I have been terrified of John for some fifty-five years. He’s complicated, threatening, outrageous at times, secretive, and almost unintelligible. I wanted to have nothing to do with him. He was poison.
Then a strange thing happened. My wife and I had been working with inmates at the local jail on Tuesday afternoons, but the jail changed leadership and didn’t need our services anymore. Now I was free to go to a midweek Bible study at our church, Irvine United Congregational. The group was studying the Gospel of John, led by a very creative, funny, knowledgeable, retired UCC pastor, the Reverend Ken Wyant. I went, with a big chip on my shoulder, to set the class straight—John was a nut case. However, Ken placated me and kept on teaching about the power inside John’s Gospel. All of a sudden, John started making sense to me. Whoa! I bought Bishop John Spong’s book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. This book clarified so much for me, and, suddenly, I saw and felt the power of this Gospel.
How did this this happen? After all, John’s book is the same as it was when I was in seminary. Obviously, I had not delved into John deeply enough; maybe I wasn’t ready before.
John is complicated. He was part of a school whose members were Jewish. By the time we see John in the public arena, the Jesus movement had been expelled from Judaism. The gentiles had taken over, and, most of the time, they read the Gospels as literal truth. They did not, and still don’t, understand the Jewish way of telling their religious history, which is full of metaphors, cultural innuendos, secret sayings, and mysticism.
That could explain a great deal why John terrifies me. I am a gentile. I didn’t really understand the concept of midrash, which is the art of interpreting a story to find the real meaning inside the story itself. An example can be found in the story of the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-12) where Jesus takes six large jars of water used for purification and turns them into 150 gallons of premium wine. Most Christians believe Jesus did this and see him as one of the great wine makers of the first century. However, if one reads that story “through Jewish eyes,” one realizes that this story tells us that the old Israel (purification water) has been replaced by the new Israel (an abundance of new premium wine), the transforming message of Jesus’s agape love.
I learned a great lesson here: to grow as a Follower, one must always be open to an evolving faith. Faith should never stagnate.
Thanks to Pastor Ken and Bishop Spong, I am being challenged to grow more in my faith. John’s Gospel has opened the door for me to do just that. I am now in a new place filled with all kinds of new possibilities as to how my faith can continue to grow through the reading and understanding of John’s Gospel. In my sixty years of ministry over and over, I have seen the transforming message of Jesus’s agape turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Where are you in your faith journey? Has your faith grown during your lifetime with new findings and new experiences? Or is it stagnant?
Photo courtesy of Simon Blackley. CC by-nd 2.0