January 19, 2020, 2 Epiphany, Charles D. Mayer
Throughout the three-year cycle of lectionary readings, each of which is built around one of the Synoptic Gospels, there are Sundays that depart from the Synoptic Gospel – this year it is Matthew – and bring us a text from the Gospel of John. So, we never get a chance to follow John through week after week for an entire year. I sometimes regret this, though there is good reason for it. But what it does for us is require us to make sure that when we have a passage from John, we don’t miss the opportunity to explore it deeply, so that over the years we may develop as deep a sense of this gospel as we have of the other three.
Biblical scholars tend to think of a “Johannine community” – a very specific group within the early Jesus movement that developed a distinctive brand of faith, if you will. This community produced the Gospel of John and the three Epistles of John, as well, over a period of 30-plus years – from the 70s to as late as 110 AD. These Jesus followers were Jews who had an anti-temple bias and understood Jesus primarily against a Mosaic rather than a Davidic background. So, they believed, “Jesus had been with God, whom he had seen and whose word he brought down to this world” (Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 374). We hear this belief in the words attributed to John the Baptist in today’s gospel: “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me” (Jn. 1:30b) – that is, because he preexisted. This high, preexistence Christology was a hallmark of the Johannine believers, and caused them eventually to be expelled from synagogues because they were thought to be turning Jesus into a second God. It appears that a cohesive community then moved out of Palestine to the diaspora, possibly to the area around Ephesus, to teach Gentiles their version of faith in Jesus (Brown, p. 375).
There were some who were extreme enough that they cared very little about the human life and teachings of Jesus, or even its implications for human behavior: all that mattered was belief in Jesus’ divinity. Thankfully, though, there were others in the community who stressed the humanity of Jesus along with his divinity and insisted on the importance of ethical behavior (we see this clearly in the 1st and 2nd Epistles of John) (Brown p. 376). Eventually, those with this more balanced view prevailed, and this allowed the distinctiveness of Johannine Christianity to be included in the larger life of the Church.
Thank goodness for this, because our Christian theological tradition would be far less rich without it – as would our Christian spiritual tradition. The high preexistence Christology of Johannine theology is no mere abstraction; it is tied directly to the deep, mysterious experience that Jesus, human as he certainly was, is also the Christ: the One we know deep within our souls to have been present at Creation as the Divine Word of God. This deep experience is the spiritual legacy of Johannine Christianity; we wouldn’t have words for it without John’s Gospel and the Epistles of John. When John the Baptist shouts out “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36), he is giving voice to the part of each of us that recognizes in Jesus someone completely unique in the history of the world: the human who is God’s own Son, in whom we know God personally.
There’s a word that occurs twice in our gospel lesson today that is one of John’s favorites: in today’s passage it is rendered in English as “remain” – later on in the gospel, more famously, it is translated as “abide.” Listen again to John the Baptist’s words:
“I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (John 1:32-33).
Again, this vocabulary is unique to the Johannine community. The point is to make it very clear that Jesus is not just a charismatic prophet, filled on occasion with the Spirit; “[h]e is the permanent bearer of the Spirit, and his life carries the quality, knowledge, and power which that implies” (Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year C, p. 89). This idea that the Spirit remains or abides permanently with Jesus is one way of making concrete why we experience Jesus uniquely: no-one else bears the Holy Spirit in this way. And there is more: John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus gives this same Spirit to his followers, which ties us inseparably to him spiritually. So yes, the Christian life is a life of obedient discipleship, which is a clear takeaway from the Synoptic Gospels. But a life like that, by itself, can feel distant from Jesus. We need John’s Gospel, too, to understand that not only do we obey Jesus, but we are tied inseparably to him (Christian Year C, p. 89).
Abide with me. Jesus lover of my soul. What a friend we have in Jesus. We wouldn’t have this language without the Johannine tradition. When our hearts leap with the knowledge that prayer has been answered – that’s experience shaped by Johannine spirituality. When we are confirmed in a sense that a path forward has been illuminated for us – that’s Johannine spirituality. Indeed, it is probably not a stretch to say that much of what we think of as Christian spirituality derives from the Johannine tradition.
To say it all another way: John’s Gospel is the right brain balancing the left brain of the Synoptic Gospels, the non-linear experiential world balancing the linear world of narrative and
teaching. And as the tradition of Christianity was forming, a sense of the equal importance of both prevailed. It’s truly an amazing story. There’s nothing that demonstrates better that the Spirit of God was at work in the formation of the Canon of Scripture than the fact that the writings of the Johannine Community were not left out.
As we observe the holiday weekend in memory of Dr. King, the importance of Johannine spirituality is worth remembering. To remember Dr. King is to remember that we have a lot of work to do: faithful, obedient work for justice modelled after the life and teachings of Jesus. Never before in human history has this work been more urgent, and never before has there been so much work to do so quickly.
But as we observed earlier, this work of disciplined obedience can sometimes cause us to feel distant from Jesus. We can lose touch with our deepest selves. The harder we work, the more in danger we are of having this experience. It can be punishing and exhausting, and can lead to emptiness and depression.
A hundred years ago, when I was a newly-ordained Methodist pastor, a senior colleague of mine picked up that I was so exhausted that burn-out was not far behind, and he said something to me that has stayed with me ever since: “Charlie, the cross has already been occupied.” We need to take time for the Johannine side of Christian life: to be loved and nourished in our inseparable relationships with the Christ who brings us close to God. When we allow ourselves this side of Christian experience, we can work hard, and know when we have worked hard enough.
“Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The surprise and delight that God is in our midst, seeking closeness with each one of us, can renew us each day of our lives, giving us grace and strength for the work at hand. May it be so for each of us.