It’s one thing to reflect on the meaning of an event years after it happened; it’s another to have actually played a part in that event.

The vast majority of biblical authors fall into the first category, but the vast majority of readers believe the authors fall into the second. That’s 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 isn’t just passing on “the facts” to his community. Presuming the members of his church already believe Jesus died and rose, he’s 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 John’s 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, John’s 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 to myself.”

Because John’s theology eventually became so popular in Christianity, there’s little need to explain it. Yet, it’s 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 John’s 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 John’s theology, Jesus is perfect from all eternity. He doesn’t have to “learn obedience.” But for all practical purposes, that makes Him almost impossible to imitate; that’s 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, it’s only because we believe John’s theology is the only way to interpret the “Jesus-event.”

New covenant

Adding the first reading to the mix, we could become even more confused (Jer 31: 31-34). We Gentile Christians believe Yahweh’s 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 Jeremiah’s 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?