Going Deeper with John’s Gospel: The Prologue

Gospel of John Frontispiece and Incipit, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bibleand the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

This year, my congregation is undertaking the project of seeking to understand more deeply the Gospel according to John. This is the first lecture in the series. I will also be posting complementary sermons during this season.

John’s Gospel is an enigmatic text—it stands on its own, apart from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Whereas these other Gospels appear to follow a consistent and agreed upon narrative of the events of Jesus’ life and death, John appears to choose to go another way. Many stories, in fact, that appear in John’s Gospel, appear no-where else in the accounts of the disciples of Jesus. 

For this reason, many scholars of the centuries have proposed a boundary between the so-called Synoptics and John’s account.  Clement of Alexandria captured the general mood when he described John as a “Spiritual Gospel.” And in fact, for much of the history of Christendom, John has enjoyed a secondary status next to the synoptics, viewed by scholars as a supplement to the others but not at the same level of historicity. In other words—Matthew Mark and Luke tell us about the “plain facts” about Jesus, but John tells us about the spiritual meaning of his ministry.

In her excellent commentary on the gospel, Dr. Karoline Lewis describes a number of problems with this division:

  1. First is the fact that many of the “facts” that we think we know about Jesus are found in John’s Gospel.  She observes, for example, that “the supposition that Jesus’ ministry was three years in length is made possible by John.”
  2. The second problem is that this division between Synoptics and John’s Gospel relies upon the assumption that the synoptics are primarily histories, and they are not. The Gospels, she writes, “are no more interested in the historical account of Jesus than John is committed to a spiritual description of Jesus. The Gospels are gospels, the good news of Jesus Christ…they are a witness to the promise of God’s presence among God’s people, now in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.”[1]

And the problems do not end there. Many ancient scholars comparing the writing style and emphasis of the synoptics and John came to the conclusion that John’s Gospel must have been written later than the other three. John seemed to them more spiritually “developed,” which they assumed must have taken more time to evolve within the Christian Community. And so it is likely that many of you may have grown up learning that John’s Gospel may well have been written late into the second century. 

But modern archeology casts doubt on this assumption. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 50s, as well as archeological discoveries in Nag Hammadi, Egypt and other Coptic texts, it became apparent that there were far more “gospels” circulating in the world of ancient Judaism—the Gospel of Thomas, of Mary, of Peter and of Judas, to name a few that did not make it into our canon.  It would appear that not just Saducees and Pharisees, but Gnostics, the Qumran Community, the Docetists, and many others were writing and sharing their thoughts on God. Over time, many of these movements were branded as heretical for their views on Jesus. And many of these heretics preached a Jesus who was spiritually distant, mystical, and decidedly unhuman. For some, John’s Gospel seemed to edge close to that heretical view, and therefore the Gospel was viewed with suspicion.

And yet, if we can strip away our own assumptions about what we think is happening in John’s Gospel, perhaps we shall find that the Jesus we encounter here is very human. He breathes. He eats. He mourns. He suffers.  He is the word made flesh, in every way incarnate as we are.

Ultimately, my own well-worn bible, the New Annotated Edition printed in the late 2000s, attests that the scholarly consensus dates the final editing of the gospel to 80-90 CE, with its earliest material likely being written prior to 70 CE. This would make John’s Gospel roughly contemporaneous with the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.

And now let us turn to the Gospel itself. We will begin with the Prologue, a beautiful piece of scripture that contains within it the main theological themes for the Gospel as a whole.

The Prologue to John’s Gospel is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of scripture written in all the gospels. Like so much poetry, it says so very much in an economy of words, and its words evoke a world far beyond itself….

 In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word WAS God.

John 1:1

One cannot help but remember other beginnings when one hears these words: The beginning of creation, when the universe was cast and we were made players within God’s most perfect world. It is a remarkable way to begin the story of Jesus, one that tells us, without telling us in so many words, that this is a story that will have cosmic impact.

On Sunday, we spent some time delving into the power of a good story to capture our hearts and to help remind us of who and whose we are. And so I tonight it is my hope that we can turn from this conversation to another, one that has vexed theologians for centuries, and that is:

What is John the Baptist doing interrupting this gorgeous poetry?

 For right there in the center of this ancient hymn, just as light is shining in the darkness, just as we are promised that the light will not over come it, John arrives.

