Its one thing to reflect on the meaning
of an event years after it happened; its another to have actually played a part in
The vast majority of biblical authors fall into the first
category, but the vast majority of readers believe the authors fall into the second.
Thats why Scripture scholars constantly try to help us understand the context and
intention of the sacred writers.
John, for instance, writes his Gospel at least 65 years after
Jesus death and resurrection - three generations into Christianity. He isnt
just passing on the facts to his community. Presuming the members of his
church already believe Jesus died and rose, hes concerned with attaching a specific
meaning to those events. Instead of creating a modern interpretive essay about Jesus
dying and rising, he creates a Gospel: a writing which employs Jesus words and
actions to convey Johns personal theology.
Dying and rising
In the Gospel for Sunday (Jn 12: 20-33), he reminds his
readers that Christianity has become almost exclusively a Gentile (Greek) faith. Then he
has Jesus reflect on the meaning of His dying and rising for those Gentiles.
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and
dies, Jesus says, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it
produces much fruit. Should someone miss the point, Johns Jesus finally adds,
Those who love their live, lose it; and those who hate their life in this world will
preserve it for eternal life....When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone
Because Johns theology eventually became so popular in
Christianity, theres little need to explain it. Yet, its important to note
that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews offers us a distinctively different
reflection on the same event, a theology which never achieved Johns popularity (Heb
5: 7-9). Son though He [Jesus] was, he writes, He learned obedience from
what He suffered; and when He became perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation
for all who obey Him.
If we buy into Johns theology, Jesus is perfect from
all eternity. He doesnt have to learn obedience. But for all practical
purposes, that makes Him almost impossible to imitate; thats quite different from
the Jesus in the Hebrews reading. We can both identify with and imitate people who grow
and evolve, especially when pain enters their lives. If we hesitate to say such things
about Jesus, its only because we believe Johns theology is the only way to
interpret the Jesus-event.
Adding the first reading to the mix, we could become even
more confused (Jer 31: 31-34). We Gentile Christians believe Yahwehs promise of
a new covenant...written on their hearts. is directed to us. Yet listen
carefully to what Yahweh says: This new covenant is to be made not with Gentiles, but
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. If this unusual agreement has
anything to do with Jesus, it has to do with His relationship with Jews, not us.
The first-century experience of Jewish rejection and Gentile
acceptance of the faith changed how Jesus disciples interpreted Jeremiahs new
covenants. Gentile Christians eventually developed a new theology from it, different from
that of the early Jewish Christians.
Perhaps we have difficulty admitting and integrating these
different theologies because many of us were taught to study our faith first and
experience it later. Jesus first followers did it in reverse. By imitating His dying
and rising in their love of those around them, they experienced their faith first and only
later studied it.
No wonder they developed so many diverse theologies. No two
Christians ever experience the risen Jesus in quite the same way, so how could their
theologies be the same?