(This is the second week in a sermon series based on John Shelby Spong’s recent book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”)
Most of us don’t give a second thought about receiving our Biblical knowledge in sound bites on Sunday mornings. But we’d never read a regular book a few paragraphs at a time, probably not even in order, over the course of years, and believe we had a good grasp of the story. To truly understand the Gospel of John, we need to recognize that the stories don’t stand alone. Until we put them together, layer after layer, and view them through the eyes of Jewish mysticism (see last week’s post for more on this) we won’t get the full picture or the full message.
(For the full audio version, click here.)
We began last Sunday by examining the Prologue to the book of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”), and discussed how using the familiar Jewish concept of the Word of God, in a revised form of a Proverbs hymn about Wisdom, was meant to express the mystical unity that human life can have with God. Seen through the eyes of Jewish mysticism, Jesus was the conduit of the Divine Word and Wisdom, which were eternally part of the essence of God.
Moving on, many scholars consider that Chapters 2 – 11 of the Book of John came from an independent source they call the Book of Signs. These chapters suggest that events like changing water into wine, healing the royal official’s child, and feeding the 5,000, were not simply miracles, they were signs pointing to something bigger. The author of John was laying forth a case, presenting a cohesive story leading us to discover something new.
But, it is like the exercise I did with the kids… unless we have the key, we can’t know the message.
Spong tells us that “A clue to understanding the Fourth Gospel is to recognize that this author uses literary license to create memorable personalities who become the pillars around which he relates the themes of his Jesus story. Our interpretive task will be to “read” these characters as John, their creator, intended them to be read.”
Doing this requires knowing the codes for the stories and engaging in a bit of decrypting!
Here is the code that Spong gives us to decrypt the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11):
HOUR = Jesus’ crucifixion and glorification
MARY = Israel (the faith tradition that gave birth to Christianity)
OLD WINE = Judaism
NEW WINE = Christianity
Water of purification becomes the wine of the Spirit
Note the timing happens “on the 3rd day”
150 gallons of new wine = abundance
So, if we use this key to interpret this story as the community of John may have understood it, we see that the old wine, the religion of Judaism, has run its course, the old answers don’t work anymore. A transformation has happened, and there is something that is much better… it is just that no one knows where it came from at this point, because the hour of revelation has not come. The water of purification, their old rituals of how to be pure and holy, have given way to the wine of the Spirit. And there is an abundance of this new wine (150 gallons of it!), an abundance of the Spirit – an abundance of new life.
The stage is set. Jesus is the conduit of the Divine Word and Wisdom, he is the one to show humanity how to achieve a deep personal connection to God. But we have a journey to take to get there and so we follow the signs. It is like going on a journey and following road signs, or seeking a buried treasure where each clue leads us to the next one.
This first sign of turning water into wine hints that something old is passing away and something new has come to take its place and offer something better. But people aren’t easily convinced. Hence, the story of with Nick at Night.
Here is the code for decrypting the story of Nicodemus (John 3:1-12)
Nicodemus = Pharisees interested in Jesus, but just couldn’t take the last step to follow
Dark = lack of understanding or knowledge
Light = New understanding of God
Place = notice it happens outside of the synagogue
Born again = born anew, or born from above into a new spiritual realm or dimension, not a new religious status called “conversion”
Born of water = maternal birth waters
Born of spirit = new dimension, mysterious, mystical experience
Better translation for kingdom is realm – to experience the realm of God one must be born anew
Interpreting this story, we discover that Nicodemus likely represents some of the Jews who were on the fence. They seemed to respect Jesus and were curious about the things he had to teach. But they just didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them and couldn’t make the leap to a new way of thinking.
Jesus’ response is sort of like this: “Seriously, Nick, work with me here, you’re a teacher of Israel and you don’t get this? Yes, you have to be born from your mother’s womb, but the second birth is a spiritual enlightenment, a new consciousness. I know it is a little tricky to understand as you’re used to hard and fast laws and rules, but we follow the Spirit, and the Spirit blows like the wind and goes where she will. She isn’t hampered by those sorts of external things…”
Nick is not just one guy at one time. He represents all those who prefer ignorance to knowledge, who prefer security over change. He represents the people who relate to what is and never see what can be. I think this struggle happens in each of us to a greater and lesser degree, in all areas of our lives.
The mystical message in this story is that the community of John believed that Jesus called them outside of the walls of the synagogue, outside of the bounds of established religion. He wasn’t concerned with the 613 laws of Judaism, but with love. He knew that the true connection with God was within. To be born anew spiritually. To have a new consciousness.
Our class last Wednesday night talked about what this new consciousness looks like, and we came up with this:
- Less “worshippy”
- Without rules, ritual
- Outside of religion (they are meeting outside of the synagogue)
The churches have never wanted to encourage interior journeys, because then what would we need the churches for? But it was the interior journey that Jesus was pointing to… will we risk, step out of our spiritual comfort zones, explore, and open to the experience? Or will we be hanging with Nick.
Love & Light!