Category Archives: John

Prologue of John’s Gospel

Frank Crouch and I are teaching the Gospel of John in the Sojourners Class of Central Moravian Church this year. Come join us at 10 a.m. Sunday mornings in the CE building at Central in Bethlehem, PA. I thought I would repost the lessons I put up on the blog several years ago when I taught John at Home Church.

The Prologue as Poetry:        That was just a reminder that in poetry and prose, it is important that the style match the subject matter. It is good that the style of the prologue to John’s Gospel matches the dignity of its message. Let me read the opening lines in Greek so that you can get a sense of its poetic qualities. There is little doubt that the opening verses of the Gospel of John were originally a poem or even a hymn that was sung in the church founded by the Beloved Disciple. We do not know for sure when the hymn was written. We don’t even know if the hymn is older or more recent than the rest of the Gospel. It is possible that the evangelist chose or composed this hymn to express in summary form the themes of his book, but it is just as likely that a later editor, perhaps a student, added this beautiful hymn to his master’s gospel story.             

One thing is clear to most readers of the opening hymn. Someone inserted statements in it that were not there originally. These parenthetical statements read like prose rather than poetry. They are explanatory insertions that deal with two main topics. One is the relationship of Jesus to John the Baptist and the other the relationship of Jesus to the Jews. We will see that these are important themes throughout the Gospel, but the parentheses do detract from the beauty and meaning of the original hymn. I am going to read the prologue today without the insertions using the translation of Raymond Brown, who was the leading Johanine scholar in America in the 20th century. 

Beginning:      The Gospel of Mark opens with the phrase: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” In contrast, John’s Gospel begins with an echo of the grand opening of the book of Genesis, the first of the five books of the Law, which we call the Pentateuch. “In the beginning God created…” You may recall from a year ago that the opening lines of the Hebrew Bible may be translated several ways. It could even be translated “When God began to create the heavens and the earth,” but the Greek of John’s Gospel is not ambiguous. It is referring to the beginning of time and creation itself. The Word was with God before the visible world was crafted by God.            

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, and Luke includes a genealogy that goes back to Adam, but John’s vision is much larger than simply the history of Jesus’ family or even the human race. His account of the life of Jesus begins with creation itself. Christ has cosmic significance for John, and his work of redemption involves the whole order of the universe. That is a bold claim and this verse would become a lynchpin of orthodox Christian doctrine. Without this prologue Christian teaching on Jesus might have developed in quite different ways.

Logos:             One of the most difficult words to translate in the New Testament is the simple word “Word” here in the Prologue. The Greek word islogos. Nowhere else in Scripture is Jesus called the Logos or Word of God, except in the Book of Revelation. Even in the Gospel of John, this phrase is not used except for the Prologue. Even so, the logos would become one of the most important ways in which the early church understood Jesus.  

           It is a very important word, but there is no consensus on how to translate the logos. Normally it is simply translated as “word,” which is how Jewish scribes in Alexandria translated the Old Testament idea of the ‘word of God’ into Greek. In Greek, the Old Testament prophets spoke the logos of God. Certainly, the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament, and he may have used logos in the sense of the “Word of the Lord” as spoken by the biblical prophets. That appears to be the way Christ is seen in as the Word in Revelation. If this in the case, the prologue of John becomes a little more manageable. Jesus is simply a divine profit doing God’s will on earth.   

         But there are reasons to suspect that the author of the Gospel meant more than this by using the word logos. The logos here is seen as an important part of the work of God in creation. It is likely the author had in mind the idea of the logos as rational speech and thought from Greek philosophy. It is the “word” by which we understand the universe in which we live. The English word “logic” is based on the Greek word logos.Logos also supplies the root of all those “ologies” that you see in college catalogs: Psychology, Sociology, Geology, Pathology. We use “ology” to mean “the study of” something, but that means that we use words to make sense of something. For the Greeks, science and philosophy rely on the logos.   

         According to some schools of Greek philosophy, the cosmos was formed through the logos. In this sense, logos means the natural order of the universe. The reason that the ancient scientists could calculate the circumference of the Earth and predict future eclipses was because they believed that the universe makes sense. It works by cosmic laws of order. The universe is logical, they said, because it was formed by the Logos. We do not know if the author of John meant to say that the rational order of the universe was in the beginning with God, but the early readers of this Gospel certainly read it that way. In the beginning was the rationality of God. This became an important part of Christian theology.

Sophia:            There is a way to bring together the Greek understanding of the logos and the Hebrew idea of the creative and prophetic word of God, and that is the idea of divine Wisdom. In Proverbs 8:22-36 we have a poem to divine wisdom, which in Greek was called Sophia. “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.” The poem goes on to say that Sophia was with God as he crafted each part of the earth and skies. The parallels between Proverbs 8 and John 1 have been noted since the 3rd century, and there have been those who have read John 1 as saying, “In the beginning was Wisdom.” Since Sophia is a feminine word in Greek, in recent years feminist theologians have read the Prologue as saying, “In the beginning was Sophia.” But that is probably straying too far from the actual text. The author could have said that quite easily in Greek, but he chose to say logos. So we are left with the rich and stimulating ambiguity of the phrase “In the beginning was the Word.” The key point is that this was God’s creative word: the word that spoke the worlds into being in Genesis.

The Word was God:               For more than seventeen hundred years scholars have discussed and debated the meaning of logos, but that is only the beginning of the issues related to the Prologue. This hymn to Christ goes on to say that the Word was “with God” and “was God.” It seems so simple, but each of those phrases has all sorts of translation difficulties, most of which are too complicated for a Sunday morning. Part of the problem is the preposition, which originally meant to approach something or to face something. By John’s time, it often meant to accompany someone in the sense of going with someone. The early commentators on John’s gospel were not sure how to interpret this little phrase. Did it mean that the Word accompanied God in the act of creation? Or did it mean that the Word contemplated and worshiped God as he created? Does it refer to an eternal relationship between God and the Word? One thing we can determine is that the relationship of the Word and God was there before humans were created. The Word is in a special relationship to God.

Was God:      That alone is a mind-expanding concept for the opening verse of the story of Jesus, but the Prologue goes further. “And the Word was God.” This has even more difficulties in translation because the Greek word for God here, theos, does not have a definite article. Some people have translated this as “The Word was a god,” which raises all kinds of difficulties, and is unlikely to say the least. Some have rendered this verse as “The Word was divine” (Raymond Brown, Gospel of John, vol. 1,, 5), but the author of John could have said that directly. The intention of the phrase does seem to be that the Word was what God is. Curiously, the phrase actually places the word God first. 

Creation:        In saying that the Word was God, this does not mean that the Word is no longer God or that the Word no longer exists. It is saying that the divine nature of the Word was from the very beginning. Part of the artistry of this hymn is that it builds like a staircase, perhaps a spiral staircase, so that the repetition of key ideas adds to the overall effect rather than distracting from it. The role of the Word in creation is clarified in verse 3. “All things came into being through him.” If the Word was God from the beginning, then it makes sense that the Word was part of God’s creative activity in the beginning.  

           There are parallels to the prologue of John in other hymns to Christ in the New Testament. The most famous are found in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1. These hymns all address a common theme. Christ is the true image of God who existed from the beginning and who came to earth in human form. Like John’s prologue, Colossians speaks of all things being made through Christ. In this light, it is particularly interesting that one of the earliest references to Christianity from a non-Christian source is a letter from Pliny to the emperor Trajan in 117 AD. He refers to people who sing hymns to Christ “as to a god.” There is also a collection of 2nd century Christian hymns called the Odes of Solomon that express similar themes. In recent years it has become popular to say that the church proclaimed Jesus as divine in the 4th century, but the truth is that by the end of the 1st century the followers of Jesus viewed him as the Word of God in human flesh. 

Trinity:            From 200 AD to 500 AD the church had many battles over how to express the divinity of Christ. We don’t need to go into all of those fights this morning, but it is important to recognize that the fights concerned how Christ was divine, not whether he was divine. Over time, the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated and approved by church councils. The doctrine attempts to clarify the relationship and work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. According to orthodox teaching, all three are God yet each is distinct. For the most part theologians and worshipers alike have viewed the Father as the Creator and the Son as the Redeemer, but the Gospel of John was written before the great councils. It was an important resource for the theologians of the Church, but John’s gospel does not separate the work of the Father and Son. For those accustomed to the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, it is a bit of a shock to read the Prologue of John where the Word is the Creator.     

        We’ll keep coming back to the question of the relationship of the Father and the Son in John’s Gospel, but the important point for today is that the all things were created through the Word of God. It might interest Moravians to learn that for about 100 years, Moravian liturgies, catechisms, and hymns consistently held to the perspective of John’s Gospel that Christ was the Creator as well as the Redeemer. 

Jesus:             It is important for us to recognize, however, that the Gospel of John does not proclaim that Jesuswas the Creator. It was the Word that was with God and was God, not the human being Jesus of Nazareth. When we refer to the “pre-existent” Christ, we are speaking of twin aspects of the Son of God. One is that the Word or the Son or the Christ, whatever term you prefer, existed prior to the person Jesus who was born on a specific day during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The Word or Son became incarnate in Jesus, but the incarnation marked a new phase of history. Thus, we should not look for Jesus in the Old Testament, but Christians may see traces of the Son of God in the ancient Scriptures.

Life:    This is a lot of theology in just three verses of an ancient hymn, and we should not push things too far. This is the language of praise and worship, not philosophy or science, and the following verses give insight into why we should praise the Word. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” This will be one of the central themes of the entire Gospel; in fact, this is the good news itself. The Word of God is a life-giving word. The parallel with the first chapter of Genesis become important here. Creation is life and light. The work of Jesus described in the rest of the Gospel will be the work of restoring creation and bringing light and truth to the world. Forms of Christianity that promote death and destruction are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. Forms of Christianity that promote ignorance and small-mindedness are contrary to the nature of Christ in John’s Gospel. The mission of the church is to bring light to the world, not darkness, despair, or destruction.

