by Graham Hellier,
from Signs of the Times No 52 - Jan 2014
Luke was a gentle soul. He smoothed out the awkward parts of Mark’s Gospel. In his account, though copying almost word for word, he cannot bring himself to say that the disciples were complaining, or jockeying for power, or that they deserted Jesus.
Similarly whereas Mark records Jesus’ anger when confronted with leprosy or with the obduracy of his opponents, Luke censors these passages. And most significant of all, he omits the cry of dereliction from the cross. A long process is underway - to enhance the standing of Jesus from one who was, in Peter’s words, 'singled out by God' (Acts 2:22) to one who would be described as 'true God from true God'.
The New Testament, however, does not anticipate the creeds. Its metaphors for Jesus are just that — metaphors. They are drawn from Jewish or Greek thought — the son of God, the word of God - yet Jesus always stands at one remove from God himself. Just as in Jewish thought the figure of wisdom is no threat to the singularity of God, so in early Christian thought, it was some time before opponents of Christianity could accuse it of deserting monotheism. Even the opening of John’s Gospel uses language more nuanced than some of our translations allow. At the close of John’s Gospel the writer records the confession of Thomas, 'My Lord and my God' but may be presenting a deliberate challenge to the Emperor Domitian, who commanded that he be addressed as 'Our Lord and our God'. Ideas of divinity were fluid in the Roman world, where interchanges between gods and humans were commonplace.
If we take John’s Gospel as a whole, we are bound to give proper weight to Jesus’ disclaimers - 'The son can do nothing of himself' (5:19 see also 7:16, 8:28, 40 & 14:28). John’s Gospel looks back to Jesus but also reflects the writers own mature thought. It seems likely that the disclaimers are original but that the claims reflect developing Christian interpretation. And there is nothing ambiguous about the parting words 'I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God' (20:17).
Jesus may certainly have said 'I and my Father are one' (Jn 10.30) but this unity is surely one of will and action, rather than being. It is the kind of unity that Jesus wants to see reflected in his followers (17:11). This is paralleled by Paul in his bold statement that 'in Christ, the Godhead in all its fullness dwells embodied' (Col 2:9). This is not the same as saying that Jesus is part of the Godhead. His meaning becomes clear when set alongside Eph.3:19 - 'May you be filled with the very fullness of God'.
Although it is not possible to separate the views of later Christians from the authentic sayings of Jesus, the confrontation described in John 10:12ff could be genuine. It poses the very issue we are discussing, as Jesus is charged with blasphemy for assuming divine prerogatives. How then do we interpret his enigmatic answer, for he seems to suggest that divinity is within reach of all who receive God’s word?
In truth, our approach to scripture is dominated by credal assumptions. We see what we expect to see and our understanding is selective in consequence.. How many preachers gather all the 'I am' sayings and push them beyond what they will bear. Even the Old Testament original is noteworthy for what it avoids saying, as much as for what it implies. Perhaps Jesus is evading any attempt to pin him down - and perhaps God was doing the same! In like fashion we narrow the old phrase 'only begotten' without enquiring after its traditional use, which meant that such a one could only come from God - it is not necessarily exclusive. Similarly, and almost wilfully, we turn the meaning of the hymn in Phillippians 2 on its head - Jesus is said not to claim equality with God yet we use it to affirm the opposite.
The natural desire of the Christian community to enhance the status of Jesus has serious consequences. Whereas Jesus sought to direct people to God, the focus of Christian understanding and devotion became Jesus himself. God as the loving Father in the parable of the Lost Son receded because of the emphasis on the redemptive sacrifice accomplished by Jesus on the cross. At the same time, the humanity of Jesus was devalued - he became a supernatural mediator, less relevant as an exemplar but exalted as the one who alone could show us mercy.
This focus of Jesus, rather than God, as Saviour became the exclusive mark of Christianity, setting it against all other faiths. Even Judaism became a rival. As Jesus’ humanity fell into the background, his Jewish roots were left behind. After all, the saviour-god could have descended and ascended in any time and place. The common ground of belief in the one God, so widely shared, was lost and Christian claims sowed dissension. The one great claim that should have distinguished Christian witness — that God can truly be embodied in human life - was obscured. To be true to Jesus is to hold that it is God who lies at the heart of all. He it is who is the centre and soul of all creation. He is the Saviour.