Cambridge, MA. I had occasion to preach on the Harvard campus this morning — Thursday in the 5th week of Lent — and as is often the case, found myself challenged by the Gospel, even before I could present it to the congregation. Today’s reading is from the second half of chapter 8 of the Gospel according to John. Paradoxically, Jesus is addressing “the Jews who had believed in him” (8.31); he goes back and forth with them for some 30 verses, and at the end of it all, “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” (8.59) One might expect the opposite, a Jesus who draws into deeper intimacy those who believe in him; but here he accentuates opposition.
It might be thought to be more his fault than theirs. After all, they have stayed, to listen some more, and yet he calls them slaves to sin (34), liars (55), and children of the devil (44), and accuses them of wanting to kill him (37). He provokes them by claiming for himself the identity that is God’s alone: “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” (58) And so they pick up stones to throw at him. (59) And these, remember, are the “Jews who had believed in him.”
What is going on here? Surely, if Jesus had just stressed the promise of eternal life, some time in the future, they would have been soothed, consoled, pleased. But he enrages them by unequivocally making himself the center of the story: only “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (31) This confrontation seems to be a scene in John’s effort to explain how it is that some people came to hate Jesus so much that they wanted to kill him. This Jesus becomes the enemy not for political or social concerns, or due to mere misunderstandings. He does not preach universal values of love and truth in this scene. Rather, it is the outrage of Jesus’ claims about himself, as the one who knows God (55), is vouched for by God (54), and is the one whom Abraham was pleased to see (56). It is all about himself: “I am.”
The scene is then relevant to thinking religiously and interreligiously, since John roots the scandal of particularity in Jesus himself, and not in the early Church’s preaching about Jesus. He himself presents himself as in union with the Father, and he does so with a take it or leave attitude. This Jesus himself, though no egoist, presents a very very demanding portrait of what is at stake: accept me; if you do not, then your traditions and laws and many virtues do not matter at all.
Now it would be easy to take this message as a clear confirmation of Christian particularity, and thus as a judgment on other religions, on those who do not accept that Jesus is the only way. But if we pay attention to the dramatic scene, we may have to think otherwise. This Jesus, again, is not speaking to Romans or Samaritans or Canaanites, but to “Jews who had believed in him.” The problem is not outsiders who do not know him, but insiders to the tradition, faithful followers of the rules, respecters of teachers and law-givers through the generations — those who see themselves as already set free, by God’s grace, but who, as it turns out, do not believe enough, fully, radically. It is they, not the others, who are the liars, killers, clueless about God and children of the devil.
If this is about those "who had believed in him” — then it is about ourselves, pious Christians today, tempted to pat ourselves on the back for our faith, our tradition, our teachers, our pious ways, as if we are ones who’ve done enough, been saved by our own tradition and its wisdom. We are the ones who may not be up to the challenge: Jesus alone, and not all the things God has done for us or given us in the past. Christian uniqueness, by this standard, is a challenge to Christians to worry less about the uniqueness of our religion and more about finding life in Jesus in the particular.
Just as the cleansing of the temple manifest Jesus’ great wrath against his most religious brethren in the most holy place – and not against Romans or Canaanites (see my blog from several weeks ago) — here Jesus is again driving home the point: if you know me, know me all the way, without compromise. Don’t worry about the others; it is you, not them, who are being judged. It is you — and not the Canaanites, not those other Jews who went their way — who are throwing the stones. It is believers throwing the stones.
So have the believers entirely lost their way at the Gospel’s end, when they pick up stones to throw at him? Possibly not. Indeed, it is not a good moment, this sudden burst of hostility. But it is good that they find themselves, the good people, under judgment, challenged to believe all the way or not at all: to accept him or kill him.
The uniqueness of Christ, by this reasoning in this Gospel scene, is not an instrument of judging people of other faith traditions. It is rather the stumbling block for those who say they believe, but really do not want to believe in Jesus all the way, because they would rather trust their traditions and their laws.