Multi-coloured Meanings of those Red-letter Words in John 14:1-14

coloured pencilsWay back when I first began going to church, I had one of those bibles…and I dare say many of you have probably had one too…I had a red-letter bible. For those of you who’ve never had one, a red-letter bible is a bible where all the words of Jesus are printed in red and for a long time I actually believed that if it was printed in red, then Jesus actually must have said it and there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Christians who still believe that if they are printed in red they are the actually words of Jesus.

When I first began reading the New Testament, many of those red-letter words were difficult to read. The 14th chapter of the Gospel according to John was just one of the many texts that I read with great trepidation. “I am the way, the truth and the life no one comes to the Father except through me.” These particular words in red led me to believe that my family and most of the people I loved, were doomed, because they didn’t believe in Jesus. So, you can imagine my delight when I went to a young adults’ retreat and one of the pastors told us that just because words are printed in red, it doesn’t mean that Jesus actually said those words. I remember going back to my home parish and asking my pastor why he never told us about the things he was taught at the seminary about the words of Jesus and I can still hear him answering, “Most laypeople aren’t ready to hear that. It would destroy their faith.”

It’s an old argument amongst the clergy. It’s as if some of, “them” whoever “they” are, believe that the world as they know it will come to an end as they know it if they were to let lay-people in on the secrets of the trade. Should we or should we not teach laypeople about the historical critical methods that we all learned in seminary. When I say we all learned, I’m talking about the vast majority of clergy from the mainline denominations, like the Lutheran church, the Anglicans, the United Church, Mennonites, even Roman Catholics, and I dare say more than a few Baptists. We all learn the historical critical methods that academic scholars have been perfecting over the years. But the sad truth is that very few of us actually teach the historical critical methods that we have learned when we get into the parish. Many of my colleagues still argue that either laypeople aren’t ready to hear it, or that they don’t want to hear it. Either way, they’re not about to start preaching it from the pulpit and run the risk of destroying people’s faith. Besides, the folks who clearly don’t want to hear any of it just might run them out of town.

I’ve never really understood this attitude. I think perhaps the fact that as a layperson I was relieved to hear that Jesus didn’t actually say all the stuff that’s printed in red. So, from the beginning, I’ve always tried to teach the historical critical methods that I have learned to apply to my own study of the bible.

But then, I was blessed to find myself in a congregation that isn’t afraid of engaging it’s God given intelligence to the study of scripture. Over the past few years my understanding of scripture has grown as I’ve been able to dig deeper and go beyond the historical critical methods that I learned in seminary and develop what Marcus Borg calls an “historical-metaphorical understanding” of the scriptures. Borg and scholars like Dom Crossan and Jack Spong have helped us all to move beyond the purely historical methods of understanding scripture so that we can actually begin to see the metaphorical meanings along side of the historical. They have helped us to move beyond questions like, “Did this actually happen.” Or “Did Jesus actually say that?” beyond the, is or isn’t this historical to the “more than historical meaning” of texts to the metaphorical.

Metaphor is a word that is made from too Greek words, “meta” meaning beyond and “phor,” meaning to carry…a metaphor carries you beyond the actual words. Where the historical critical method is concerned with the purely factual, the metaphorical methods strive to carry us beyond the simply factual to the “more than factual meaning.” The historical metaphorical methods of understanding scripture move us beyond questions about who said what, when, to questions like, “Given what we know about the history what did these words mean for the writers and the listeners in their particular time and place.” The Historical-metaphorical approach takes seriously that language, especially religious language, often has a more-than-literal, more-than-factual, more-than-historical meaning.” The historical-metaphorical approach to the scriptures makes it possible for Marcus Borg to say, “I don’t believe that this actually happened the way it is written in the bible, but I do believe that this story is actually true.” In other words the metaphorical truth is more than the literal understanding of what happened.

So, with that in mind let me say, that even though I don’t believe that Jesus actually said the I AM statements that are written by the story-teller who wrote the Gospel according to John. I do believe that the I Am statements in the Gospel of John are true for me. There I’ve said it and lo and behold, the sky did not fall in, nor did the ground open up and swallow me.  

The Gospel according to John wasn’t written until sometime near the end of the first century some 60 to 70 years after Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the Romans. The same Romans who at the end of the first century had destroyed the Temple and most of Jerusalem and sent the Jewish people packing. The Romans were persecuting the Jewish people and the followers of Jesus who except for a few gentile converts were actually Jewish. The followers of the Way as they were known, were a Jewish sect; a sect that was looked down upon and persecuted by what we might call the mainline Jews. Followers of the Way worshipped in synagogues for at least 55 years after the death of Jesus. There was no church yet. Scholars believe that somewhere around the year 88, the followers of the Way were kicked out of the synagogues. The orthodox mainline Jewish leaders had had enough of the revisionist followers of Jesus and they excommunicated them from the synagogues. So, with that historical context in mind, we can ask what the I AM statements might have meant to the Followers of the Way to whom the story-teller who wrote the gospel of John was trying to communicate. Why did the story-teller, put these words in the mouth of Jesus? What was the story-teller trying to say to his audience? And how are we to understand this text today?

