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FOUNDATIONS - 5 - John: The Beauty and the Agony

Posted on: March 23, 2017

The Gospel of John is unique in the Christian canon as to how it sees Jesus. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) see Jesus as the power of God for salvation. They emphasize Jesus as God’s “dynamis” or power. The Gospel of John, however, emphasizes Jesus as incarnate wisdom by using the image of the logos or word (John 1:14). Jesus is the word. This unique feature in John finds some precedent in the letters of Paul, where Christ is the wisdom of God (1:24). But Jesus as wisdom is a minority tradition in Christianity.

Unlike wisdom gospels such as Thomas or the Gospel of Truth, John made it into the Christian canon. We can ask why or how, because John did not make it without a fight. The answer is that the earliest expression of the Gospel of John had to be modified by later hands.

There are basically three somewhat independent trajectories evident in the Gospel of John, the third one being the force of canonical concern.

1. The original trajectory of John is the Gospel that speaks in the Spirit.
2. The second trajectory of John is the Gospel of signs.
3. The third trajectory of John is the Word made flesh.

Each “John” is the hand of a different redactor (editor), representing another layer of Christian tradition. The first level is that of community members who speak in the Spirit and as such believe they hold the Spirit of Jesus. They speak as if they were Jesus.

We have to imagine that the originating community of John saw Jesus as one who could speak with the authority of the Spirit such that there was no distinction between what Jesus said and what, in effect, God said. We can see this, for example, in saying such as, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:11), and “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” (15:9). Jesus in John does not represent God but expresses God; that is, the relationship is so close that Jesus speaks with the same authority. “I and the Father are one” (10:1). And, “Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father” (5:24).

What is even more astounding is that community members who believed in Jesus received the same authority. In John, the gift of Jesus to the community is the Spirit (the paraclete or Advocate at 14:26). With the power of this Spirit, the Advocate, community leaders also spoke as those who possessed the word of God. The leaders, like Jesus, are those born “from above” (3:3) and share with Jesus the Holy (living) Spirit. They can speak as Jesus: “The Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything and will call to mind all that I have told you” (14:26). Note how what they say - what they “call to mind” - will be what Jesus said. The sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John are not the sayings of the historical Jesus but the sayings of those community leaders who spoke as Jesus.
The second trajectory consists of integrating the “book of signs” (the account of the miracles of Jesus) into the community sayings. The miracles work to prove that Jesus alone has a specific relationship to God that communities members do not have. While communities members may have a share in the Spirit of Jesus, and may even speak in the name of Jesus, only the real Jesus is the sign of God. He can raise the dead because he is the life (11:25); he can multiply the loaves because he is the bread (6:35); he can turn water into wine (2:9) because he is the true vine (15:1). The second rendition of John makes sure that only Jesus is Jesus.

Finally, a third trajectory is added: Jesus is the flesh and the blood. This is both an incarnational push by the redactor and an attempt to align the Gospel with emerging orthodoxy. Jesus might be from another world, but the third edition of John makes sure he suffers in this one. This is the Jesus who is introduced in the Gospel as the word becoming flesh (1:14), as the flesh we must eat and blood we must drink (6:53). To prove the physical aspects, the resurrected Jesus is hungry for breakfast (21:12)! At this third level, John has to be bent from the spiritual to the physical, which is why this Gospel, unlike Thomas, made it into the Christian canon.

Notes for Discussion
Discuss how the community John started out as “the voice of the living Jesus,” but ended as a witness to the authority of the church. This is generally called the problem of dynamics and form: we need both in a community, but how do we manage the relationship?

Though wrapped up in Christian language, this first message of the Gospel of John is about living eternal life now. It is about entering the Spirit and becoming fully alive. This is the beauty of the Gospel of John, but why is this not often heard?

Yet life is dynamic and unpredictable. This realization sometimes leads to a desire for control. Certainly, the early church could not allow for too many spiritual people; it needed control and consistency. The agony of Gospel of John might be that the church got too carried away. John ends up not witnessing to a dynamic spirituality but to authority and control. In the end those who are not in the community and not under control as cast as outsiders, folks in the dark. Spirituality in human life can be very liberating but can also be very controlling. Discuss this ambiguity in the Gospel of John and in your experience of spirituality (however you define it).

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