A Sermon for Sunday, 21st May 2023
‘So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.’ John 17:5
Saint John’s Gospel is a favourite for people who enjoy Scripture as literature, particularly those who enjoy the Seventeen Century language of the King James Version. For those who try to understand the meaning of scripture for daily life, Saint John is not so accessible.
Why is Saint John so different from the other three Gospels? Perhaps there are words from more recent literature that can help thinking about what it is that John tries to say to hi readers.
It may seem odd to reflect on those words of Jesus from Saint John Chapter 17 using words from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but they are words that can help us understand the way the accounts of the life of Jesus develop.
In the play, the character Guildenstern reflects on the human tendency to rationalise away the unexpected, to tend to find ordinary explanations for extraordinary events:
A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until – “My God,” says the second man, “I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn.” At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are, the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience… “Look, look” recites the crowd. “A horse with an arrow in its forehead! It must have been mistaken for a deer.”
Stoppard suggests that the more familiar a story becomes, the more the story is reduced to something that is rational and commonplace. An extraordinary moment is gradually explained as somethin ordinary.
Traditionally, Bible scholars have suggested that the four gospels were written in the order Mark, Matthew, Luke, John.
The writings of Saint Mark are the least sophisticated of the four, while those of Saint John have a high degree of theological and philosophical complexity.
Does that order accord with the human experience identified by Tom Stoppard, where the radical claims in any story are slowly reduced to the everyday and the ordinary?
In the 1960s, the radical liberal English bishop John Robinson argued for the priority of Saint John, he believed its far-reaching claims about the cosmic significance of Jesus came from the early times of the church, and that the other gospels, with their less far-reaching theological claims, came later.
One does not need to concur with the ideas of Bishop Robinson to see that tere is logic in such argument. The extraordinary becomes the ordinary, the cosmic becomes Earthly. It is the process of a unicorn becoming a horse.
Whether or not John is the first or the fourth gospel written, the downplaying of the significance of Jesus facilitated the rise in the power of the church. The church developed its own rules on how people were to achieve salvation, and they did not have the simplicity of what Jesus taught his disciples in Saint John.
‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent,’ said Jesus in saint John Chapter 17 Verse 3.
‘No, no, no,’ said the church, ‘this cannot be so, salvation cannot be so simple.’
For the church, eternal life could only be mediated through adherence to church teachings, through acceptance of sacraments controlled by the church, through submission to disciplines imposed by the church. The church declared that outside the church there was no salvation. The church said it was right because it had decided itself that it was right.
Whether Saint John was the first Gospel or the fourth Gospel, Christians need a sense of the radical, cosmic Jesus, who speaks to them in straightforward terms, otherwise the claims he makes are lost in a tangle of theology.
It is too easy to turn a unicorn into a horse.
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