Darkness:       There is opposition to this mission, though. The Gospel of John will address the historical reality that Jesus of Nazareth was murdered by the Roman Empire with the complicity of the high priests in Jerusalem. This is alluded to in a beautiful piece of poetry in the Prologue. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” There is a sense of cosmic struggle here between the forces of light, life, and creation and the force of darkness and non-existence. The nature of that struggle varies according to translation. This verse could mean that the darkness did not comprehend or grasp the meaning of the light. It could mean that the darkness did not receive or accept the light. Or that the darkness could not overcome or overpower the light.   

            I think it is likely that all of these are meant. Ignorance, fear, and evil are often combined and are most clearly recognized in their unthinking opposition to goodness. The hopeful aspect of the Gospel is that the light continues to shine even in a world where nations drop bombs on weddings and men kill children to silence their own demons.

Word in the World:    The opening stanza of the hymn spoke of the Logos of God that was with God and was God. The Logos was light and life for humankind. The second stanza speaks of the Logos coming into the world. Notice that the Logos has not been named yet. Certainly the worshiping community founded by the witness of the Beloved Disciple knew the name of the Logos, but the hymn builds interest by saving the name for the end. The Logos was with God in the beginning, but he did not have a name until the birth of Jesus. We can also say that Jesus himself was not recognized as the Word of God until he had called the church into being.

The World:     This process of revelation is expressed poetically by saying that the Word was in the World yet the World did not recognize him. The Greek word for “world” here is Cosmos, and it appears more often in the Gospel of John than any other book of the NT. Throughout the Gospel we’ll see Jesus struggling with the Cosmos as well as redeeming the Cosmos. It will probably not surprise you to learn that the word Cosmos has several meanings in Greek, especially in John’s gospel, but the basic meaning is the order of the visible universe in which we live. Cosmos refers to the stars in their regular journey through the night sky and to the earth that produces our food in due season. Sometimes it refers specifically to the world of human society.

We do this in English as well when we refer to something as “worldly,” or that we are troubled by the cares of the world. Rarely are we troubled with the cares of the earth, just those of society. On television “World News Tonight” is about people, not the news of the whole cosmos, except when scientists decide to renumber the planets in the solar system. Even then, that is about us not the planets. Pluto hasn’t changed; our definitions changed.

In many places in the NT, the word Cosmos is used in a negative sense, as something that is opposed to the work of God. The Kingdom of God is contrasted to the kingdom of the world. In the extreme, the “world” or the Cosmos is seen as being under the rule of Satan. Throughout John’s Gospel there are all of these different uses of Cosmos, and it can be difficult for interpreters to know what the Gospel was trying to communicate. The different attitudes toward the “world” in different passages of John’s Gospel contributed to the suspicion of some scholars that more than one purpose wrote the gospel. Thus, we will read that “God so loved the world,” but that Jesus “has overcome the world.”

The question is what does the world mean here in the Prologue? It seems to me that it is referring to the heavens and the earth or the universe. The universe was created through the Word, but creation did not recognize the creator. The Logos was in the world but the world did not know the Logos. This could be referring to the incarnation in Jesus, but it might be a more general reference to the ignorance of creation as a creation. The creature does not know its maker – or its dependence on the Creator. It is possible that the prologue here is saying that God has always been present in the world that he has made, but the world has never fully recognized the presence of the creator within the creation. Creation should be a means to encounter God.

In Greek Orthodox theology, creation can be understood as a sacrament, as a physical communication of the divine presence, but Protestants have been uncomfortable with that concept. We prefer to have just two Sacraments, but personally, I think it is worth considering in light of this first chapter of John. The Word of God was in the Cosmos from the beginning of the Time, but creation remains a divine mystery. Humans through the ages have caught glimpses of God in the natural order, but it took the Logos to reveal the truth about the creator and creation. In our modern age, it has been harder to recognize the presence of the Word in the World than in the past. Despite our advances in understanding the laws of nature and our ability to manipulate nature according to our will, most of us do not fully recognize the Logos in creation. If we did, we would treat the world with more reverence than we do.

He Came to His Own:            Verse 11 builds on the concept that the World failed to recognize the Logos in creation; he was not recognized even when he came to his own people. This is probably a veiled reference to the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders who handed him over to the Romans for execution, but it could have a broader meaning. The Greek is just a bit ambiguous. Literally, it says that the Word came “to his own things.” This could mean simply that he came into the world that he had made or that he came to a particular place and people.

Either way, this is clearly referring to the Word appearing in visible form in the world that we know. The technical term for this is a theophany: God revealed. We discussed several appearances of God in the book of Genesis. It could be that the Prologue to John has those stories of God’s appearance in mind, or the author may have only been thinking of the coming of Christ. Either way, the paradox is evident. The one who created the heavens and the earth somehow made an appearance within the universe. Rather than being recognized and treated like a king, the World did not receive its creator.

Most commentators assert that the reference to “his own people” refers specifically to the Jews, but that identification is not made in the Prologue itself. It is a reasonable assumption since the first half of the Gospel of John focuses on Jesus’ ministry among the Jews and their rejection of him. There does seem to be a jump in the Prologue from the Cosmos to the Ethnic. Why go from the Logos as the creator to a discussion of the people who rejected him? One possibility is that the Prologue shares the understanding of the book of Hebrews that the Creator spoke through the prophets but in the later days spoke through a Son. The prophetic word given to Moses, Elijah, and the other OT prophets was the same Word that had created the heavens and the earth.

Raymond Brown sees verses 11 and 12 as providing the outline for the whole Gospel. Jesus goes first to the Jews who reject him, and then he creates a new community. His “own people” reject him so he calls a new people into being. The church becomes “his own people.” This interpretation is consistent with other parts of the NT, such as the first Letter of Peter and Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but we should keep in mind that it continues to speak to us. We are Christ’s own people, but do we recognize him? Do we not reject him today when his teachings and examples contradict our desire for violence and vengeance?

Children of God:        The prologue next sets up a contrast between those who received the Word of God and those who rejected the Word. This is one of the major themes of the Gospel and the other NT books associated with John. The world is divided between those who receive the Logos and those who reject him. This dualism or division between the children of the light and the children of darkness was developed from the ancient Jewish notion of the Chosen People. In the OT, Abraham and his descendents were chosen by God and set apart. They were given the Law of Moses to guide them and to form them into a separate community. They were to be a holy people and a light to the other nations.

By the time of Jesus, there were some Jews, called the Essenes, who felt that the nation of Israel had faltered in their holiness and service to God. They separated themselves from the larger community and formed very strict sectarian communities like the Qumran community that preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes reinterpreted the language of chosen-ness to apply to those who are called out from society to live according to the law of God. They looked for God to send a new Moses, a heavenly Messiah who would be the teacher of righteousness and a true priest. Some of the Essenes referred to themselves as children of the light, while the rest of the world, including the corrupt priests in Jerusalem, were the children of darkness. The Essenes were looking forward to the day when the Messiah would reward his faithful followers and destroy the children of darkness. Their hopes were ultimately disappointed. It appears that the Essenes were wiped out by the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem.

Though we cannot be certain, it seems likely that some of the early Christians had been Essenes or at least influenced by their theology. It is possible that John the Baptist himself was an Essene, but we’ll say more about John next week. For now, the point I want to make is that this dualism in John’s Gospel developed out of Judaism, particularly sectarian Judaism. It was not a Christian invention, but many times through the centuries, this dualism has caused problems for Christians and their neighbors. Once you divide the world neatly into children of light and children of darkness, it is tempting to treat all of your opponents as evil-doers who deserve punishment. Moral dualism fueled the Crusades and the conquest of the Americas. It fuels modern Jihads and affects American foreign policy in our day. We like to separate the world into an axis of evil and a coalition of the good.

Rebirth:          We do not have to go down that road to be faithful to John’s Gospel. Notice that the focus of this portion of the prologue is not on identifying those who did not receive the Word; it is on those who received him. The Prologue does not say, as Paul does in his letters, that those who have faith in Jesus are adopted as God’s children. It says that they are empowered to become God’s children – to be born of God. The Prologue is here foreshadowing one of the major themes of John’s Gospel, and we will return to this theme of being born of God in a few weeks when we discuss the story of Nicodemus. Those who place their faith in Jesus are born from above. They experience a spiritual birth that is unlike physical birth. The prologue emphasizes that this second birth is not the result of sexual desire or the union of a man and woman; it comes from God.

It is often overlooked in evangelical churches that the idea of being “born again” is a maternal image. God gives spiritual birth to the followers of Jesus. In many passages, John uses imagery from childbirth, especially blood and water, to illustrate this understanding of salvation. It is small wonder that theologians and mystics who base their spirituality on John’s Gospel are generally more open to the idea that God can be described in feminine terms. Zinzendorf was quite explicit in identifying rebirth with the Holy Spirit acting as mother.

We should also pay close attention to this idea that Christians are children of God. This language is not used to declare that Christians should be immature or irresponsible, as it is sometimes used in churches. Rather, the Prologue uses this language to stress the intimate connections between the soul and the Creator. The Logos makes it possible for people to experience the blessing of being a child of God, loved by God intimately. Salvation, for John, is not a simple legal transaction that removes the guilt of sin; it is a restoration of the intimacy of the soul and the creator who makes rebirth possible. 

Word Became Flesh:             This brings us to verse 14, which is one of the most profound and controversial statements in Scripture. “And the Logos became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” It appears that the author of this hymn chose the word “tent” or “tabernacle” intentionally to connect the appearance of the Logos in the world with the tabernacle of the OT. In the days of Moses, the Israelites believed that God dwelled with them in the tabernacle or the tent of meeting. He was with them in their wanderings, and Moses was able to enter into his presence in the Tabernacle. The prologue describes the ministry of Jesus in a similar way. The Logos lived in the midst of the disciples in much the same way that God used to dwell in the tabernacle. This concept raises a host of theological questions that are best left for another day, but the main point of this passage is clear. The Logos dwell in the world of humans, just as God had once dwelled with the children of Israel.

The Prologue claims that the Logos, the rational aspect of God himself, built himself a body out of human flesh. This is a mind-boggling idea, and it was rejected by many people in the early years of Christianity. Many Jews believed it was blasphemy to say a mere man, even a spirit-filled prophet, was God in human flesh. Some Greeks saw this as mere superstition, a Jewish form of Greek myth where a god appears as human. Educated Greeks were offended that anyone would teach that what was spiritual and perfect could enter into corrupt flesh. The flesh was filled with lust and hunger.

