During the past week, as I’ve read the John text for this Sunday, I’ve frequently been reminded of one of my favorite lines from the film National Treasure. After frequent dead ends and ongoing brushes with violence and potential death Riley, the funny philosophical comedian type in the film, asks a very good question about why is it so difficult to find the treasure. He asks of the treasure map makers, “why can’t they just say, ‘go to this place, and here is the treasure; spend it wisely”. Often when I read scripture I wish that it was more Riley-formulaic. I wish that Jesus instead of telling stories, confusing parables, and sprouting these impossibly paradoxical statements would just say believe a, b, and c, and do x, y, z, and you will be saved, have a good life, be the hands and feet.
In reading the John text I remembered why that methodology doesn’t work very well for Jesus, and the subsequent writers who took down his words and actions with varying degrees of consistency. Firstly, no one would remember the formulas for what Jesus teaches without the parables that continue to have airtime in our society to this day. The literary and theological-explanatory-genius of the prodigal son narrative is but one example of many from the Bible. Secondly, if Jesus was much more formulaic in his deploying of how to live right and be saved there would be a lot less personal interpretation needed to understand those formulas and I think as a consequence less reliance on the Holy Spirit for wisdom. And finally, Jesus’s ministry is set up in comparison with the more formulaic laws of the Jewish religious tradition, where interpretation of the law was done by a select few. Jesus, and works, invite us all to individually interpret scripture and the parables offer each of us an easier to understand version of significantly complicated theological propositions.
But, what about John’s text? John’s text is dense because it is Jesus summarizing many of the most important aspects of his ministry, and accordingly this new way of life that he offers. The location of this passage explains some of its relevance. Starting with John 13 we have the buildup to Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion, and burial. In the midst of Jesus washing his disciples feet, he is betrayed by one of his closest companions, predicts that another companion will reject association with him, and must be wondering about his own death. It’s understandable then that Jesus refrains from his usual method of imparting knowledge through parables and instead offers a much more complex text that serves as a summary of what his ministry on earth, and what his relationship with the God is all about. I think it’s also notable that this text, John records as a prayer. While from the outside that prayer presents a stoic, and maybe we would say intellectual Jesus, close reading of the text convinced me that Jesus, and probably the more human part of Jesus, was desperate to convey to the disciples one last time the meaning of his teachings and had begun to fear what his own death would entail. And in the final passages of the text, verses 20 through 25, we hear Jesus’ tone offer up himself to what will happen to him, echoing when in Luke recounts in Luke 22:42 Jesus saying that not his will but God’s will be done.
As a summary of Jesus’ teachings this text is rich. I want to briefly outline a few of the points and then focus in on two features of this text that I have come to believe represent two of the most unique features of what it means to follow Jesus.
The first point comes from John 17:6 where Jesus says “I have made your name, God’s name, known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word”. Jesus affirms in this scripture the direct connection between God and Christ. Christ has made God’s name known or put differently Jesus has helped reveal God to humans. In this capacity Jesus could be understood as herald or prophet for God, but this is distinct from Islamic understandings of Jesus because verse 18 describes the divinity of Jesus, and thus being sent into the world. The analogy that helps me understand this dynamic is that Jesus is like a piece of art that obviously exists in the material world. But, this painting that throughout the past number of centuries has been eyed and reflected on has one notable feature – no one has any record of who the painter was. But, by carefully studying the painting each of us learns something about the nature of the painter.
Secondly, the disciples, and other followers of Jesus, have accepted that Jesus points the way to God and is intimately conjoined with God. Verse 8 tells us that “ the words that you gave to me I, Jesus, have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me”.
The third point is that Jesus prays for the protection of those who have followed him from God. Jesus, knowing that he will not be with his followers for long, asks that God will protect them from the world. Pointedly Jesus does not ask that his followers are taken out of the world, but that they would be protected from the evil one, verse 15. And Jesus recognizes that his followers in recognizing that conjoindedness of Jesus with God are hated by the world, according to verse 14.
Others will know Jesus is divine through the example, or word, of Jesus’ followers is the fourth point. Those people will “believe in me, Jesus, through their, the follower’s, word” from verse 20. This passage immediately identifies the purpose of Christian witness, or how we are in the world, namely, it is to point to the divinity of Christ and by extension to point to God
Finally, the fifth point is that Jesus relationship with God sets the example for how followers of Christ are supposed to relate to Jesus and God. Verse 21 says “As you, God, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me”.
These are the major points that address the relationship that God has with Jesus and by extension with those followers of Jesus. The second concern of the text is with the relationship of followers’ of Jesus to the world. And if we were after a few propositions I would offer the following:
God’s divineness is on display in the physical body of Jesus
Thus God’s character and desire for human relationship is modeled by Jesus
Jesus’ divineness is central to the “truth” about God
Thus followers of Christ cannot separate his divinity from his humanity
Revelation of God continues after Jesus departs this physical world
Thus followers of Christ should witness, or live, in a way that models Christ’s actions
I want to reflect on what is for me the salient lessons of this passage in light of our current political climate, and more locally, the history of the broader Mennonite church with the world and more recently the relationship of this church, Hyattsville Mennonite Church, with the larger Mennonite church and the world. This passage from John is instructive in two clear ways for me. The first is that a community of people who follow Jesus, in all of our imperfections, should seek to be one. What this passage means by being one we’ll explore in a bit. The second point is that joy is important to the life of a follower of Christ.
