Tag Archive | atonement

Listening for Love while Avoiding the Violence

A Good Friday Poem Cycle

I wrote this poem cycle almost fourteen years ago, but it bears reading again every Holy Week. This isn’t my usual “poetic voice.” I’m not sure where it came from. These lines are dense with alliteration and other wordplay. Like a magician’s routine, the language keeps you occupied while the actual ideas try to slip in the back door. Really meant for your ears more than your eyes, try to read it out loud.
Link to a pdf of the poems is here: Listening for Love – Pieta
 
Listening for Love while Avoiding the Violence
A poem cycle reflecting on the seven words from the cross
David R. Weiss

July 2001
Preface I grew up, like most Christians, being taught that Jesus died for my sins. And, like most Christians, I was happy to believe this. But at some point I began to have doubts. The notion that God required innocent blood to redeem humanity didn’t work anymore. In fact, any interpretation I read that tried to explain how Jesus’ death saved me or why it was necessary fell short. Far short.
Meanwhile, feminist and gay-lesbian critiques of atonement theology argued it was a profound mistake to suggest that Jesus’ death was in any way redemptive. I came to agree that linking violence to salvation, by whatever theological theory, unwittingly reinforces the idea that, “in the right hands” (i.e., God’s hands—or the hands of those of who appoint themselves God’s representatives), violence is redemptive. History is littered with the bodies of those killed to “make things right”: Jews, women, witches, blacks, Native Americans, LGBT people, and—today–countless Afghani and Iraqi civilians. We have seldom hesitated to think that one more round of violence will “do the trick.”
As my understanding of Jesus’ life deepened I saw things I never learned in Sunday School: particularly the enormous challenge he posed to the oppressing and dehumanizing powers of his day. I’m now convinced that Jesus died not because his death was needed to liberate me (or anyone) from sin, but because the powers that be in this world sought his death in order to preserve an unjust status quo. The cross—and the lyncher’s rope, the assassin’s bullet, the basher’s baseball bat, and the jail cell—all represent the world’s brutish attempts to keep power in hands other than God’s, to make the world “work” on terms other than the compassion that Jesus preached and practiced.
Perhaps the most effective attempt to subvert compassion has been to lure us into mis-understanding the cross as God’s will. Then we invest ourselves in honoring Jesus’ death rather than in emulating his life. I now believe that atonement—the deep reconciliation we long for with God and with each other—is not accomplished by Jesus’ death. It hinges on the radical and daring hospitality present in his life—and that’s where our attention belongs, even, and especially, during Lent.

In this poem cycle, I step imaginatively into Jesus’ own words on the cross to challenge the way we have understood its place in Jesus’ life and in ours. May my words stir your souls as mine has been stirred. Note: there is an eighth poem, “Pieta,” written for Mary (and for us), that appears at the very end.

THE SEVEN WORDS

I.  “Papa, forgive them,
for they do not see what they are doing.”

These soldiers,
their brute bravado
tutored by tyranny
and terror,
themselves illiterate lackeys
to violence,
now pounding through
my flesh
the once warm wounds
inflicted on their own
long lost innocence;
their consciences gouged
into vacant sockets
unable to gauge
this mallet
mauling my love
even for them.

And these misguided guides
to my own kin
building babeled towers
of Torah and Temple
scaling skyward
impervious to the Presence
of Compassion
ever incarnating Itself
earthward
only most recently
in my mere mortal flesh;
now hurling holy harm
against the gathering Grace
of God;
no wisdom
in their wizened eyes,
ducts dry for drought of
flowing justice,
sight long since scarred instead
by cataracts of sacrifice;
they do not see that
they have treed
the very Touch of Love.

And these jeering Jewish
peasant kin,
their devotion to mercy
unmade by heavy burdens
they were never
meant to bear;
their golden-jeweled curiosity
concerning this Kin-dom
of Compassion
now quenched
by furied flames of fear,
melted down into
mocking words
that laugh
as Liberating Love
is maimed
atop this mountain.