The Gospel of John makes the bold, perhaps even foolish, claim that the Logos of God took on the limitations and needs of human flesh and blood; that God had walked this earth during the age of the Caesars. This assertion also connects the Prologue to the opening chapters of Genesis. You may remember in that story, God made a human body out of the mud and breathed his spirit into the human being. We are made in God’s image, but here in John, God fashions a human body for himself. The Logos makes himself in our image and dwells with his creatures so that we can be restored as the children of God.

The Gospel of John stresses that Jesus was unique among human beings in that he alone was the incarnation of the Logos. He alone was the fullness of God in human form. The whole point of the Gospel will be to convince of this idea: that Jesus is the revelation of God to humankind. The God whose echo we hear in creation; the God who was veiled in the OT; the God who spoke cryptic words through the prophets was revealed in Jesus. It is not until verse 17 that Jesus is named in this Gospel. John’s Gospel is not as concerned with the historical Jesus of Nazareth who was the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter. This Gospel is about the Word of God who was revealed in Jesus Christ. There is a theological point here that is very important to Moravians and other churches. The true Word of God is not the Bible – it is the Logos revealed in Jesus. God is revealed in many ways, including in Scripture, but the most complete revelation of God was Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Mary Magdalene

Whom Do You Seek? John 20:1-18

Fries Memorial, Easter 2010

Introduction: The Lord is Risen! The Lord is Risen Indeed! With that proclamation, we have said all that really needs to be said on this Easter morning. For the past week, we have gathered each night to listen to Jesus’ words and to walk with him from the Temple to Golgotha. Each evening we have joined the disciples whose courage failed in the time of trial. Each evening we’ve looked at the wounds of Jesus and the agony of Jesus and have bowed our heads in shame and fear. But today we rejoice in the Good News that death and suffering do not have the final word; that God is life.

I know that many of you went through the city playing your horns to announce to all the sleepers that Great Sabbath is over. This is a day to celebrate and make merry even though we are sleepy and tired. Those of us who were able rose before dawn to gather on God’s Acre to proclaim that the one who was crucified is alive and will die no more. The one who tasted the bitterness of death is our living Savior. The one who conquered death and the grave is our Lord. As we faced the rising sun, we sang our praises to the Son of God, and we shouted to the four winds that we belong to him. The gates of Hades have been thrown down, and the time of mourning is past. We can enter into the joy of our Lord, rejoicing that God has given us a new future, a new horizon. We rejoice because we go forward with Jesus to a far, green country where fears are banished and love reigns.

Resurrection stories The Lord is Risen! There is no doubt this has been the central message of Christianity from the earliest days of the church. The earliest writings in the New Testament, the letters of Paul, begin with the assurance that Jesus has risen from the dead. Everyone who was baptized in the early church claimed with one voice that the Lord is alive. Early Christians disagreed about many things, but they all professed their faith that Jesus is alive and he is Lord of the church.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, when we open our Holy Week Readings to the Easter readings and see that there are so many different accounts of the resurrection in the gospels. Each of the gospels tells a different story of Easter, but they all agree that Mary Magdalene was one of the first to go to the tomb of Jesus after the Sabbath. According to three of the gospels, Mary Magdalene was accompanied by several women, but in John she is at the tomb alone. It appears that John knew about the other women, but he likes to focus on individuals in his gospel. It is only in John’s Gospel that Jesus appears privately to Mary Magdalene and they have a conversation.

Magdalene We don’t know much about Mary Magadalene, but her name indicates that she was from the town of Magdala, near Capernaum in Galilee. Thus, she probably had followed Jesus all the way from Capernaum to Jerusalem, just like Peter and Andrew and John. There is no doubt that she was a disciple of Jesus even though she was not counted among the Twelve. Apparently she did not have a husband or children for she is called by her own name. Luke says that Jesus had healed her of seven demons, which meant that she had suffered from several severe maladies before meeting Jesus. This explains why she was so devoted to Jesus.

Later tradition confused Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel; therefore pictures of Magdalene in Western art show her as a redeemed temptress, but there is no evidence in Scripture to support that idea. The biblical portrait of Magdalene is that she was a disciple of Jesus who remained devoted to him even when the men fled. She stayed with him throughout the crucifixion when others fled. She was there with Joseph of Arimathea when took the body and laid it in the tomb. She remained faithful to Jesus even as her world was shattered by the cruelty of the empire and the derision of the crowds. She endured that awful Sabbath with the others who mourned.

And she rose before dawn after the Sabbath to go to the tomb. I imagine that she had not slept all night but keep the vigil of grief. John does not tell us why Magdalene went. The other gospels say that the women went to anoint the body. Primarily, of course, she went to tomb mourn just as we go to the grave of a loved one. Earlier in John’s gospel we saw a crowd of mourners at the tomb of Lazarus four days after his death. One rabbi in the 2nd century claimed that mourning is at its height on the third day (Brown, II:982), and many of you can attest to that. There is no reason to doubt that Magdalene and other female disciples went to the tomb of their teacher to weep and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness before the dawn.

John tells us that Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been rolled away, and she was naturally frightened. Rather than enter the cave herself, she ran to Peter and the Beloved Disciple with the shocking news that the grave had been disturbed. Magdalene may have thought that the authorities removed the body in order to erase Jesus’ memory from the earth or to prevent his tomb from becoming a sacred shrine. Perhaps someone wanted to use the body in magical potions since Jesus had performed miracles. We don’t know why someone would take a body, but Mary probably feared that the humiliation and abuse of Jesus had not ended with death. She ran for help.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple According to John, Peter and another disciple ran to the tomb to investigate. The other disciple is identified simply as the one Jesus loved. This was the disciple who sat closest to Jesus at the Last Supper. This was the disciple who took Jesus’ mother into his own home and cared for her. This Beloved Disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first, but then he stepped aside so Peter could enter the tomb. When Peter crawled into the tomb all he saw were the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face. The body was gone, but the shroud remained. It was unlikely that grave robbers would have left the clothes behind, and through the centuries commentators have pondered this detail about the burial shroud. We don’t know for sure, but John was probably contrasting the resurrection of Jesus and Lazarus. Lazarus emerged from the tomb still bound by his shroud. He was still marked by death, but Jesus had defeated death and was freed from mortality. He was the new Adam.

But Peter did not yet realize the significance of what he had seen. All he saw were cloths in a cave. It is extraordinary that the gospels record that the chief of the disciples did not believe at first that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Each of the gospels report confusion and doubt on the part of the disciples, and we can certainly understand that. Many people still face Easter with doubt and confusion, not daring to believe in the possibility of redemption and restoration.

Why Are You Weeping? John tells us that the men returned home, but Magdalene stayed by the empty tomb. I think this is one of the most beautiful scenes in Scripture. A devoted follower of Jesus stays by the tomb grieving, fearing that his body has been desecrated. Her tears remind all who mourn that tears shed in love are sacred to God. She looked in the terrible emptiness of the tomb to confirm her fears, but this time she saw angels where previously there had only been discarded grave clothes. Unlike most people who are awed and frightened by the sight of angels, Mary was still overwhelmed with grief. The sight of angels dressed in shining clothes cannot distract her from her desire to be near the body of her teacher and Lord.

She repeats her words to the disciples. She tells the angels that someone has taken the body away and she doesn’t know where they’ve laid him. For a brief, horrible moment Mary stands before the abyss of loss bereft of all comfort. Even the light of the angels cannot penetrate the night of her soul. They have taken him away and I do not know where they have laid him. Mary is not consoled, but she turns away from the tomb and looks toward the sun that is rising in the East. She turns away from the darkness of the burial cave toward the open vista that is tinged rose and orange. But her eyes are still blurred by tears and despair. She turned away from the angels, and then she saw Jesus.

We expect this to be a moment like we see in the movies. Music swells as she realizes that the Lord is not dead, but the Gospel of John is more realistic than a movie. Mary turns and sees Jesus, but she does not recognize him. She mistakes him for the gardener. The idea that Jesus could be standing before her instead of lying in a grave was too extraordinary to believe. It must be the gardener. Keep in mind that revelation comes at unexpected times from unexpected people.

Jesus asks Mary why she is weeping. It is a simple question that a gardener might ask any mourner. Who are you weeping for? This is a question that binds all humans together despite the differences of race or culture or language or age. We see someone in the cemetery weeping and we know why they are there. Who are you weeping for, we should ask. It is a gentle question that invites us to tell the story of one we loved who has left us for that country where we cannot follow. It is a question that honors life and love and loss. Who are you weeping for? It is the question that unites us because all of us have someone to weep for. It is our tears of grief that mark as truly human. The question is the same for all of us, but each of our answers is different.

For the third time Mary says that someone has carried the body away. We can feel her panic growing. She no longer has the one for whom she weeps, but she at least wants his body. She wants something to see and hold. She wants to show him respect and love. She wants to bring Jesus back to the tomb where she can touch him one last time. Mary’s desires here are so universal, so understandable. Think of how families long to have the bodies of their loved ones returned from Iraq or Vietnam. Think of how we gather among the graves of our family members each Easter. We want a marker, a physical reminder of someone we loved. All Mary is looking for is something to hold on to while the universe spins out of control. Peter was no help. The angels were no help. So she turns to a stranger and pleads for the body. We can see her sobbing at the entrance to the cold tomb, desolate in grief, desperate for comfort, isolated in her misery.

Whom Do You Seek? But Jesus asked Mary another question. Not just for whom are you weeping, but for whom do you seek? Who is it that you are looking for? This is the fundamental question of John’s Gospel. This is the reason that there is a gospel to begin with. Who are you looking for? This is the question that we should ponder this beautiful Easter morning in the year 2010. Who are you seeking for? We Americans tend to ask questions like “What is it you want?” Or “what can I do for you?” But Jesus asks a more important question: who are you looking for?

Are you looking for the one who loves you with an infinite, passionate, suffering love? Are you looking for the one who died for you and went to hell for you? Are you looking for the one who pronounced forgiveness with his dying breath and who calls you into a deeper, richer life?? Are you looking for the one who blesses you with his life, sufferings, death, and resurrection? Whom do you seek when you enter the doors of this church? It is the question Jesus asks of each of us who would be his disciples.

