In Eastertide, we take a break every year from reading our usual Gospel – in this year Luke – and turn to the Gospel of St John. Scholars often call this “the Fourth Gospel”, not just because it is after the other three canonically, but because there is a perception that this Gospel came later than the others, showing evidence of a good deal more theological reflection. There is some truth in this: “In the beginning was the Word…” is a more obviously theological opening than those of the other Gospels.
The trouble is that this perception of an added layer of theological reflection can be taken to imply that John’s Gospel is more removed from the reality of Jesus: what we are getting is not so much Christ as he really was as a consciously constructed figure, reflecting the beliefs and practices of a particular set of early Christians (the “Johannine Community”).
Yet in recent years a number of scholars have argued that the “Fourth Gospel” actually has the character of eye- witness testimony. I am increasingly convinced that Luke had read John’s Gospel, though probably Matthew and Mark had not, and that the so-called “Fourth Gospel” was based on the testimony of one of the Twelve, the one referred to in the Gospel as “the beloved disciple”, almost certainly John the son of Zebedee. He, his brother James and Peter, were Jesus’s most intimate friends, and through this testimony we are privy to some of the most personal encounters and intimate thoughts and words of Jesus.
Thus it is that in the first two Sundays after Easter we hear of their encounters with the risen Christ, and learn of the strangeness of Jesus after the resurrection. He appears suddenly in a locked room, still marked with the imprint of the nails and the spear. He is simultaneously recognisable and not when he appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, preparing barbecued fish for his friends’ breakfast. He takes St Peter off for a quiet word, inviting him by his three-fold profession of love to undo his three-fold denial, and giving him the instruction to “follow me”, even though it is to be to his own cross.
Maybe this was all invented to support the central importance of Peter and his successors; all I can say is that if I was going to make something up about the risen Christ, I would not naturally depict him still scarred by the nails, ordinary looking and yet somehow different, inviting his friends to “come and have breakfast”. The very combination of the weird and the ordinary is not an obvious thing to invent, but points to the historical reality of these events.
From the 4th Sunday of Easter onwards we go back in John’s Gospel to look at some of the distinctive teachings of Jesus in the Gospel, beginning with the figure of the Good Shepherd. It’s important to see (though not obvious from the lectionary readings) that this parable is spoken by Jesus in response to the rejection of him by many of his own people, who want to stone him as a blasphemer. His answer is that when they do kill him, it will be because he willingly dies for those he loves – “a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” – and that those who are of God’s flock will not fail to recognise him. His voice has all the hallmarks of authenticity.
It is that authentic voice of the loving shepherd leading his sheep that we hear in the remaining weeks of Eastertide. On the 5th Sunday he gives us the “new commandment” of mutual love, a love which imitates the self-sacrificing love of Christ, so that the identity of Christ’s flock will be obvious. The following week we learn that to follow Christ is to know the love of the Father, to have both Father and Son dwelling within us, and to receive the peace and assurance of the Holy Spirit. It is appropriate that this Gospel springing from Christ’s most intimate friends testifies most clearly to the intimacy of the Trinity itself. And on the last Sunday before Pentecost, we will hear from John 17 the words of the prayer that the Son offered to the Father the night before his Passion, in which he offers himself so that we may be united among ourselves in the perfect communion of Father and Son.
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