(re)Imagine

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
—John 16:12-13

There Jesus is, standing before his disciples and telling them good-bye. In the above text, we near the end of John’s gospel and Jesus’ ministry. In John’s story of Jesus’ life and ministry, we have traveled with Jesus for three years, wandering about the countryside, witnessing all types of miracles, engaging in challenging and enlightening conversations, learning about the nature of his radical new kingdom, and listening to him prepare his disciples for a life without him. It is in this moment of saying good-bye that we ease drop on Jesus’ words to his followers. Aptly named the Farewell Discourse by scholars, this conversation prepares his followers for a future without Jesus. In that conversation, Jesus tells his disciples that he will not be with them much longer but that another divine presence, known as the Holy Spirit, will be with them once Jesus has gone.

In overhearing these words, we find ourselves at an interesting, intersecting moment. We are listening to Jesus’ words to his disciples just before his arrest and crucifixion while simultaneously hearing the gospel writer’s words to his community of faith some sixty years after Jesus death. (We, also, are hearing Jesus’ words at our own interesting moment, a time when we are gathering in an Enchanted Valley in the mountains of north Georgia at the start of another academic year at Young Harris College—some two thousand years removed from the author’s penning of these words. However, I am getting ahead of myself.) Let me explain how these moments converge in John’s text.

All the gospel texts are written after the fact. By that, I mean that no personal chronicler or newspaper reporter was following Jesus around writing down what Jesus said and what he or she saw. Rather, the gospels are made up of stories about and sayings of Jesus that were passed down from Christian community to Christian community for generations before finally making their way into the texts we now call the gospels that are found in the New Testament. In fact, the gospels and particularly John’s gospel, offers clues as to how this process of collecting and selecting the stories and sayings of Jesus occurred. Those clues are contained right there in the biblical texts themselves.

One indication of the different stories and traditions that supply the material that become the gospels are the variances between the gospels themselves. Think about it: Matthew has Jesus born and fleeing to Egypt. Luke has Jesus born and just return straight home. Mark, Matthew, and Luke have Jesus die on Friday. John has Jesus die on Thursday. Mark and John have no stories about Jesus’ early years while all the texts to some degree tell different stories, recall different teachings, and offer a slightly different image of this man called Jesus. Clearly, each writer was using different sets of stories, sayings, and memories of and about Jesus, different resources they use to (re)imagine a distinctive image of Jesus and his work and purpose. Moreover, of all the gospels, John’s is the most explicit in revealing the availability of multiple sources, providing the greatest insight into this process each gospel writer went through to tell their story of faith.

Near the end of John’s gospel, the writer offers these revelatory words, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” (John 20:30, emphasis mine) In other words, it went something like this: Imagine each gospel writer, when he decided to write his text about Jesus, sitting down with great stacks in front of him and in his imagination, stacks of notes and stories about Jesus collected over time. He now has to sort through them. The writer then left some stories out while including others to draw the portrait of Jesus that writer wants his community of faith to see. John is no different.

He selects some stories while leaving others out, not leaving them out because he did not like them but because what he used was sufficient to tell the story about Jesus, to craft the image of Jesus he needed his readers to see. Like a student writing a research paper, she might have many good sources but not all that she has found will make it into the final draft. Only those stories and examples most pertinent and necessary will be used. The rest, while valid, may be used by another or left behind altogether. So it was with the writing of the gospels, at least as we clearly see from John’s own admissions. He had much more at his disposal but chose what he chose for a particular reason. It is that reason, that particular point about Jesus that the gospel writer was trying to make for his readers in his community that proves important to us. That reason offers us a glimpse at this interesting, intersecting point, marking when Jesus’ lived and where John’s community gathered (and when our school year begins), somehow converging right before our eyes.

You see, John was writing for his community of people at a pivotal time. John’s community of faith had just moved away, for the first time, from a community they knew every well. It is about the year 90 CE, and the early Christian church and the Jewish synagogue have decided that their understandings of faith have become distinct enough that they are, now, different religious traditions. Folks that had been together for years have decided to go their separate ways.

Such a radical reconstruction of the very imitate and essential structures of our friends, family, and faith communities can really shake us. Those to whom John was writing were no different. They were not certain about themselves, their identity, or their futures. They needed some reassuring. So, John decided it was time to write a story for his community to read, a story that selected from those various memories of Jesus’ followers he had heard and read for many years, filtering through all the different stories to select those particular stories relevant to his people in this redefining time. John tells the story of a time when a people who had known one way of being together for years was now coming to a close, a way of being and sharing life together that was about to radically change. As illustrated through the memory of the Farwell Discourse, just as those early followers of Jesus managed to survive and thrive after Jesus’ departing so too might this new generation manage to survive and thrive. John had other stories he might have chosen to tell, but he chose this one, a comforting and encouraging story of transition and hope in the midst of an uncertain future.

So it is that we find ourselves gathering for a new academic year at YHC. Like Jesus’ disciples and John’s community, we, too, are at a crossroads. We are in the midst of great transition. Old connections and certainties while not severed are changed and changing. Who we are and what was certain are evolving, sometimes subtly and sometimes radically. Such transformation is only to be expected, especially when taking into account all the transitions that have been necessary to get each of us to this point in time, at this place, and with this wonderful and rich collection of people. Uncertainty and change are here.

Yet, as John seems to remind his readers in Jesus’ Farwell Discourse, uncertainty and change are not a problem. In fact, in John’s estimation, they both seem to be rather the very necessary conditions to bring about the next and empowering moment of God’s presence known as the coming of God as Spirit. If uncertainty and change do not happen, then the next great thing cannot take place. Uncertainty and change are the fertile soil out of which the green shoots of new life and new possibility and unexpected joy and unimagined futures take root and burst forth into life.

New life and new possibilities in the midst of uncertainty and change is exactly what we need and should expect. College is that time in life when all sorts of ideas and beliefs are questioned. Boundaries pushed. Meaning sought. Purpose found. To ask questions, push boundaries, seek meaning, and find purpose, our imaginations are required.

This year at YHC, the Office of Religious Life invites you to (re)Imagine faith, its role, its function, its shape, its part to play in having an educated mind. (re)Imagine your understandings of God, your worship practices, your reasons for service, and your place in the world.

Whether you are a person of deep faith, of no faith, or somewhere in-between, we have a place for you. Join us this year as we ask questions, seek answers, and change the world. And, together, I cannot wait to discover exactly what it is that Jesus meant when he said in John’s gospel that there are still many things left to be said (and heard). What are those “things,” what challenges to our expectations, what changes to us and our convictions, what impact on the world will be heard in a new, fresh, never before and totally re-imagined way at this moment, in this place?

As you might (re)imagine, I think it is going to be a great year!

Peace and see you along the way.

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