Rabbouni! But then she hears a single word: “Mary.” Jesus calls her by name and she recognizes his voice. The parable of the Good Shepherd is acted out here. “My sheep hear my voice and I know their name.” This is the theme of the Moravian hymn “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice.” It was not the physical body of Jesus that Mary recognized, it was the sound of his voice. It was the realization that she was known even when she did not recognize her Lord. She heard a single word and her world was transformed. The Word made flesh was now the Word resurrected. Mary! He knew her name. He called to her and she responded. He called her away from the terrors of the night and brought her back to the land of the living. This was the one she was seeking: the one who knows her by name and calls her to follow him.

Mary called to Jesus by one of his many names: Rabboni! She does not call him King or Messiah or even master. Rabboni is an Aramaic word that a student uses for a beloved teacher. It is an intimate form of the word Rabbi. John translates the word just so his Greek readers get the point. In the resurrection Jesus remains the Rabbi, Teacher. When Mary hears his voice she knows that he is the same man she had followed for so many miles. He was the same man who had healed her and given her a new future. Rabboni!

Do not touch! We do not know if Mary fell at Jesus’ feet or embraced him, but Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. The Greek is translated in various ways. In Latin it became Noli tangere – “Do not touch me” and is the subject of many paintings and sermons. People have interpreted Jesus’ words in widely different ways. Some have claimed that Mary was forbidden to touch Jesus because she was a sinful woman, but that defies the whole meaning of the gospel. Others have speculated that she could not touch Jesus because the resurrection was still in process; he had not yet assumed full corporeal form. But that sees far too speculative. I think that Raymond Brown’s translation of the phrase as “Do not cling to me” is better than “Don’t touch me.” We could say, “Do not hold on to me.”

Mary had been looking for the dead body of Jesus to hold on to. Now she had the living Lord, but she still wanted to keep him close to her. Her reaction is like Peter wanting to build tabernacles when Jesus was transfigured. It is the reaction we have when we meet Jesus. We want to hold on to him, cling to him, keep him close to us, and call him our personal Lord and Savior, but we are forbidden to keep his as our idol, our possession. Jesus called Mary by name, but he was not hers to keep. She still had to let him go because the work of redemption is still not complete.

Jesus told her: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus came from the Father so that we might be united to the Father. We are sons and daughters of God because the resurrected Christ is our Lord, our Teacher, our Friend. By letting Jesus go, Mary was able to be united with him more fully. By letting go, Mary was free to go out into the world filled with new life and hope. Mary Magdalene was the first apostle sent to proclaim the good news that the Lord is Risen!

Conclusion: Who are you seeking this Easter? Turn toward the rising sun and listen. You may hear him call your name. But be prepared. You may be asked to embrace life and go out into the world as a messenger of hope, like Mary.

Lessons from John, 21:1-14 Fishing

John 21:1-14 – Gone Fishing

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Nov. 4, 2007. Craig Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. Tony Campolo gave a great sermon in Wait Chapel last Sunday night. He pointed out that one trouble with the church today is that liberals try to convince you that Jesus never really said it, and conservatives assure you that he didn’t really meant it. Campolo was referring to the Sermon on the Mount. This coming Friday, there is a special treat. Amy Gohdes Luhman will be leading Lay Seminary on Friday and Saturday. Amy is a young Moravian pastor and professor of Old Testament who is one of the most engaging teachers I’ve ever heard. Lay Seminary is open to everyone. Call the Board of Christian Education to sign up.

This was a week in which various people observed Samhain, Reformation Day, Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, or Day of the Dead, with varying degrees of music and make-up. I’ll be preaching this morning at Christ Moravian Church on the theme of All Saints Day, which I think is an important day in the Christian calendar. It is helpful during this season as the year dies and the sun grows cold to remind ourselves that death is not the final word. It seems very appropriate that we have are now studying the resurrection of Jesus. There is a big difference between the resurrection of Jesus and the resuscitation of corpses in the horror movies. According to the gospels, Jesus has been freed from the bonds of death and corruption. He is life itself, and through his spirit we can enter into the life of God. Today we turn our attention to John 21.

Fishing            This is a fishing story. That alone might make some people doubt its veracity. There is something about fishing that lends itself to exaggeration. I think it is because fishermen have so much time to let their imaginations roam. Fishing can be boring. My daughter described Hemmingway’s classic novel The Old Man and the Sea as having all of the excitement of fishing and old men. My mother had an uncle in Minnesota who was a fishing and hunting guide. He had only one arm. Over the years he made up many tall tales about how he lost his arm, but in general he claimed that the dog shot it off. He had gone fishing with his dog and carried a shotgun along because there were poisonous snakes around. When he reeled in a particularly lively fish, the dog got very excited and knocked the shotgun over. It went off, and Gaif lost his arm. Fishing tales can get pretty hard to believe, but that one happened to be true. Perhaps the fishing tales in the gospels are true, too.


Epilogue                        Last week I mentioned that many scholars believe that John’s Gospel originally ended with the story of Thomas. The final verses of ch. 20 certainly sound like a conclusion, and if you are reading the gospel straight through, it comes as a bit of a surprise to see that another chapter follows the conclusion. Raymond Brown calls ch. 21 an Epilogue, and I think that is fitting. The Gospel has a prologue, why not an epilogue? But if this Gospel were a DVD movie, we would call this section “bonus features” or “deleted scenes.”

There is important and useful material here, but it was more dramatic and powerful to leave the scenes out of the main story. Despite some flaws in the final work, the author of John’s Gospel was a masterful writer who took traditional material and reworked it to produce a profound story of faith. Scholars today dispute over whether the stories in chapter 21 are older than the stories of Jesus appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem that we have bee discussing. In many ways, ch. 21 seems more primitive than ch. 20, and it is possible that it was ch. 20 that was added late. As we shall see, ch. 21 is less overtly theological, and its message is more subtle. Although we can never be certain, it seems likely that these stories of Jesus in Galilee were part of the oral tradition about Jesus that the evangelist knew were too good to leave out. But they did not fit neatly into the narrative and so he added them at the end.

History and Story:            The scholarly arguments about whether ch. 20 or 21 is more historical get very complex and technical, but I think the average reader can see that the four gospels present two different settings for Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances: Galilee and Jerusalem. In one version of Mark, Jesus gives a message that the apostles should meet him in Galilee, and in Matthew, they actually go to Galilee. Jesus ascends from a mountain, presumably the one he had been transfigured on. Luke, on the other hand, merely mentions Galilee. He focuses on Jesus’ appearance in Jerusalem, probably because he organizes his story of Christianity geographically. John is unique in having appearances of Jesus in both Jerusalem and Galilee, but it is nearly impossible to put ch. 20 and 21 together.

As we saw last week, according to John, the appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem all happened on Sundays. The first two were on Easter Sunday. The appearance to Thomas was the following Sunday. After we went off the air we discussed the significance of Jesus appearing to a gathering of disciples on a Sunday. These stories reflect early Christian worship, and the evangelist was telling his audience that Christ will be present to them in worship. It was not just Thomas who could see Jesus and his wounds, all may do so. With that in mind, we can assume that the chronology of the resurrection appearances in John is not meant to be historically accurate. John is writing about eternity, not time, and it is not really important whether Jesus first appeared to Peter in Galilee or Judea. It is entirely possible that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee first. But since the headquarters of the early church under James the Brother of Jesus was in Jerusalem John’s Gospel naturally gives priority to the Jerusalem stories. Rather than trying to put ch. 20 and 21 together as a single narrative, this morning we’ll look at ch. 21 in its own right.

I’m Going Fishing:                         It really bothers a lot of biblical scholars and preachers that the Simon Peter and six other apostles went fishing after the crucifixion. Some have gone so far as to accuse them of apostasy, of forsaking their faith, or at least neglecting their mission to bring good news to all nations. I disagree. I think this is a delightful bit of authenticity in John’s gospel. We already knew Simon Peter and other disciples were fishermen, and we knew that they need to eat like we all do. So why be surprised that they went fishing one night to catch food for the next day? The Gospel of John is filled with all kinds of signs, wonders, and deep theological truths, but it also recognizes that even the apostles had to put food on the table. Even if they had seen the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem, they are still going to need to eat breakfast in Galilee.

They fished all night without catching anything. It is a curious fact in the NT that no one catches fish without Jesus’ help. We are so far removed from a world where our lives depend on catching fish that these fishing stories in the Bible loose some of their edge. The disciples were not fishing for recreation or for bragging rights. They were fishing for food. The fact that they worked all night without catching anything meant that it would be a hungry day.

Jesus                        Around day break they see someone on the shore. They do not recognize him in the dim light of morning, but he calls them friends. If you remember from the Last Supper narrative, it was very significant in John’s Gospel when Jesus called his disciples friends. George Fox, who loved John’s Gospel, recognized the importance of friendship in Scripture, which is why his religious society was called the Society of Friends. But I digress.

The fishermen did not recognize the stranger on the shore. This really bothers a lot of readers, but there have been so many times I haven’t recognized people, I’m not surprised. Sometimes we don’t even recognize our spouse or children or parents. We can explain this lack of recognition several ways, being a good storyteller, John does not explain it. He simply says they did not recognize the man calling to them. We have already seen that lack of recognition was a part of some resurrection stories. This could be evidence that Jesus was transformed, or it be a biblical reminder that moments of spiritual insight may come upon us unawares. Sometimes we look right at the truth and fail to recognize it for years, and then suddenly we see.

Jesus asks if they’ve caught any fish. It is kind of nice to know that for over 2000 years, people have said the same thing on the shores of lakes around the world. Any luck? No. Not a thing. He tells them to throw the net on the right side of the boat. I doubt the Bible is making a political statement here, but you never know. Incidentally, skeptics have sometimes claimed that the guy on the shore could simply see the school of fish on the right side of the boat. Some people want to take the fun and magic out of everything! It really doesn’t matter if this was a miracle or not, though. The point of the story is not that a miracle happened. It was that when the disciples listened to Jesus, they were successful.

