Our lectionary gospel readings this week are both from John’s gospel. We considered the second reading from John 20 a few weeks ago.
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39)
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On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:19-23)
This coming weekend is Pentecost, the festival commemorating when the Spirit was poured out on the first Jesus followers and they developed the ability to communicate Jesus’ teachings in other languages.
Languages are not the only differences among members of our human family. We also have cultural differences, and political, social, and economic differences, as well. What could it mean today for the Spirit to enable us to understand one another, especially as we listen to those our present systems do the most harm?
Let’s consider the passage in John 7.
The first thing that jumps out at me in this passage is the Johannine community’s proto-Gnostic tendency to devalue the material, concrete, physical realities in which people suffered.
So here, “if anyone is thirsty…” let’s not dig a well or find out who is stopping the community from receiving clean drinking water, but let’s promise them an ethereal spirit instead.
In John, Jesus’ state execution liberated his spirit from his material body. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus was thereby “glorified” or transformed. This was the moment when Jesus’ spirit was freed from concrete, lowly embodiment, and was adorned with its inherent splendor.
At this time the community believed the Spirit was given to proto-Gnostic Jesus followers so they too could follow Jesus on this path, on the way to the same kind of spiritual liberation.
As I’ve said repeatedly over the last few weeks, much of western Christianity today is more gnostic than it realizes when it prioritizes the afterlife over the here and now, or prioritizes the spiritual (i.e. saving a person’s “soul”) over setting them free from material harm they are working to survive from social, political, economic, or interpersonal systems.
I want to contrast this with the Jesus we find in the synoptic gospels. We’ll begin unpacking this, next.
(Read Part 2)