tained glass is wonderful--sermons in glass, Godís love depicted in a way we can see, the blinding light of the sunshine filtered into colour, pattern, saving truth. How good sometimes just to sit and look and pray in the moments before or after church, at beautiful and holy stained glass.
- St. Johnís Gospel -
"The Father and the Son"Sean A. Taylor, 1998
How would it be if as we were sitting there looking at the stained glass - perhaps at a picture of the Lord himself, to see that he was breathing, that his eyes were really looking at us, that the formal and beautiful stained glass had suddenly come to life. Thatís the fist thing I think of with St. Johnís Gospel - here is saving, living truth, eternal life, the love of the Son in the Father in the Holy Spirit, drawing us up into the life of God. St. John offers us Christ the living Word, the fruit of his prayer and thought and eyewitness. This is the gift to the Church and Christians of the Good News according to Saint John the beloved disciple, the apostle and evangelist, the theologian.
Yet it is sometimes said by modern scholars of the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist that it is unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is full of long speeches by the Lord, it seems to be full of theology and a clear teaching of the divinity of Christ, it must be later, and full of complicated theories and ideas which donít really relate much to the real Jesus. Itís sometimes implied that St. Johnís work is partly full of pious exaggeration, itís not as original or accurate or true as the other Gospels, perhaps not written by John the Apostle. Often Biblical Scholars date St. Johnís Gospel far ahead of the other Gospels, usually thought to be written around thirty or forty years after the death of Christ. St. Johnís Gospel is placed somewhere sixty to seventy years after the death of Christ. Yet St. Paul wrote all of his letters within 30 years of the death of Christ, and they are deep and true and complex too.
This arises from the theory that what is early is truest and best, and what is later is corrupt, complicated, and sometimes phony. And the Bible scholars are out to break the secret. We might say instead that while this is sometimes true, that often the opposite is true: over time we can gain perspective, see the whole picture, deepen in our understanding, ponder and pray and be guided by God and his Spirit into truth. While there is virtue, says the Lord, in being child-like with regard to the Kingdom, so the apostle Paul says we must grow up into Christ, be transformed by the renewing of our mind, put away childish things, learn to feed on the meat and drink of the Gospel, and not just the baby-milk.
I sometimes think people try to put distance between Jesus, John and St. Johnís Gospel because modern people donít like the hard things Christ says here, the full truth of who Jesus was and said he was. Itís easier to criticize Christ by attacking the apostles - who were merely products of their time, had bad memories, and were perhaps trying to make stuff up, or exaggerate who Jesus was with theology and so on. Amazing how skeptics 200 years ago can doubt eyewitnesses.
And yet, the earliest written portion we have of any Gospel is in fact from a copy of St. Johnís Gospel, dated sometime in the 130s. It would take time for papyrusí to be copied and passed around. And if it were all made up, there were enough people back then who either in living memory, or the memory of the previous generation could set them right, or reject false stories. I might say what I want about an event or someone from the 1930s - but there are people about who could tell me I was wrong, or that there was more to say, or who might have actually been there and seen the events or known the person.
And Christian tradition has always understood that St. John the Evangelist is the same eyewitness - as he claims to be (1:14; 19:35; 21:24-5). Here is John the Disciple who followed Christ, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" who was present with the "inner circle" with James and Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, at the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane - all witnessed by the other Gospels - at the Cross with Mary the Mother of the Lord who is entrusted to John by the dying Christ, at the tomb with Peter, and with the Risen Christ in Jerusalem, and on the Mount of Ascension. He is also understood to be the youngest of the disciples -- even if he lived eighty or ninety years, this places the later dates for his Gospel well within his lifetime, his memory and his reflection on the mystery and love of God in Christ, seasoned over many years of prayer, suffering, preaching, caring for the flock of Christ as a faithful bishop, in the city of Ephesus.
And St. Johnís Gospel is full of fact and familiarity with Jewish customs, seasons, and ritual, the layout and features of Jerusalem, the situation of the Samaritans, the politics of the Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees, and all the rest. He pays close attention to numbers and names, as an eyewitness would (see 2:6; 6:13; 6:19; 21:8, 11 and 1:45; 3:1; 11:1; 18:10). He has both feet on the ground, in the history, people, places and facts of the Holy Land in the days of Christ. The same is true of the Letters and the Book of the Revelation - real people, real Christ, really Good News.