You remember John—In other Gospels he comes to us as the cousin of Jesus, brimming with a wildness of faith that borders on the fanatical. He is the man on the street corner, bellowing in a megaphone; the hermit in the desert, meditating on a stump. He is the strange holy man, begging for a bite to eat and a soul to save. John in the synoptics, is the Baptist, painted in full color with the volume turned up to eleven.

But not so in John’s Gospel. Here, John is a man sent from God, all right, but we do not learn what he looked like, or where he preached, or how the people responded. John does not tell us who his mother and father are as Luke does, or his relation to Jesus Christ. And John is not defined here as the Baptist, but as the Witness.

In her commentary on the book of John, Karoline Lewis observes that “commentators have regularly explained away John’s presence as a later interpolation that does not belong in such a majestic, hymnic, and poetic narration of Jesus’ origins and identity.”[2] In other words, they have tended to see John as a distraction. And yet Lewis disagrees. For her, John’s presence “points to another main theme of this Gospel—holding together, simultaneously, at every moment, the divine and the human.” John’s role, right here at the beginning of it all, is to be a witness, to show us what it looks like to testify or witness to the light.

The word that we translate as witness is in fact the word martyrian (μαρτυρίαν), and I can’t help but wonder whether knowing this little fact changes its meaning in our minds. For when we think of a witness, I think perhaps we tend to imagine a person who has seen or experienced something swearing under oath that what they have seen or heard is true. But when I think of the word martyr? Well, that is something else. When I think of martyrs, I think of those who were willing to hold fast to what they had seen or heard even unto death.  Who were willing to stake their lives (and who often did) upon what they experienced to be true.

And yet that is PRECISELY what the word means. Martys: to witness. But before we get caught up in the emotional implications of the word martyr, let us first pause and remember that words and their meaning have a tendency to evolve with usage. And this appears to be true for the word Martyr.  Originally, the word was simply a neutral, legal term in Greek. It meant, plainly, “to bear witness,” as one might in a court of law. 

But as Christians began to witness to their faith, and as some began to be arrested, tortured, and even killed on account of their unwillingness to renounce Jesus, what it meant to be a witness began to shift[3]. As the work of testimony took on a life or death element, the willingness to die for ones faith, to value the truth above one’s own safety, “to pick up your cross and carry it” with Christ was elevated within the Christian community from “witnessing to the truth to allegiance to a cause.”[4] The witnesses, the martyrs, began to mean something new in the community, something that perhaps the author of the Gospel did not intend.

What is at stake here is not simply etymology purity, but rather something much more important: what makes a martyr is not their willingness to die, or their devotedness to suffering. Rather, it is the truthfulness of the speaker, their willingness to share what they know. And that is what is meant when John is called the Witness. For he shares what he knows to be true.

And what does he know? His words continue to witness for him:

This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”

John will go on to say other things, and will in fact be martyred, in no small part because he is unwilling to stop preaching what he knows to be true. But for our purposes, what matters most about John is that he models the life to which all Christians since have been called: to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ as we have received it. If we are able to do that, then God will indeed dwell among us, or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “God will have moved into the neighborhood.”

[1] Lewis, Karoline. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Fortress Press: 2014. Page 2,3

[2] Lewis, Karoline. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Fortress Press: 2014. Page 13.

[3] https://newmatthewbible.org/Martyr.pdf

[4] Ibid. pg 4

“In the Beginning….”

John 1:(1-9), 10-18

*translation offered by Tom Boomershine, available at www.gotell.org

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.

What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light,

so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light,

but he came to testify to the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;

yet the world did not know him He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name,

he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out,
“This was he of whom I said,
“He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ “)

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

No one has ever seen God.
It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart,

who has made him known.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem
by David Roberts (1796-1864) public domain

In 70 CE, the world as they knew it fell apart.

The First Jewish Revolt against Rome began as quickly as it ended, but the carnage was impossible to miss. On the ninth and 10th of the month of Av in the year 70, the Roman legions in Jerusalem smashed through the fortress tower of Antonia into the Holy Temple and set it afire. In the blackened remains of the sanctuary lay more than the ruins of the great Jewish revolt for political independence. To many Jews, it appeared that Judaism itself was shattered beyond repair.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes that 

“out of approximately four or five million Jews in the world, it is likely that over a million Jews died in the war for independence, many of them from starvation, others by fire and crucifixion. So many Jews were sold into slavery and given over to the gladiatorial arenas and circuses that the price of slaves dropped precipitously, fulfilling the ancient curse: “There you will be offered for sale as slaves, and there will be no one willing to buy.”

