Friday, January 8, 2010

Our Patron, Saint John the Evangelist

I’m aware that people with birthdays within a day or two of Christmas may feel either blessed by that timing or, just as likely, a bit short-changed and trumped by coming so close to the great Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. I can only imagine our patron, St. John the Evangelist, being delighted by the proximity of his feast day, December 27th to Christmas Day. Still, we have to ensure that we not lose him in the shuffle.

We’ve heard him this morning at his mystical best, those gorgeous verses of his Prologue, the opening words of the Fourth Gospel. How different they are from the opening gambit made by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, whose basic similarities with one another cause them to be known as the Synoptic Gospels, meaning that they come at the Good News of Jesus from a similar point of view.

But not so, John. He has a different angle. The other three anchor their Gospels in history. Chapter one in Matthew is a long genealogy of Jesus. Mark opens his book with John the Baptist emerging from the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Luke sets his context by telling the story of the birth of John the Baptist, then his renowned (and unique) story of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, without which we would have no Christmas pageants.

But John, ah, John… It’s almost enough to make you wonder what was in the incense burning near him as he wrote. History, shmistory! “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” John takes a bird’s-eye view, and that bird is the dove, the Spirit brooding over creation and hovering over Jesus at his baptism.

The synoptic writers set out to tell what happened in Jesus’s ministry, and what he said (though Luke, especially with his Christmas story, steps into interpreting how our Lord’s ministry and teachings matter to the world). But John dives into deeper waters and proclaims who Jesus is, what his ministry and teachings mean. John gives us theology. Known to be the latest of the four evangelists (his Gospel is fourth not just in printed order, but also in likely date of composition), it is as if Jesus’s followers, after years of meditating on his impact on them, and after many years of living-out the mission he entrusted to them, heard the call to set down on parchment what they knew to be true and worthy of urgent proclamation.

And so it is in John that we meet the Jesus who knows without doubt who and whose he is. It is John who gives us the great “I am” sayings. I am the light of the world… I am the bread of heaven… I am the Good Shepherd… I am the living water… I am the gate of the sheepfold. These claims present Jesus fully confident that he is Son of God, Savior, and Lord. And his best known “I am” saying sums it up: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”

And so the Gospel of John has kept theologians and preachers busy for 1900 years and counting, as this Johannine Jesus eclipses the teacher, healer, preacher of the synoptics. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that John’s Jesus absolutely puts on the mantle of universal Messiah, leaving no doubt that all who believe in him have eternal life. And in so doing, John’s Jesus completes the Gospel presentation of the Christ.

Among the theologians John keeps busy are those New Testament scholars, most of them here in the United States, known as the Jesus Seminar. Recognizing that even the synoptics show that each of the four Gospels comes from different sources and traditions within the early Christian community, these scholars have devised a system for voting among themselves as to whether a particular saying of Jesus is authentic or not. By authentic they mean that they think that Jesus actually said it.

So they gather and they consider a text. The scholars have a small supply of beads. A red bead indicates the scholar’s belief that Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it. A pink bead means that Jesus probably said something like this. A grey bead says that Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in the saying are close to his own. A black bead records the scholar’s vote that Jesus did not say this; the saying represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition. A saying is considered. A box is passed. Into the box each scholars drops one of his or her four beads.

Let me quote Richard Holloway in his little book,”How to Read the Bible”: “If you comb through the translation these scholars made of the first three gospels you see a pattern of red, pink and grey on every page, against a predominant background of black; but when you turn to their translation of the fourth gospel, the one attributed to John, the text is an unrelieved black. This verdict on the inauthenticity of John reflects a significant consensus among many, though far from all, scholars that the fourth gospel is a creation of the early church and represents a significant theological development in the Christian understanding of the status of Jesus.”

Hmmm. For me, that actually enhances the value of John’s Gospel, and guides me how to read it. Its voice is not in harmony with the other three, and that’s what makes it what it is, an evolving witness to what the early Church found essential to its faith and practice and mission in the world.

And evidence that John had to wrestle with issues that seem less pressing in some of the other gospels. The example I think of is briefly but unmistakably there in the Prologue we heard today: “and his own people did not accept him.”

A simple fact, historically: there is antagonism between the Jewish preacher Jesus and the Jewish religious establishment, and of the four Gospel writers, John makes the most of this friction. Why? Because this last of the Gospels comes from a time of sharp division between Christians and Jews. Earlier on, followers of Jesus who were Jewish remained within their synagogues; the Jesus movement was at first within Judaism. But by the time of John’s Gospel, the last vestiges of cohabitation had ended. In their theology and in their missionary activity, Christians had come to define themselves more sharply (John’s Gospel both shows that and helped that happen) so they no longer felt a belonging to the synagogues, and they were no longer welcome there.

But the more important message of the fourth Gospel is that any religious establishment, indeed every religious establishment, is likely to find its applecart upset by Jesus Christ. And that message is equally clear in all four Gospels. For example, in all four, Jesus sends packing the moneychangers in the temple, and those who sold the sacrificial animals at markups that exploited the poor.

So we learn to read the Fourth Gospel not in a way that perpetuates hostility between Christians and Jews, but in a way that is willing and ready to substitute ourselves—the Episcopal Church, St. John’s Church, and me myself—whenever we read about those who resist him when he comes.

I suspect I’ve said enough to show that our patron saint excels at stirring the pot, igniting reactions and questions, stimulating theology and preaching, devotion and mission. He causes us to reach-out in our believing. His are the words heard at many a funeral (“In my Father’s house are many dwelling-places…”). He is the one who tells the fuller story of Mary Magdalene, casting her as virtual apostle.

John does not know Luke’s Christmas story, but he tells his own. It is rich with the language of the philosophers, and lays the groundwork for a Christian view of man that unites mind and soul and body. Theology and physics wrap around each other in John’s use of light, his language of transformation, his fascination with energy and matter as he tells of the miracles that draw us to understand who this is, this Jesus.

A poem that a member brought to Vestry last month ends with lines that e. e. cummings wrote about the Nativity of Jesus—and I can’t help thinking that John the evangelist would find them familiar, so I’ll end with them:

“mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been, and stop ten thousand stars
but not one heartbeat of this child; nor shall
even prevail a million questionings
against the silence of his mother’s smile
--whose only secret all creation sings”