I have a complicated relationship with the Gospel of John. The Jesus portrayed in this Gospel is my least favorite. He talks a lot, a whole lot. He goes on and on for pages and pages talking about himself, often repeating the same idea over and over again. And this always speaking Jesus doesn’t do much. In the other three Gospels, Jesus is a man of action—healing, teaching, casting out demons, walking from place to place. Jesus does a little of this in John, but not nearly as much.
And then there is the antisemitism of the Gospel of John. “The Jews” is a common refrain in this Gospel, like the Jewish people were all of one mind and way of seeing the world. The use of the phrase “the Jews” would lead the reader to think that all people of the Jewish faith hated Jesus, forgetting that Jesus and his followers were Jewish. The thousands of people who followed Jesus were Jewish. Jesus was seeking to address the ills in the leadership of his religion, the wealthy of his land, and in the leadership from Rome, not all Jewish people. John’s gross over-simplification of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day and time has led to centuries of horrific antisemitism. John may not have intended this outcome, but you know how the expression goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Impact matters as much as intent.
And then there are the things about the Gospel of John that I love. The opening of the Gospel of John is pure poetry.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
For me there is no better description of the mystery that is the incarnation. Whenever I read these verses or hear them read, I feel a sense of wonder and awe. . . and hope, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I don’t know about you, but I need this light in the darkness. I need this hope.
I also love John’s portrayal of Jesus’ disciples. These were very flawed individuals who were full of the same mixed-up mess of motives with which we are all filled. No super-heroes in John’s Gospel (or the other 3 for that matter). And Jesus loved this rag-tag band of people and chose them to do his work. And that is sure good news for all of us. Think you’re not good enough to do God’s work? Think again. Think that person sitting in front of you in the pew who you find absolutely annoying isn’t good enough to be loved by God? Think again. God loves all of us in our annoyingness and petty ways and God loves those who we would rather not be around too. Thank God.
If you don’t believe me, I’ll give you some examples. We have the cynic, Nathanael. In the very first chapter of John, when Jesus is calling the 12, Phillip runs to his friend Nathanael to tell him about Jesus. And what is Nathanael’s response? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Or we could talk about Thomas. When the rest of the disciples are afraid to go with Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb because the authorities are looking for Jesus, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He is brave and brash, but he doesn’t at all understand what Jesus has been trying to tell them. After Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to his disciples in the locked room, Thomas, who was not in the room, is completely skeptical about his friends’ reports of Jesus’ appearance. He says to his friends, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And Thomas is not the only one who doesn’t understand. Jesus admonishes Philip for his lack of understanding. “Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
Then there is Peter. I call him the ADHD disciple. He is full of passion and energy. He is always ready to speak and to act and he often does, usually impulsively and impetuously. Remember him at the foot washing at the Passover Meal before Jesus’ arrest? Jesus tells them all he must wash their feet. First Peter tries to stop Jesus from doing something that Peter deems beneath the dignity of his teacher. Then after Jesus explains why he must do this Peter says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Then there is Peter’s denial of his relationship with Jesus. In chapter 13 Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” But after Jesus’ arrest he sings a different tune,
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again, Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
And then there are the group dynamics that you find in any group of human beings. On several occasions we hear that the disciples are talking amongst themselves about something Jesus has said or done, but they don’t talk to him directly. When Jesus talks to the woman at the well the disciples are “astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”
In chapter 16 we see a similar story unfold:
Then some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying to us, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They said, “What does he mean by this ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’?”
And what about this beloved disciple stuff in this gospel? Let me read you the ending of this Gospel, it makes me laugh out loud every time I read it.
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them.
I’m not so sure I believe that Jesus had a favorite amongst his closest followers. I think the author of this Gospel saw himself this way and felt hugely competitive toward Peter. Look at the foot race between the “beloved disciple” and Peter to the empty tomb:
So, she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
Wow! It doesn’t get much more human than this. Even the resurrection couldn’t shake them out of their dysfunctional relationship with one another.
So, my friends, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Just as Jesus loved his friends with all their mixed-up motives and challenging behaviors, he loves us too. And just as he loves us with all our mixed-up motives and challenging behaviors, he loves those who we find challenging too. Look at our reading for today and Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Jesus isn’t trying to shame Peter by asking him if Peter loves him—three times. Jesus is trying to bring Peter back into relationship with him. Jesus is saying, “Yes, Peter you messed up. This is true. And I love you. And I have work for you to do.”
We will mess up. Others around us will mess up. And Jesus will be there calling us back into relationship with him and with each other and giving us work to do.
Jesus said to you and to me the third time, “my friends, do you love me?” we felt hurt because he said to us the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to us, “Lord, you know everything; you know that we love you.” Jesus said to us, “Feed my sheep. Amen.