This blog is based on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
The Authority of the Son
19 Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father* does, the Son does likewise.20The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.21Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomsoever he wishes.22The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son,23so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him.24Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.
25 ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.26For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself;27and he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man.28Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice29and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
John has already described Jesus’ teaching as “seeing what the father does and telling it.” Here he gives Jesus words that expand this idea. (And let’s be sure that John is inventing words for Jesus. All the gospel writers do that to some degree, altering the sources to suit their own way of telling the story, but John is the most inventive, giving Jesus words that express John’s beliefs about him.) What does it mean for Jesus to say, “The Son does what he sees the father doing”? Unless we imagine Jesus simultaneously present in heaven and on earth, it can only mean, “I always and only act on my vision of God,” which can sound either awe-inspiring or dangerously arrogant.
And when he says that the son gives life to whomsoever he pleases, what on earth can he mean? That he will go about raising the dead? Surely he means start an eternal life which people can start living on earth if they commit themselves to life rather than death. Does John mean that there are some people to whom Jesus refuses the gift of eternal life? Yes, I think he means that those who refuse Jesus are in some way predestined to do so.
Because John puts so much of his theology of Jesus into Jesus’ own mouth, his Jesus becomes for me at least, a profoundly unpleasant character, always talking about himself and his unique relationship with God as compared to ordinary human beings who are either given life or not given it. If I met such a man I’d want to give him a good smacking. But of course, this is not a portrait of the earthly Jesus; it’s a portrait of the Word of God made flesh, revealing his life-giving divinity on earth. In John’s portrait most deeds and words of the earthly Jesus of Nazareth have vanished and been replaced by a character who is nothing more or less than a flesh and blood revealer of God. Indeed John’s purpose is simply to dramatise the extraordinary fact that God has shown himself in Jesus and that the eternal life or eternal death of human beings depends on receiving or rejecting Jesus.
But if it’s (in my view) unpleasant for Jesus to speak about his own uniqueness, is it any better for believers to proclaim it on his behalf? Well, it is, if only in the sense that there’s a difference between a man claiming to be the most compassionate man in the world and others saying it about him. But of course, there still remains an issue, which has been called the “scandal of particularity”: how can it be just for God to judge people solely by their reaction to the story of a first century Jew? Many people won’t ever hear this story and many more will only know of it from the perspective of a different religion taught them since childhood. Will God judge a life-long Hindu because he has never turned to Christianity, the religion of those who looted his country for 300 years?
The difficulty of the Christian revelation, which is evident in the very explicit theology of John’s gospel is how to preserve the particularity of Jesus called Messiah, while emphasising the universality of the salvation offered in his name. I certainly haven’t solved this difficulty, other than by clinging to this formula: in the particulars of the historical life of Jesus, the universal love of God is revealed. It’s the job of the Christian Churches to re-tell and re-live the story of Jesus in ways that are true to the bible and to their own time and place, so that it expresses God’s love for the world.
All branches of the Christian Church should embrace the simplicity of this calling. The retiring Pope said yesterday that the ship of faith had been in stormy waters. I would say that the ship’s hull may have become encrusted with so many doctrinal barnacles and priestly limpets over the course of its voyage that it can scarcely move through the waters at all. A spell in dry dock clearing the vessel of all impediments might be in order.