We can also trust in the witness of John because as he says, in the case of the Good News, the Holy Spirit brings all things into true remembrance, whatever Christ has taught - the Son does nothing but what the Father commands, says Jesus; so the Holy Spirit passes on the truth of Christ, not adding or subtracting or twisting the truth, as if he was a false teacher or gnostic, lair or deceived. We might even say that he wrote to unfold and complete the work of the other evangelists- -to make plain the Son of God.
But like stained glass, John is interested in the living truth of God in Christ, that a life had come into the world which gave back to God which was the fullness of his life and love -- his Son. He came with power, with mercy, and with truth, and by his sacrifice men received a share in eternal divine sonship. So indeed, St. Johnís Gospel differs from the other gospels in many ways - but not in truth. John organizes his Gospel topically - who is Jesus, and what is Jesus. Where is he from? Whose Son is he? The answer is the greatest news, the most incredible thing ever - this man is also God, the true Son, witnessed by his words, his mighty signs, and his works.
So we enter into parts of St. Johnís Gospel, to learn and meet the living Christ, the Son of the Father, by whom all things were made, stepping into the time he created, to be with his people. Why does John write? We donít need to endlessly discuss the matter, as if it was some secret code or hidden reason-- "[T]hese thing are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name."
St. John Chapter 1. "In our neighbourhood"Here we find the Gospel reading for Christmas Day in the Prayer Book (BCP p. 106) - not what we expected, nor do we find a stable, angels, or wise men. Now we have it from St. John himself that for a time, Mary the Mother of Christ was in his care, under his roof - he could have heard the first-hand story many times of Bethlehem and all the rest.
Why is it not here? What does this tell us of Saint Johnís reasons for writing? Who is this Christ? What is this Christ? What does this birth mean?
In the first book of the Bible, God speaks his word, and things happen. Everything that is happened and happens because God says so. God speaks his Word, and that Word is God, too.
Saint Johnís Gospel begins with the astonishing idea that the Word, the logos, the very thought and Word of God himself, God the Son, by whom all things were made, became flesh and dwelt among us - literally set up his tent with us, moved into our neighbourhood. This prologue to St. Johnís Gospel is mystical, wonderful, and sets the stage for unfolding what comes after. Jesus is God of God, Light of light, Word of the Father--he is not only a nice man, or a misunderstood religious teacher. He is either Lord, or liar, lunatic, or the devil incarnate, as C.S. Lewis and others have put it.
There are only two basic attitudes we can take to him - he is who he said he is, or not. In Johnís Gospel Jesus is hated and rejected, because he didnít fit what they thought they wanted-- "HE CAME UNTO HIS OWN, AND HIS OWN RECEIVED HIM NOT."(1:11).
And there is another way - given by Godís grace, and to be entered by worship, love, and obedience - "BUT AS MANY AS RECEIVED HIM, TO THEM GAVE HE THE POWER TO BECOME THE SONS OF GOD."(1:12). Believing in Jesus is the difference between life and death. He is the Word with us - his life is our life. He speaks with us; he converses with us; he prays with passion, and we pray with him; her forgives sin, and our we are forgiven. He takes our place on the cross, and the words of his death speak to us of eternal life. Living words from the Living Word, to whom John the Baptist witnesses.
St. John Chapters 2 - 11. "Signs and the Son"In St. Johnís Gospel, Jesusí miracles are called signs, pointing to who he is. There are seven main signs around which he organizes the account he gives. The first is the changing of water into wine, in Cana, at a wedding reception. The others include healing the noblemanís son, healing he paralytic, feeding the five thousand, walking on the water, healing the man born blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead. St. John has some of these accounts in common with the other Gospels, some are his own, but as he says "THERE... ARE MANY OTHER THINGS WHICH JESUS DID..." (21:25) which if written in full might fill the whole world to overflowing with books. Again, St. John is not providing all the details, but all the meaning of who Christ is, to bring us to a decision about him-- miracles are signs, to be considered, interpreted, and received. This is Christís own perspective on miracles, too--they are teaching tools, signs of Godís power and his Sonship, but not just wonders or magic.
We may look at one of these miracles, which will help us to see how to read St. John, and learn of Jesus - the raising of Lazarus (11:1-46).
Here we see that Jesus himself is moved to wait in going to visit the ailing Lazarus, his friend, along with sisters Mary and Martha - to the Glory of God, that his Son may be glorified, that those who see might believe. Jesus is moved to tears by the death of his friends - he is come that they may have life, and he is the resurrection and the life.
