Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, [μαρτυρίαν, ἵνα μαρτυρήσῃ περὶ τοῦ φωτός] so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
There are times when the Revised Common Lectionary bemuses me.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness, to witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to witness to the light.
But the lectionary then removes the actual witness to the Light by John the Writer and John the Baptiser, which is contained in verses 9 to 18, and goes on to repeat John the Baptiser's statement that he himself was not the light which had come into the world. Repetition in scripture is always important; it cries Look here! Now if it were the case that disciples of John the Baptiser were leafleting my congregation, and claiming that it was John who was the Messiah, then there would be obvious sense in this week's reading and its exclusions. But our problem is not that we think John the Baptiser is the Messiah. Our problem is that we think we know and understand the Light of the world; that is, it's we who do the leafleting. Too often, we proselytise particularities of doctrine which are anything but light. Too often our good news of the Kingdom is subverted by the mores and hopes of Empire, so that the Christ light is disastrously filtered.
I have two previous posts on the lectionary gospel for this week: When the Moon Rose in the West (2015), and Revealing the One (2012). Bemused, as I have said, by the odd inclusions and exclusions of the lectionary reading, I reread When the Moon Rose… I noted my comments about the presence of "the Jews" in John 1:10. Like John Petty, I wished to save John the Writer from the charge of anti-Semitism.
the fourth gospel is … an argument between Jews and Jews—specifically, "Judean" Jews and Galilean Jews… For the author of the fourth gospel, "Judean" stands for an entire mindset and worldview. "Judeans" support hierarchy, division between "the chosen" and everyone else, the financial and religious "establishment," and collaboration with Rome.
I also noted the challenge posed by Ruth Sheridan and Judith Lieu;
the fact that texts do carry within them the potential to become loosed from their authorial moorings and to reach beyond the particularities of their original reception. On John’s use of “the Jews,” Judith Lieu wrote (in 2001) that “we cannot conclude that what the author or recipients might not have perceived is not part of the text.” John chose to use Ioudaioi rather than “rulers” (i.e., authorities) and this “becomes part of the text’s potential to be realized by interpreters at some future stage.” That means we must recognize that how later interpreters cited and made use of John’s Ioudaioi may not have been a misguided “abuse” of the text but an activation of its core direction.
That is, in John the Writer, perhaps there had already been a hardening of attitude, a beginning of calling human brothers and sisters other.
Sometime later, it seems I read an article by Rene Girard which I quoted in an addendum. I say
Since writing this piece I have been reading Rene Girard's essay The Evangelical Subversion of Myth. He says on page 38-9
Today we have reached a new stage in the history of our relationship to the Judaeo Christian scriptures. Christian anti-Semitism is constantly repudiated and denounced. This repudiation, however, has not resulted in a greater understanding of the gospel text. Far from it: we find that the text has become a stumbling block even to the Christians themselves who see it as the cause of their own past violence. Thus, instead of seeking the source of that violence in themselves, they are still trying to project it onto some kind of sacralized scapegoat, and since all possible human victims have been exhausted, they must dispense with a human scapegoat and go directly to the text of the gospels, the text par excellence, the text that denounces victimage in all its forms and is itself denounced as the single greatest source of violence and hatred in our world.
This relates directly to our relationship with Jewish people and the Scriptures and what I have been trying to say. We have to own our own violence, not blame the Jews, and not blame the text.
This current post circles around what we might learn from the history of the interpretation of this text, and especially about our own violence.
What I take from Girard's anthropology— his theory of what makes us us— is that we seek to scapegoat: we seek to make meaning for ourselves, and to preserve our selves, by creating an other to carry the blame of our shortcoming. We have learned that to say "the Jews…" embraces what Lieu called "a core direction," which is scapegoating, so we repudiate this. But rather than letting the light shine too deeply into ourselves, we appoint 'under the table' another scapegoat: John perhaps, or those who "activated" his core direction, or, as Girard says, even the text itself. So that we can say we… are not like… them, for we are sensitive to, but embracing of, difference.
And in that very act of refusing to scapegoat, we indulge our deep devotion to dualistic and, therefore, inevitably, scapegoating ways of being— good/bad, light/dark, instead of facing the essential oneness of the light as it shines on us. Most of us in recent meetings in my part of the world, who called LGBTI people "evil" to their face, and who told young people they were "really too young to understand the whole story and it would be better if [they] didn't speak into matters until [they were] older"— most of us would also, without hesitation, repudiate anti-Semitic attitudes within the church. And I, seeing what some folk were doing to LGBTI friends, did it right back at them; I made them other, benighted, even evil. Darkness is not other. Darkness is in us, in me.
