The Saint John’s Bible, John Frontispiece: The Word Made Flesh. Donald Jackson, 2002
Friday, May 15th
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
During our current common experience, I’ve been struck by how differently we as human beings interpret the events we’re all going through together. Scientists study the virus from their analytical, fact-based discipline. Medical personnel react from their personal, in-the-trenches ordeals. Economists examine our financial system’s past behaviors in an effort to predict its future reactions. Politicians evaluate the myriad styles and models of leadership, purporting to give us “facts over fears”. I’m reminded of the ancient folk tale from India about the blind men and the elephant, which I’m sure you remember. In the story, a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before, conjecture about what an elephant must be after touching different parts of the huge animal. After heated arguments about whether the elephant is a wall, a spear, a snake, a cow, a magic carpet, or a rope, the men are interrupted by the wise Rajah who advises them that they have each only experienced a part, but if they put all the parts together, they will know the truth. We humans seem to need constant reminders that we learn more when we listen to each other.
The same can be true of our life in spiritual community. During the past two months we have spent our devotional time listening to perspectives of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the synoptic gospel writers, as they gave their individual accounts of Jesus and his ministry. Today we make a major shift as we hear from yet another point of view, that of John, known as the “beloved disciple.” As we do, we recognize at the outset that John’s gospel is dramatically different than the other three. The Synoptics basically tell similar stories in fairly similar ways. John chooses an altogether different approach. There have been many studies and books talking about the differences between John and the Synoptics, and I won’t go into great detail here. However, a brief recognition of the differences is worth noting.
The Synoptics chose to depict the life and ministry of Jesus in a generally chronological form. John, however, like a James Michener novel, takes us back to the beginning of time, linking Jesus with Genesis 1. The public ministry of Jesus in the Synoptics seems to take place in a one-year time frame, whereas John portrays the ministry in a three-year cycle. The Synoptics contain mostly the same events; John has unique stories (e.g. water into wine, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the saving of the woman caught in adultery from being stoned, the raising of Lazarus, the healing of the man born blind, Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet and the resurrection appearance to Thomas, to name just the obvious).
There are other differences, but the notable difference for us today and the days that follow, is the teaching style of Jesus. In the Synoptics, Jesus, by and large, shares his truth through the fine art of storytelling found in his parables. The meaning of Jesus is cloaked in riddle and metaphor, with Jesus at times telling the disciples to say nothing about who he is. In John’s Gospel, there are no parables. Instead, Jesus teaches through extended monologues and dialogues, often after having performed a miracle or “sign”, evidence of his special nature. John seeks to portray Jesus as the Son of God through seven of these signs in addition to his public “I am” soliloquies…“I am the bread of life,” “I am the living water,” “I am the light of the world.” Why John chose to fashion his gospel around the collection of seven basic events is an interesting question to reflect upon as we begin this process.
Before we do, the a priori question that naturally comes to mind is, “Can John and the Synoptics be talking about the same Jesus?” My answer to that is “Yes.” These are not biographies, nor are they histories. They are written as individual testimonies. I think one way of looking at it is to think of some of the personality inventories that have become popular in the last century or so (e.g. Myers-Briggs, FIRO-B, Enneagram), where people are led to gain a clearer perspective for understanding themselves and others. In various churches I have had staff members take an inventory test on themselves and then ask five acquaintances to complete the same inventory on that person as they see him or her. The perspectives are enlightening, as a family member sees a person one way, a working colleague another, the person’s supervisor another, friends in the community or in church another way still. There is tremendous value in learning from others. John places emphasis on his own specific viewpoint when he writes at the end of his gospel, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believethat Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
As we move through John’s Gospel, we’ll be impressed with his literary eloquence, his use of symbolic numbers, metaphor and simile, and “double entendre,” where one word or phrase may have several meanings. However, the beauty of the book and the reason that it’s the favorite of so many Christians is that it is, as the title of pastor Earl Palmer’s book suggests, The Intimate Gospel. Palmer’s premise is that John’s gospel was written as an addition to accounts about Jesus that were already circulating in the church around 70 a.d., with his perspective being that of a friend who knew Jesus personally and could supply details we might not find elsewhere.
One of the things I learned in my sabbatical study comparing screen-writing and sermon-writing was that details are crucial in driving and clarifying the narrative. If we were making a movie of John’s Gospel, there would be a lot of close-up camera shots. In short, we have quite a “docudrama” adventure ahead of us. I look forward to spending the coming days with you and the Gospel of John.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
As you pray today, if John were chronicling your life as a gospel, would there be specific “signs” that best describe your life as a disciple? Thank God for those events and memories.
In hindsight, are there any changes you would make about your life as a witness? How might those be seen as instructive? (Think Simon Peter and his many blunders.) Ask God for the wisdom of perspective.
Have you shared a sign from your life (e.g. an occasion or understanding that describes your commitment to Christ) with someone? If so, what did you learn from the telling? If not, pray for God to give you a sense of appropriateness in discerning a moment to share.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Two Selections from William Wordsworth’s “Prelude”