In past years, I have celebrated Lent with some form of fasting. Initially, it was simply giving up meat (no small matter for my appetite) and/or other dietary things. I had not celebrated Lent in any meaningful way until I had entered Seminary and attended a Free Methodist church which followed liturgical seasons. The fasting was difficult and at times mundane but served as a continual reminder to the season of Lent.
In the past few years, I've attempted to add a discipline in addition to the fast, though admittedly with varied success (either I was better at keeping the fast or the discipline). Last year, the discipline was reading spiritual literature before bedtime which were typically accounts of Church history. This year, I decided to do something seemingly more simple − read the Gospel of John in English.
My reasons for doing so were a mixture of having a goal and a track to keep up my personal discipline but also to reconnect with my faith at a more personal level. In my readings, I found myself confronted on a number of levels. The texts were familiar, but with meditation, also fresh and new. Since I'm in a different place in life, parts of the text that I had glossed over or understood differently now brought pause. These are just a couple of reflections from my Lent Season spent in John.
“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself . . . as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ. Man! Ye see it in smaller matters. Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copies had lost the power to read them? Or an organiser of charities that had lost all love for the poor? It is the subtlest of all the snares.”
−CS Lewis, The Great Divorce
It has become apparent to me in the past few years that if the Gospels were written today, I would be well set among the "scribes and Pharisees" category. For this reason, I've found the interaction with Nicodemus much more interesting this time. I'm not sure what your Facebook feed looks like, but mine often ends up saturated with impassioned rhetoric from "both sides" of issues. During this Lent season, my Facebook wall showcased debates about vaccinations, women in ministry, and the Indiana version of RFRA, just to name a few. One thing was common to most of these discussions − using religious and anti-religious rhetoric as a weapon to attack the opposing opinion. In the same way that Pharisees and scribes used witty questions and rhetorical points to try to paint Jesus as with them or against them, the same continues to this day.
Yet to the witty arguers in John, Jesus comes across as impatient and often bordering on belligerent. He would not be among those re-posting the latest potshot meme about Obamacare. Rather, it seems Jesus appears frustrated by the culture and power wars in his day, and I believe that still holds true today.
If Jesus is exasperated with culture wars, where does he seem comfortable? Relationships. He seems to go above and beyond among his disciples and in one-on-one conversations. The issues at stake in the Indiana RFRA for Jesus would probably look a lot more like the meeting with the woman at the well (Jn 4). He neither ignores her sin nor declines to do business with her, yet one has to ask why he would go out of his way to meet with her and not someone in a "respectable living situation?"
This brings us back to Nicodemus. While we all know John 3:16 by memory, John 3:17 seems to be much forgotten in the dialogue today: "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (ESV). Nicodemus was among those who spent their time trying to prove who was in or out. Jesus' answer is not some cultural litmus test, but an invitation to come follow him. There are many who will feel that they have won an argument for their side, or for God's, who will have missed out on the Gospel entirely in the process, while Jesus is instead found mourning with Martha and healing the disabled. They use Christian rhetoric, but the Good News has been long since removed. Lord, have mercy on us.
That said, it is clear that the model for Christianity is found foremost in relational community. This is where Jesus really meets and engages with people. Jesus gets excited that his Disciples will get to see his miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, but also his love for Mary and Martha. The miracles are not some isolated prosperity Gospel, but instead demonstrate Jesus' personal affection to the community in which he is also a member: "And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death" (Rev 12:11, ESV).
"What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end."
−Ecclesiastes 3:9-11 (ESV)
One of my earliest ponderings in Seminary was the difference in emphasis of Western and Eastern Christian spirituality. On the question of salvation, the Western narrative (probably most familiar to readers here) is that because of sin, specifically Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, death entered into the world, and therefore sin is the real problem. In this model, Jesus saves us from our sin primarily. Salvation means ultimately defeating the sin which incurs our guilt which makes us worthy of death. You can hear within this some judicial and honor-based tones.
In the Eastern view, more emphasis is placed on death. We were created to be immortal, and yet because of our mortality, there is a perpetual dissonance between our reality and our mentality, so our desires are out of sync with God's. Jesus then primarily saves us from death. Salvation means both life beyond death and a perfect harmony of will with God, or theosis.
Death is on the forefront in John. Sometimes it's a direct topic in the story, like the dramatic events leading to Lazarus' resurrection, where Jesus is seen mourning with Martha who questions him on why he let Lazarus die. In other places, Jesus goes out of his way to predict and emphasize his own impending death in ways that seem so morbid his listeners wondered if he was suicidal (Jn 8:22).
Holy week is itself a mostly morbid affair. We remember how Jesus is eventually betrayed, tortured, and ultimately crucified. On these days, I mentally soaked in the hopeless inevitability of death that so defines the human experience. While there are some who might be quick to think of Sunday, it was apparent to me from my readings that Mary and the disciples had no such context. Their friend and leader had been crucified and buried. The hope for Israel's future and reconciliation with God was extinguished. In my Western mindset, I would think of the grief of my own sins which made his crucifixion necessary − that I am among those in the crowd yelling out, "Crucify him!" But I also became more aware that death itself still silently permeates the world in an uncomfortable awkwardness that keeps us from recognizing things like the recent massacre of Christian students in Kenya, which didn't even make mainstream news because there's no apparent ad market for it.
Jesus puts death ever before us in John's narrative, because it is. It is like lady wisdom preaching in the streets and yet being purposefully ignored en masse. And yet so long as we live as though death were not before us, we may miss out on the opportunity to actually live fully. This is the message of Holy Week: The words of Moses echo on, "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life..." (Deu 30:19-20, ESV).