This story in John is very similar to a story in Luke ch. 5, expect Luke doubles the number of boats. The stories are so similar, in fact, that these may simply be two different versions of the same story. Luke tells about the miraculous catch of fish early in Jesus’ ministry, before he gives the Beatitudes. John tells the story as a post-resurrection miracle of Jesus. We can’t say for sure which is right. Most likely the story circulated as an independent story that was incorporated into the gospels wherever the author thought it made the most sense. For Luke, this was the miracle that convinced a bunch of fishermen to become disciples. For John, this was a sign pointing to a deeper reality about the post-resurrection church. Those who wish to be fishers of men need to listen to the guidance of Jesus. What began as a simple fishing story in John becomes a metaphor for evangelism. We may toil for years without success and then suddenly find we can barely drag our nets to the shore. The catch of fish in the church depends on the Lord, not our skill in evangelism. Incidentally, the old Moravians called their evangelists “fishers”.

153 Fish            There is a detail in this story that has fascinated readers for centuries. For the most part John and other biblical writers use either round numbers or symbolic numbers. We get a lot of sevens, twelves, forties, and hundreds in the Bible. Rarely do we get a number like 153, but John says that is how many fish the disciples caught in their nets. Scholars have tried for centuries to solve the mystery of the 153 fish. In the 5th century Jerome proposed that Greek scientists knew there were 153 species of fish in the world, and thus John was indicating that the disciples would convert all nations to Christianity. Unfortunately, it appears that Greek zoologists listed 157 varieties of fish not 153. It is possible that John had different information, but he doesn’t seem to focus on the differences in the fish.

Numerology might give the answer. Three equilateral triangles with sides 17 units long would add up to 153. Or if you add two perfect numbers, 10 and 7, you get 17. Multiple that by 3 squared and you get 153. What this means, no one knows, but these were important numbers in numerology. Augustine noted that if you add all of the integers from 1 to 17 you get 153, but what this meant escaped even the great Augustine. Modern scholars have proposed this is a very obscure symbolic reference to a passage in Ezekiel (67:10). A final possibility advanced by some scholars is that this is simply an accurate account of how many fish were caught that morning. I, on the other hand, suspect that this is one of those places in Scripture where a key to interpretation was lost very early and we are left with a puzzle.

More important than the number of fish is the fact that the net did not break. There is no reason to doubt the traditional interpretation that the net represents the church. Even though it is filled with fish of all kinds, the net did not break. John’s Gospel is often used today in a very exclusive manner. People pull out proof texts to argue that God’s grace is only for some, but here we have the image of the miraculous catch of fish and a net that stretches enough to handle the diversity. It is an image worth pondering.

Peter                        Once the nets are full, the Beloved Disciple recognizes Jesus and calls him Lord, but it is Peter who jumps out of the boat. This part of the story is told very awkwardly and translators work hard to make sense of what Peter actually does with his clothes. Some translations say that he was fishing naked and put on his clothes to go and meet Jesus. But it is more than a little odd to put clothes on before jumping into the water. Normally, someone would strip to swim. Perhaps this is a bit of comic relief in John. Impetuous Peter is so eager to meet Jesus that he gets dressed and then jumps in the water rather than just taking the boat with the rest of the disciples. It is possible that this tale of Peter jumping out of the boat to run to Jesus was the origin of the longer miracle story in Matthew where Peter walks on the water. We have seen throughout our study that John minimizes miracles. Peter splashes through the sea here; he does not walk on water. Faith is not about believing in miracles, it is about living in the presence of the Risen Lord.

Fish Fry            After this, Jesus invited the disciples to come and have breakfast. Personally, I love the fact that one of the last stories in the Gospel of John is about a fish fry on the beach. We think of John as the poetic, theological gospel of the word made flesh, but it ends with this wonderfully down to earth story of disciples having a cook-out with Jesus. This is the meaning of the incarnation. The word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, but we did so around the cook fire. Other people walking alongside the lake did not see the Lord; they saw a guy tending the coals.

John does not tell us where Jesus got the fish he is cooking or the bread he offers the disciples. Luke tells a story about the disciples giving Jesus give him fish to eat after the resurrection, but here it is Jesus who provides the bread and fish for the hungry disciples. Clearly, this eating of fish with Jesus had a special resonance with the early church that we no longer have. Some of the earlier Christian artwork shows the Eucharist being celebrated with bread and fish, and there is evidence that some Jewish sects observed sacred fish meals that celebrated God’s victory over Leviathan, the sea monster who was an ancient symbol of chaos (Brown, II:1099). It is possible that the church founded by the Beloved Disciple celebrated the Eucharist with bread and fish. This meal on the beach looks a lot like Holy Communion with Jesus presiding.

Conclusion            Even if this was not Holy Communion, the bread and fish recall the feeding of the multitude, which also took place near the Sea of Galilee. This Epilogue in John’s Gospel thus has a nice symmetry. The Resurrected Jesus fulfills the promises to be with his disciples, to guide them, and to nourish them. It is intriguing that Nathanael, who was called to be a disciple in chapter 1 is mentioned again here in ch. 21. Jesus had promised Nathanael that he would see great things, and that promise has been fulfilled, but not everyone could see these things. The disciples knew they were in the presence of the Risen Lord on the beach, but others would have passed by unaware. Even after the resurrection, the Word of God is simultaneously revealed and hidden. Next week, we’ll walk along the beach with Jesus and talk about sheep.

Lessons from John, ch. 21 – Peter

John 21:15-24 – Peter Restored

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally broadcast November 11, 2007. Craig Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. It was an historic week in America. The national debt topped nine trillion dollars for the first time. Perhaps the President and Congress should write “I will not increase the national debt” nine trillion times. TLast Sunday, we had the mission lovefeast last Sunday to celebrate the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Moravian Church. The music was very nice. Today we are observing the anniversary of the founding of Home Moravian Church and are having a lovefeast. Moravians often take lovefeasts for granted and even grow weary of the organization they require, but this is a ritual that is much admired outside the Moravian Church. I often get calls from other churches that wanted to do a lovefeast. I told them that a pastor is the last person to put in charge of this service. You need someone who can handle organization and give clear instructions, not a theologian. But I do tell them the theology and meaning of the lovefeast. They were often disappointed that there is not much more to the service than simply eating together in love as followers of Christ. And yet, this is a major theme of the gospels. Much of Jesus’ teaching was done at meals. There is something about sitting down together to eat that is vital to the life of the church. Last week we saw that Jesus was revealed to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee when he ate with them. This was a lovefeast on the beach and it provides an image of the church that can guide us today. This morning the lesson talks about feeding the sheep.

Denouement of the Gospel                        Last week we discussed the theory that the final chapter of John was added as an epilogue to the gospel. We could call the denouement of the gospel narrative. I learned the word denouement in English class at Reynolds High, and I rarely get to use it in public. The denouement is the part of a novel that some of us skip because it comes after the climax. It is the section where lose ends are tied up and the reader is reassured that the surviving protagonists are going to live happily ever after. It allows the reader to exhale before closing the book. In John’s Gospel, the climax was not the crucifixion, as it is in Mark. It was not the resurrection as it is in Luke. It is not even the ascension as it is in Matthew. It is the moment when Thomas cries out “My Lord and my God.” The final chapter shows us that the story of discipleship and devotion continued after the climatic moment, just as our story of discipleship continues after the moment of conversion or recognition of Jesus as Lord.

Simon son of John                        Peter is one of the most important figures of the New Testament. His name was actually Simon, and his father was either named Jonah or John. The church called him by the nickname Cephas or Peter, which the gospels all claim was given to him by Jesus himself. But in the gospels, Jesus always calls him Simon. There is little doubt that Simon was chief among Jesus’ followers before the crucifixion and became head of the church in Jerusalem after the resurrection, but he was not a perfect disciple by any means. Each of the gospels portray him as eager to follow Jesus. Last week we saw him splashing through the water fully clothed rushing to greet Jesus on the beach, but the gospels also record that he denied Jesus three times on the eve of his execution. That is a very disturbing fact, especially considering that it was the head of the church who denied Jesus. And so, someone added a story about the reconciliation between Simon (Peter) and Jesus to the end of John’s Gospel. Three times Peter denied he was a follower Jesus. Three times, the resurrected Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. It was a painful moment for Peter.

Do you love me?            By now you will probably not be surprised to hear that there are some difficulties in translating and interpreting this dialog between Jesus and Peter. The opening question is as ambiguous in the Greek as it is in English. “Do you love me more than these?” These what? For nearly 2000 years, scholars have offered possible answers to that question. Some think that Jesus was pointing at the fish or the fishing boat and asking if Peter loves him more than these things. This interpretation goes along with the theory that Peter had stopped being an apostle and had gone back to his old employment as a fisherman. Jesus’ question then becomes a reprimand or at least a reminder to Peter of his apostolic mission. Or, it could mean that Jesus was asking Peter a question asked by the wives of many boat-owners in the US. Do you love me more than your boat? We’ll call this the Hagar the Horrible reading.

Other scholars propose that Jesus is pointing at the other disciples and asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than he loves the other disciples. This, again, sounds like the kind of a question a wife might ask of a husband. Do you love me more than your fishing buddies? Since this conflict between marriage and friendship is the theme of many movies, we’ll call this the Hollywood interpretation of “these”. Still other scholars assert that Jesus is asking “do you love me more than the other disciples love me?” In other words, Peter’s status as chief of the apostles may have been based on that fact that he loves Jesus more than all the other apostles. We’ll call this the Fan Club interpretation.

Though any of these is possible, none of these interpretations is very persuasive especially in the context of John’s Gospel. But the fault lies in the text as much as in the interpreters. John’s Gospel simply does not clarify what “these” refers to, and perhaps it is not that important. The emphasis of the question was not on the object of comparison but on the superlative love of Peter for Jesus. Remember, this comes after Thomas’ declaration of Jesus’ divinity, and so this question may be a reference to the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods before me” or perhaps to the great commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul. It does not matter what “these” refer to because Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him more than all things and all people. In essence, Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him with the love that is properly due to God. In light of what follows, the question could even mean do you love me more than your own life?