After the Romans demolished the Jewish rebellion, many Jews grew more and more like the fundamentalists of our day and their tolerance waned for the revisionist Jewish followers of the Way, who kept reinterpreting the Jewish scriptures. The very existence of these “revisionists” seemed to proclaim that the Torah was not perfect, that something more had to be added. So, these Jesus people appeared to relativize the orthodox claims about the completeness of the Torah, which meant that these revisionists were tampering with the ultimate source of the security of the orthodox believers. Sound familiar. The religious establishment did not welcome these new fangled approaches to scripture and so the powers that be retreated into a kind of rigid fundamentalism. As the tensions grew more and more strained between the revisionists and the traditionalists it wasn’t long before there was a rupture and the followers of the way were sent packing. The hostility between the two groups was bitter.

So as the battle raged on, the gospel according to John was born a product of religious dissent. From the very first chapter, where the story-teller of John, reinterprets the first chapter of Genesis, to the I AM statements where the story-teller reinterprets the story of Moses who the revisionists believe has now been revealed anew, and perhaps more fully, in Jesus. Jesus is the very way through which the revisionists walk into the same divine mystery that their ancestors in faith walked with Moses. The revisionists knew of no other way that they could come to the God of their fathers and mothers except through Jesus. That was a testimony to their experience. It was not a prescription claiming that they possessed the only doorway into the only God. It is amazing to me that this attempt on the part of the early disciples of Jesus to validate their experience journeying trough Jesus into the mystery of the God they had known in Israel would someday be used to judge all other religious traditions as unworthy, wrong or even evil. Yet that is the path this text has followed as Christianity moved from minority status into majority power. To quote Jack Spong: “There is a difference between my experience of God and who God is. There is a difference between affirming that I walk into the mystery of God through the doorway called Jesus and that in my experience this is the only doorway that works in my journey, and asserting that there is no doorway through which anyone can walk except mine. Imagine the idolatry present in the suggestion that God must be bound by my knowledge and my experience! Yet that claim has been made and is still being made by imperialistic Christians today. The text written by persecuted minority members of the early Christian community to justify their claim to be part of the larger people of God becomes a text that is interpreted in such a way as to become a claim that issues in religious imperialism.” Is it not interesting how little attention is paid to another text that proclaims an open and inclusive faith? It is found in the words attributed to Peter in Acts chapter 10: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”

We live in a religiously pluralistic world, but there is only one God or one reality that lies at the heart of the cosmos. This God is not Christian, nor is this God an adherent of any religious system. All religious systems are human creation by which people in different times and different places seek to journey into that which is ultimately holy and wholly other. Until that simple lesson is heard, human beings will continue to destroy each other in the name of the “one true God.”

I can say with confidence that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that I follow Jesus with confidence into the mystery of God. In his book, Many Mansions, Harvey Cox, points to Jesus as the way, but he cautions us to remember that to be a disciple of Jesus, means: “not to emulate or mimic Jesus but to follow his way to live in our era the same way Jesus lived in his era—as a sing and servant of the reign of God. To follow Jesus requires us not to choose 12 disciples or to turn water into wine but to take his life project—making the coming of God’s reign of Shalom real and immediate—our own.”

Jesus is the way the truth and the life, those of us who believe this would do well to follow Jesus his way; with grace, mercy and love. Reaching out to those who follow different ways into the divine mystery of God, not to convert them to our way, but to learn from them and to share what we have learned, so that together we can evolve into a more perfect humanity. So that together in peace, we can really begin explore the wondrous marvels of the many dwelling places in the realm of our God.

Our world is changing at a rate unprecedented in human history. The black and white answers of the past must give way to the multicolored realities of the present.

Those red-letter words of Jesus can and indeed must release their grip on our imaginations so that we can open ourselves to the more-than-factual, more-than-historical, more-than-metaphorical meanings of the ancient words that have been handed down to us. So, whether we read them in hues of green, orange, red, yellow, brown, blue, pink or maybe even fuchsia, aborigine or chartreuse they can open us to the reality of the One who is was and ever more shall be Love beyond the ability of our words to describe or contain. Let a rainbow of colour once more be a sign of Love’s promise to accompany us on our journey.

Once again I am indebted to the sacred trinity Spong, Crossan, and Borg for there ability to teach me to live in more vibrant hues!           

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