What do the sisters want from him at first? What do they say when he arrives? Who can raise the dead? Whose will is Jesus listening for in all this? If this is a sign, what does it say about the Father?-- The Son?-- The Kingdom?-- Our souls?-- Our sins?-- Godís Glory? What kind of life does Jesus give (Gk. bios = biological life; zoe = supernatural life). Jesus gives zoe, says St. John, a life natural to God, but not to us. It includes divine power over nature by miracles, over sin and selfishness by agape (charity-- self-giving, godly love), and over death by resurrection. Christ can give supernatural life only if he is fully God, and fully man. Our salvation hangs on whether Jesus is divine.
So the seven main miracles remind us that Jesus is our Joy, in place of thirst, gladdens our heart and changes us as he changed water into wine (2:11); that in place of disease he gives physical and spiritual health and virtue (4:46-54); that he frees us from the disempowering paralysis of sin (5:1-16); that in place of hunger he is the bread of life, our spiritual nourishment, our true and living daily bread (6:1-13); that in place of fear he is Lord and Word, and has power over nature, that faith overcomes fear (6:16-21); that in place of blindness he gives physical sight, and spiritual insight (9:1-7); that in the face of death he weeps, yet he gives resurrection from physical death, and salvation from eternal death (11:1-44).
Connected with some of these miracles are the seven great "I ams" of St. Johnís Gospel - we recall that "I AM" was the holy name God revealed to Moses from the burning bush (Ex. 3:14). It is the holy name, and was never even spoken - it was just guessed at and written as Jehovah or Yahweh. However, when Jesus pronounced it, he was claiming for himself divinity. As we look at 8:58, we find: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM." The Jews understand what he has said, and try to kill him.
So Jesus shall say I am many times: I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the light, the way, the truth, and the life, the true vine. We notice that all of these "I ams" have to do not with his greatness apart from others or God - he is sent by the Father to seek and save the lost-- "FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD," as Christ says to Nicodemus in the Garden by night , and all these "I ams"have to do with his saving work, his doing the Fatherís will, since "I AND MY FATHER ARE ONE... MY FATHER IS IN ME, AND I IN HIM." (10:30, 38) and "MY FOOD IS TO DO THE WILL OF HIM THAT SENT ME AND TO FINISH HIS WORK." (4:34).
St. John Chapters 12 - 17 "Last Supper Prayers and Blessings" .We have finished the first part of St. Johnís Gospel, which John March (Saint John, 1968) has called the "Book of Signs". In Chapter 12, Jesus is anointed, enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and finishes his public ministry.
The great central portion of St. Johnís Gospel lays before us--Preparations for the Seventh and Mightiest Sign, his Death and Resurrection. Here in the prayers and words of Jesus we have a glimpse into the Fatherís heart, a prayer and embrace by the Son, about to die, a promise of the Holy Spirit to bring us comfort, truth, and strength, the very presence of Godís life in us. Chapter 17 has the ĎHigh Priestly Prayerí of Christ for us, a prayer which continues as the Son prays for us in heaven. This Farewell Discourse is addressed to the apostles, to the church, and to each of us, by the living Christ.
Where is the Lordís Supper? St. John has much of his reflection on sacramental things - bread and wine, body and blood, and baptism - tied into chapter 6, with the feeding of the 5000, and on the Cross in chapter 19. Here it seems Saint John assumes the familiar communion & sharing in the new covenant in bread and wine, Christís body and blood, which Christians celebrated each Sunday, and the accounts of that supper in the other three Gospels and in the letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians. But there is more to say, in understanding the New Covenant which shall be sealed on the cross, and which is set forth in bread and wine.
In Chapter 13 we do not find the familiar Last Supper - but Christ washing the disciplesí feet, betrayal by Judas, Peterís false promise, a prayer of self-offering, a preparation for the cross, and a series of warnings and comforts for the apostles for what is about to happen. The Son of Glory who stooped down from heaven in humility now stoops to show his humble love, his sacrifice to come, and his welcoming us as friends, calling us to be servants of God and one another. In Chapter 14 Jesus reminds his disciples that he is the revelation of the Father, and that he will be with them in their mission, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling presence of Father and Son in the soul, and the church, and in the resurrection, and finally to each believer. Chapter 14 ends with a blessing of peace.
