Thursday, December 17, 2020

Some Thoughts On John's Prologue (John 1:1-18)

 I have often seen this section of John 1 described as the "prologue" of this Gospel. I think it is because the divinity of Jesus, and the Incarnation--Jesus Christ becoming man--is so vital that we need to recognize it as a special thing. I agree with this decision, and I see no reason to go against what all other commentators seem to do. I will, however, extend my marking of the prologue through verse 18. The discussion of John the Baptist begins right after that, and so thematically it is slightly different.

Please notice that this Gospel begins with, "In the beginning…" Genesis 1:1 at the very beginning of the Bible, begins with the same phrase. John wants us to know that Jesus was there at the creation of the universe. As we read along further, he also wants us to know that Jesus is going to re-create the world and us, if we will allow Him to do it.

This is an interesting word choice, "Word." Suffice it to say that John's Greek speaking audience understood this word to mean something like the totality of reason or rationality. Or, if we can set in a joking way from another human book, "the answer to life, the universe, and everything." In other words, John is saying something very bold about Jesus: he is God. Not only was Jesus present at creation, but John says he did the creating. We should not understand this in a way as to take away any power or glory from God the Father, or from the Holy Spirit, but the divinity of Jesus is absolutely crucial to understand what John believes, and what he wants us to believe, as his readers.

We can go back to Genesis 1 in fact, to see that "life" is a very important idea for Moses there. Genesis says that God breathed life into Adam's nostrils, and he became a living being.

We also notice the theme of light and darkness. Jesus is the light shining in the darkness, and we are invited to think about what we're going to do about that. Are we going to run away from the light, or to live in the light?

John knows that most people know where babies come from; we know that we had a mother and a father, and thus were born into the world. But here at the end of this section, we are invited to be born again, to be born of God. The very first step in being a child of God--besides knowing that we need God--is to believe the testimony about Jesus. That's why John is giving this testimony. He's also telling us about Jesus's relative, John the Baptist. John the Baptist is also very important, but as we keep reading, it becomes important for him that people understand that he isn't the Christ, either. It seems the people of this time weren't too much different than us: trying to make heroes and gods out of the wrong people.

St. John, who wrote this Gospel for us, was the last person to write a Gospel. A Gospel is a direct testimony concerning the life of Jesus. These four Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--are eyewitness accounts to the life of Jesus. The word "gospel" means "good news," and writers of this time would sometimes use this word to describe a messenger bringing news of a great victory by a conquering king or warrior. Therefore, the new Christians and the new Church knew exactly what they were doing, when they chose this word to describe the eyewitness accounts about Jesus.

There is a great mystery, when it says, "He came to his own home, and his own people received him not." We need to be careful here, because anti-Jewish attitudes have always been present in the world, and even some Christians have had a role in promoting that, leading to bigotry and genocide. Even the word which gets translated, "Jews" in this Gospel, and in some places elsewhere in the Bible, can seem like a slur.

However, we need to remember that for our purposes, nearly everyone--Jesus's friends, and his enemies--were Jewish. Later on in the Bible, the apostle Paul spends several chapters in the book of Romans trying to explain the mystery of who receives Jesus and who does not. There is no sense in trying to congratulate ourselves, if we hear and receive the saving message of Jesus, because God has given us the grace to receive it. Elsewhere Paul says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and it is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, so that no one may boast."

Humility is clearly called for on our part, when thinking about coming to faith in Jesus, and in the struggles of perhaps sharing our faith with others. God alone is Judge, and we should tremble at the thought, though not in terror.

The other very interesting point concerning this passage has to do with verse 14. When it says that Jesus "dwelt among us," some translations say "tabernacled". The Tabernacle was a temporary place of God's presence, and of worship, until the Temple could be built. When the people disobeyed God, and took the Ark of the Covenant into battle without God's permission, their enemies stole it. As the people were trying to describe the sadness of that event, they said, "the glory he has departed." When John says, "and we have seen his glory…" John is saying that the glory has returned in Jesus! One final question and thought about this section is, "Is John trashing Moses, or the covenant that God made with Moses?" No! What he is trying to say is that as much glory as Moses had, and that he saw, the glory of Jesus is that much greater. Jesus came down as God in the flesh, and literally pitched his tent with us! When we read in another Gospel, "and you shall call his name "Immanuel," which means "God with us," that's as real as it gets. We can't really say that God doesn't understand what we have gone through, because He came down here, and experienced everything we have, all except sin. Jesus's given name in Hebrew is Joshua, which means, "the Lord saves". John is trying to make it as easy for us as he can, although for us, the old Hebrew Scriptures are not necessarily second nature to us, as they would have been for John's audience. [Note that this is a draft of something which may appear in a physically published work at a later time.]

