Reflections by Rev Dr Paul Tonson - Interim Minister

The Importance of Gospel Symbols

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The first three gospels are referred to as the synoptic gospels because they give us a synopsis or the story of Jesus and his teaching.  They consist of the teaching of Jesus and stories about Jesus which are ancient in form and reflect a consistent style and theme. Mark was the first written and the Luke and Matthew using a similar source,  Matthew oriented to the Jewish community and Luke oriented to the gentile community.

John’s Gospel on the other hand contains some echoes of the synoptic gospels, but uses a more imaginative and artistic ways of presenting Jesus. According the Bill Loader “Comparing the first three gospels with the fourth is like comparing a photograph with a work of modern art. It reflects a lively Christian community of the late first century, which, perhaps, traces it roots to the apostle John, who gave the gospel its name.”

Symbols are very important for speaking about God.  Religious symbols lie at the core of theology and our understanding of God.
Paul Tillich, that great US theologian sees religious symbols as: “Segments of the finite” used to speak of the divine, concrete symbols are necessary for religious discourse when speaking about God.  In trying to distinguish between sign and symbols Tillich says: “ While a sign bears no necessary relation to that to which it points,- A symbol participates in the reality for which it stands.  The sign can be changed arbitrarily according to the demands of expediency, but the symbol grows or dies according to the correlation between that which is symbolised and the person who receives it as a symbol.  Therefore, the religious symbol, the symbol which points to the divine can be a true symbol only if it helps us to participates in the power of the divine to which it points.”

John's gospel belongs in a community which loved symbols. 
This was probably because many of them had grown up as Jews who had loved symbols and spoke about God's Law using symbols. In the Old Testament the Jewish tradition referred to the Law as life, light, bread, water, wine, and of Wisdom being compared to a wise woman. Now the Johanine community uses these images to describe Jesus. 

Stories about Jesus, much like those which appear in the other gospels, are developed to launch profound theological reflections about who Jesus was.  For example:

The Wisdom is used to describe Jesus as the Word made flesh (a human being). Jn 1:18

In the story of Jesu at a wedding feast Jesus becomes the giver of new wine (2:1-11)

When Jesus cleanses the temple,  John refers to Jesus as the new temple (2:13-22)

Following the story of Jesus meeting Nicodemus Jesus is referred to as the bringer of new birth. (3:1-17)

After telling the story of the woman at the well Jesu is then referred to as the living water (4:5-42)

The feeding of the 5000, which appears in all the gospels, becomes in John Chapter 6 a meditation on Jesus as the bread of life. (6:1-69)

The healing of the blind man in John 9 becomes a reflection on Jesus as the light of the world. (9:1-41)

A reflection on the work of the shepherd leads to the affirmation that Jesus is the Good shepherd (10:1-30)

The raising of Lazarus in John 11 becomes a celebration of spiritual resurrection and life. (11:1-45)

In developing this portrait of Jesus, the community of John's gospel expanded earlier stories found in the synoptic Gospels and created textual dialogue in which Jesus, himself is said to have used and expounded these symbols. 

In today’s Gospel reading we have another symbol derived from a story of the Jewish people in the desert struggling with a plague of snakes.  There Moses uses the symbol of a snake to bring healing.  The community now uses the image of Jesus as the human (Word made flesh) hoisted up on a pole as the one who can bring healing to the world.

Today story is a continuation of the dialogue with Nicodemus.  This was soon after the cleansing of the Temple in John’s Gospel so there could have been some antagonism towards Jesus.  It is at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.  In response Nicodemus probably came to Jesus to meet him, to understand him and maybe to warn him.  This led to the conversation about being born again and about being spiritually aware. 

The Serpent in the wilderness
Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness as a sign from God that the people could be healed if bitten by the snakes. 
So everyone who looks at the serpent and believes, they will receive healing and life.
This snake story took place after the time when the people were murmuring against Moses and God in the dessert.
The bronze snake was finally destroyed under the reform of King Hezekiah in Kings 18:4
The snake in Egyptian culture was a symbol of healing. The very thing that can destroy you can give you life.  That is true today which is why we collect venom so that in the case of a snake bite the giving of venom can bring healing and save a life.
It is why people wear a Medic Alert bracelet bearing the image of a snake to warn medics of any allergies or adverse reactions that must be taken into account in a medical emergency and a person is unconscious. Christ on the Cross
In the same way the writer of John’s Gospel has the vision of Jesus the Son of Man (The human one) must be lifted up because of his ministry of healing and wholeness.  Those who believe in Jesus will not die (spiritually) but have eternal life (Unbounded spiritual life). 
For God loved the world (Cosmos) 
Jn 3:16 is probably one of the best known texts in the Gospels. The word used here for world is “cosmos.” The total creation
See John 11:9, 17:24, 21:25.
In a world made up of believing and non-believing people, for John’s community to have faith/belief in the creator of the cosmos, the one who sent Jesus, is the way of healing for all humankind. We are too blase about the cross.  It was a cruel method of execution and the event of Jesus dying on the cross was to become a life-giving symbol.  Belief, faith and action in following Jesus was to become a symbol of eternal or abundant spiritual life. 
The reference to judgement refers to the people having a choice either they can live in darkness and end up doing evil or they can believe and live as Children of the light.  I can’t but reflect on this passage that talks about the worst that society can do to another person, is nail a person to a cross, erected in a public place and leave them to die.  The message being proclaimed is: don’t follow this person or you could end up dying just like Jesus.  This dreaded symbol is then taken and become a symbol of hope and healing. Just like:

Jesus is the Word made flesh (a human being). Jn 1:18

Jesus is the giver of new wine (2:1-11)

Jesus is the new temple (2:13-22)

Jesus brings about new birth. (3:1-17)

Jesu is the living water (4:5-42)

Jesus is the bread of life. (6:1-69)

Jesus is the light of the world. (9:1-41)

Jesus is the Good shepherd (10:1-30)

Jesus is resurrection and life. (11:1-45)

These are all Gospel symbols used to describe Jesus in John’s Gospel.  What symbols do you find are best to describe Jesus to your community?  Those above or:

Jesus is like a medic alert! (Using todays Gospel example)
Jesus is my guru!
Jesus is my lifeguard!
Jesus is my team coach!
When we use such symbols we are called to explain them and that can become our theology.
As I said at the beginning, religious symbols lie at the core of theology and our understanding of God. Such symbols grow or die according to the correlation between that which is symbolised and the person who receives it as a symbol.  Therefore, the religious symbol, the symbol which points to the divine or to Jesus can only be true symbols if they helps us to participates in the power of the divine to which they point.

We sing the hymn TIS 671 “Made in God’s likeness, moved by the Spirit – called to create a new world for the Lord”


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