Chapter 15 speaks of our need to keep connected and growing in Christ the vine - sometimes we must even be pruned when we are growing well, to encourage growth and discipline and strengthening. He speaks of love as the root of his life -Father and Son, in the Holy Spirit, and that we are to love one another as he has loved us. Chapter 16 reminds us that we can always say with Jesus that the Father is always with us, and that whatever troubles come in this life, or in the church, or in the world - this is the great theme of the whole Book of Revelation-- "IN THIS WORLD YOU SHALL HAVE TRIBULATION: BUT TAKE HEART, FOR I HAVE OVERCOME THE WORLD."
In Chapter 17 Jesus speaks of glory--of the Father, of the Son, and for those who follow him. Godís glory is in his love, so he is glorified by the Cross, the perfect work of obedient love, fulfilling the Fatherís will to give his only Son, that whoever believes might be saved. Here Jesus refers to you, for he prays for the disciples and those who believe because of their preaching-- "THAT THEY MAY ALL BE ONE; AS THOU, FATHER, ART IN ME, AND I IN THEE, THAT THEY MAY ALSO BE ONE IN US: THAT THE WORLD MAY BELIEVE THAT THOU HAST SENT ME." Eugene Petersonís paraphrased version of this chapter in The Message (1994) is quite moving (see pp.225-227).
St. John Chapters 17 - 21 "And I, if I be lifted up.... " .We begin "The Book of the Seventh Sign" -- the glory and triumph of the willing self-sacrifice of the Son of God, in loving obedience to the Fatherís will. Chapter 18 begins to describe the final act of self-sacrifice, following on the preparation of the disciples by Christ through instruction & prayer. Jesus the king of heaven and true Son of his Father stands before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, who is first baffled, then evasive, and is forced by the crowds into releasing a convicted murderer, Bar-Abbas (whose name can be translated Ďson of the father').
In Chapter 19, Jesus is mocked by the religious authorities, whipped, and questioned again by Pilate. Jesus is King - this is blasphemy to the Jews, and treason to the Romans, and so he is sentenced to death. Jesus offers the famous ĎSeven Last Wordsí from the Cross, and dies, a perfect sacrifice. The Jews - having killed the Lamb of God - yet do not want to profane the Passover. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepare the body and bury it in a tomb nearby.
Moving to the closing chapters of 20 & 21, we begin with St. Maryís report of an empty tomb - Peter and John run and find the grave-cloths. Mary remains weeping by the tomb, and meets the risen Lord, who she fails to recognize until he speaks her name. He forbids her to cling to him. Though his risen body is real (so Doubting Thomas is later invited to touch the wounds), his followers are not to cling to his physical presence, but to his spiritual reality and presence. Given gifts of the Holy Spirit, the apostles are commissioned as ministers of judgement and forgiveness.
So in chapter 21, the disciples have seen the risen Lord, but still donít realize just what he means for their lives, and they go back for a time to their old jobs. Jesus appears to them again, and shows them how his power and love sustains them. Nourished by his risen love, they are commissioned to feed his flock, the Church, and to live by his power as they (like St. Peter) care for the flock of God, and as they (like the beloved disciple, John), live and teach and believe in the Son, with love, faith, and understanding, in the power of the teaching and strengthening Holy Spirit.
Chapter 21 ends without any great final scene, as if to say-- and the mission of the Church, the love of the Father, the presence of the Risen Son, the power of the Spirit continue throughout all the trials and troubles of the church and world, the Christian believer and their faith: "IN THIS WORLD YOU SHALL HAVE TRIBULATION: BUT TAKE HEART, FOR I HAVE OVERCOME THE WORLD."
The Book of Common Prayer, 1962, General Synod of the ACC.
The New International Version of the Bible (NIV Study Bible), 1985.
George R. Beasley-Murray, Word Biblical Commentary # 36: John, Word Books, 1987.
Austin Farrer, A Faith of our Own, World Publishing, 1960, See esp. "Christ is God", p. 101.
Richard Harries, The One Genius: Readings in Austin Farrer, SPCK, 1987.
Peter Kreeft, Reading and Praying the New Testament, 1992, esp. pp. 35-40.
John March, Saint John, 1968.
Eugene Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language, (1994), pp. 184-236.
Various Contributors, COMMON PRAYER IV: Trinity Season, St. Peter Publications, 1986. John Leinenweber, Love One Another, My Friends: St. Augustineís Homilies on the First Letter of John, Harper & Row, 1989.
+There are lots of resources and links on the Internet for classical Anglican Religion-- and if you donít have a computer, visit a friend or relative, a library, school or community access place that does have one! The Gospel is online, aside from all the other stuff we hear about all the time. +
The Prayer Book Society of Canada
Saint Peter Publications Online