Finding Life and Being
What I am doing this week is building upon two previous posts on John 10. The first post is an extended sermon and hymns called Whistleblowing at the Sheep Gate. The work underlying that sermon is outlined in The Gate.
The posts explore the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through the lens of Girardian Theology. The sermon is good outline of how Jesus cuts across the scapegoating violence of our culture and presents us with a new way of living.
What strikes me about John 10 today is that we are blind... our culture is blind... our human culture precedes us and it teaches us what is to be seen. John implies we are blind unless, in some form, "the man called Jesus" — we may at first have no real idea who he is, or where he is (John 9:11,12,36) — opens our eyes. Significantly, at the end of chapter nine in John, the blind man can see, but the ones who think they can see, the deeply committed and faithful religious folk, are blind.
40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
John Petty, whose work helped me write my original article, makes an observation which ought to pull us up short.
Naturally, the pharisees don't understand any of this. In the actual history of the period, the pharisees actually shared some of Jesus' criticisms of the Temple. They looked for the renewal of Judaism. They were the "liberal reformers" of their day, you might say.
The problem is that they continue to have an investment in the system itself. They are trying to reform a system that, in the view of the fourth gospel, cannot be reformed. They are trying to come in "by another way" than through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
If we do not find John's Gospel challenging our investment in our culture and church, we may be more blind than we imagine.
If we ignore the artificial chapter divisions in John, it is clear that blindness, and thieves and bandits, go together.
9:40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains. 10:1‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit... ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly...
The hired hands are not much better than the thieves.
13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.... 18bI lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
We could summarise Jesus' ministry as the opening of our eyes from blindness, which includes understanding that this may involve the laying down of our lives.
John 10:10 seems to me to be a central verse in the Gospel of John.
10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
There is something about human culture — the thief — which kills and destroys us, but Jesus comes to give life, and "more abundantly." The word for life is the same as the word Jesus uses in John 3:16.
4And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3)
This life (zōēn) is something far beyond mere bios, just being biologically alive. To be saved is to enter into eternal life —zōēn aiōnion — the life of the age, a different way of being than that which we are born into. It is fullness of life. It is to begin upon the way to wholeness and completion as a human being. It is to know the presence of God, and to know green pastures and an overflowing table, even in the presence of death. (Ps 23) John 9 and 10 lead into the story of Lazarus. As the forces of violence seek to destroy him, (10:31-32) Jesus restores life which has been claimed by death. They say in John 11
‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
And he raises him from death. The cry ‘Lazarus, come out!’ leads folk to wonder if the walled sheep fold of John 10, that seems to offer safety, might itself be a kind of tomb.
45 Many of the Ioudaioi therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
And they kill him. But he returns. I love what James Alison does with the images of the resurrected Christ in his comments on Luke.
What is odd about the Emmaus story is that it is a dead man who is talking. I think it very important that we don’t make the separation which we are accustomed to when talking about the risen Jesus, imagining that he is alive, and for that reason, not dead. No, what is fascinating about the doctrine of the resurrection is that it is the whole human life of Jesus, including his death, which is risen. The life of God, since it is totally outside the order of human life and human death, doesn’t cancel death, as if it were a sickness which is to be cured, but takes it up, assumes it. Luke offers us a vision of a risen Jesus who has not ceased to be a dead man, and who, starting from his living-out-being-a-crucified-man, teaches and empowers his disciples by his presence. (James Alison Beyond Resentment pp41, quoted here.)
The same insight (the crucified-and-risen Lord) applies in John's Gospel where "he showed them his hands and his side." (John 20:20) The life of God, since it is totally outside the order of human life and human death, doesn’t cancel death, as if it were a sickness which is to be cured, but takes it up, assumes it: We are called to walk towards that life, to be initiated into it, model ourselves upon it, and to learn to become this even as at the same time it is being given to us because it is beyond us to "take it up" for ourselves. This is what "life, and [life] abundantly" means for us.
But what this life will seem to be will depend upon our imagination. It will depend upon who we choose our models to be.
As a younger child, I imagined the fullness of life and being lay in being good. If I was good, I would have life. I was, of course, completely unconscious of how I came to this thought, but it was very clear to me by Grade 5 that "being good" worked for survival. As the whole class accused me of lying in order to deflect their own guilt in a certain matter— the consequences of this accusation were clearly going to be unpleasant— Mr Rosenthal, the Headmaster said, "I have never know Andrew Prior to tell me a lie," and believed me. My conversion was complete. Being good was 'salvational!'
But I found that being good also leads to a moralistic faith. Rather than trusting Jesus, we trust our adherence to a set of rules which are inevitably somewhat arbitrary. And the success of a moralistic faith depends upon the powers that be following the rules, which often does not happen, as I slowly discovered.
