Monday, April 17, 2023

The Climax of John's Gospel


John 20:19-31

Easter 2 /Year A

Literary scholars tell us we just heard the climactic moment of John’s gospel.  Everything written before it aims toward this dramatic conclusion.  But before I tell you what it is, let me say a little bit more about the book itself.  Written around 100 AD, it tells the story of events which happened seven decades earlier.  John is one of the few eyewitnesses still alive.  The vast majority of people in his day who call themselves Christians never met Jesus.  In fact, most were not even born yet.  They have come believe without ever seeing.

Now, it can be a little confusing when we speak of “a” gospel and “the” Gospel.  The Greek word for gospel literally means “proclamation” or “good news.”  So, when we talk about The Gospel we are referring to the Good News of God in Christ.  When we talk about a gospel we are referring to one of four written works which tell the story of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

As a literary genre these gospel books are unlike anything we typically encounter today.  A biographer today would be at pains to maintain historical accuracy and a faithful retelling of the story of a person’s life.  Gospel writers (especially John) are not as concerned with accuracy as with meaning.  One scholar notes this genre of writing is not “pure” history, but neither is it myth, fairy tale, or legend.  These books are biographical narratives which proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  And each of the four has a distinctive way of telling the story, each has a specific audience for which it is written, and, thus, each has particular purpose.

Consider what John says about his gospel in the last two sentences we heard in today’s reading:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

First, he tells us he did not set out to write about every significant thing Jesus ever did.  He picks and chooses the stories he tells in order to communicate specific truths about Jesus.  For example, the feeding for the masses indicates Jesus is the Bread of Life, giving sight to a blind man demonstrates Jesus is the Light of the World, and raising Lazarus from the dead communicates Jesus is the resurrection and the life. 

It is also helpful to make a distinction between what we call the words of Jesus and the voice of Jesus.  The words of Jesus are the things he actually said and taught; things like the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule.  The voice of Jesus are things consistent with his words, but not something he actually said.  Think about Jesus’ prayer in the garden before he is arrested.  John’s recording of this is quite complicated and detailed and yet the narrative makes clear no one is with Jesus as he prays.  Does this mean John lying or making up things?  No.  Think about how a person or church might say today, “I (or we) hear Jesus calling us to do…”  Did the actual person 2,000 years ago speak this to us?  No.  But is it the voice of Jesus; how we interpret his words in our present context and discern an authoritative pronouncement?  Yes.  And John, having firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ life and words, is in a position to have Jesus speak and teach in moments when they could not possibly be his actual words.

The second thing John tells us about his work is the purpose for it.  He does not intend to put together a precise chronology of what Jesus did.  In fact, he cares very little about timelines because he is more concerned about meaning.  So he plugs events into his narrative as he sees fit in order to support his objective, which he says is a hope the reader will come to have new life through believing Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.  John shapes historical information for the proclamation of the kingdom in order to instill and strengthen faith in his readers.

Clement of Alexandria, who died in 215 AD, taught John’s gospel was the last to be written.  He held John perceived the first three gospels had already made plan the external facts of Jesus’s life, so he, being urged by his students and inspired by the Holy Spirit, set out to write a “spiritual gospel.”  As one scholar today puts it, John “intentionally bends the conventions of ancient historiography and biography in order to convey the deeper truth of the gospel story.”

So, all of this is to say, the climax of John’s gospel is far more than a historic event.  It is pregnant with meaning and sets the entire gospel in context.  And what is this moment?  It is when Thomas, who openly doubts the disciples when they tell him the crucified Jesus has appeared to them, meets the Risen Christ and says, “My Lord and my God.”  John wants everyone of his readers to experience this same conversion and creedal faith.

And, as we noted earlier, almost all of John’s readers never have the advantage Thomas has.  None ever see the Risen Lord with his or her own eyes.  None are ever able to inspect his wounds.  So what Jesus says to Thomas John intends for his readers to hear as Jesus saying it to them as well: “Have you believed because you have seen?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I don’t know if John ever expected people to be reading his gospel 2,000 after he wrote.  But I suspect he knew it would endure past his days on earth and prayed for those who did read to come to the moment where Thomas finds himself today… having some kind of moment, some sort of encounter, some mystical experience when they – when we – when you and when I – are moved to profess “My Lord and my God.”