I celebrated the Lord’s supper yesterday, the night before Passover. Within Armstrongite circles, there is a tradition that we read John 14-17 during the Lord’s supper. I’m not an Armstrongite anymore, but I like to read these chapters every year, and I notice something new whenever I read them.
This year, the chapters offered comfort, but they also intrigued me in some cases, and they were a huge turn off in others. The comforting part was Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to his disciples, ensuring that they would not be orphans when he was gone.
The intriguing part concerned Christ promising that God would grant the disciples whatever they requested in Jesus’ name. I think of John 15:16, which states that Jesus appointed us to bear lasting fruit “so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you” (NAB). We bear spiritual fruit so that God will grant our every request, meaning we need to have the character of God before God will give us everything we want; and, of course, us thinking like God will shape our desires and requests.
Do I buy this? Part of me sees this as a cop out, since who among us will ever have the character of God? If these are the rules of the game, then God can always use our imperfections as an excuse not to answer our prayers. In addition, I think that a good person can make a fundamentally decent prayer that can remain unanswered. Does God answer every prayer for healing, even though it is made out of love and concern for another person? I believe God answers prayers, but there are better Christians than me who don’t get everything they want, even when what they want is actually a good thing (e.g., healing).
The turn-off of the chapters was their Jesus-specific nature and their us vs. them mentality. I’ve somewhat been leaning in a John Hick pluralistic direction, which states that God works in different religions to make people moral. For me this year, the Lord’s supper was to represent my faith tradition’s attempt to address atonement for sin and the desire to be a better person, themes that appear in many religions. “Jesus” was to represent the selfless life that he led, an ideal that appears in numerous faith traditions.
But that’s not entirely what I encounter in these chapters of John, where Jesus emphasizes believing not only in the moral values for which he stood, but in him personally. And the chapters do not have an incredible amount of sympathy for the mass of humanity. Jesus says in John 17:9 that he prays for his disciples, not for the world. In John 14-17, the world hates and persecutes Jesus and his disciples. These chapters don’t coincide with a pluralistic or universalist impulse that I possess, in which everyone seeks God in his own way and has God’s favor accordingly. These chapters present a choice of either Jesus or the highway.
At the same time, Jesus in these chapters believes that he is revealing himself to the world. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of Jesus, sin, and unrighteousness. The world knows the Christians are Jesus’ disciples when they have love for one another, and it realizes God has sent Jesus when the Christians are one. Somehow, this small, minority sect was God’s means of shining light on the entire world.
Do I buy this? It seems like so much of the world knows why Christians believe Jesus came and what they have to say about him. Plus, Christians have left their mark on the world, both positively and (when they haven’t obeyed Jesus’ command to love) negatively. Yet, I don’t see Christianity as the only moral religion, whereas the others are godless and immoral. John 14-17 strikes me as too black-and-white.
That doesn’t mean I reject those chapters, however, but rather that I’m intrigued and challenged by them.