And dare I draw
breath deep enough
to will these words
toward distant days
when endless eyes
will fasten on my
fractured frame
beholding there the
bloodied Love of God,
and yet bewitched
by Eden’s serpent song
they see instead
a god
made like unto themselves
and in their darkened hearts
they dress divine
the lust for blood
that marks creation’s
break from Grace.

+++

II.  “Woman, behold your son.” . . . “Behold your mother.”

Ah, mother,
was it for this ill end
you nursed me well,
cuddled, cooed, doted?
Can all those
childhood smiles
I gave you
ever offset this
sword of ache
that pierces your side now
before any spear
has found my own?
Remember,
in your harrowed heart
the song you sang
while in your womb
I slept and grew.
This piercing pole
deals no divine decree
to me
but rather marks
the payment claimed
from me
by earth’s oppressing powers
for having lived your song
so well,
but to this last
I’ll hum its tuneful truth.
Now, mother,
weep your tears
and wail your tender wails,
but do not let
your joyful song
die silent on this tree;
sing now to John
of heaven’s heart
for justice whole and holy;
embrace my friend,
for love of me,
and raise me
in your love.
And John, dear friend,
beloved best
among my best,
to you comes now
the task to live
the words
that pulse your poet’s soul,
‘As I have loved,
so shall you love.’
Now take this woman
to your heart
and love her
in my stead.
John, be the echo
of my life,
a living memory to my mom,
a gracious good
to heal her hurting
hungry heart
and move her music
once again
to magnify the Lord.

+++

III.  “Truly, I tell you this:
today you will rest with me in Paradise.”

Ha!
By what blood-flecked
fly-bitten, pain-filled
prerogative
do I speak such
splendid promise?
Facing full the folly
of my thorn-crowned
regal wreck
I reckon yet
your redemption, friend—
not by any blackening blood
bleeding my life,
some sun-burnt sacrifice
for sin.
Your hope, all hope,
hangs whole on heaven’s
healing heart,
on mercy moved
by mighty love—
not by lust for blood.
‘Paradise, today,’ my friend,
is but the echo
of my life,
itself an echo
from on High;
my royal role
from first to last
has been to promise
Paradise,
not as the purchase
of my death
but in my life
delivered plain,
it’s gathering goal
the gift of God’s good grace,
a treaty tendered
eternally … ‘today.’

+++

IV.  “I thirst.”

This parched prayer
met by meager mercy,
a sour gift
upon a sour day.
But as the psalmist sang
so I thirst, too,
less for sour wine
to mask my mortal wounds
than for the
flowing flood of justice
Amos’ anguish augured
long ago.
Only yesterday,
as thirsty as today,
I raised a cup
in covenantal toast
to Jeremiah’s words of hope,
declaring in our plaintive past
the promise of
a love for God
sealed not by efforts of
oneself
but sealed by God’s own
luring love
writ well upon our hearts.
Today that wine
pours out my pores,
while poor wine
licks my lips.
Will those who heard
my words last night
mark my meaning well?
My blood runs red—
I bleed today—
not to bribe God’s justice
but just to make
that luring love
most clear
to those most dear.
I said
no wine
would cross my lips
until the Kingdom
came.
See, as I sip
this vinegar,
I say
the Kingdom’s come!
If love
within a human frame
can hold out
to this end,
then Love
has surely
in this thirsty moment
wrought the world
anew.

