of a new mystery religion. We need to remember that Paul’s letters to various church-starts and key leaders of the early movement were written 10-20 years before the first Gospel (Mark, c. 70 CE) told the story of Jesus. The canonical Gospels inherited Paul’s makeover of Jesus as Christ (of Jews) and Lord (of Gentiles), and their later elaborations incorporated an oral tradition of Jesus-sayings into this mythological framework.

Being a Jew himself and a member of the puritanical sect of the Pharisees, Paul would have been dead-set against the lifestyle reputed to the actual Jesus who had been indicted and executed under the Law a full generation earlier. Jesus had been an aggressive proponent of desegregation and equal rights under the inclusive and unconditional forgiveness of God. He reached out to “sinners” and kept company with outsiders, insisting that they and not the so-called righteous were closest to God. For his transgression, Jesus was found guilty and paid the penalty of death.

Somewhere on his way to prosecute the fugitive followers of Jesus, Paul underwent a conversion experience whereby he realized that the Law, which was the orthodox definition of righteousness, had condemned a truly perfect and righteous man (Jesus) and thereby nullified its own authority. Jesus had upheld the genuine spirit of the Law (love of God and neighbor) but its heavy net of quibbling rules was used to bring him down. As a consequence, the Law fell victim to its own fatal self-contradiction.

What had seemed a victory for the Law and and orthodoxy was really its terminal defeat, and the one who had been condemned under the Law came out vindicated in the end. (This is likely where the metaphor of resurrection occurred to Paul.) Before he became Christ and Lord, Jesus was the man whose relentless faith and boundless love had saved the world from religion. As Paul saw it, “the faith of Jesus” in his followers upholds, reveals, fulfills and transcends the true intent of the Law. They are free at last.

JOHN 10:1-10

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

This is where it becomes critical to keep in mind that the Gospel writer (of John) is giving us his presentation of Jesus after a half-century of history has already passed under the bridge. Any responsible reading of the Gospels needs to distinguish between the First Voice of Jesus himself and what the author might have Jesus say or do in response to his own (the author’s) context of challenges and concerns.

By way of illustration, just setting side by side the Gospels of Mark and John will reveal two very different Jesuses – however awkward that sounds. The direct, urgent, and concrete teaching of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel cannot be matched across the aisle with the lofty, abstract, and metaphysical teachings of Jesus in John. To put it baldly: they are not the same Jesus.

It helps to know that Mark was written during a time of rising apocalyptic expectations, out of the fray of the Jewish-Roman War that climaxed with the temple’s destruction in Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, came after the messianic sect of Christians had separated from Judaism and begun its productive conversation with Greek gnosticism and the mystery religions. Had the author of Mark opened John’s Life of Jesus, he would doubtless have been baffled and very possibly not even recognized the Jesus presented therein.

In the intervening decades much had happened that made a revision (or an altogether new telling) necessary. The Jewish-Roman War ended in the year 73CE, orthodox Judaism officially excommunicated Christians from fellowship by the mid-80s, and at least a few Roman emperors had tried to eliminate the Christian movement by legislation and persecution.

Along the way there arose a number of messianic pretenders, brave souls who claimed to carry the mantle of Jesus for the next phase in his kingdom campaign. Apparently, many had been taken in by these pretenders – these thieves and bandits. The shifting allegiances within the Christian community had resulted in division,  confusion, and more violent crackdowns. This was the historical context of the community for whom John is (re)telling the story of Jesus.

We should be careful, then, not to superimpose our contemporary questions and concerns and make them assumptions in our reading. (Although, in keeping with the New Testament Gospels as reconstructions of Jesus for their times, there is nothing in principle that should prohibit a fresh retelling for our own time and setting. In that case, the challenge would be to keep the First Voice of Jesus from getting lost in our portrayal.)

This passage is not about the superiority of Christianity to other religions. Instead it’s John’s answer (through the mouthpiece of his Jesus) to the then-pressing question: Who is the real Christ? Most of the pretenders were guerrilla leaders, wonder-workers, or esoteric spin-masters. John’s answer was simple: Just listen, really listen, and you will hear his voice.

This was – and still is – the First Voice of Jesus himself. Jesus didn’t come to lead a rebellion, do magic tricks, or reveal some secret truth. He taught love, loved life, and lived entirely in the moment.

That’s where abundant life flows.