Yes!            And Simon Peter says, “yes. You know I love you.” In the context of the narrative, this is a strange answer, I think. Peter’s mouth says, “Yes,” but his actions have said “no”. At the moment of Jesus’ greatest trial and suffering, Peter denied he even knew him. As Jesus died on the cross, Peter was in hiding. The Beloved Disciple was there. Mary was there. Joseph was there to ask for the body and buried him. Nicodemus provided ointments. Mary Magdalene wept by the tomb. But Peter was not there. Peter came to the tomb and did not see Jesus. Jesus came to the disciples and Thomas cried out in words of faith, but Peter said nothing. “Yes, you know that I love you,” Peter said. But he had not lived up to this.

Agape and Philo            So three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times in memory of three betrayals. Interestingly, different Greek words are used for love in this little catechism. Twice Jesus asks the question using the word Agapan or Agape and the final time using the word Philo. Each time Peter answers Philo, I love you. Many scholars draw attention to the distinction between the brotherly love expressed in the word Greek word Philo and the more exalted esteem expressed by Agape. Agape has become a popular word in many churches to express a specifically Christian type of unconditional love, but it is not clear that differences between these words is helpful in reading John because John often uses these two words as synonyms. It is unlikely that this story is drawing a contrast between how Jesus wants to be loved and how Peter loved him, especially since the questions move from the greater love to the lesser.

Lambs and Sheep            The way Jesus responded to Peter’s repeated declaration of love is a bit surprising. He tells Peter to feed his lambs, tend his sheep, and feed his sheep. In this passage, different words are used in each sentence, and it is tempting to look for a deeper meaning in that. Some commentators see a progression from lambs to sheep, and a progression from feeding to tending the flock. But the third verse refuses to cooperate with this interpretation. There we are back to feeding and the word is one used for young sheep. The problem is compounded by the fact that ancient scribes tried to solve the problem by substituting their words, so there are many variations in the manuscripts.

What do these lambs and sheep represent? Some medieval commentators asserted Jesus was talking about deacons, priests, and bishops with Peter as the pope above them. Not surprisingly, Protestant scholars rejected that interpretation. Some argued Peter was told to care for both the young and the elderly in the church. There have been many sermons on that theme especially when raising money for nursing homes, but again, that seems strained. It is possible that the writer simply wanted to add some variety to the repeated questions. There doesn’t appear to be an intention contrast between lambs and sheep or between feeding them and taking care of them. The focus is on Peter’s duty to be a shepherd of the flock. He is to feed and care for the entire flock of lambs and sheep. It will be Peter’s actions toward the church that will provide the true answer to the question “Do you love me?” Words alone are not sufficient. It is our actions that display our love. Peter has failed, but he can be redeemed through his love for Christ and his service to others.

Shepherd            There is ample evidence in the Bible that “shepherd” was a metaphor for a ruler, and it appears Jesus is here making Peter the head of the church, the chief shepherd. Catholic scholars have often claimed that Peter is being made the shepherd over the other apostles as the first pope, but that is quite a stretch. We can safely assume that the other apostles were expected to be shepherds, too. Notice that this scene in John is quite different from the one in Matthew where Peter was given the keys to the kingdom. Peter is not made a judge in John. His role is one of nurture and protection. Most important, it is clear that the lambs and sheep belong to Christ, not to Peter. Jesus says, my sheep, not your sheep. It is Jesus who calls the flock, and Peter is to care for those whom Jesus has called.

Thus, John’s gospel ends on the theme of the Good Shepherd who devotes him or herself to the sheep that belong to the Lord. For centuries this passage has help define the role of all pastors in a church. In fact, the word pastor reflects this idea of being a shepherd of a flock. Jesus is telling Peter, and all pastors, that the church does not belong to them; it belongs to Christ. The pastor should act as Christ would act. There are close parallels between this passage and the letter of I Peter (5:2-3) where pastors are told to exercise authority without being domineering. Pastors are to govern through good example and love. Most importantly, the pastor must give the congregation something good to eat and take care them. This conversation with Peter is even more powerful when we remember that he is talking to the Good Shepherd who had just laid down his life for the sheep. How many pastors today love their congregations that much?

Death of Peter            After this reconciliation of Peter, Jesus gives an obscure prophecy that we are told is a prediction of the death of Peter. This appears to be an old part of the oral tradition that is placed here to remind the reader that Peter eventually did fulfill his vow to die for Jesus. Peter became the shepherd who laid down his life. The prophecy works is an inverse parallelism between youth and old age. Young men gird their own loins and go where they wish, but old men must be dressed by others and may be led where they do not wish to go. The Evangelist has added a parenthetical comment that connects this to the death of Peter, but it doesn’t explain what this means. Ancient tradition claims that Peter was crucified in Rome by Nero in 64. There is no direct reference to crucifixion in the prophecy, but many commentators have interpreted the image of stretching out of one’s hands as a reference to being hung on a cross. The reference to girding or putting on a belt could refer to the chains that a prisoner wore, and the statement about being led where you don’t want to go could refer to execution.

The Beloved Disciple                        After this, attention is turned to the Beloved Disciple who was following Peter and Jesus. One of the purposes of the epilogue is to explain the troubling fact that the Beloved Disciple had died despite the hopes of his followers that he would see Jesus again. Though the Beloved Disciple is never named in the Gospel, it seems likely that he was the founder of the church for whom this gospel was originally written. We have seen repeatedly that the Gospel of John claims to be based on the witness of this close companion of Jesus. It is unlikely that the Gospel itself was written by the Beloved Disciple, since he would hardly call himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” But he was the primary source for the information in the Gospel and may have written portions of it.

The final form of the Gospel was clearly written after the Beloved Disciple has died of natural causes at an advanced age. His death would have been traumatic to the church he had founded, especially if they believed that Jesus would return before the Beloved Disciple died. The author of chapter 21 claims that Jesus’ statement “if it is my will that he remain until I return, what is that to you?” was the source of the idea that the Beloved Disciple would still be alive when Jesus returned. We know there were legends that the John the disciple, like Elvis, had not really died but was wondering the world in secret waiting for Jesus to return. Presbyter John became an immortal figure of legendary wisdom and magical powers in medieval lore. Another legend arose that claimed John was asleep in his grave in Ephesus still alive. He would awaken on the last day and greet Jesus. If legends like these survived for a thousand years after the death of the Apostle John, we can imagine why the author of John’s Gospel would include a conversation about the death of the Beloved Disciple in the epilogue.

This little dialogue about the death of the last of the apostles gives us an insight into the development of Christianity from an apocalyptic sect eagerly anticipating the return of Christ to a church that sought to follow faithfully the teachings of Jesus through many generations. Most of the Gospel of John teaches that Jesus is always with us and salvation is experienced in this life. There is not an emphasis on the Second Coming in John, but there are echoes of the older view that Jesus would soon return in glory. Here in chapter 21 we have evidence of the church moving from a fervent belief in the imminent return of Jesus to an awareness that history will continue. We can see the same transformation in Paul’s letters, by the way.

Conclusion            There is more to this story, though. The Beloved Disciple is identified as the one who asked Jesus about the betrayer. This reminds us of the contrast between three disciples. Judas betrayed Jesus and was lost to perdition; Peter denied him and was reconciled; but the Beloved Disciple never abandoned Jesus. In the long run, which is harder: to die heroically as a follower of Jesus or to live to an advanced age loving and serving Jesus day after day? John’s Gospel conclude with a reminder that we should not compare ourselves to others, but to love Jesus as we are loved by him. This Beloved Disciple was a true witness to Jesus even though he was not put to death. And the final word of the Gospel is that many more books can be written about the things Jesus has done because the story of the Gospel continues with us.            

Lessons from John, 20 Thomas

John 20:19-31  Thomas

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Oct. 28, 2007. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Some of us are not getting enough sleep because we’ve been watching the Red Sox and that other team playing in the World Series. Yesterday was one of those rough days for a Carolina alumnus teaching at Wake Forest. I’ll just say my team won. Remember we have programming here at Home Church on Wednesday nights. The Theology of the Twilight Zone group has been growing and includes a couple of teen-agers. Since it is Halloween on Wednesday, the Monsters are Due on Main Street this week. The past week was filled with phone calls and chance encounters with people from my past, which is a reminder that we never leave the past behind. We are shaped not only by our experiences and relationships, but also by our memories of those experiences and relationships. This is an important reminder as we study the Gospel of John because it is primarily the memory of the early Christians written to bring others into relationship with Christ. This week we are looking at the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to his disciples which were formative for the church.

The Eleven?                        As I mentioned last week, the four gospels give different stories about Jesus appearing after the resurrection. Mark and Matthew focus on appearances in Galilee. Not surprisingly John focuses on Jerusalem, much as he has throughout the Gospel. Luke and John both tell about Jesus appearing to the gathered disciples on the evening of Easter, and their accounts have some similarities. For instance, Luke says that Jesus displayed his wounded hands and feet while John mentions wounded hands and side. There is more significant difference between Luke and John, though. Luke says that Jesus appeared to the Eleven disciples (the Twelve minus Judas), but in John Jesus appears simply to the disciples. We should not assume that this is the same gathering. John uses the word disciple for a broader group than just the Twelve. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, most of the stories in John are about individuals not included among the Twelve. Here in ch. 20, John says that Jesus came to the disciples, not that he appeared to the Eleven.

This is important because many of the Catholic claims about priestly ordination are based on this story in John. The Catholic Church claims that this was Jesus’ ordination of the disciples as the first bishops, and they were all male. Therefore women cannot be ordained. But what if this gathering of disciples in Jerusalem was just that – a gathering of those followers of Jesus who remained in Jerusalem after his arrest? None of the Twelve are named in ch. 20 other than Thomas. Perhaps some were already on the way to Galilee. John may have wanted us to assume that Nicodemus and Joseph were there alongside of Mary Magdalene and other women. That is the simplest reading of this text. John is describing a gathering of the students and followers of Jesus who are grieving behind closed doors. There is no reason to assume women were not there.