+++

V.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 
(Psalm 22:1)

Crossbeams abide no breath
to say the psalm complete,
so deep despair
in unseen irony
must herald here the hope
that haunts my heart
even now.
Forsaken?
Yes—
to all whose sight settles simply
on this tomb-toward
timbered trunk of mine.
Forsaken?
Ask the leper or the lame;
ask the mute, the deaf, the blind,
the dying or the demon-driven folk
now whole.
Collect the counsel of these outcast
cast in at the last;
they know this psalm
from bittered start
to Destined end.
In their own flesh
as in my own,
the tale of Love’s triumphant
liberation at the last
cannot be kept long
silent.
Short days past
amid palmed pandemonium
some pleaded that I
play the people placid
in their praise . . .
Well today they’re placid, true enough,
hosannas halted at this hill,
and my own breath
fast faltering
to press my Maker’s praise.
And yet, forsaken?
No!
The psalm begun upon my lips,
will have its hearing yet,
and herald heaven’s hallowed hope—
at dawning daybreak, rolled away,
a stone,
will cry out, raising praise
a last hosanna hurled high
from earth to sky
unsealing every lip
including mine.

+++

VI.  “Papa, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Against this hovering
howling dark,
you—only you—
a hand-made home,
my life’s leaven.
Already in adolescence
early inklings
of holy hunger
wove winsome words
heavenward,
haltingly, hurriedly,
your hands a home
even then.
Ragged and reeling,
John’s Jordan still dripping
while spirit-driven
into desert dryness,
I rebuffed
every offer of my Adversary,
racing in prayer
to the oasis of your palms.
Hemmed in
by hectic hours,
dawn to dusk
healing hurts and hopes,
heralding heaven’s
homecoming
and spilling my spirit
in prodigal peril,
but nightly
in lonely love
lingering prayerful
in the fingers
of your peace.
My face,
in fool’s final folly,
fastened with zeal
on Zion,
no city more—or less—
holy than she.
Committing my
climatic courtyard cleansing
did I not then
(at least as much as now)
unequivocally
against all earthly anger,
commit my spirit
into the God-awful
Gracious
grasp of your hands?
Prophetic fury protesting
misplaced piety
presuming to placate
you
with altared offerings
as though Love
is altered by anything
other than love,
as though mercy
might be made
more merciful
when run red with blood.
Papa!  I measured my life,
my breathing and brooding,
my warnings and welcomings,
by your mercy,
and however much
human hands (and  hearts)
blend blessing
and bleeding
never (!) in your
hand-made home
in all my leavened life
was Grace
less than grace.
Now, Jerusalem’s gala entry
given over to
Gethsemane’s garden anguish
given over to
Golgotha’s jeer-jarred agony;
now, with awful end
at hand
death’s deliverance, gloved,
a glib, glaring, gauntlet
demanding damning despair
of me,
my death-defiant prayer
finds final hope
and home
in hands which held me
whole
all along.

+++

VII.  “It is finished.”

This baleful boast
is bought, but just barely,
by battled breathless
breath;
these words willed forth
air-etched
in painful counterpoint
to Pilate’s placard,
Rome’s regal-razing levity
leering
in mocking menace
above my thorn-crowned brow.
It is finished.
All deeds
from birth to death
drawn whole
and the whole Deed
deemed done.
All ends
fused full
and as one End
now final and fulfilled.
Each prayerful piece
now pieced as one,
and that one Prayer
now prayed
to perfect peace.
But what is done,
what end filled full,
what perfect peace is prayed?
Alas, my Lord,
I must lament
and loud and long, I fear
that in these
liquid lungs of mine
wet waves wash words away
while outward
my own spike-speared
flog-flayed flesh
and beam-broken body
beckon, as bloody bait,
to hearts haunted and hell-bent
by unholy hints
imagined here—
Heaven’s handshake heralding
God’s ungodly agreement
to honor my innocence,
my timbered torture
as legal tender
delivered down deathward
in divine duty,
reckoned ransom
against some ghastly goal
of justice just
made merciful by mismeasuring
the merit
of my life
as though defined whole
by my death,
reversing truth eternal
for the Tempter’s twisted lie
and inverting
incarnation
into
infanticide.
What’s finished here
is one last festive feast
my broken body breaking
as my bread-breaking broke
every boundary
marking off as marginal
those most meant
to know
God’s love.
The deed that’s done
while nails catch bone
to wooden beam
and I am raised, arms outstretched,
to float upon
a sea of pain
is that this net
of Love
cast out from earth’s unwanting shore
finds one last catch,
and even in my
going out
I yet am
gathering in.
The end that orders
all my life
embraced entire
on this tree
is to embody
in myself
the bounty
of God’s love.
The prayer prayed
now to perfect peace
while poised prone-pierced
upon this poisoned pole
is simply said,
that this life
to the last
be nothing more
and nothing less
than
Love.