Currently, I'm feeling my way around someone whose life's pain and disappointments could be described as an overflowing pool of inner darkness; one could say there is a miasma which eddies around this person, and seeps into nearby lives. They are dangerous, and their violence is ill concealed. But I have also learned a profound sadness for them. I find I can equally describe them as reaping a lifetime's ill-sown harvest, or finding themselves trapped behind a wall of their own making, in despair, and with no apparent way out. And what has become clear to me, is that to call them other, is to deny that the same gravitational pull of a 'black hole' is in me. The only substantial difference I can see is that I am sometimes trying to walk toward the One John the Writer has called the light. And then I find… that I cannot say that my difficult acquaintance does not also somewhere, in themselves, seek to do the same.
In the text we see that John the Baptiser has witnessed to the light, and the light has shone into dark places and provoked. The "priests and Levites from Jerusalem" are not asking him questions out of desire for the light. They do not question; they interrogate.
the translation of ἐρωτάω as “ask” (NRSV, NIV, ESV, KJV) is too soft. This term is used often in times of despair or challenge. Since the term μαρτυρία (“witness” or “testimony”) evokes courtroom language, I think “interrogate” is the preferred interpretation for ἐρωτάω, to keep this a kind of ‘courtroom trial’ slant. In that sense, it might be worth comparing this story to the High Priest interrogating Jesus and the disciples in John :19, where the verb ἐρωτάω is used also. In my mind, “interrogate” has more of a feel for the dynamics of power, or the dynamics of assumed power, of who is in charge. (Mark D Davis)
The light has shone upon power, and in some way, exposed it. (cf John 3:20) The interrogation anticipates John's execution by murder just as Jesus' interrogation anticipates his execution by murder. Paul Nuechterlein makes the point
that the violence of the cross is not a unique violence. A twist to much teaching that has gone under the name of Christian has been to attempt making the cross unique in every fashion. But hasn’t that led to a sacrificial reading in which Jesus’ Father was willing to sacrifice him? Rather, says Girard, the gospels are trying to show us how the violence revealed in the cross is structurally identical to much of the violence since the foundation of the world. Its violence is not unique. John the Baptist is the closest forerunner in the sense that he will die the same type of violent death.
When we externalise that in us which the light shines upon, violence follows. When we seek to address what provokes us by focussing on something external, that is, to blame it on an other, we begin upon the path that leads to the murder of John and of Jesus. To identify the problem as outside of me is to begin to blame. My provocation, my anger, or my distress at any news article, or any other event, is, first of all, about me, and what is in me.
That a man called John was baptising in the wilderness meant nothing at all. It was about as interesting as the number of species of grass growing along that part of the Jordan, until the Pharisees decided to attach meaning to it. (cf James Alison On Being Liked pp3) Something in them provoked an interpretation and response. And, as always in John, the Pharisees are the gospel's question to me: Is this me?
Something provoked "the Pharisees" (1:24) and they decided the problem was external to them: namely, John. Ironically, John gives them the answer which we all need, when we ask, "Is this me?" He said, "I am not the Messiah… He was not the light." (1:20, 8) I, by contrast, want to be the light, and to be in the limelight. I am reluctant to say, "I am not the light." So when the true light challenges me, provokes me with my shortcomings, or frightens me, I simply say, "I am the light. Therefore the problem must be somewhere else." For as long as I do that, I pharisee, because I externalise my darkness.
I am not sure how it has happened, but something from facing some of my darkness— that nexus of inadequacy, disgust, and hatred I can barely face— has allowed me to mourn it; to mourn what was done to me, and to mourn all that in which I have failed and fallen so short of better aspirations. I think this has let me begin to mourn the pain and suffering of my difficult acquaintance, instead of condemning them.
How I will preach the text we are given for this Sunday is unclear. The temptation is to jump into 1 Thessalonians— rejoice always, or perhaps into The Magnificat in Luke 1. And there is the problem: How will I abstain from every form of evil, (1 Thess 5:22) and how will I not read the Magnificat as an us/them text while remaining blind to the fact that I am them, for I am of the proud, the powerful, and the rich? (Luke 1:46-55) How will do that if I will not witness to the light, and say to myself, first of all things: I am not the light. And until I mourn and let go of that incomprehensible darkness at my centre— which might mostly be a great emptiness, I will make it a very real thing in the world.
Andrew Prior (2017)
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