Monday, December 29, 2008

Understanding God: Who gets into heaven (3)

Part Three
To this point we’ve been discussing how through God’s mercy God elected to reveal himself to a community of people, the Patriarchs and their descendants the Israelites so that side by side with humans God will become known and understood in the way that God has chosen to reveal himself. Therefore you have come to see that the Bible is a collection of books that document the secular and faith events of this relationship and that there is no equivalent experience of God or document among any other alternative “beliefs.” This, then, brings us to the next question which is “Must one be a Christian to be saved?”

The reason people ask this question is, as I said, many people today attempt to “select” the belief that is the most “accurate” or that guarantees that they will be “saved” or in an advantageous position in their after life world view. But asking the question that way, “Must one be a Christian to be saved?” is misleading because it places emphasis on two assumptions that are contradicted by what Jesus has said.

The motivation for the question itself is accurate and comes from two passages in the Gospel:

John 8:12
Again, therefore, Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me does not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 14:5-6
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where thou art going, and how can we known the way?” Jesus said to him, “
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me. If you had known me, you would also have known my Father. And henceforth you do know him, and you have seen him.”

Christians therefore assert that it is necessary to follow Jesus in order to have the light of eternal life and to be given eternal life in heaven with God. There is a problem with unspoken assumptions and phrasing that adds a compulsory tone to what Jesus said that is not reflected in the sum total of what he is saying. I am trying to help you see the nuance between compulsion and following light.

When one is walking up a steep mountain path in the pitch dark of night you know several things. One is that the correct and safe path is there even if you do not see it or anything else. Just because the light is not there does not mean that the path no longer exists. However, the second thing that you know is that without light it is very likely that one will quickly leave the path and fall to one’s death.

This is the best analogy to understand what Jesus means when he says that he is “the light of the world” and that “he who follows me does not walk in the darkness, but will have the light of life.” God is still God, let’s say sitting on the mountain top in our analogy, and the path to the top is still there, whether one has the light of a lamp or the light of Jesus along side him or her as they climb. But this quote by Jesus must be understood two ways. One is the context of the times when there was no electricity and that night travel was risky. Light is not just a beautiful analogy when people listened to Jesus. His listeners understood much better than moderns about the greatness of gift that a reliable light would be. Thus, they did not listen to Jesus and feel compulsion that they must “believe” and “obey” him “or else.” They felt overwhelming joy because they could relate to the idea that a dangerous life, one that is lived half in the dark because they had no electricity or lighting but small expensive oil lamps, could be transformed into a safe life that is constantly lightened. This is what Jesus was saying to them, imagine how you don’t have to walk in the dark either in life itself or after to find God, because I will give you a constant light, one that never fails and shines all the time.

People who read that passage with the tone of compulsion rather than the stupendous gift that Jesus is offering totally miss what he was saying and thus the conversation that through the Gospel we are listening in on. People who lived half their lives in the dark, working and recreating only between the sun’s rising and the sun setting understood immediately what Jesus was saying. Jesus was not saying that a righteous life does not exist unless one is following him, and Jesus is not saying that God is not available unless one is following him. Jesus is saying imagine if you never have to worry about being in the dark again. There is absolutely no compulsion or exclusion in that statement by Jesus. Rather than being compulsion or exclusion, Jesus is offering himself as an eternal and safe lamp to the entire world. If one believes Jesus and follows him one knows one is on the constantly lighted path rather than risking the dark. Those who do not know Jesus obviously still can be righteous and God is still available to them (remember, Jesus was only preaching to the Jews, so it’s not like he was saying that only Jews would have this light, or only “new believers” would have this light). That is why Jesus said that he is the light “of the world,” even though he specifically was only preaching to Jews during his ministry. Jesus was saying that anyone in the world can live in the light that his light, his lamp “works” for everyone. Far from being compulsory or exclusionary, Jesus was preaching to the Jews, but explaining that he brings a light that anyone can see and use.

By the way, I mentioned in the previous post that Jesus was challenged regarding the authenticity of his witnessing. I wrapped up the previous post with a scripture citation about what Jesus said regarding his authority. Here is the part that follows his statement of being the light.

John 8:13-20
The Pharisees therefore said to him, “Thou bearest witness to thyself. Thy witness is not true".

[The rule of witness is that at least one other man must attest to the correctness of what one says, and that one cannot be the only attestation of one’s correctness and authority. See previous posts about witnessing and the scriptural references.]

