We are beginning the new year with a new series, and from here until Easter, we will be working through the Gospel of John. We’ll be taking a chapter a week for the next twelve weeks, and then we’ll speed things up to cover the remaining nine chapters, which tell the passion story from final supper to empty tomb, across Holy Week and Easter Weekend. Those on the reading rota will be pleased to know that we won’t hear the whole of each chapter each week, just a selection from it, but I do encourage you to go away and read the chapter for yourself to fill in the blanks. And if you want to go deeper, you are welcome to use the commentaries and books on John which are now at the back of the church.
It’s quite an investment to spend the next three months or so journeying with one book, so before I invite you to come on this exploration with me, I want to say a little about why I’ve chosen this path. First, we have just celebrated Jesus’ birth, and sooner than we realise we will remember his death and resurrection, so this seems a good time to reflect on his life and ministry, not just to connect the gaps between Christmas and Easter, but to recognise how important that bit in the middle really is. Second, I very quickly learnt two lessons when I started studying theology - the gospels each have their own flavour, which you can only really appreciate when you spend time with them individually; and familiar texts can surprise no matter how many times you’ve read them, so it is good to return to them. These may be lessons you have already learned and don’t need to learn again, but they still seem a good basis for a sermon series. Third, I studied the fourth gospel in depth during my theology degree, and I really loved it. I hope I can share some of that enthusiasm - some of what I found interesting and enriching - with you.
It might be helpful to start with a quick introduction to the gospel. It has long been attributed to a writer called John, who has traditionally been understood to be the beloved disciple who claims to be the author in the final verses of the gospel, but that is never explicity stated in gospel itself. One theory among scholars is that it was in fact written by what has come to be known as the Johannine community, a group of early Christians which included and was perhaps led by the beloved disciple, who may or may not have been called John. This still makes it an early and close record of Jesus' life and ministry, based on the testimony of an eye witness, but the fact that there is some degree of uncertainty around its authorship is why some scholars speak of the fourth gospel and the fourth evangelist, rather than using John's name. That's a habit which I have picked up, so if you spot me using those terms, you now know what they mean and why I am using them.
By its own admission, the gospel is the edited highlights of Jesus’ ministry - in the final chapter, the author declares that "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." It seems so obvious but it is worth remembering, especially as it goes some way to explaining why the fourth gospel is so markedly different to the other three gospels, which have far more in common and are collectively known as the synoptic gospels - the author simply chose different highlights. Most scholars think fourth gospel was the last to be written, so perhaps the author knew the synoptics and there is a sense of them filling in the gaps. A later date would also explain why the fourth gospel seems to have a more developed theology, with key themes around light vs dark and physical world vs eternal life woven throughout.
The fourth gospel also has a higher christology than the other gospels, by which I mean that it makes bolder claims about his divine nature, presenting Christ more clearly as an image of God in flesh. This is apparent right from start, as the gospel opens with what is commonly called the prologue - “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. It is a great poem celebrating the incarnation, insisting upon Christ’s divinity but also affirming his humanity. We won’t be focusing on that part of chapter one today, in part because we have just celebrated the incarnation over Christmas, but I couldn’t skip it completely because it is an important reminder that the incarnation is not just for Christmas, but is one of the foundations of our faith. At the heart of our creeds and our teaching and our worship is the belief that God pitched their tent among us, for that is literal meaning of verb we often translate as "dwelt". As I said a few weeks ago, that is epicentre of my faith - it rocks and reshapes everything around it.
(The other bit of this chapter which we will be skimming over is the ministry of John the Baptist, the wild man of the desert who proclaimed the coming of the messiah and baptised people as a sign of the renewal of their faith. I think folk would have described John as eccentric if they were being polite. With his rough clothes and his unusual diet and his passionate message, he must have cut quite an extraordinary figure, but his commitment to his call was absolute, and challenges us to live with similar commitment.)
The passage we did focus on was John 1:35-51, the first disciples. For this passage, I want to take a few points that caught my attention, and pose a few questions that I hope will catch your imagination. But first, I want to note a particular feature of the writing in this gospel, which is the author's habit of explaning themself. “Rabbi, which means teacher”, “Messiah, which means Christ”, and so on. This translation of Jewish terms into Greek equivalents suggests that the author anticiapted at least some Greek speaking readers, and ought to act as a reminder that the gospel was always trying to get to a wider audience, because it was always expansive and inclusive, and there should be no barriers to hearing or understanding it. That means that it is important that all our teaching and preaching is careful about its use of theological jargon, so please pull me up on it. If I use a word or a phrase you don't recognise, or something just doesn't make sense, please do ask me about it
I wanted to focus on the call of the first disciples in this first week because that call echoes down the centuries to us. We too are called, to adventure through this gospel and to be disciples. A disciple is one who believes and passes on, who follows and then calls in turn, and this to and fro between being one who is invited and one who invites is integral to what it means to be a follower of Christ. We see that immediately in the passage - I may speak of the call of the disciples, but it is not so straightforward here as in the other gospels, where Jesus seems to handpick his team by approaching them and inviting them to follow him. The first two disciples come to him, the third is brought by one of them, and the fifth is dragged along by fourth, with only Philip being approached first by Jesus. With this variety in how the disciples come to Jesus, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Jesus draws his disciples to him through whatever means is most appropriate. He still does that. I came to faith through growing up in the church and an instinctive sense that it all made sense, but my husband found it as a teenager through friends and an itch to answer some questions that life hadn’t so far. I wonder, what is your story?