The historian Josephus described severe famine that left families fighting over food, the hill of the temple mount teeming with fire and piled high with the slain. 

It was a human crisis. But it was also a spiritual crisis. The temple, the symbol of God’s covenant with the world, was gone.

In the years after this awful moment, the people responded in many different ways. Some gave their lives over to the task of mourning. The Talmud says that these people rejected normal life, choosing not to marry or have children. They simply could not imagine going on with life as usual. They spent all their effort trying to restore what was lost.

Others planned for the next rebellion, gathering forces and making plans for what would ultimately be another failed attempt at independence.

And it was into the rawness of that grief and unknowing and despair that one community, perhaps one person in that one community, began to do something remarkable in the decades after the destruction of their world.

They began to tell a story.

Not just any story, mind you. With the grieving and the hurting gathered together, they told the story of the God who made the world. Only, it was different this time. Richard Swanson’s translation of the text goes like this:

“Things used to make sense.  And that sense, it was with God. It even WAS god, and that sense made the world, even as the world made sense.”

From the valley of despair, surrounded by death and destruction, John needs his community to see that all is not lost. And so he reaches for the story of creation, only he does not tell it like their ancestors did. Instead, he makes it new. He reshapes the story, and makes space for their lived experience—the experience of a suffering, struggling people who are uncertain of what the future may hold.  This is a story that can handle the messiness of the world. 

Imagine what it must have been like to meet the destruction and despair of the world with a story of God’s creative and redemptive power. To stand in the rubble of all that was lost and to proclaim: God is not through with us yet. For see, the God who made us, who hovered over the waters of creation, the one whose light shines in the darkness, cannot be overcome. Will not be overcome.

The author Wayne Booth has noted that when we read fiction, we read words that were written in their own times, but that we always, when we read a book, can only read it in our own century. And how we hear a story depends a great deal on what is happening to us.

And so I find myself thinking about this story and wondering: knowing what we know, how can we read it now?

I suspect I am not alone in imagining that perhaps some of us can identify with the experience of the Jewish people. I know that, as I read about the stories of the temple, I cannot help but remember where I was 20 years ago when our world as we know seemed to fall apart. This weekend, as many in our country looked back on the events of twenty years ago I found myself wondering: what is the story that we are telling about this moment?

That may seem like a small question, but I promise you, it matters a great deal. Advances in the study of the mind have revealed that our memories are not a solid thing. Rather, they are shaped by the act of remembering itself—how we tell the stories about our experiences change the way we remember, and even explain why three people can remember the same experience so differently. Each time we tell a story, it is made new, in some way, changed by the very telling itself.

This week, we have been asked to bear witness to the many stories about what happened in our country 20 years ago, about just how much our lives were changed in the past and in the present by that destructive morning. As Christians, we are called to be bear witness to those who suffer, to suffer alongside them even as we seek healing. But that is not all we are called to.  We are also called to look to the bigger story, the story that God is telling. We are called to the same radical act that inspired the Johannine community to tell the story of God’s dwelling with the people, from the beginning of time and in the person of Christ. And to find ways to connect the story of what God has done in the past, with what God is doing in this present moment to redeem the world. To envision a God that is bigger than our pain.

I will leave you with a story. In her book, Plan Be: Further Thoughts on Faith, the author Anne Lamott tells a story about a man name AJ Muste. He was a life-long pacifist who, during the Vietnam War, stood in front of the White House every night, for years, holding a single lighted candle.

Well, over time, people started to notice this man with a candle, and eventually, on one very rainy night, a reporter walked up to him and asked him, “Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change anything by standing out here alone every night with a candle?”

Oh,” Muste replied, “I don’t do it to change them, I do it so they won’t change me.”

May we seek to hold the candle of our faith in the darkness, that we might remember the story God is telling, and witness to the power of the redeeming Christ each and every day. Amen.

Yet He Could Not Escape Notice…

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. 

Yet he could not escape notice. 

But a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him,
and she came and bowed down at his feet. 

Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. 

She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go.
The demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child thrown on the bed, and the demon gone.”

Mark 7:24-30

“Sunday Morning” by Norman Rockwell

Some mornings, I wake up, and all I want in this life is to escape notice. On those days, I want to wake up when I am ready, walk downstairs into the kitchen on my own time, make myself a strong cup of coffee, and catch up on the news in peace. In my mind, this magical morning resembles something out of Norman Rockwell, with children playing quietly and peacefully while Alex and I gather ourselves together to meet another day.