Jesus answered and said to them, “Even if I bear witness to myself, my witness is true, because I know where I came from and where I go. But you do not know where I came from or where I go. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. And even if I do judge, my judgment is true, because I am not alone, but with me is he who sent me, the Father. And in your Law it is written that the witness of two persons is true. It is I who bear witness to myself, and he who sent me, the Father, bears witness to me.”

They therefore said to him, “Where is thy father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would then know my Father also.” Jesus spoke these words in the treasury, while teaching in the temple. And no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.

[The treasury was a room off the Court of the Women in the temple].

So let us quickly tangent on this subject of witnessing because it is pertinent to our topic and also to understanding John 14:6-7. God gave humans the law of witnessing so that people who did not possess writing could have a procedure by which the truth can be verbally attested and contracts made and kept. So the Pharisees are saying that unless someone of authority steps forward and confirms all that Jesus says that he cannot be deemed as telling the truth. Jesus takes them on full bore and refutes them in two ways and also lays out vital theology.

The first way that Jesus refutes them they totally do not understand and thus cannot answer. Jesus tells them that even if he was alone in stating the truth that he is still true without supporting witness because Jesus knows the origin of himself and all things, a God given knowledge. Thus Jesus is not just a person of the flesh, like them, who judge according to facts and multiple witnesses. Jesus is stating that because he has God given knowledge of himself and of all else that he IS truth, walking talking truth! Jesus is not just a man of flesh who requires others to confirm his truth because he is truth from God embodied in human flesh. So they totally do not understand that refutation, but Jesus states it so that this understanding of him be heard and preserved.

Then Jesus refutes them by stating that in fact, he does have a witness constantly present with him, “my Father.” The Pharisees thus think that Jesus means his human father, Joseph. They ask him where his Father is, thinking that Jesus will produce another human, like Joseph (who would not have been alive at this time any longer) who is his Father and who the Pharisees can then question and make him witness to Jesus. (Not that they would have believed Joseph either!) But Jesus makes clear that he does not mean a fleshly bodily father. Jesus means that God in the form of the Holy Spirit is constantly present with him, witnessing to him. They clearly did not fully understand at this incident that Jesus was saying that God is his Father and that his Father is in constant witness to him in the form of the Holy Spirit being continually within him. It is at a different time that they have the full understanding of Jesus’ claim to divinity and have the resulting confrontation. But they get that he is claiming some sort of God given authority and that is enough for them to want to “seize him.”

Here is another important point. Remember that Moses when he met with God obviously did not have a “human witness” present. God is his own witness and extends that to his prophets. So Jesus was also alluding to the scriptural plenitude of occurrences of God speaking individually to the prophets. And obviously that prophet is believed by the people without the prophet having to produce someone else who was hanging around and “heard everything too.” Jesus could have invoked this, telling the Pharisees that just like Moses, God is “appearing” to him except for one thing: that would not be true and Jesus only speaks the truth. Jesus MUST confess that God is constantly with him. God is not coming and going in revelation to Jesus as a prophet who gets direction and utterances from God. The Holy Spirit is constantly with Jesus. So Jesus who always speaks the truth gives a tremendous amount of insight into the nature of his being. Jesus speaks the truth because he IS the truth, and Jesus speaks the truth because the Holy Spirit is constantly within him as God’s witness.

So this brings us back to understanding that Jesus is not preaching compulsion of “his faith” or exclusion. Jesus states that he is the light that guarantees that no one ever need walk in the darkness, and that this light is available to the whole world. When challenged by the Pharisees Jesus then states that he is the truth in the human body’s form and that God the Father is in constant witnessing of his truthful teaching and utterances because the Holy Spirit is in constant presence in Jesus’ body. This, by the way, is something that cultists should better understand. Jesus is neither “possessed” nor “channeling” as he makes very clear here. God’s presence in Jesus is as a separate presence, the witnessing of Jesus, not as a controller or filler of a shell. Too many moderns interpret pieces of scripture with occult leanings and looking for occult mechanisms, and thus miss the very plain and clear words that are actually be spoken in explanation. Jesus is not at all mysterious as you can see here. If Jesus were trying to conceal or disguise he would have simply told the Pharisees that God speaks to him just like God spoke to the prophets, but that simply is not the truth because God is doing more than “speaking” to Jesus, God is accompanying Jesus as witness.