I confess to being particularly frustrated by what is often labelled as Christian witness in the US. The cover article for the Atlantic’s April magazine was entitled “The Last Temptation”. The article chronicled and catalogued the growing malaise of many of us who increasingly identify some of the actions of other Christians as disturbingly close to sin, and maybe in some cases even sinful. And while the article zeroes in on the corruption of evangelical leaders my concern was equally for the universal church. I won’t go into any detail about the article but I highly recommend it to everyone and you can find it on the Atlantic’s website by searching for “The Last Temptation”.
But it is precisely this frustration that I direct at “some Christians” that makes the writing of this passage in John so fascinating and truth be told disconcerting. When Jesus prays in verse 22, that they may be one, followers of Christ and the non-believing world, as we are one, Jesus and God; what exactly is Jesus saying? To return to my frustration with “some Christians” is Jesus saying that I am to be one with even those Christians who I disagree with? Because frankly it’s sometimes easier for me to be in relationship with non-believing people than with Christians.
This question is important for the universal church but it is also relevant to the Mennonite church, and in particular this Mennonite church. The early history of Mennonites, and larger Anabaptist movement, is rife with violence and persecution at the hands of Catholics, Lutherans, and other church reformers. It’s understandable then that Mennonite theologians defined their theology in opposition to the theologies of their oppressors. One notable example of this is while Menno Simons, one of the first theologians for the Mennonite movement, would agree about the importance of Christian witness in the world with Martin Luther, Simons would maintain that the Christian community had to be assembled in separate paradigm to the rest of the world. There was little one-ness between the early Mennonite church and the larger Christian faith and we have often shied away from participation in “the world” since then.
More locally, Hyattsville Mennonite Church has wrestled with the question of how to be one with other churches in the Allegheny conference, the conference herself, and the broader Mennonite church. And from what I have learned during Anna and I’s short time at HMC I have gathered that this church chose to continue to relate the conference because some sort of relationship was deemed important for the wellbeing of that body and maybe more specifically for the wellbeing of members of the LGBT+ community who needed to be loved by a church that affirmed, and affirms, that they are beloved of God.
As I wrestled with this question of what Jesus means by being one I kept returning to the distinction that Jesus makes throughout the passage between himself and God. Throughout the passage Jesus says you, father, and me and I. Pronouns are important and on this Mother’s day I would be remiss if I didn’t put a plug in there for mother God. Pronouns are important and in this passage Jesus deploys them to delineate that while he and God are one they are not the same. To be one does not seem to mean being the same. But, what does being one affirm in the positive? What can we take away from this passage about the nature of being one?
I’m sure there’s a lot that this passage offers on this question but what I kept getting stuck on is that Jesus affirms that the disciples have recognized that Jesus was sent by God and thereby reveals something of God to us all. And if God and Jesus model a one-ness for us as followers of Christ with each other and with others then doesn’t that mean that so too do others reveal something of God to us. Maybe the point for me is that if I start with the supposition that those “other Christians” reveal something about the nature of God I treat them differently and we move closer to this ethereal one-ness. Timothy Jackson, an ethicist at Emory and self-described follower of Christ, asks the question how does looking for the image of God in your enemy change the way you see them? The painful truth, as someone with disagreements with many, is that that question reminds me of the divineness of each person and maybe moves my heart from complete oppositional relationship to relationship that is messy and maybe through some grace someday resembles love.
It is painful to think about one-ness in this way and I’m not glossing over that. My life has had its share of painful experiences with people rupturing trust, abusing me verbally and physically, deep unsettledness with myself and in my spirit, and crises of faith. I have often struggled to see the image of God in those who I disagree with or have been abused by. But, in all of the relationships that have hurt me the most when I have recognized the image of God in that person, and have believed that that person can teach me something about the nature of God, I have found myself more conjoined to that person. This text reminds me that one-ness with others is important to God, does not mean sameness with others, but does instruct us to recognize the image of God in those others. A world where we treated each other in that way would look radically different the one we have today and I believe only the divine can help us pursue that vision.
If I’m serious about recognizing the image of God in others it changes the way I see the world. This week I have been intentional about trying to think about each person that I am encountering, or as is often my case, biking past, as bearing the image of God. While I’m sure that it’ll be a longer journey it has helped me see people that I might not necessarily usually see. One of the most notable examples of this is how instead of averting my eyes to the men who spread themselves out across benches in a park that I eat lunch in I try to see them. It’s started a couple of conversations. And while this is a practice that I hope to keep working on it’s worth saying that I still struggle to see the divine in the person who cuts in front of me in a car while I’m biking.
The final lesson that this text teaches me is about the importance of joy. There is only one mention of joy in this whole text, but I think it carries an outsized importance. In verse 13 Jesus says “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves”. The next verse describes how the world hates followers of Christ because they are different. I take this to mean that Jesus’ joy is because of his relatedness, his conjoinededness with God. I think one of the ways that we are marked as followers of Christ is in our capacity to be joyful even through the challenges. Philippians is a whole book devoted to advice on how to be joyful through suffering.
Through the many mountains and valleys of my life I have tried to remember that I also am the masterwork of the great creator. When I recognize in myself something of the divine I can’t help but be grateful for the blessing of this life. And that gratefulness is but the first step towards joyfulness.
Today we celebrate both mothers and the dedication of (). Both offer us the chance to find joy in our lives because of the gift that mothers are from God. And as we dedicate () may we remember that as a body of followers we are invited to pursue one-ness, not sameness, but a relationship that recognizes the divine in each life. May it be so and may we all be one as Christ showed us.