Fear and Sending            John says that the have closed the doors out of fear of the Jews. Certainly followers of an executed Messiah would have plenty to fear, but there is more to this statement than that. The story of Easter begins in grief and fear and ends in joy. The disciples are hiding in fear because they believe Jesus is dead, but Jesus will send them boldly into the world with a joyful proclamation of faith. Thus, John’s version of the passion story moves from fear to faith; from selfish hiding to selfless giving. The disciples become apostles while the crucifixion is fresh in their minds. They have good reason to fear, but Jesus gives them faith. Incidentally, ch. 20 is the first time in John’s gospel that his disciples are sent out as apostles. In the other gospels, Jesus sends disciples out as witnesses of the Kingdom of God before his crucifixion, but it John, the disciples are sent out as witnesses of the resurrection. They have to experience the resurrection or being born from above before they can go out into the world.

There is one point about the closed door that has occupied the minds of many readers through the centuries. According to John, the Jesus was able to enter the room through the locked door. John relates this miracle without any fanfare and does not draw attention to it, but it has fascinated readers. People have debated whether this is an indication that the resurrected Jesus did not have a physical body like our bodies. Others have simply accepted this as a miracle similar to Jesus walking on the water before the resurrection. Some have asked rather pointless questions, such as why did the stone have to be rolled away if Jesus could walk through walls? The answer to that is so the disciples could see the tomb was empty, by the way.

By the way, I agree with those who argue that John’s portrait of the resurrected Jesus indicates that he has been transformed. In John’s gospel, the resurrection and ascension were basically a single event. Being lifted up on the cross was part of being lifted up to the Father. In discussing the resurrection, Raymond wisely points out, “It is a basic NT understanding that the risen Jesus is not restored to the normal life that he possessed before death; he possesses eternal life and is in God’s presence. The time and place that characterize earthly existence no longer apply to him…” (Brown, II:1013). The Jesus who appears to the disciples on Easter has already ascended to the Father and is no longer bound by the limits of the physical body. But the evangelist does not dwell on the miraculous. He simply states that Jesus was with the disciples after his death. That was what was important.

Wounded Lord            Jesus greets the disciples with a word of peace, using a phrase that became a common form of greeting in Judaism, which is literally translated as Peace to You. Most English translators add a verb so that it is Peace be to you. Some translators even turn it into a prayer: may peace be to you, but that is not accurate. This greeting in John is declarative, and it is significant that it is repeated three times by Jesus. This means more than “have a nice day” or “good evening.” We should notice that the first thing that the risen Jesus says to the church gathered on Easter is “Peace.” A man who has just been murdered by the Roman Empire appears to his disciples who are huddled in fear behind locked doors, and he says “Peace.” He still bears the wounds of his torture and execution, but he urges his followers to be at peace.  

John here dramatizes the transformation of the church into the community of peace on Easter. This peace or shalom means more than the absence of violence, but it includes the absence of violence. For some reason, we tend to overlook the fact that Jesus’ disciples did not seek revenge for the murder of their master. They did not retaliate in any way. The philosopher Rene Girard has identified this as the most important aspect of Christianity: the usual cycle of violence ended with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why do Christians miss this proclamation of peace when they read the story of the resurrection? Perhaps it is because we are so eager to proclaim that the Lord is Risen that we do not listen to what he says. Peace to you.

Holy Spirit            Following this proclamation of Peace, Jesus breathes on the disciples so they may receive the Holy Spirit. In some of the ancient Christian churches, priests breathed on people at baptism and their bishops breathed on priests at ordination. Historians debate whether this scene in John simply reflects the practice of the church of the Beloved Disciple or whether those ancient practices reflect the original actions of Jesus. In any case, the symbolism of Jesus’ breathing here in John’s Gospel is clear.

The word for spirit in both Greek and Hebrew is the same word as breath or wind. The Holy Spirit (pneuma hagion) means Holy Breath or a Wind from God. The fact that Jesus is the one who breathes this holy spirit means that he is one with the Father and continues to do God’s will. You may remember from Genesis that God breathed life into Adam. Throughout the Old Testament, breath = life. We have seen repeatedly in John’s gospel that Jesus is the one who brings life as well as light to the world. Here he is shown breathing life into the church so that it becomes a new creation; the disciples are born anew from God.

The symbolic connection of breath and spirit explains why this is one of the few times John refers to the Holy Spirit by that name instead of the Paraclete. Paraclete is a word that is hard to translate. Its basic meaning is someone who stands alongside you as a helper, such as an advocate or witness in a court of law. Paraclete can also mean someone who comforts you, which is how Luther translated it. We have seen that the paraclete in John is described in various ways: a spirit of truth, a witness to Jesus, and the one who will lead the disciples into all truth. Here in ch. 20, Jesus simply gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples without explanation, but clearly this is the Paraclete or Spirit of Truth that had been promised. It is interesting that the Paraclete in John is described in terms very similar to Jesus himself. The Paraclete or Holy Spirit represents the on-going presence of Jesus in the community of faith.

Forgiveness of Sins                        As soon as the Spirit is given, Jesus tells the disciples that they now have the authority to forgive sins or retain them. For the Catholic Church, 20:23 refers to the sacrament of penance and the power of the priest to forgive sins. The Council of Trent specifically condemned the Protestant view that Jesus was speaking to all Christians. There has also been a lot of theological debate over whether this power to forgive is prior to or after baptism, but there is no mention of baptism here in John. Many commentators simply assume that this statement in John is the equivalent of Jesus’ statement in Matthew that Peter has the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Rather than reading later church debates into this statement in John, it is probably best to read it in the context of John’s Gospel. What has the Gospel of John said about sin? Not much, actually. John has defined sin primarily in terms of rejecting Jesus as the one sent by God. Sin, in John, has been related to blindness and darkness; a willful turning away from God’s truth and life. John also said that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and throughout the Gospel, Jesus brings healing, life, and wholeness. Through the Holy Spirit, the disciples share in this power of Jesus to bring release to the captives and forgiveness to debtors. In the resurrection, the church has the power to release people from the power of sin and death. Should the disciples of Christ fail to be agents of the Father’s redeeming love, the world will remain enslaved by sin and ignorance.

This statement about forgiveness reminds me of a graduation ceremony in which doctors are told that they have the skill and knowledge to heal others, but if they refuse to use their power, people will remain ill. Or picture teachers being told they have the skill and knowledge to educate, but if they fail, people will remain ignorant. Through the Holy Spirit, the resurrected Jesus is forming the disciples into a community of forgiveness where people can be released from their guilt and live new lives. The church is to be the witness to the Lamb that takes away sin. So why is that churches preach condemnation of sinners rather than release from sin? Why do we preach damnation rather than salvation?

Thomas            Thomas did not participate in this gathering on the first Easter. Verse 24 identifies him as one of the Twelve, and his absence on Easter has troubled many readers of the gospel. Some have seen it as evidence that there was always something wrong about Thomas. That he was not as good a disciple as the others. But, as I pointed out initially, we should not assume that the group of the disciples Jesus appeared to was the Twelve minus Judas and Thomas. John was not identifying Thomas as one of the Twelve in order to rebuke him for not being with the others; he was highlighting the importance of this story about Thomas. One of the most important disciples of Jesus did not initially believe that the Lord had appeared!

There have been many sermons through the centuries about Thomas as the Doubter, but the skepticism of the disciples is a consistent theme throughout the gospels. Peter did not understand what the discarded grave clothes meant in the empty tomb. In the other gospels, the Twelve did not believe the women’s tale. Here, Thomas is representative of all of us who hear the story of the resurrection. People often condemn Thomas for being skeptical, but John tells his story to reassure later believers that the church was not founded by a credulous bunch of people who believed outlandish stories without evidence.

Wounds            Thomas wanted to see for himself, and the following Sunday, Thomas gets his wish. Jesus once again appears to the disciples gathered behind shut doors and greets them for a third time with the word of Peace. Jesus answers Thomas’ request dramatically. Touch the holes if you must. People today tend to be rather squeamish about this scene in the Gospel of John and want to minimize it, but this is a climactic moment in the Gospel. Jesus freely offers himself to Thomas so that he may have faith. He does not condemn or criticize Thomas – he holds out his wounded hands so that Thomas may believe. Perhaps the reason so few people are willing to believe today is that Christians are so willing to offer themselves and reveal their wounds.

People often say that John has a high Christology, meaning that he focuses on Jesus as the Son of the God more than on Jesus’ humanity, but it is John who draws our attention to the vulnerability of Jesus. He is woundable, and even in the resurrection he bears the marks of his suffering as a human being. We would expect that the resurrected Jesus would be as perfect as an angel, but he is wounded for eternity. Zinzendorf asked how people will know who the Lord is when he returns. The answer is that we will know him by his wounds. The only true messiah is the wounded messiah; the messiah who breathes forgiveness and life is that one with scars.

Lord and God!            In many English versions of John, Jesus tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe, but that is not exactly what the Greek says. Literally Jesus says, “do not be unbelieving but believing” (O’Day, John, 850). It is not at all clear that Jesus is rebuking Thomas here as a doubter, the way he is commonly portrayed. It seems to me that Jesus is inviting Thomas into faith, not condemning him for a lack of faith. John’s Gospel is written for this same purpose – to invite the readers to explore Jesus and place their faith in him. Incidentally, there is no indication in the gospel text that Thomas actually touched the wounds of Jesus, the way he is portrayed in Christian art and devotion.

It is a shame that Thomas has been branded with the name “Doubter” because he is the hero of John’s Gospel. It is Thomas who declares “my Lord and my God!” No one else makes this declaration in John, and many biblical scholars are convinced that originally the gospel ended here. Thomas’ confession of faith was the witness of the early church that Jesus is Lord and God. The one who was shamefully crucified is the Lord and Giver of life. This is not just a story of the past; it is a story of the present and future. The evangelist is not an historian, he is writing for those who will not get to see Jesus with their eyes. The story of Easter is that the resurrected Jesus returned to his followers and formed them into a church empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells Thomas and us: “Blessed are you who have not seen and yet believe.” 