You start to see why Jesus has been sometimes called the living Bible. The Old Testament records all of the centuries of God being “side by side” in the guidance, companionship and the ruling of his elect, the Chosen People. Thus the Old Testament records the interactions of God and his people event by event. With Jesus, God is actually walking among his people because God the Father in the form of the Holy Spirit constantly walks with Jesus witnessing to him. It sounds complicated but it is easy to understand if you just really focus on what Jesus actually says and interpret it in the body of all the faith history where God has put forth centuries of specific forms of interaction with humans. This is why witnessing is crucial to understanding faith. Witnessing is not just a means by which two humans achieve pacts and the truth, it is the way that God taught for humans to ascertain and maintain truthfulness. Thus Jesus is able to describe very precisely (even though no one really got it at the time) how God works within him. It also sheds light on the boldness of Jesus calling God his Father, which I know is a stumbling block for many. Humans are limited to thinking biologically, as Jesus says, “You judge according to the flesh.” But one cannot understand Jesus when one only thinks of human concepts of “Father.” One must use the spiritual terminology that God himself taught the elect. This is why it is easier to understand the Father-Son relationship of God and Jesus AND the constant presence of the Holy Spirit within Jesus if one understands witnessing. Jesus thus explains that God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, is within Jesus as continual witness to his truth.

This then makes John 14:6-7 much easier to understand in turn. Just to repeat what Jesus replies to Thomas:

John 14:6-7
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me. If you had known me, you would also have known my Father. And henceforth you do know him, and you have seen him.”

When Jesus says that one comes to the Father “through” him, Jesus is again explaining that the Father is right there with him, right in front of Thomas and the others, in the form of the continual presence of the Holy Spirit constantly providing witness to Jesus. If Jesus’ human father Joseph were standing behind him, no one would have any problem understanding either John 8:13-20 or John 14:6-7, because it would be like a son saying, “Ask my father; I am just repeating what he taught me” and the listeners could thus ask Joseph. What was slow to dawn on the listeners of Jesus is that God the Father in the form of the Holy Spirit is there as witness to his Son, constantly present in Jesus as witness. God is not there as God! God is there as witness to his Son. Jesus is still living his human life, but he is the walking embodiment of truth because of God’s constant presence in his as witness. That is why Jesus is able to say that he is the light, the way, the truth and the life. It is not compulsion to join his faith or else. Jesus is patiently and repeatedly explaining that God is there with him in witness.

Jesus is not saying that he is the fullness of God standing there. Jesus is saying that if you look at him you have seen God, since God is constantly there with Jesus bearing witness to him.

Now if you read the rest of what Jesus explains in John 14:8-31, which I won’t type here, you can understand what Thomas, Phillip and the others are struggling to comprehend, which is how can God be in Jesus, and Jesus in God? Now that you notice that Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit being with him just as a father provides constant witness to the truthfulness of his son, you can better understand not only what Jesus is saying and how he performed miracles, but also understand the faith itself. It is not a faith of exclusion or compulsion where one must “be a Christian or else.” It is the statement of fact that when one believes Jesus, one has access to the light that never shuts off, and one sees the person who has God within him as constant witness to his truth.

So the key is not that one must sign on the dotted line to the “correct” religion “or else.” The key is that if you believe Jesus, then you have the constant light and you see God in witness. Being Christian as your faith is not the way to think of it or phrase it. Believing Jesus is the way to understand God’s gift. If you BELIEVE JESUS you have accepted God’s gift.

One finally point before wrapping up this segment. Notice that Jesus made his declaration in John 8 in the temple, St. John having duly noted the location in John 8:20. The point is not that Jesus was speaking in the treasury room of the temple, at an attempt at swiping at money-changer tendencies. Why did John carefully document where Jesus made this important assertion about being the light? That is one of the disciplines of witnessing. You write down at least one other person who was present and where the witnessing takes place. John wrote for posterity a role model of witnessing that this conversation actually took place with these words said and specifically at this location. Understanding witnessing is crucial to understanding even the simplest passages in the Bible, especially the Gospels. Further, there is a certain pious drollness in what John wrote. Jesus declared that he is “the light of the world” while standing in the temple and no lightning flew or walls fell down. John dutifully records, probably with a little smile when he thought back on that time (the Gospel being written many years after the event) how far from smiting what the Pharisees thought was blasphemy, God stood in witness with Jesus in the temple itself as he declared himself the light of the world.

[Conclusion to Part Three].