David R. Weiss
July 2001

*     *     *

Pieta” means “pity” and often names the artistic image (painted or sculpted) of Mary cradling her dead son at the foot of the cross. This poem/song invites us to rethink how we understand the cross by imagining Mary, in this moment of “pity,” recalling her own Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and seeing Jesus’ life as a lived refrain to that song. In the last verse Mary sings—for us.

Pieta

Mary, when you held your son, bloodied for the work he’d done;
lifeless body bound for sod, did you blame his death on God?
When you searched your grieving heart, memories pondered from the start,
Did you find the words there stored, when you magnified the Lord?

God, you dwell on high in cloud; come to earth—put down the proud.
Cast the mighty ones aside; with the lowly poor abide.
Make my womb’s own fruit a feast, for the hungry and the least.

Mary, holding your own kin, did you think he’d died for sin?
Was it God who’d bid him die? A Holy Thirst for blood on high?
In that chorus from your youth, could you hear a deeper truth?
In his living could you see, what had nailed him to the tree?

Mary, had he lived your song, preached a God whose Grace is strong,
mercy reaching far and wide; was it for such tales he died?
Healing blind and deaf and lame, brought your son imperiled fame,
gathering the outcast in, feasting with them as with kin.

God, you dwell on high in cloud; come to earth—put down the proud.
Cast the mighty ones aside; with the lowly poor abide.
Make my womb’s own fruit a feast, for the hungry and the least.

Mary, in your pity full, did a vision fill your soul?
Not the cross was God’s desire, but that life of holy fire.
Crossing boundaries etched in stone, Rome and Jew sought flesh and bone.
As he brought to life God’s breath, those in power sought his death.

Mary, as they brought him down, and you kissed the thorny crown,
wherein lay the hope you felt, ’gainst the blow that you’d been dealt?
Midst your grief was there a joy, at the beauty of your boy,
bloody now upon your breast, head at last a place to rest?

God, you dwell on high in cloud; come to earth—put down the proud.
Cast the mighty ones aside; with the lowly poor abide.
Make my womb’s own fruit a feast, for the hungry and the least.

Mary, sing your song once more, for the hurting and the poor,
for the outcasts not yet in, those today not seen as kin.
God’s desire was never death, but for life aflame with Breath;
this time when you sing your plea, Mary, sing your song—for me.

God, you dwell on high in cloud; come to earth—put down the proud.
Cast the mighty ones aside; with the lowly poor abide.
Make my womb’s own fruit a feast, for the hungry and the least.

David R. Weiss – August 2000

Atonement — and Jesus’ Life

Sermon for Pilgrim Lutheran Church
4th Sunday in Lent – March 15, 2015
Text – John 3:14-21

I am serving as “Theologian in Residence” at Pilgrim Lutheran this year. In this role I occasionally preach and teach, and my writings—from hymns to poetry to essays—have been used in a variety of ways to enrich Pilgrim’s worship and learning life. During the season of Epiphany I led a 6-session small group gathering titled “Lurching Toward Lent” in which about a dozen of us wrestled with atonement theology. I was invited to preach this day, and on this text, as an opportunity to speak to a larger portion of the Pilgrim community, meeting atonement theology “head on” so to speak. ~David Weiss

(Pdf file of sermon here)

*     *     *

This morning’s sermon is on atonement theology, which is the doctrine of at–one–ment. Let me explain.

Atonement tries to answer the question, how can we possibly make up for how much we’ve messed up with God? How can we atone for our sin? Or, if we can’t atone for our own sin, how can God atone for our sin for us? If we’ve been broken off from God how can we be made one again? How can at–one–ment occur?

