17 January 2020
During the first semester of the 2019-2020 academic year, I taught an introductory course about the four Gospels. The class participants were a group of thoughtful and inquisitive retired men and women. It was a delight to be with them. (I have just been invited to teach it again next autumn to a larger group of Dutch-speaking participants.) The course had a double focus: (1) understanding the various Christian communities back then and how each Gospel interpreted and applied the message of Jesus to their life situations; and (2) asking how the message of the Gospels speaks to us today in our concrete life situations. The course was a good experience for me as well – enabling me to review my own understanding and appreciation for Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. A kind of spiritual exercise and rejuvenation….something all historical theologians need, regardless of their age and background.
This year — with so much polarization, hatred, and fear — the image of Jesus in the Gospel of John speaks to me in a special way.
Contemporary scholars suggest that the final composition of the Gospel of John dates between 90 and 110 CE. An oral tradition of eye-witness recollections of the “Beloved Disciple” evolved and began being written down around 90 CE. The final editing of the text came 10 to 20 years later, giving us a gospel composition date of between 90 and 110 CE. The location was most likely Ephesus.
We don’t know who the “Beloved Disciple” was. There is quite a variety of scholarly opinions: a truly unknown disciple, or the Apostle John, or James the brother of Jesus, or even Mary the Magdalene.
The Johannine Gospel differs from the Synoptics in style, content, and perspective. It omits, for instance, a large amount of material found in the Synoptic Gospels, like the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist. What stands out in the Johannine Last Supper is the washing of feet and Jesus’ exhortation “I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15)
The Johannine community understood well the complexity and problems of religious polarization. In the 90s of the first century a “parting of the ways” between Jewish and Christian believers occurred. Early Christians no longer went to synagogue for the basic reason that more and more Christians were Gentile converts and the distinction between Jewish and Christian belief had become clearer. John 9.29 describes how “the Jewish people had agreed that if anyone confessed Jesus as the Christ or messiah they were to be excluded from the synagogue.”
What deeply attracts me in the Johannine Gospel is the message that Jesus is the Wisdom of God and a man of courage, hope, and confidence. Today, in our social interactions, there is such a great need for wisdom, courage, hope, and confidence.
I see texts that speak loudly and clearly to our contemporary life situation. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15) committed to love one another. We need one another: the community of faith. The branches cannot survive without the vine; but the vine cannot survive without the branches. The primary presence of Jesus is in the community. Jesus promises that his Spirit will be with us. (John 14:15-16, 15:26, 16:15) The Spirit will not abandon us. Yes we live in frightening times, but there is no reason for debilitating fear.
In the Synoptics the stress was on Divinity taking on humanity. In John, however, we see another emphasis: humanity taking on Divinity. God is truly with us: in the very heart of our being. A powerful revelation.
Yes indeed….Some of the old images of God no longer speak to contemporary people; but God has not abandoned us. Nor should we abandon God. We simply need to reflect on better ways of conceptualizing and speaking about our experience of the Divine. Source of our courage, hope, and confidence. Something for serious contemplation…. Something for shared faith stories…. Something for Lenten reflection…. (Lent begins this year on February 26th.)
With its hopeful focus, the Johannine account of the crucifixion does not stress Jesus as one who suffers, as we saw for example in Mark 15.25–39. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is the one who is exalted, “lifted up” in his moment of glorification. In John 13 to John 16, Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure followed by his “high priestly prayer” in John 17. Here we see a very strong and confident Jesus. “I have glorified you on earth and finished the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, it is time to glorify me…” (John 17:4-5)
The final Johannine chapters contain the accounts of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. The Jesus who stands before Pilate is strong. On the way to Golgotha Jesus carries his own cross. He does not need the help of a Simon of Cyrene as we saw in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Jesus here is strong and confident. We saw that actually in Jesus’ garden experience after the Last Supper. Roman soldiers and temple police come to seize him. “Jesus, knowing full well what was about to happen, went out to the garden entrance to meet them. Stepping forward, he asked, ‘Who are you looking for?’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. He replied, ‘I am he.’” (John 18:4-5)
May we all find courage, hope, and confidence in the Spirit of Christ. We have not been abandoned. A few weeks ago, I stressed the importance of prophetic witness. I stress that again today. Our witness is not just to speak, but to act: to be courageously active supporters of one another, offering hope for people today, and confidence that love is stronger than hatred; and that honesty is more effective than political deception and falsehood.
With courage, we move forward…..