Of course, that is nothing like our actual lives. Most mornings, one or both of us are jarred from sleep when one of our beloved children comes in our room to announce that THEY ARE AWAKE. Or, someone awakens the whole house to a concert featuring one of their favorite Christmas songs sung at the top of their lungs. And then there are the times that the dog awakens us early, eager to get outside to chase a squirrel or a rabbit. Domestic bliss!

You know, I went looking for a picture that might capture the fantasy in my head of an ideal morning. I figured there would be dozens of options to choose from—Norman Rockwell was, after all, a prolific artist. But I couldn’t find any.  Instead I found pictures that looked a little too close to how I feel on my most stressed out days, which, in COVID, let’s admit, are more frequent than usual. Most days, I feel like the man in the picture above—slouching down in my chair, hoping that I will, for however briefly, escape notice.

Over the course of the pandemic, researchers have described a phenomena in which people were so desperate to be alone with their own thoughts that they were stealing that time late at night. Instead of going to sleep, which is the definition of a restful activity, they were scrolling the internet, binging television shows, hiding from friends and family and doing their best to escape.

In other words, we all know what it is like to want to disappear for a while. But most days, it turns out that we cannot escape notice. We cannot escape the reality that there are others—our children, our pets, our neighbors, the world outside—that need us to show up and be there for them. That remind us that we have responsibilities to one another.

Perhaps we can relate, then, to Jesus when he sets off for a little time alone.

You know, it’s interesting. It would seem that Jesus is trying to take a vacation in our scripture lesson this morning. He’s had a rough week—his hometown rejected his ministry, and then the religious authorities showed up at his door questioning his credentials. No wonder he wants to get a way for a bit. So he slips away from the boundaries of his community and into Tyre. Tyre is an interesting choice, I have to say, for someone like Jesus to be sneaking away to.  Just 130 years before Jesus was born, the community of Tyre had assisted King Antiochus in the siege of Jerusalem and desecration of the Jewish temple. 130 years is not that long. A Jew hearing this news about Jesus might have sucked in her breath, shocked to imagine that he, of all people, would be naïve enough to end up in that kind of neighborhood.

If Jesus were American, it would be as though, after a long and hard season of ministry, he woke up one morning and decided he needed to get away and clear his head. And so he jumped on a plane and landed at Kabul airport. Or in Tehran. Or in Sinoloa. Or any other number of places populated by people around whom we have reasons to be guarded. To go there seems reckless. He would have been alone, alright. Alone, and exposed.

There is a whole genre of literature that explores the urge to be alone. Into the Wild tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a man who disappeared into the Alaskan bush to find himself. Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild pulls her life back together by testing her limits on a life-changing hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Jon Krakauer documents the relentless and dangerous pull of Mt Everest in Into Thin Air. There is an endless supply, it seems, of novels and memoirs that document the stories of people who felt that they needed to “escape notice” from the world in order to understand themselves more fully.

What is interesting in these stories is what happens when “the world” passes away, and the characters at the center of the story are stripped down.  What will they  do with this precious opportunity? And I would suggest that the same is true for Jesus.

When he slips away into Tyre, we cannot know what Jesus expected to happen. But we know what DOES happen: Scripture tells us that he cannot hide. Even here, far away from the people with whom he shares a culture and a religion, there are people hurting and crying out for relief. People who look nothing like him. Who believe differently than he does. People whom he may even have reason to distrust. People who are foreign. Other. And yet, they have heard of him and what he does. And so they find him. The Syro-Phoenician woman bows at his feet, lowers herself and begs for him to heal her daughter.

And for the first and only time in his ministry Jesus will say no to someone who comes to him seeking healing.  But it is more than that—Jesus doesn’t just say no. He goes further, insulting the woman and calling her a dog.

Christians have twisted themselves in knots over the centuries trying to explain this behavior. “Perhaps Jesus is not saying what HE thinks, but what the disciples were thinking. Perhaps he is trying to expose their own prejudice.” Perhaps Jesus said one thing with his words, they suggest, and another with his eyes.

The truth is that we can’t know for sure. What we can be certain of is this: this is not an easy story to square with the Jesus we think we know. However his eyes looked, his words don’t seem compassionate or kind. He seems less holy, and more holier than thou, callous and indifferent to the suffering of the woman before him. 