As a young man, I imagined that life and being lay in subscribing to the right theology. I was even somewhat aware that this came from my idolisation of a youth leader whose acceptance and praise I craved. Here, "whosoever believes in me..." really means adhering to the same theological interpretation as the group; that is, I gain a certain kind of life and being by basking in the approval of the group. But of course, the group's approval is arbitrary. It still needs its scapegoats when things start to become unglued, and then, if we are the chosen one, it doesn't matter what we believe.
If there's anything I have learned since my early life, and since my writing in 2014, it is this restatement of John's meditation upon blindness:
We always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen. In other words, there is no reality 'out there' to be seen. What is 'out there' is already, inescapably, a construct made real by human desire... We desire according to the desire of another. That is to say, the eyes of another teach us who we are by teaching us what we want. (James Alison On Being Liked pp1-2)
This is inescapable. Kierkegaard said
For it seems indeed as if, in order to be themselves, a person must first be expertly informed about what the others are, and thereby learn to know what they themselves are--in order then to be that. However, if they walk into the snare of this optical illusion, they never reach the point of being themselves... For from "the others," naturally, one properly only learns to know what the others are—it is in this way the world would beguile a person from being themselves. "The others" in turn do not know at all what they themselves are, but only what the others are. (Christian Discourses. Translated by Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press . pp42,42, quoted by Bellinger. I have modified the original to be gender inclusive.)
Charles Bellinger who quotes the previous lines, says
When human beings are looking to each other as models of being, the pathway of life is a treadmill or squirrel cage rather than an actual road...
In seeking to be someone, in longing to find some kind of meaning, I saw the treadmill and dead end of our finitude when I was quite young. But living it was worse than I imagined, for even "my own self" proved to be a fiction. I had doubted that there was any objectivity to have, now it was horribly clear that there is not. In the face of death, the desire for certainty is understandable— I was quietly terrified— but it cannot be obtained.
The only viable course, the only choice in all this, is to ask upon whom I will model myself. Who will be my shepherd? Either I choose, or I am blown by the whims of whoever comes near. In this choosing there will be no proof — that's why it's called faith and trust — there will only be outcomes which tend towards death or towards the deep life John calls eternal. Francis Schaeffer, who I read early in my discipleship, used to criticise Kierkegaard's "leap of faith," but now I found that faith was all that was on offer. Jesus turns everything upside down.
In his Gospel, for all its mystical feel which makes a space and time for us to go deeper into ourselves— a space in which something might 'crack open' our blindness— in all that, John is quite uncompromising. There is no new age anything-goes fuzziness: I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits. Jesus, and only Jesus, is the model for life.
So I have had to learn that Jesus was not a moralist; he pretty much ignored the moral strictures of his day. He was not a group man; he did not join a tribe. "He did not entrust himself to them," (John 2:24) because "he knew [that] all people" are formed by the modelling of violence and scapegoats. Rather, life seems to be a following of the shepherd and learning, and then unlearning, the things which have driven me.
I have had to ask, What led me to do this? and Why did that fascinate me for so long? or Why did I long for that? This has meant discovering how much I was driven by the desire to survive at any cost, by the desire to be 'one of the Jones's', the desire to please the right people, and the desire to be someone people looked up to...
This really is a process of being "born again," as John 3 has it. There is no quick conversion to another set of rules, for every rule we know, every thing we have done, has been taught and mediated by a world founded in violence rather than a world founded in a Jesus-informed agape. Even the best models for our discipleship are themselves still being converted, and are only poor and partial re-presentations of Jesus the Lord. Everything is turned upside down. Jesus lays his life down, and as true followers we are called to embrace the fact that we may be forced to do the same.
1 Peter 2:23, from the Epistle for this week, presents the almost unimaginable non-retaliatory and non-defensive Way of Jesus.
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
It is the antithesis of Empire. And it means that although we "were going astray like sheep ... now [we] have returned to the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls." (1 Peter 2:25)
In some ways, it has been a depressing journey. I have been horrified to discover how arbitrary and self-serving my "being good" proved to be. It has stunned me to realise that my determination "not to be like them" resulted in my being harshly condemnatory, and often well worse than "them." But my poor attempts to follow seem to have opened me to something else. I said above that we are called to model ourselves upon Jesus' way "even as at the same time it is being given to us because it is beyond us to "take it up" for ourselves." I have found this to be the case. I am changed. I am sometimes graced to do things, and be a person, that I could not possibly have been of myself. This is life.
Andrew Prior (2020)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
The Gate (2014)
John 10:1-21 - Whistleblowing at the Sheep Gate (2014)
John 10:1-15 - I will meet you (2017)
John 10 - The Discernment of Shepherds and Sheep (2015)
John 10 - A Voice calling my Name (2011)
John 10 - Sheep and Other Mamils (2011)
John 10:11-18 - Life in all its fullness (2009)
John 10:11-19 - Meeting a Distant Shepherd (2012)
John 10:11-19 and Psalm 23 - Living in the Long Paddock (2012)
John 10, John 10:22-30 - These three remain; faith, hope and love (2013)
John 10 - Sheep Among the Wolves of War - Anzac (2015)
John 10:22-30 - Will you enter in? (2016)