This is the last of our series of reading the Gospels together. Because of vacation, there will be no posted sermons for the next two weeks, after which we will return to the Lectionary.
Study Guide for John, Chapters 20 and 21
“The Easter narratives of the Fourth Gospel are both like and unlike those of the other Gospels. The differences are most intriguing. One obvious difference is the way our evangelist fixes our attention not on groups of disciples but on a very few individual persons: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, and Thomas. By narrating the experiences of these early followers of Jesus, the evangelist parses the meaning of faith in the resurrected Jesus as “Lord and God.” ( R.H. Smith, Wounded Lord).
The Beloved Disciple: This person shows up at the Last Supper leaning on Jesus’ breast. He becomes more and more an important personage in the concluding chapters of this Gospel. Is he the eyewitness who steps outside the narrative at the crucifixion, or the one who claims to write “these things” that we may believe?
Personal Appearances: John gives us the detailed stories of the reactions of two specific people to the empty tomb. Mary goes and tells the news and Peter and ‘the one whom Jesus loved’ have a foot race. Who believes in Jesus’ resurrection just from the empty tomb?
We also have two personal conversations with Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas. What do these conversations have in common?
As the Father has sent me: There is no Pentecost story in John’s narrative as there is in the second volume of Luke’s. Might this ‘commissioning’ take it’s place? What makes you think so?
Unless I see: What is it Thomas wants to confirm? What difference does it make? What is it that makes Thomas confess so powerfully, “My Lord and my God?”
Now Jesus did many other signs: This seems like a perfect conclusion to John’s message. Any ideas why there’s another chapter after this?
Through believing you might have life: This is the reason why the Evangelist has put this narrative on paper. What other Evangelists tell you why they have written the account that is before you?
By the Sea in Tiberias: The accounts of Jesus’ appearance in John were in Jerusalem. In the Synoptics, the disciples are told to meet Jesus in Galilee. Now this ‘extra’ ending takes place in Galilee, in their familiar fishing grounds.
Showed himself again…in this way: How many disciples are fishing? Is this catch of fish after a night of catching nothing another ‘sign?’ Can you think of what this ‘draft of fishes’ might signify?
It is the Lord! Other Gospels have emphasized the confession of Simon Peter recognizing that Jesus is the Messiah. In this Gospel, others have confessed Jesus’ God-ship. Who? Could this be another example of the different sources for the traditions brought to John’s Gospel?
The net was not torn: Parallel to “that none may be lost?” There is no Eucharist at Jesus final meal with his friends in John. Read about this meal on the shore; are there Eucharistic elements here?
Feed my sheep: The Good Shepherd confers something special on this fisherman. Does this story seem ‘tacked on’ to you? Why or why not? Why do you think it might be important?
The rumor spread in the community: Another odd story? Was the Beloved Disciple’s community struggling to understand how to continue in the face of the death of their leader? Other ideas?
This is the disciple: He has revealed Jesus who is close to the Father’s heart, as this disciple is close to Jesus’ heart. Just as Jesus is the final ‘exegete,’ revealer, of God as Word, so this disciple has revealed to us the Word that he experienced so we could experience it also.
September 30, 2012
John 20: 1-10; 26-29; 30-31 and 21:1-6; 9-13; 24-25
Read John 20:1-10
“For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.”
While I was in Biloxi, I was graciously invited to text study with a few area pastors. I got into a big argument with the Episcopal priest whose church had been wiped completely off the map for the second time: once in Camille in 1969 and then again in Katrina. He wanted to suggest that Jesus had risen again in the presence of the community who felt his promised spiritual presence among them and became the beloved community that went on to change the world. I argued rather for a physical resurrection, what I believe the Gospels go out of the way to demonstrate for us both by the stories of his appearances and by the effect it had on the community as witnessed in the story of Pentecost and the preaching of the disciples.