I find it fascinating that the disciples begin to call others even before they have been commissioned to do so. They do it by instinct because they want others to see what they see. There can be a certain squeamishness about evangelism, but I think that is because we make too much of it more often than it is because we make too little of it. It’s not about convincing or converting, but just saying “come and see”, simply offering an invitation. That could be an invitation to church or it could be an invitation into a conversation or new way of thinking. I am certainly not a natural evangelist, but I do try to live with an openness and authenticity about my faith, which does occasionally spark some interest and open the way for an invitation to be offered. It's amazing where a simple question about your day can lead, if you are only willing to talk about where God was in that day. I wonder, who could you invite?
I also find the encounter between Jesus and the disciples of John really interesting. They don’t ask who he is or what he is teaching but where he is staying. I'm not sure it is the first thing I would think to ask, and I have puzzled over it. I think perhaps they just wanted to get to know him, to spend time with him, because that is just what we are told happens, as they spend the rest of the day together. I wonder what happened in that time, as after a few hours they are convinced he is the Messiah. We can assume it was nothing too showy, as Jesus' first miracle doesn't happen until the next chaper, so it must have been something about his words and his presence. There is something quite thrilling and yet absolutely mundane about the idea of hanging out with Jesus for an afternoon. The film Dogma has some unorthodox theology, but I have always been struck by the idea, as expressed by Rufus the thriteenth disciple, that Jesus just loved to listen, to be in the presence of his friends. I wonder, how would you spend afternoon with Jesus?
The call of Philip comes very simply with just two words, follow me. When I googled the world 'follow', looking for an image for this week's newsheet, the first dozen or so images were the Facebook follow button. I have had social media accounts since I was fourteen, so I am reasonaly immersed in that world - although please don't ask me to explain Snapchat - and there following is a sign of interest or support, perhaps even loyalty. That not what is being asked here though. This is following as real commitment, and yet Philip doesn't hesitate. He can't have know what the next three years with Jesus would have involved, or how their time together would end and launch him into something else entirely, as he helped spread the gospel and build the church, and yet he followed. We can't know what following Jesus will mean either - ministry was certainly never in my plan, although I am glad it was in God’s - and yet we too are invited to follow him. I wonder, are you prepared to follow, wherever that will take you?
Nathanael is more cynical than the others. It doesn't make sense to him that the Messiah would come from Galilee, and yet he comes to believe because Jesus saw him under the fig tree. It doesn’t seem much, but Nathanael takes it as a sign, so perhaps it means more than we know. Later in the gospel, Jesus criticises the crowds for only believing on account of miracles, and perhaps some of that same criticism is implied in his words to Nathanael. Jesus seems frustrated with the need for proof. It’s a slightly frustrating aspect of his character, to be perfectly honest because it feels very natural to look for certainty, and Jesus himself says in the other three gospels that we must love God with all our mind, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to want faith to satisfy reason and intellect. And of course if we are granted a sign or a miracle it is natural that it should lead to faith, and we shouldn’t be ashamed or chastised if that is part of our story. I'm not sure Jesus really is trying to shame or chastise though. I think his grumbling is meant to be a reminder that signs and miracles aren't part of everyone’s story, so we mustn't rely on them, and we must also love God with all our heart and soul and strength, which means not only listening to our brains but also being willing to go with our guts, which I have long learnt means being able to live with unanswered questions and mysteries. I wonder, why do you believe?
The chapter ends with a striking promise to Nathanael - “You shall see heaven opening and angels ascending and descending on the son of man”. The image recalls Jacob’s vision at the place he then called Bethel, or House of God, and it is an image of the presence of God on earth. We don’t know if Nathanael ever did see this vision in any literal sense, but in three years with Jesus he certainly experienced heaven touching earth and earth reaching back to heaven, which is what the presence of Jesus as God-with-us promised and realised. And I don't know about you, but I have never seen heaven open or angels ascending and descending, but I have certainly felt the gap between heaven and earth disappear, in moments of pure joy and peace and love. I wonder, when have you felt heaven and earth meet?
Perhaps there is a phrase or a question that particularly jumped out at you, that you might continue to ponder in quiet moments this week. If I can leave you with anything, let it be the words of Christ - "come and see" and "follow me". It might be that this is the first time you have heard those words addressed to you, or it might be that you're still not sure what to do with them or what they have to do with you, or it might be that you have been seeing and following for a long time. No matter where you are, please hear that those words are for you, and there is always more to be seen and new places to follow into. May we learn more about what that might mean as we journey through this gospel together in the coming weeks.