Perhaps its just that I don’t want to believe that Jesus could be as human as I know that I am. For I know that I have hardened my heart in the face of suffering. I know that I have made judgements about other people, people I have decided are not like me. I have seen the struggling, and instead of reaching out to help, I have thought to myself, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I,” and I have gone about my business without doing a thing. I have convinced myself that I need to compartmentalize, to decide that some suffering is more worthy of my time than others, because otherwise how could I possibly function in the world?

But not Jesus. I want Jesus to be better than that because I want to believe that, God willing, I can be better than that. Surely, when we affirm that Jesus is utterly human, just like us in every way, we cannot mean that he is as callous as we have the ability to be to one another. Because isn’t the fact that he is also utterly divine supposed to make him better than us?

You know, it’s easy to forget, but, according to the scriptures, there are times when God changes course. Times when God was prepared to mete out punishment, or withhold grace, and then is convinced to do otherwise.  In Exodus, more than once, the people of God complain to Moses, and God decides right then and there to do away with the lot of them. And do you know what happens? Moses convinces God that there is another way. And God listens to Moses! In 2 Kings, when scripture tells us that the wickedness of Israel led God to send invaders to siege Jerusalem, King Hezekiah’s prayers of penitence convince God to have compassion on the city and to save the people once condemned. In the book of Jonah, the repentance of the people of Ninevah leads God to spare them from destruction, even though they are the enemies and oppressors of God’s chosen people.

Do you see what happens? Time and again, God erects a boundary, or pronounces a judgement, only to change course. To choose mercy. 

So why would we believe that this encounter with Jesus and the woman is any different? For when Jesus judges her, calls her a dog, she does not respond in anger. Instead, she absorbs the insult, takes it in, and in the tradition of Moses and Hezekiah and the people of Ninevah, she makes her case.  Am I not God’s child too? Do I not deserve God’s grace?

Let me ask you: do you believe that those whom you mistrust, or who have hurt you, those you have judged wanting, are worthy of God’s grace? Jesus found it in within himself to see the Syro-Phoenician woman in a new way that transformed an enemy into a neighbor, a stranger into a child of God. In the process, he opened the door for gentiles, people like you and me, to experience the goodness of the kingdom of God for themselves.

I can’t imagine it was easy for Jesus to change course, but then again, isn’t that part of the experience of being human? Science tells us that our brains are amazingly plastic, that they can actually reorganize themselves by forming new connections as we take in new information. The way I understand it, that means that the very part of us that many people think makes us who we are is inherently flexible. God made us to be flexible. 

This morning, Christ shows us that, when we are wiling to embrace our inherent flexibility, it is possible to see in a new way. That it is possible to open our hearts to people and places that might once have seemed beyond God’s reach. That is possible for strangers to teach us something important about the character of God. The truth is that we are capable of so much more than our worst instincts. And that is what gives me hope right now. That, I believe, is the best of Good News. Because ours is a world that is aching for faithful examples of what it looks like to live as though the ability to be humble and flexible and open to change were the expectation, not the exception. 

I want to leave you with one final story. 16 years ago, you may remember, Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, killing nearly two thousand people and displacing over 100,000 students. At the time, I was a senior at the University of Southern California and a resident advisor in the honors dorms. I can remember how it felt to watch the news of what was happening in Louisiana, and how far away it felt from me and my world. I cared about their suffering, but what could I possibly do? 

A week later, Ms. Brevard arrived in our dorm. She was a student from one of the Historically Black Universities in New Orleans that was flooded by Katrina. She and nearly 100 other students arrived at USC with nothing—nearly everything she had was lost in Katrina. She told us about how, at her college, the floodwater line reached up the wall of the dorm, knocking out the power and the generators, and that even when they mopped up the water, it didn’t matter because the mold and mildew covered every surface. 

I cannot imagine how hard it was for her to leave a place that was home and find herself in Los Angeles, surrounded by a bunch of well-meaning, sheltered, mostly upper-middle class Californians who had no concept of what a hurricane was. And I am certain that we were imperfect in our support and our friendship of her in what was certainly a traumatizing time. But here is what I also know: Katrina became personal for us when we met her. When she arrived, we could no longer pretend Katrina was happening somewhere else. We could no longer escape notice. 

That’s the thing about our faith. Our call is to follow where Christ is leading us. Sometimes God is revealed to us in the expected places, and sometimes we discover the face of God where we did not expect it. Sometimes God grabs our attention and makes us see the place were weren’t looking, where God was all along.

Let us walk humbly, and follow closely, that our Lord and Savior might lead us in the way that leads to life. Amen.