Over this season of Easter, I have been reflecting on the theme of the journey to faith, comparing its representations as found in several key NT texts. On Easter Sunday, I began by noting that each person is unique in the way he or she comes to recognize the presence of the Risen Lord, and that personality and circumstances play a role in the process. Throughout the season, I continued to emphasize that not only the authors of our sacred texts made use of such details while developing their characters, but that their own voices were also unique. On Easter 2, I spoke about the differences between the gospels insofar as the disciples’ development of faith. Last week, Easter 3, I compared the portraits of St Paul that emerge from Luke-Acts and his own letters.
Today, I would like to talk about the “Fourth Gospel'', from which we always take all our Eastertide gospel readings. The other three gospels are called “synoptic” (i.e., “seen together”) as notwithstanding the differences in each gospel’s focus and intent, they share many stories. One could put them side by side in columns and see that they follow the same outline. In John, however, what few of the same episodes do appear, are presented very differently. Moreover, Jesus talks in long speeches and dialogues vs. parables and short interactions, his miracles are called “signs” that represent spiritual concepts, and his identity is found in the seven “I AM” statements that link the signs to the divine essence of YHWH in OT (e.g., “I am the bread” and the feeding of multitudes). Traditionally, every year on Easter 4 (i.e. today), we remember Jesus’ statement “I am the Good Shepherd”, and therefore also sing Psalm 23.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the 4th gospel is its 1st chapter, in which the theology of the eternal preexistence of Christ – as opposed to glorification at the time of death, birth, or baptism – finds its roots. It masterfully combines 1) an allusion to Genesis, where God creates by speaking; 2) the Jewish theology of Holy Wisdom as both a quality of God and a person who is separate yet one with God, “the divine architect of creation” and its everlasting guide and prophet; and 3) the Logos of stoics (i.e., the organizing principle of the universe and God’s immanent presence in it) and that of other Greek philosophers (i.e., the lower level of the otherwise distant divinity).
John was written last among the gospels, around the turn of the 1st century. The scholars suspect that its author had access to Mark, as did the other two writers, in addition to another source that called Jesus’ miracles “signs,” first (unavailable to Matthew and Luke). They also think John was compiled over time (due to the inconsistent numbering of the signs, its two endings in both ch 20 and then again in 21, which we read last week, and etc). The scholars are more certain of its context than authorship or sources. The book stands for the theology of the specific community, which was founded in the aftermath of a certain conflict. Its founding members were erstwhile Jews, expelled from their synagogue. The differences in their beliefs in the divinity of Jesus vs those of the other members, who stayed with the view of him as a rabbi or prophet, had eventually escalated to the point of choice: Moses or Jesus. Their enduring bitterness, unfortunately, echoes through the writings, in which Jesus appears to be disproportionately hostile not only to the “scribes and Pharisees,” but to Jews in general. The episode we read today is one such confrontation, mild in comparison to many others included in the account. This is a different context from, for example, the writing of Matthew, the author of which wanted to induce more Jews to believe in Jesus without having them abandon Judaism, and in fact seeing Jesus as the “new Moses''.
The person called the Beloved Disciple seems to have led this community through its tough times. The final chapter alludes to him possibly already being dead, but tradition still considers him to be the author of the book. He was held in such great esteem that at the Last Supper, he was said to recline “in the bosom” of Jesus – the expression that refers to Jesus’ own state with the Father; naturally, he was the first to reach the empty grave, first to believe. He is associated with John, one of the sons of Zebedee; chiefly, because every other disciple of the synoptic gospels is also explicitly named in the 4th gospel. Only John is omitted in favor of this 12th person “whom Jesus loved”. Many theories as to who he was have been proposed (e.g. Lazarus), but the community member(s) who wrote about him kept him anonymous. Still, this community, who was first to formulate their testimony of Jesus as the ever-existent Word who brought Light to this dark world (despite its rejection, mirroring their expulsion) is to this day called Johannine. The feast of St John the Evangelist has just passed on May the 6th.
It seems to me that the very history of the writings of the 4th gospel testifies to the core feature of our current belief: that out of the death of old ways comes new life. Many of us have come through the situations in which we had to leave previously beloved communities, relationships, workplaces or careers where we no longer felt that we could or ever would belong. Yet, out of the darkest moments of conflict and alienation comes greater self-awareness, clarity of vocation, precision of beliefs. In doing so, it is at times difficult to let go of the bitterness and avoid defining ourselves solely by the contrast between the old and new identities - between “them” and “us”. But, the struggle is worth it for our own peace, and even more so, the very basis for self-respect is found in that we are called to have for every person, simply as made in the Image of God. What gives us the strength to do so, to forgive, to grow is the reality of the resurrection. In the world “on this side of the valley”, it unfolds “simply” as the day-to-day renewal, enabled by the great restorer of our souls (cf Ps 23) – our Good Shepherd. Amen.