Expressed more positively, atonement names the mystery of becoming “at-one,” becoming whole with all things: with God, but also with our fellow humans and with the rest of creation. That’s atonement. And no matter how much we presume to describe it with doctrinal precision, it is a deep mystery. And, unfortunately—no, tragically—I daresay humanity in general, and Christianity in particular, has disastrously misunderstood this mystery. And over the next fourteen minutes, doing my best not to fall headlong into heresy, I aim to set matters aright. So I encourage you to buckle up, keep your hands inside the pews, and hold on for dear life. The ride is about to begin.

I bet many of you memorized it as you were growing up. John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

It’s probably the most memorized verse in the Bible, nicknamed “the gospel in a nutshell.” It’s certainly among the most beloved. But there are problems here. And not just in this verse, but in the verses around it.

Now, I need you to listen carefully, because I’m not going to leave you here. We’re heading toward good news. But we start with a hard look at a text has come to make me squirm. What does it mean that God gave Jesus … to be lifted up? And how does that lead to eternal life for us?

Because we know where this story is going, we can fill in John’s euphemistic language here and put things more bluntly. What John is really saying is something like this: “For God so loved the world that he (and I’m leaving the masculine pronoun in on purpose) that he killed … either allowed … or destined in some indirect way … or outright orchestrated down to the gory details … the death of his Son on the cross … so that at least some of us—the ones who believe in Jesus—won’t perish, but will end up in heaven where we can celebrate eternally with God while some poor suckers, maybe even some of our own friends and family, are literally ‘down south’ catching hell.”

Now, I’m NOT, I repeat – NOT – going to leave you here. But I need you to stand here long enough to see what we’re up against in this verse and its nearby neighbors. Right before this, John 3:14 says “the Son of Man must be lifted up” while referring back to an Old Testament story in which Moses lifts up an image of a serpent on a pole, making clear that John expects us to see Jesus “lifted up” on another pole: the cross. And then John 3:18 adds, with uncomfortable clarity: those who do not believe are … condemned already.” Ouch.

How’s this for a catchy, gospel slogan? Atonement: it isn’t for everyone; but you probably want to make sure it’s for you.

Not really very cute at all. See, that’s my son, Ben, that John is talking about. “Does not believe in Jesus.” “Is condemned already.”

So I intend to push back. For the sake of those I love. Because, while I’m no “god,” I can love my son, even while he doesn’t believe in Jesus. And if God can’t love my son, Ben, right now, then there’s something wrong with God. Or if God does love Ben right now, but stops loving him if he dies without believing in Jesus, there’s still something wrong with God. And if God goes right on loving Ben while Ben is slowly roasting in hell, well, then there’s something really wrong with that kind of God.

Now, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with God. And I’m not worried about my son, Ben.

But my point—and the reason I’m naming names this morning—is that these texts, and the theology we often use to interpret them—are NOT innocent. Lives can hang in the balance. These words have the power to shape the way we think about ourselves or about others. So we need to approach them with the same respect we show a box of matches. Well-used, they can provide us light and warmth. But if we’re not careful with our theology, someone will end up getting burned.

Sort of like a set of eyeglasses, theology takes the raw data of faith—the stuff out there in front of us—and tries to bring it into focus, so that we can make sense of what we’re seeing. But sometimes theology fails—and we know that.

There is a theology of white supremacism that tries to make sense of racial differences—and does so with horrific consequences. There was a theology behind apartheid, slavery, sexism, and the condemnation of LGBT people. All of these theologies are attempts to make sense of raw data. All of them were, at some point, taken for granted as “the Truth.” And all of them are attempts that we now see fell short, often in disastrous ways.