But maybe John is right. Maybe it is too hard to understand the scriptures without the physical body of Jesus right in front of you. And so, the testimony of John’s Gospel is to dispel once and for all time the doubt that God could really be among us as living flesh and at the same time as truly God. And that as such, Jesus would go out of his way to answer all questions. John makes it clear that outside experts confirmed Jesus’ death, and that Jesus was physically placed in the tomb by people whose names were known in the community. Now he tells us through witnesses that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was really seen by named people.
Read John 20:24-29
Mary has already met Jesus outside the tomb, “in a garden,” the Evangelist is quick to remind us. Then the disciples meet Jesus who appears in a locked room to show them his wounds and breathes his Spirit on them, commissioning them to be the leaders of the new community gathered in his name. Thomas will not be convinced that it is the crucified Jesus until he is able “put my fingers in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.” “Do not be doubting but believing” says Jesus. God could, of course, have claimed a victory over sin and death by means of a decree, or could have made us perfect, offering us no choice but to be everything that God requires. But God did not. The outstanding proof that God loves sinners is that God came to conquer death and evil in person, through the cross and self-giving love. “The Thomas story announces that the universe is upheld in wounded hands of unimaginably deep love and compassion,” says Robert Smith.
Read John 20: 30-31
Luke told us at the beginning of his Gospel why he took it upon himself to write this narrative: “I, too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
Now John tells us that the particular ‘signs’ he related in the preceding chapters “are written so that you may come to believe…and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
This has been John’s agenda through the whole Gospel. He wants us to know something really critical to our belief. He is not offering a reasoned argument, because the evidence he offers is not scientific data. And he is not just offering us a story of something that happened a long time ago, so that we can believe that Jesus’ followers believed him. The Gospel writers offer us the presence of God’s Spirit inspiring the words that go onto the page. That Spirit is the one Jesus promised to send to remind us, to open the truth to us, to confront us with a Word that is the very presence of Jesus himself reaching through this story into our hearts that we too may know the truth. In his meeting with Thomas, Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We, like those who received the words of the apostolic preachers and the Gospel writers, have been touched by Jesus ourselves. We have experienced in our own lives that presence that reminds us that we are loved and sought and restored by God.
Read 21: 1-6
Suddenly, after what seems like the perfect conclusion to the whole book, we have another ending tacked on. Scholars love to speculate about how that happened and what the function may have been. I approach this weirdness as I approach all the other strange repeats in scripture: appreciating the careful handling of those into whose hands documents and stories were entrusted and who were inspired to write the final narratives, and trusting the Spirit present in the church that received them and found that they were important assurances of God’s love and mercy for the communities that preserved them for us. And so the second ending gives us the marvelous story of this great catch after a night of empty work. In a way it parallels the story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes for a crowd of 5,000 people.
Read John 21: 9-14.
John’s Gospel does not tell us about the meal that was shared on Jesus last night with his friends, and so there is no Eucharist story at that time. Actually, I almost like this one better. As they come up out of the boat, after a night of fishing with no success, Jesus is cooking them breakfast. “Jesus came and took the bread and give it to them, and did the same with the fish.” In the most ordinary circumstances, Jesus came to bless and feed them. This is most likely a time after his appearances in Jerusalem to the gathered disciples. The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus met his disciples in Galilee, and here they are, at home, getting ready to go it on their own. Jesus has already ‘breathed’ on them, and given the authority to be the church. This story of the remarkable in the ordinary can sustain them through all the hard times and joyous times to come. It can sustain us, too.
Read 21: 24-25.
Our eyewitness appears at the end of this long narrative to tell us that we can trust his story, even as he tells us that he has had to contain it because there is not enough time or paper to tell it all. But we already know that. We have our own stories of Jesus’ presence in our lives, in our gathering, in answers to prayers, and in the future we trust.
I hope our time together reading these Gospel narratives has encouraged you to think of your own experiences of Jesus and the stories you tell your children and grandchildren about your faith, about what you know and believe and how that is the foundation for a life that knows no end.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.