I’d rather these essays not be about my ongoing personal spiritual journey. If you want to know more about me, look in the ‘about’ section.
I have a soul friend. He fits the definition given in the Celtic saying “A man without a soul friend is like a body without a head”. My soul friend and I have a continuing theological discussion about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God intrigues us. We want to understand it more thoroughly. We both recognize that it is the primary concrete result of Christ’s ministry. At the same time there is a element of mysticism in the definition of the Kingdom of God. Most of the descriptions of the Kingdom of God are presented in parables. I think Jesus deliberately left some vagueness in the definition. My guess is that the purpose of the vague definition is to allow the reality of the Kingdom of God to be flexible enough to embrace changing human needs.
The other day my soul friend said “The Gospel of John puts words in the mouth of Jesus”. This is a perfectly reasonable thing for someone who has studied the biblical scholarship which supports the idea that the Kingdom of God is central to Jesus’ ministry. The biblical scholarship which supports the idea of the Kingdom of God comes from a group of scholars that have been loosely described as ‘the Jesus Seminar’. The Jesus Seminar’s criterion for understanding the sayings of Jesus is that a saying has to be present in more than one gospel. When this criterion is applied to the gospels the Kingdom of God comes to the fore as the primary intellectual/spiritual content. At the same time, the Gospel of John recedes into the background. Very few sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John have parallel readings in the other gospels.
My first encounter with the Kingdom of God as a theological/spiritual concept was in a book lent to me by a fellow parishioner. That book was “The Heart of Christianity” by Marcus Borg. This book knocked me on my heels – and that’s saying something. I’ve been studying the Bible since I was a child. I haven’t been to seminary, but I’ve had the next best thing in theological education from the University of the South’s theological extension course Education for Ministry. After I finished the book, I went back to my friend and fellow parishioner and pointed out that some of the content in this book was so radical it couldn’t be preached from the pulpit. Such preaching would drive people away from the church. My friend agreed that was the case. But, I said, we can present the content of the book at the church in a class as part of our continuing adult education.
The class was a huge success. We decided on six classes, with each class covering three chapters. The first class had about sixteen people. With each class, the number of people grew by about half. After the third class we had to move to a small auditorium. The final two classes had about sixty people.
I wish I could give a definitive reason why our class was so successful. But I can only guess. Marcus Borg is a talented author who presents difficult subjects in a easily digestible fashion. Beyond that, I believe the intellectual and spiritual content of the Kingdom of God as Borg presents it is very satisfying to intelligent, believing people. The widely accepted alternative interpretation of the Bible is the interpretation used by Christian fundamentalists. Christian fundamentalists believe every word in the Bible is literally true. There are a fairly large number of intellectual objections to biblical literalism. Until the Jesus Seminar put forth the concept of the Kingdom of God in my experience there had been no easily accessible way of interacting with the Bible that allowed an intelligent believer to retain an intelligent point of view. The intelligent believers in our adult education class were being fed spiritually in ways that they (and I) had come to believe were impossible to achieve.
I used to work in a computer chip manufacturing plant. When we found a better way to do things (such discoveries were often accidental), we tried our best to make that better way permanent. We would say ‘how do we institutionalize this wonderful new thing’? The obvious question for Christians and for my own church in particular is how do we institutionalize the Kingdom of God? I’m reluctant to say such an action is impossible. But it is almost impossible. To make the Kingdom of God a continuing reality in our lives, we have to be the people God wants us to be. Human beings are that good from time to time. But mostly, we’re not that good and the Kingdom slips through our fingers.
For the hardy few who will take up the task of creating the Kingdom of God in this present moment, it is necessary that you be ‘wise as serpents and harmless as doves’. The wisdom is necessary to deal with existing spiritual/political systems. There is a vast amount of energy invested in protecting existing systems. The Kingdom of God is a radical, revolutionary reality. The ‘harmless as doves’ part is needed for the extraordinarily fragile people who will want to be part of your new life.