There are also theologies that try to make sense of the raw data that Jesus lived a holy life and yet died a horrible death. How do we understand that? For the first followers of Jesus, this was a huge and pressing dilemma. They didn’t have pre-printed Sunday School lessons to map it out for them. They had stories of a man who was uncommonly—extraordinarily, scandalously good. So good that sacred energy seemed to pulse through him. Many persons experienced healing in his presence. Many more were moved to live wholly different lives on account of him. And they had stories of his death on the cross. And the thundering question: Why?!

Sure, each Gospel concludes with the resurrection (though Mark just barely does), so it’s all better in the end. But before that, Jesus does not die a peaceful death after a long life. Or a tragic death in an accident. Not even a swift death at an assassin’s hand. He suffers for hours on a cross, while life is painfully, breath by breath, ripped from him. WHY?!

There is not one clear obvious answer. There are only attempts at an answer. We see hints of them in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul. We see more of them scattered across church history. And many of the answers drag Jesus’ death right into the doctrine of atonement, marking it as an expression of God’s love. Like John: “For God so loved the world …”

Honestly, I find these answers unsatisfying—or worse. For two reasons.

First, because they make Jesus’ death—in all its cruelty—redemptive. And frankly, I don’t trust that notion. I mean, if God can kill someone in order to redeem others, then what’s to stop us from doing the same? We are, after all, created in the image of God. And that IS pretty much what we’ve done. Oh, there’s a handful of twisted individuals who kill just for the joy of killing, but most of our bloody human history, from the generals we admire to the criminals we detest—from wars to vengeance to executions—is the history of people who killed because they felt it would make things better.

And if the story we tell about Jesus is one that says the most important part of his life—the redeeming part—was the brutality of his death—well, that’s a story I get queasy about telling. Not just because I don’t care for it, and not just because I don’t think it’s true, but also because it’s a story that HAS been used theologically to justify a lot of other killing besides Jesus. And none of those other people deserved to be caught up in this logic that says, if just these people die, it will all be better. You see, that type of thinking NEVER just stays with Jesus. It ALWAYS spills over onto other people we’d like to be rid of.

But there’s another reason, a more positive one. Look at the man’s life, for God’s sake. I mean that literally: FOR GOD’S SAKE. Because, as I suggested when I sent my son, Ben, to hell a few minutes ago, the way we’ve often chosen to hear this story does not reflect very well on God. And, simply put, we owe God better theology.

What if Jesus’ life is atoning? What if his life is what “at-ones” us with God and one another? John (1:16) describes Jesus LIVING, his whole way of “dwelling among us” as “grace upon grace.” Jesus entire ministry announced, revealed, and embodied our atonement. Before he died. In his parables. His healings. His table fellowship. People who felt broken, who were cut off and marginalized, who seemed unworthy. Jesus at-oned them—in his life. He pronounced the all-encompassing, overwhelming, life-transforming, community-creating love of God, which makes all persons, all things, one. That’s atonement. And it didn’t require Jesus’ death to make it happen. It was the result of his life.

There are reasons—historical, religious, psychological, and more—that led his followers to put his death at the center of atonement theology. But there are reasons—historical, religious, psychological, and more—that explain why sexism, racism, homophobia show up in the Christian tradition. Yet we’ve learned to push back against these reasons. Eventually we’ve said, it’s time to do better. And it’s time to do better with our atonement theology.

Atonement is what transpires through Jesus’ full presence to others. His willingness to be the unconditional welcome of God to the people around him. His death is part of that story, not because it was needed to “seal the deal,” but because the world—the human power structures that frame our lives through injustice and bias, through greed and exploitation—those power structures has no place for a human being so fully, so redemptively present to others. And those powers—some religious, some political, some social—those powers killed Jesus.

I do not look at the raw data and Jesus’ holy life and brutal death, and say that his death somehow brings about our atonement. No, I say that Jesus’ holy life, his radically full presence, which announced and embodied at–one–ment to all around him, is what led to his death. But our atonement was accomplished before he died. And before he died he invited us to join him in the holy work of at-one-ing everything else.

