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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
The Jesus of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) does not draw the deep distinction between the spirit and the flesh that’s described in the gospel of John or in Paul’s works. In the synoptic gospels, we see a very fleshly Jesus who is deeply concerned with what negatively impacts people’s material, concrete well-being. His response to suffering is not to focus on the spirit but to liberate humanity from whatever oppresses people in their “flesh.” The Jesus of these gospels is very enfleshed.
What I do appreciate about this week’s passage in John is that its author keeps defining “spirit” for Jesus followers in terms of the “words” of Jesus. Jesus’ words “are spirit and life.” Simon Peter also affirms that Jesus has the words of life in the story when he says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (emphasis added).
He’s pointing to he words of Jesus—his teachings, his message. In our context today, it’s difficult to understand the distinction between “flesh” and “spirit, even if John’s original audience understood it. But defining whatever is meant by “spirit” as focused on the words or teachings of Jesus—this I can begin to get my head around. Perhaps it’s easier for you to understand as well.
The teachings of Jesus bring to my mind Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, which the author of the gospel of John does not mention, and the economic justice found throughout the entire gospel of Luke. In Mark, the teachings of Jesus repeatedly challenge the political status quo through stories full of political symbols and meaning. And even in John, the teachings of Jesus emphasize the importance of love more than any of the synoptics.
The gospels define what this love looks like both personally and socially. We’ll consider this next.