In a way, the argument of John 5 is not complex. I had a quick look at in Greek this morning, and to my knowledge, our translators aren’t missing anything. (Quick advertisement for learning biblical languages: it’s a reassuring thing to be able to compare notes with the translators of our bibles.)
The text speaks for itself, really, as a straightforward apologia for the uniqueness of Christ, and for what we might call his particularity: that no one before, nor presumably since, has come with such a degree of representing God, even of being God. In this text, Jesus is a highly particular person, the lone member of a set of one.
We find that hard to accept, in principle, and so did they it seems:
43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him.
44 How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? (Joh 5:43-44 NRS)
I am struck by how contemporary those verses are. We too only accept people on their merits. The ‘reputations’ that I have—the ‘glory’ that we give to one another—are what cause me to stand or fall in your eyes, and you are highly dependent on your own judgment in that. And so you should be. So it goes against the grain in our his age, as in theirs, that Jesus Christ should stand or fall on the witness of the prophets (exemplified in John the Baptist), and in the testimony of God that only Jesus knows, but that we also see in his works, such as his just judgements.
I actually feel some sympathy for our own community, in its skepticism about the unique particularity of Christ. Why should they accept that, at a time when we so need to endorse general principles of tolerance and diversity? And why should they accept that just on our say-so?
I can’t solve that today, but I do want to suggest something that I heard yesterday. Our ministry to others can only be as effective as our confidence in what we believe. And that in turn pivots on our answer to that question, ‘how can you believe when …’ (v44).
It is okay to question what you believe during theological study. But it is the place that invites us to consider how we can believe, and whether we do that on the basis of our own judgments, or whether we can in some respect put ourselves into the hands of a God who opens new things to us, and who endorses a particular person, Jesus Christ. By all means, wrestle with that at St Mark’s. But don’t go out into this community without coming to a clear view on the matter, and of where you stand in relation to that.