John’s gospel reflects an understanding that scholars call “realized eschatology.” Coming from the Greek word that refers to “the End,” or the Last Things, realized eschatology means that John doesn’t simply think, “the End is near”; he believes that in Jesus “the End has already started.”

Which means that when John talks about “eternal life,” as he does in 3:16, he doesn’t mean “life in heaven.” He means LIFE, capital letters, bold print, full color, right now. He means life lived in infinite depth starting this very moment. He means life lived—like Jesus!—in full gracious presence to others. Right now.

John’s gospel is extraordinarily complex—and rich. There are SO many more things I could say about this passage.* There is MUCH more here than meets the eye. But let me end where I started, with John 3:16, the Gospel in a nutshell:

“For God so loved the world …” not just us, but everything, every corner of creation …

“That God gave us Jesus …” God filled this person, Jesus, with such radically full human presence that we could not help but call him the very Son of God …

“So that everyone who believes in him …” everyone who accepts Jesus’ invitation to rest their heart on and invest their energy embracing that same radically full presence in their lives …

“Will not perish …” these people, these “fully present ones,” will not live shallow lives or lack for meaning …

“But will have eternal life …” by daring to be fully present, they will discover the full eternal depth of life, here and now.

The stakes are huge.

Not because they concern our ultimate destiny, our ultimate “at – one – ment” with God. That, my friends, is sealed entirely by the unimaginably extravagant love of God. A done deal from the very beginning. What’s at stake here—and it’s huge because all the hurt and need and joy and love in the world waits on this—is whether, by faith, we start living into and out of the awareness of that extravagant love already today. That’s atonement: at–one–ment, full gracious human presence to one another. Starting now. Right now.

Amen.

 

*Endnote: This text really does require far more attention to do justice to it than I can offer here. I mention just four “essential” items that got “cut” due to time..

  1. John is the last of the gospel writers to offer portraits of Jesus and his portrait is undoubtedly the imaginative, symbolic, theological … and least historical. That doesn’t make it unimportant at all, but does mean we need to approach it with much more nuance. In this gospel lesson (3:14-21) all the words appear to be spoken by Jesus (no quote marks in the original Greek), but there is wide scholarly consensus that John creates Jesus words in his gospel to an extent not seen in any of the other three. So I “argue” with John in my sermon, because to argue with Jesus requires more explanation than I have time to provide.
  2. In John’s Gospel the language of believers and non-believers is NOT about Christians and “other faiths.” John’s community of believers is comprised of Jewish Christians (Jews who came to regard Jesus as the Messiah). For fifty-plus years they gathered alongside others Jews in synagogues, but over the decades tension increased between these two sets of Jews: those who revered Jesus and (the majority) those who did not. Shortly before John’s Gospel is written, the majority Jews barred the Jewish Christians from gathering any longer in the synagogue (basically because they wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus). It was a BITTER rift, as most family rifts are. (We see bits of this “leaking” backward into John’s narrative at 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2.) When John speaks of non-believers, he is referring to the Jews who refused to believed in Jesus, and however strongly he may believe what he says, his rhetoric is painfully sharpened by the raw familial bitterness of this dispute.
  3. The word translated as “judgment” in v. 19 is far more evocative than this translation implies. The Greek is krisis, from which we get our word “crisis.” It really means “critical point” or “moment of decision.” Because of how we mis-hear “eternal life,” we just as easily hear krisis as referring to God’s judgment. But this isn’t a judgment rendered by God or anyone else outside the situation; it refers to the critical nature of existential choice facing the person within the situation: how we will decide to invest ourselves in the next hour, day, or week.
  4. Finally, John is very fond of opposing light and dark as symbolic language heavy with value. Light is always good; dark is always bad. This is a natural enough metaphor, and one embedded in the gnostic philosophy prevalent in his day. And while I may disagree with it always being used in one way, it is true that in a society where most everyone had olive-colored skin, light/dark is not nearly as loaded a metaphor as in a society like ours where the values align so uncomfortably with skin color and social power.

David R. Weiss | drw59mn@gmail.com