Sunday was our last teaching session before the summer, so I wanted to draw together everything we’ve looked at so far in our exploration of the Bible, and hopefully leave us with something which felt refreshing as well as challenging.
Simon T said two weeks ago that study can enrich our reading of scripture even if most of the time it doesn’t change the essence of our faith, and Giselle spoke some time ago about reading the Bible with open hands, so I wanted to use our study to deepen our engagement with a piece of scripture, then give us some space to sit and hear what God might want to say through it in that moment. We managed more of the former than the latter, but I hope that you will be able to create some space to sit with God after reading this.
The passage we focused on was John 14, although a slight brain blip on my part meant I interpolated part of John 15. It’s all good stuff, so I will treat the two as a single passage, and I would thoroughly recommend reading both chapters before continuing with this blog.
I’m afraid as my brain starts to wind down for the summer, I can’t think of a more creative way of recreating our discussion than simply presenting my notes, so I hope you will forgive the lack of imagination. I have however managed to find a still of the frame from the QI credit sequence which has John 14:8-9, so you can start with a nice picture and proof that I wasn’t just making things up to play for time.
We started by looking at how the Bible came to be, which included questions of ‘when’, ‘who’, and ‘why’.
In terms of the ‘when’ of the passage, John is understood to be the latest of the four gospels as it contains more developed ideas – see for example the high understanding of the nature of Christ in John 1, where he is portrayed as the Word made flesh. Oral tradition at the time was strong, so there is no reason to believe that the stories and teachings recorded are not genuine, but it does mean we are reading theological reflection as well as history.
Moving on to the ‘who’, the Gospel of John, the three Letters of John and the Revelation of John are traditionally attributed to the disciple named John. That might seem obvious, but the naming came from the tradition and there is no firm evidence to support it. However common themes and language link the gospel and the letters, so scholars speak of them coming from same community if not the same person. The gospel attributes itself to the ‘beloved disciple’, so there is an idea that the community was centred around him, and whether or not he was called John is perhaps less important.
And finally turning to the ‘why’, the gospel itself says that it was written that ‘you’ might believe Jesus is Christ and have life in his name. That suggests it was never intended to be an objective reporting of the facts, but it was written from a place of conviction not manipulation, and I think that speaks for its importance not against its value.
Next we looked at genre, that is what type of writing we are looking at and how that effects our expectations and interpretation.
This passage is part of a gospel, which is a fairly unique literary genre, with crossover from both history and prophecy, as it is part biography and part collection of teachings. The gospels were written to testify to Jesus, who came to reveal God and set in motion the coming of the kingdom, and so our focus when reading them must always be on what they teach us about him, and what that means for the way we live in relationship with God and the world.
Thinking more specifically, this particular passage is part of the ‘farewell discourse’, the final teaching Jesus shared with his disciples before he was arrested and crucified. It is part programmatic summary and part pep talk, in readiness for the time when Jesus would no longer be physically present. John is very clear that Jesus knew what was about to happen to him, and so this may well have been a prepared speech rather than a spontaneous firing of thoughts.
A few chapters later, Jesus prays not only for the disciples but for those who will believe because of them, and if that wider view is reflected backwards, then this may be read not just as a record of what was said to those meeting over supper that night, but also as a direct word to us. And the worship of the first Christians is often seen as paradigmatic for the church, so this gathering to hear from God and pray for one another in the context of fellowship may also be seen as a pattern, although not necessarily a formula.
Towards the end of our conversations about genre, we debated the value of seeing the Bible as myth. I suggested it as a way of talking about the fact that the Bible contains deep truths that are more important than simple facts, but there were very understandable concerns that the word myth comes with other associations that are less helpful. Simon T suggested on Sunday that we may borrow the language that Jesus himself uses in the Gospel of John and speak of the Bible as a sign, because it points beyond itself to God, which very neatly said what I had been fumbling around. If this passage is a sign, it is because it speaks of relationship with God, which is the truth that the whole Bible is trying to express.
After that, we looked at how Jesus used the scriptures, suggested that he stripped the violence out of the Old Testament passages he quoted.
There are no direct quotes from the Hebrew scriptures here, but peace is something of a buzzword, so this at least accords with the idea that Jesus was bringing a radical new way of non-violence.
It is also interesting to compare John 14:8-9 and Exodus 33:18-23. In the Exodus passage, Moses asks to see God and is only allowed to see his back, but in the John passage, Philip asks to see God and is told he has already seen him in the flesh. As Dan so rightly pointed out, there are other Old Testament passages that seem to suggest that Moses did see God face to face, but there is a similarity in the request-response pattern of John 14:8-9 and Exodus 33:18-23 that makes me wonder if this was a deliberate attempt to highlight just how much greater our experience of God has become because of Christ.
Continuing with a Christ-centred reading of scripture, we looked at how we might read the Bible in the light of Jesus’ teaching, focusing on the Sermon on the Mount.
