(Sermon from Jan 29th)
John’s telling of the start of Jesus’ ministry is really quite strikingly different to that of the other three accounts of Jesus’ life in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each of the other three gospels follows the baptism of Jesus with the story of his temptation in the wilderness, and then describe him starting to teach – leaving both wilderness and river Jordon behind and returning to Galilee, the region where he had grown up, and speaking in the countryside and in the synagogues, proclaiming the news of the Kingdom of God. And as he teaches, people start to follow him.
John tells the story rather differently.
To put this into context, it’s worth noting that it’s generally agreed that John’s gospel was written significantly after the other three – probably a couple of generations later, around a hundred years after the events. By the time he was writing, the Christian Church was no longer predominantly Jewish – there were believers from all sorts of backgrounds, all over the Roman Empire – you can see this in the way that John feels the need to provide translations of ‘Messiah’ and even ‘Rabbi’.
When Mark’s gospel was written, most of those who were part of the Jesus movement were Jews, many of them Galileans, some eyewitnesses or at most second-hand recipients of the story. They knew where things had taken place, and more to the point, they cared. Jesus was ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, ‘Jesus bar Joseph’.
For John’s audience the particular geographical details – and the social connotations that went with them – are less important. And for the sake of telling his story, he shifts the details, the sequence, the location, around.
It’s not “alternative facts” Sean Spicer style – John didn’t, for instance, insist that Jesus had one and a half million followers – John’s gospel rather sort of resembles the way that a small child draws a picture of a person. You know how you get a big head and tiny body and limbs – because the size reflects importance – the face, especially the eyes, the things you look at, that matter most, get drawn big, the rest drops into the background. In the same way, John’s gospel emphasises things that the author considers to be of theological importance, and allows what he considered unimportant details to be lost.
So just in this short passage, we see a couple of central theological ideas in the gospel brought to the front; things that happened later, in the telling of the other gospels, promoted to prominence, and other ideas recede.
In particular, my attention was caught by the interaction between Jesus and Simon.
You probably remember the story of Jesus giving the name ‘Cephas’ or ‘Peter’ to Simon as it’s told by Matthew – it’s near the end of the gospel. Jesus asks the disciples who they believe him to be, and Simon, reflecting on all he has seen and heard, and inspired, Jesus says, by the Spirit of God, answers “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God” – at which point Jesus declare “you will be Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”.
But here, in John’s gospel, all of those ideas come right at the start. John the Baptism has already declared Jesus to be the Son of God, the anointed one, the Lamb of God; and Jesus names Simon as Peter, the rock, at their very first meeting – before Jesus has done any teaching or healing or anything, before Simon has even had a chance to say a word. Jesus just looks at him and says “you are Simon – but you will be Peter”.
Not for John’s gospel the gradual discovery of who Jesus is, or the gradual discovery of who Simon will be. In each of the other gospels the disciples slowly come to better understand who Jesus is, and what it means (an understanding that really doesn’t kick in until after his resurrection). And there’s a sense, too, of Jesus coming to know who the disciples are; realising the Judas is going to be the one to betray him, that Simon, the impulsive but passionate fisherman will be the solid foundation of his movement.
In John’s gospel Jesus just knows. He knows Simon, and knows that he will be Peter. In the very next passage he will meet Nathaniel, and declare, before Nathaniel even speaks “here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit”.
For the author, Jesus’ divinity is up there, at the front, as a given. It’s declared in the poetry of the prologue, it’s clear to John the Baptist, it’s evident in Jesus’ “just knowing”.
And I think it’s quite striking that the closer that the gospel writers were to the events, the more human Jesus seems in their accounts, the more the true nature of Jesus is portrayed as something to be discovered, something that emerges through his life, his teaching, his compassion, his wisdom, his miracles, and, ultimately, his death and resurrection.
For John, it’s a given. His people know who Jesus was; he was telling them what it meant.
And once again, I’m left thinking how fortunate it is that have more than one account.
For it seems to me that both of these accounts, both of these trajectories of faith, as it were, are true to our experience of faith.
Sometimes our faith seems to start from the end. We just know that God is there, God is real, and that in Jesus, God has become present, become, for want of a better word, accessible to us. We start where John starts – with a sense that Jesus is the answer, and the desire to work out what that might mean. We see this trajectory in Saul; dramatically converted on the Damascus road, suddenly aware of just who Jesus really was, and then spending his next years understanding the implications of that moment of revelation.
But other times, our faith is more of a journey of discovery. Fascinated by the man Jesus, we hear his teaching, read of his life, resonate with the wisdom of the Kingdom of God that he proclaims, and gradually, as for the first disciples, a sense grows in us that he is more than just a man, until somehow we come face to face with the mystery of God incarnate. This is the path of the first disciples, slowly recognising in the face of their friend something more than just a Rabbi.
Whichever is you – or, perhaps you’re a combination of both – as we enter into a New Year, in which who knows what we will face as a community, as families, as individuals, hear the words with which Jesus replied to the tentative enquiry of Andrew, who didn’t even know what he wanted to ask Jesus, so just blurted out the first thing that came to his mind – “where are you staying?”
And Jesus answered him, as he also did, and still does:
Come and see.