My spiritual director says the Gospel of John puts words in Jesus’ mouth and I agree with him. The most egregious example of this speech is the ‘I am’statements. In these statements Jesus says ‘I am the ______’. There are seven ‘I am’ statements in the Gospel of John. A complete example of an ‘I am’statement is ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ (John 10:11).
In the original Greek, the ‘I am’ part of these statements is read as ego eimi. During the first century, there was a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. In the Old Testament, when Moses asks God what name to call him, God responds with YHWH. YHWH is a Hebrew word that Christians have translated various ways, most commonly as Jehovah. In the Septuagint, the name YHWH is translated as ego eimi. So, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus says ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ people fluent in Greek during the first century would hear ‘I am the God of the Old Testament’ and ‘I am the Good Shepherd’.
The seven ego eimi statements are some of the most powerful scriptures in the Christian Bible. In them Jesus describes who he is and what functions he provides to people who believe in him. The descriptions have such accuracy and beauty that the addition or subtraction of a word would diminish the content of the description. The problem with these seven ego eimi statements is not their beauty or their metaphorical accuracy, but that Jesus most likely never said them.
How the Gospel of John came to be the way it is deserves some attention. The general thought on how most of the canonical scriptures were written is that each book (in particular the gospels) was a collaboration with an older person who was actually one of the original disciples and a younger person who performed the manual aspects of collecting and writing down the oral tradition provided by the older person. Both the older and younger persons are devout Christians. In the case of the Gospel of John, the younger person had wonderful literary gifts as well as a mystical understanding of Jesus. The older person may well have been the disciple John, the beloved disciple.
The problem for this writing team is the same for both persons on the team. The disciple met Jesus on a regular basis when Jesus and the disciple were both alive at the same time. Every time the disciple met Jesus, he had an experience of the divine. Jesus wasn’t just present, he was teaching, journeying from place to place, interacting with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. The disciple’s memory of Jesus is that all of these interactions were also God-filled. The writer is a mystic and has a continuing relationship to Jesus through the Kingdom of God. We should also expect that the writer also has a private mystical relationship with Jesus.
The question here is “What does a writer do when words don’t suffice?”.
If the writer is going to stay with the written word, poetry is often the solution. Add to poetry a kind of prose to get what has been called ‘poetic prose’. This kind of writing is not literally true. The writer is using metaphorical images to illustrate the truth. Instead of presenting a truth similar to 1 + 1 = 2, the writer is saying listen with your heart and hear what the Holy Spirit has to say.
The first twenty years of my life I was a Southern Baptist. I may not have been a typical Southern Baptist, but that’s where my family and I went to church. When I was in high school I had a part time job after school. The bookkeeper at my part time job was a member of the Church of Christ. When he found out I was a Baptist he strongly suggested that I should join the Church of Christ because that was the name of Christ’s church in the Bible. My response to this attempt to proselytize me was that I didn’t believe the Bible should be read in such a literal fashion.
Going forward, my friend the bookkeeper began to look at me like I was some kind of spiritual degenerate. One day, when we were on our way out to eat and the bookkeeper was part of our group, I decomposed the 23rd Psalm. Very simply put, if you decompose the 23rd Psalm by trying to find literal meanings for every word and phrase, the result is a pile of rubble. I said I didn’t want to believe in the pile of rubble. I would accept the metaphorical meaning of the 23rd Psalm. I further said that I believed the metaphorical meaning was that God cared for me and would watch over me even in the face of death. The bookkeeper was moved by my analysis, but refused to change his position on biblical literalism. I said I wasn’t trying to convert him, but was just trying to make my position clear.
The Gospel of John can also be decomposed into it’s constituent parts with a similar result. I don’t read the Gospel of John like a literalist would read it. I read it with my heart. My heart overflows and my whole person is lifted toward God. I don’t want to give up the Gospel of John.