It might seem odd to do that here as this is Jesus’ teaching, but comparing gospels, and even different passages within gospels, can be valuable in identifying key themes and tensions, so we looked at the passage against a few points from the Sermon on the Mount.
The Beatitudes suggest that everything we think we know is turned on its head in the kingdom of God, but the promise of the Spirit and the giving of the love commandment are the renewing of old words rather than the reversing of old expectations. Both challenge the status quo by suggesting that things are not yet as they are meant to be, but there is revival as well as upheaval in the kingdom.
The Lord’s Prayer makes our relationship with God central, and this passage from John puts some meat on those bones by saying that this relationship is about mutual indwelling, with some rather complicated relationships finally imagined as a vine and its branches.
The Sermon on the Mount is shot through with the idea that it is attitude and not just action that is important, and that tells us a little about what the love for one another that Jesus commands should look like. Of course love must be active, but it must ultimately come from the heart and not simply out of duty. Sometimes we will need that sense of duty to keep us going, but we ought always to seek to love others as God loves them.
We then looked at the idea that the Bible contains different circles of narrative, which which function in slightly different ways.
The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman talks about the saving action of God as the primal narrative, which widens out to the expanded narrative and then to the narratives of instruction and vocation, like ripples from a stone dropped in a lake.
This passage would be part of the expanded narrative as it provides part of the context for the primal narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is also part of the instruction and vocation of the community as it contains the crucial love commandment and the promise of the Spirit. Ripples don’t overlap so the image doesn’t quite work, but it is important to remember that this passage sits in that crossover. It can be so easy to add lots of stuff to our instruction and vocation, and that’s not always a bad thing, but it’s those things that are rooted in Christ that keep us rooted in him.
And finally we looked at the importance of reading in context, knowing the cultural background instead of making assumptions based on our own experience.
I looked a little into the historical background that was relevant to this passage, and I came across a suggestion that the peace that the world gives may be identified with the Pax Romana. That would meant that this is not just a nice promise of a better quality of calm, but a political statement which criticises the Roman way of enforcing peace through force, and which says that Jesus has come with a radical alternative not a competing system. The article I was reading also suggest that this verse may now speak against a kind of Pax Americana, and we may equally speak of a Pax Britannia, so this is still a political statement today.
I have always struggled with the idea that believers get what they ask for, as this is demonstrably untrue. We talked on Sunday about the significance of the condition that prayers are made ‘in my name’, and the importance of recognising that we do not always understand the will of God, but the context adds an interesting note. It was held that some rabbis could receive whatever they wanted from God, and so this passage extends and equalises that promise, and that assertion that all believers are equal before God may be a crucial part of what Jesus was saying here.
And getting down to the nitty gritty of the language, another translation of ‘counsellor’ is ‘advocate’, literally ‘one who walks alongside’. We tend to make Satan a proper noun, but ‘the Satan’ was ‘the accuser’, so this naming of the Spirit is perhaps intended to balance that, drawing on the image of a courtroom. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will be made subject to a heavenly trial in the style of A Matter of Life and Death, but it does say that if there are powers against us, there are also powers for us.
We have come to the end of this exploration of a chunk of gospel, using some of the tools we have picked up over the past few months.
This was never intended to be an exhaustive guide to the passage, but I hope it has shown how the different approaches we have taken to the Bible might be worked out in practice, and how they can spark all sorts of insights and revelations.
Most of all, I hope it has felt like an encouragement to roll your sleeves up and dig into and around the Bible, because great things can grow from those efforts. (Does the title finally make sense now?!)
And so I would really encourage you to take the time to sit with open hands and listen for God speaking through this passage, perhaps by practicing Lection Divina.
Lectio – Reading Savour the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of a word or phrase that somehow says, “I am for you today.” Do not expect lightning or ecstasies. In Lectio Divina, God is teaching us to listen to him, to seek him in silence. He does not reach out and grab us; rather, he gently invites us ever more deeply into his presence.
Meditatio – Meditation Take the word or phrase into yourself. Memorize it and slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories, and ideas. Do not be afraid of distractions. Memories or thoughts are simply parts of yourself that, when they rise up during Lectio Divina, are asking to be given to God along with the rest of your inner self. Allow this inner pondering, this rumination, to invite you into dialogue with God.
Oratio – Speaking Speak to God. Whether you use words, ideas, or images–or all three–is not important. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. And give to him what you have discovered during your experience of meditation. Experience God by using the word or phrase he has given you as a means of blessing and of transforming the ideas and memories that your reflection on his word has awakened. Give to God what you have found within your heart.
Contemplatio – Contemplation Rest in God’s embrace. And when he invites you to return to your contemplation of his word or to your inner dialogue with him, do so. Learn to use words when words are helpful, and to let go of words when they no longer are necessary. Rejoice in the knowledge that God is with you in both words and silence, in spiritual activity and inner receptivity.