Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 15th February 2012
When we look at the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is easy to see parallels and similarities, to see how they have used common sources as they have pieced together their account of the Good News of Jesus. The three together are called the Synoptic Gospels, ‘synoptic’ coming from the Greek meaning viewed together. John is the Gospel writer of whom we know the most, but it doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see that Saint John is different from the synoptics, yet, while his writing is very different, he is one of the Twelve Apostles, a group that included Saint Matthew. John’s is the Fourth Gospel, and was probably the last, by some years to be written.
We know from Matthew 10:2-3 that John was the son of Zebedee and the younger brother of James, the elder of the two James that were part of the Twelve. Jesus gives the brothers the nickname ‘boanerges’, the ‘sons of thunder’ in Mark 3:17. They worked with their father as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee and it was from there that Jesus calls them to leave their former lives and become his followers. If we look at John 1:35-42, it seems that their first encounter with Jesus might have been at the Jordan, but that they then returned to their fishing life before Jesus calls them in Mark 1:19 to make a permanent commitment.
Within the Twelve, John becomes one of a small inner group. Peter, James and John were the witnesses to the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5:37; the same three are present on the mountainside in Mark 9:2 when Jesus is transfigured and is joined by Moses and Elijah. Peter and John are sent by Jesus to prepare the things for the Passover meal in Luke 22:8 and, after the meal, when they are in Gethsemane, it is Peter, James and John who are asked to watch and pray.
John is a close friend to Jesus. In his own Gospel account he never names himself. He describes himself at the Last Supper in John 13:22, ’the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him’.
When Jesus was arrested and taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, John’s narrative of what happened, in John 18:15-16, is told in the third person, ‘Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in’. Had the other disciple been anyone other than John, he would have named him.
At the crucifixion, John is the only one of the Twelve who stays near Jesus, but, if we read, John 19:25-27, he again writes in the third person, ‘Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home’. Eight verses later, at the death of Jesus, John speaks of himself as a witness to the events and states his purpose in telling the story of what happened, John 19:35 says, ‘The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe’.
John is the last of the Twelve to stay with Jesus and he is the first of the Twelve to reach the empty tomb. He is with Peter on the Sunday morning when the news comes, and in John 20:3-4 we read, ‘So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.’
The Gospel account appears to end at John 20:30-31, when John writes, ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’. But there is more to come.
In John 21:2, John avoids naming himself by writing, ‘Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together’, while in John 21:7, he again refers to himself as ’the disciple whom Jesus loved’.
It is believed that John was the only one of the Twelve who did not die a martyr’s death, a tradition that comes from a conversation between Jesus and Peter. In John 21:22, Jesus says, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me’. John records Jesus’ words to Peter to explain a story that had gone around about himself, he writes in John 21:23, ‘Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’
Given that he begins his telling of the story in bold theological terms, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God, John concludes his Gospel in a very personal and understated way, there is an almost homely feel about his closing comments, it has almost the sense of a fireside chat, ‘This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down’, he says of himself in John 21:24, and, then, reflecting the view of the community to which he belonged, he writes, ‘We know that his testimony is true’. Then, in the final verse, there is a sense of John who by the time he writes his Gospel is an old man, looking back over long years, ‘Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written’.
John is present with the Apostles in the opening chapters of the Acts of the apostles and he is recognized by Saint Paul as one of the leaders of the church in Galatians 2:9, where Paul writes, ‘James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me’.
Christian tradition says that John took Mary the mother of Jesus with him and lived at Ephesus his closing years, but, being a writer who would not even name himself, he would not have wished for people to have speculated on his biographical details.
In college days, our lecturer would always urge us to read Saint John’s Gospel at two levels, to ask two questions when we read each story. The first question to be asked was ‘What is taking place?’ It dealt with the facts of the situation, those things that were apparent. The second question was, ‘What is going on?’ What meaning was there in the things that could be seen? How did these things fit into the bigger story?
Our lecturer would divide the Gospel of John into two books: the book of Works (Chapters 1-11) and the book of Words (Chapter 12-21). The miracles that John recounts, are seen from John’s long perspective not just as incidents in a story, but as deliberate signs pointing to the glory of Jesus, after the turning of the water into wine in John Chapter 2, John writes in John 2:11, ‘What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’. The miracles reveal Jesus’ glory so that people may believe. In John 12:37, John expresses disappointment that people had not seen the signs, ‘Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him’.
‘What is going on?’ and ‘What is taking place?’ are questions we have to ask ourselves. Most people can agree that we have this story, where people disagree is what this story means. Believing is about looking at the story and seeing what is going on. It is so that we might see what is going on as well as what was taking place, that John writes his Gospel, ‘that by believing you may have life in his name’.