21 April 2008

Unsound Bites

John 14:6
By Rev. Richard S. Hong

Especially in this political season, people decry the “sound bite” world we live in and hold the modern media responsible for it. But I blame the sound bite phenomenon on Stephen Langton and Robert Stephanus, among others. Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century, and Stephanus, a Parisian book printer in the 16th century, are primarily credited with being responsible for the modern system of dividing the Bible into chapters and verses.

Dividing the Bible into verses made it too easy to argue from the parts instead of from the whole. The whole of the Bible is a story of ever-broadening acceptance and inclusion; pulled apart into sound bites, it can be just as easily manipulated as any politician’s speech. John 14:6 has long been a “Bible sound bite” deployed as a weapon against other faiths. But just as one has to hear the well-publicized comments of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in their complete sermonic context in order to appreciate them, John 14:6 cannot be accurately read outside of its context.

“To use these verses in a battle over the relative merits of the world’s religions is to distort their theological heart.” (O’Day, New Interpreter’s) The “theological heart” of these words is found in thinking about their immediate audience: Jesus is speaking to his tiny band of disciples who are frightened, isolated, and opposed by the powerful twin forces of both the religious and secular authorities. Is there a way out? Yes, Jesus says: follow me.

John 14:6 becomes a weapon when we quote it out of confidence and hubris instead of turning to it in times of fear and uncertainty. Watch a small child who is suddenly surrounded by a crowd of strangers at the mall (or at coffee hour). Frightened, he/she instinctively jumps into the arms of a parent – the person whom the child knows will provide safety and protection. Is there no other person around who would protect the child? Objectively, there probably is. Subjectively, in that moment the child only knows that there is safety in the arms of the parent. One of my favorite pastor/authors is Rob Bell. In the very first of his NOOMA series of videos (entitled “Rain”), he tells of going for a walk in the woods with his son when a sudden, fierce thunderstorm arises. All the way back to the cabin, he keeps reminding his terrified son: “I love you and we’re going to make it.” In this context, that problematic sentence: “No one comes to the Father except through me” is a reminder to his disciples to stay focused on rescuer, not the storm.

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is not the answer to the question: “Are we the best religion of them all?” After all, Jesus has just finished telling Peter that he is going to deny him, and Thomas wants to know how to find the dwelling places Jesus has told them are awaiting them. The question on the minds of the disciples is: “how are we going to make it without you?” Jesus’ answer simply means: “Do not be troubled. Believe in me. Jump into my arms. I love you and we’re going to make it. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Jesus’ words are addressed to people who are riding the sea of life in a lifeboat, not a battleship. It is about the power of Christ, not Christian power. As such, far from being words that should be used to marginalize others, they are words of comfort to the marginalized. Jesus is not leaving you desolate. There is a dwelling place for waiting for you. Let Jesus lead you there.

Lectionary Notes:

The other passages for Easter 5A help set the theme of hope and perseverance for persons in trouble. The Psalmist declares God as “my rock and my fortress” (Ps. 31:3) and pleads with God to “save me in your steadfast love” (Ps. 31:16). 1 Peter reminds us that the “stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner” (1 Pet. 2:7), while Acts 7:55-60 tells of the confidence Stephen had even as he perished by stoning. All of these help us interpret the Gospel lesson through the lens of rescue rather than trimuphalism.

For tech dweebs only:

I was a software consultant before going into ministry, and at the core of programming are logical operators. If two things are related by “AND”, the result is true if both things are true. If two things are related by “OR”, the result is true if either thing is true. In the land of computer logic, there is a third operator, the “exclusive or”, usually abbreviated as “XOR”. The result of an XOR operation is true if and only if exactly one or the other is true, but not both (or neither).

In the intersection of my logical world and my theological world, I find something deeply meaningful in the fact that the latter is called an “exclusive or” while the former is called an “inclusive or.” Inclusive or: it’s okay if both are true. Exclusive or: it isn’t good enough for one to be true; if one is true, the other has to be false. Too much of our theology is crafted in the logical world of the “exclusive or.”

When we base our truth claims in the world of the “exclusive or”, then we have to worry about more than the truth claims of Jesus; we have to worry about the truth claims of all of the world’s faith traditions. When we live in the world of the “inclusive or”, all we need to examine are the truth claims of our own faith. That alone seems like a big enough job to keep me occupied for, say, the rest of my life.

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