Do Your Thing, Chef Kings And Queens

 I have a new respect for chefs, and for those who know what they're doing in the kitchen. I had about a pound of eye of round beefsteak, cut into small fillets. With the lid open, "sauté" is your only option on an Instant Pot. I could be wrong, but I think that setting is much hotter than the 145° recommended for medium-rare steak. My fillets were only about an inch thick, and I would say that I cooked each one for about a minute on each side, and I did this twice. There was no pink anywhere, which in the end is fine, for I am not a chef. Food safety is more critical than food preference, for me right now.

How do they do that, where the outside of a steak is charred, but the inside is pink, or even red? Anyway, I'm impressed.

It tasted great, which I suppose is the point. I will keep trying to discover things, and to potentially make modifications to my setup, to expand my cooking options.

Mohler, le Carre, And The Evangelical Mind (Still A Scandal)

 I just read the transcript of what I think is a podcast by Al Mohler, the Baptist leader. Part IV was about John le Carre, who died a few days ago. The novelist and former spy wrote many celebrated stories, several of which I have begun reading. The New York Times noted that le Carre used "moral ambiguities" to push the story forward. Mohler became fixated on that, roughly interpreting that as "moral relativism". I know that Mohler is a culture warrior, maybe above all, but I do not find moral relativism in le Carre's protagonist George Smiley. Moral ambiguity does not equal moral relativism. What Smiley finds--and the reader is invited to contemplate--is moral inconsistency. I think it is brilliant of the author to invite us inside a story of good and evil, to consider that good and evil coexist within each of us. A John le Carre novel is about the struggle within, more than the struggle without. That's something in general that a Christian should be able to understand.

But the scandal of the evangelical mind, to plagiarize a title, is that art itself has been subordinated to the missionary impulse. Evangelicals make bad art, and enjoy bad art, because there is an apparent inability to take the transcendentals of the good, the true, and the beautiful on their own terms. Now John le Carre is simply a popular novelist; I won't necessarily argue that he represents any form of high art. But we have to do better than this, Reverend Mohler. One of the things that I enjoy reflected in Sir Alec Guinness's acting at the end of the miniseries for "Smiley's People," is that George can't even enjoy his greatest victory, because he broke a man to do it. He violated his own principles to achieve the end that Britain's intelligence service needed. That doesn't seem like moral relativism to me.

I don't know about David Cornwell's soul, and I won't presume either way. I do know that it is incumbent upon me as an act of charity not to reduce a work of art produced by him for my own purposes.

To some extent, we ought to let art be art. The moral inconsistency of the characters in le Carre's most famous trilogy is disquieting. It's not celebrated; in fact, that's how a moral absolutist should feel, in a story like this. Moreover, any Christian, no matter how firm his commitment and resolve, should recognize people that will crack, if you pull the right lever, or apply the right pressure. Isn't that the story of all of us?

I don't want to beat up on Mohler too badly, but I just had to get that out. Le Carre is quickly becoming my favorite novelist. Maybe I just didn't like the potshots at his memory, especially in the service of taking some cultural shots at the New York Times.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Book Of Signs, And The Book Of Glory

Somewhere, I was taught to divide the Gospel of John into two parts: the book of signs, and the book of glory. Sometimes with very large books of the Bible, it is prudent to make a brief outline, with memorable headings. You won't capture everything that goes on in the text that way, but you can go back and do a more detailed outline after that.

I was debating with myself pretty much for a week, regarding where the "book of glory" should start. I think it should start after verse 15 of John chapter 12. There we have the quotation of Zechariah 9:9, and the rising tension of the growing opposition to Jesus and his ministry. One reason to call the first part of the book "the book of signs" is that Jesus did miracles to announce the kingdom of God. His journey to Jerusalem, which will result in his death by crucifixion, is the beginning of the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. In this way, the signs pointed forward to the cross; afterward, they point backward, to the cross, and Jesus' victorious resurrection. It makes good sense to put it here in chapter 12 anyway, because 13 through 17 will have Jesus alone in the Upper Room with his disciples.

The tension rises quickly in this Gospel. Some of us have become so familiar with it that it doesn't shock us anymore. On the other hand, John essentially admits that he has selected what he regards as the most significant events of Jesus' ministry, in order that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Answer Me When I Call

 I won't say that I have been especially pious lately; it's been quite the opposite, frankly. And yet, it seems like God is very near. I don't know any better way to say it.

I've been reading through the Gospel of John. [Aren't you always reading through the Gospel of John?--ed.] Point!

No matter how sketchy things get, we need to be reminded and to remind ourselves that Jesus has not wavered. What he wills has not changed, and he has willed our salvation. It is a grace to us, simply to recognize this.

It has never been a question of God's disposition toward us; the spiritual life is about our disposition toward Him.