Lessons from John, 20:1-18 Easter

John 20:1-18 – Magdalene on Easter Morning

The Adult  Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast October 21, 2007. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. The past couple of weeks were really busy for me. Not only did we have the Clark Thompson lectures here at the church, but I had a meeting with the American Waldensian Society Board of Directors up in Valdese. If you’ve never visited Valdese, you should make the effort. There is a lovely museum, a trail of faith, and a winery. This is the first time I’ve had a board meeting in a winery, and I highly recommend it. I also had a wedding last weekend. It was at Tanglewood, which was nice because my brother signed me up for a charity golf tournament out there. So I went straight from the 18th green to the rehearsal. Madeleine told me a golf joke before I left that morning. Why did the golfer wear two pairs of socks? Because he made a hole in one. Today we are turning our attention to the Easter story in John. There is probably no part of the Christian message that has been more debated than the story of Easter. We’ll look at some of that debate over the next couple of weeks, but first let’s hear the good news of resurrection from ch. 20 of John’s Gospel.

Multiple stories            As far as we can determine the resurrection of Jesus was central to the message of Christianity from the earliest days of the church. There have been modern preachers and theologians who have tried to present a Christian proclamation that does not include the statement that the Lord is risen, but this is a modern phenomenon. The oldest parts of the NT, the letters of Paul, proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead. The only ancient literature that denies the resurrection are Jewish polemics that claimed that Jesus’ body had been stolen or Gnostic gospels that denied Jesus had died. We know of no one in the ancient world that claimed to be a disciple of a dead Jewish prophet. The claim that the Lord is Risen was central to the claim that Jesus is Lord.

It is no surprise that the New Testament is based on the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but it is surprising that there are so many contradictory accounts of the resurrection in the New Testament. Many of my students have been disturbed that each of the gospels tells a different story of Easter. All of the gospels agree that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus early in the morning on Sunday, the first day of the week, but the synoptic gospels say another Mary, the mother of James, went with Magdalene. Though Magdalene was alone in John, she says that “we don’t know where they have put him.” This may indicate that John knew that there were other women there, but he focused on Mary.

The four gospels agree that the stone in front of the tomb had been rolled away, but Matthew claims that the women saw this happen. The gospels disagree over whether one or two angels were there. Mark says it was a young man in white, but he probably understood him to be an angel. The angels say different things in the different gospels, but they agree that the women were told to give a message to the disciples. It is only in John that Peter and another disciple go to investigate the tomb. And it is only in John that Jesus and Magdalene have a conversation.

People respond to these differences in various ways. Biblical literalists go to great extremes to reconcile accounts. Skeptics use the differences as evidence that the whole story is fiction. In between are the majority of Christians who are too bothered by the differences. One thing seems clear to me: the apostles, evangelists, bishops, and scholars who put together the New Testament were not bothered by the fact that each Gospel tells a different story. If they were, they would have worked harder to harmonize the accounts. In fact, a man named Tatian tried to do so in the 2nd century, and the church rejected his book. The resurrection is so important that it is worthy of multiple perspectives. Most biblical scholars accept that the resurrection accounts in the Bible are based on oral tradition and were shaped by the evangelists to communicate certain messages. One could argue that it is precisely because the resurrection of Jesus was so important that there is so much confusion over the historical facts.

Rather than trying to figure out precisely what happened on Easter, we are going to examine John’s version carefully and to understand the messages John communicated. There are some unusual aspects of John’s account, and many scholars are convinced that the version we have today is a combination of two or three different stories that were part of the oral tradition. There is the story of Magdalene and other women who found the tomb empty; a story of Peter coming to investigate; and a story of Magdalene meeting Jesus at the tomb. The evangelist stitched these together but left some seams. In the final stage of writing, the Beloved Disciple was added to the story, perhaps to represent the church itself.

Magdalene            The story of Easter begins with Mary Magdalene, not with angels. We don’t know much about her, but the gospels agree that she was the first witness of the resurrection. Her name indicates that she was from the town of Magdala, which was about seven miles from Capernaum in Galilee. This means that she probably had followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, just like Peter and Andrew and John. Her name indicates that she was not married since she is named independent of a husband or children. Luke says that Jesus healed her of seven demons, which may explain why she was unmarried. We don’t know what her illnesses were, but apparently they were severe. That is probably why she was a follower of Jesus. Later tradition confused Mary with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel. Because of this, the medieval monks thought she was a prostitute who had been saved by Jesus; therefore pictures of Magdalene in Western art show her as a voluptuous temptress redeemed by Jesus, but there is no evidence in Scripture that she was anything of the sort. The biblical portrait of Magdalene is that she was a disciple of Jesus who remained devoted to him when the men fled.

John does not tell us why Magdalene went to the tomb before dawn on Easter. Most likely Magdalene went to the tomb in order to mourn. Remember there was a crowd of mourners at the tomb of Lazarus even though he had been buried for four days. A rabbi in the 2nd century claimed that mourning is at its height on the third day (Brown, II:982). There is no reason to doubt that Magdalene and other female disciples had gone to the tomb of their teacher to weep and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness before dawn.

The gospels agree that no one expected a resurrection, not even Jesus’ closest companions. Magdalene was surprised to find that the stone had been rolled away, and when she realized that Jesus’ body was gone, she ran to Peter and the Beloved Disciple with the shocking news that the grave had been disturbed. Magdalene may have thought that the authorities removed the body in order to erase his memory from the earth and to prevent his tomb from becoming a sacred shrine. Perhaps someone wanted to use the body in magical potions since Jesus had performed miracles. Maybe Magdalene did not have a clue as to why someone would steal a body, but it was the only explanation she could find.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple            Peter and another disciple ran to the tomb to investigate, which would be the normal human response. This feels historically accurate. The other disciple is not named, but is identified as the one Jesus loved. It is curious that the text says that the Beloved Disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. Through the centuries people have pondered the meaning of this. Is John drawing a contrast between Peter and the other disciple? Some have argued that John was arguing against the supremacy of Peter, and by implication, against the supremacy of the pope in Rome. Others have thought that this is evidence that there was a conflict in the early church between Peter and John. Some have even argued that Peter represented Jewish Christianity which was being out raced by Gentile Christianity at the time the gospel was written.

I doubt any of this is accurate. There doesn’t seem to be any sense that one disciple was superior to the other. The Beloved Disciple steps aside for Peter, for instance. What was important for John’s Gospel is that the Beloved Disciple was a witness to the empty tomb. One interesting bit of historical accuracy in John is that the entrances to tombs in Palestine were only about a yard high. The disciples had to bend down to look in. When Peter crawled into the tomb all he saw were the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face. The body was gone, but it was unlikely that grave robbers would have left the clothes behind.

Many commentators through the centuries have seen a great significance in this detail about the burial shroud lying there. Some have used this as evidence that Jesus’ resurrected body passed through the cloths or that it disappeared like Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. John is probably drawing a contrast between the resurrection of Jesus and Lazarus. Lazarus emerged from the tomb still bound by his shroud. He was still marked by death, but Jesus had defeated death and was freed from mortality.

Belief and Doubt            John says that Peter did not yet realize the significance of what he had seen. It is extraordinary that the gospels record that the chief of the disciples did not initially believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. None of the gospels supports the assertion of skeptics that the disciples were so eager for a resurrection that they invented the story when they found the tomb empty. All of the gospels report confusion and doubt on the part of the disciples, even Mary Magdalene. In John, only the Beloved Disciple believed, but here is one of those seams I mentioned earlier. Verse 8 says that the other disciple saw the cloths and believed, but verse 9 says that they did not understand that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Commentators have tried to draw a distinction between believing and understanding here, but modern scholars tend to agree that verse 8 was added to the gospel later, perhaps to highlight the importance of the Beloved Disciple.

Misindentification            The men returned home, but Magdalene stayed by the empty tomb. I think this is one of the most beautiful scenes in Scripture and it has the air of authenticity. A devoted follower of Jesus stays by the tomb grieving and fearing that his body has been desecrated. Her tears remind all who mourn that tears shed in love are sacred to God. She looked in the tomb again, but this time there are two angels where previously there had only been discarded grave clothes. Even the sight of angels dressed in shining clothes cannot distract her from her desire to be near the body of her teacher and Lord. She repeats her words that someone has taken the body away and she doesn’t know where they’ve laid him. Magdelene turned around and saw Jesus, but she mistakes him for the gardener. This is one of those details that seems genuine. We would expect the gospel writer to say that she immediately recognized Jesus, but no. The idea that Jesus could be standing there instead of lying in a grave was too extraordinary to believe. It must be the gardener. Skeptics, of course, say that indeed it was the gardener who simply looked like Jesus. But skeptics also say that the pictures from the moon were faked by NASA.

There are a number of questions Mary’s confusion raises for us. Some have been concerned about what Jesus might have been wearing at the time since he had left his clothes behind in the tomb. Mel Gibson’s movie show Jesus resurrected naked, and there is a long tradition of that in Christianity. He was the new Adam in the garden. But John doesn’t tell the story quite that way. It is unlikely that Mary would have thought that a naked man was the gardener unless there is something about 1st century horticulture we don’t know.

A more relevant question that arises from this misidentification is why Mary did not recognize Jesus. There are many hints in the New Testament that the resurrected Jesus was transformed. Paul tells us that in the resurrection we will have spiritual bodies rather than physical bodies and that we will transformed. That is how John and Luke both portray Jesus. He is different somehow. This is why he could walk through the streets of Jerusalem without people noticing that a dead man was walking.

Rabbouni!            Like the angels, Jesus asks Mary why she is weeping. It is a simple question that a gardener might ask a mourner. Who are you weeping for? For the third time she says that someone has carried the body away. This time she pleads for the body. She wants to bring Jesus back to the tomb where she can touch him one last time. Mary’s desires here are so universal, so understandable. Think of how families long to have the bodies of their loved ones returned from Iraq or Vietnam. Think of how we gather among the graves of our loved ones each Easter. We want a marker, a physical reminder of someone we loved. All Mary is looking for is a body to hold on to. We can picture her turning away from this stranger, sobbing at the entrance to the cold tomb, desolate in grief.

Then she hears a single word. “Mary.” He calls her by name and she recognizes his voice. Once again, the parable of the Good Shepherd is acted out in the Gospel of John. It was not the physical body of Jesus that she recognized, it was the sound of his voice. The Word made flesh was the Word resurrected. And she called him by one of his many names: Rabbouni! She does not call him King or Messiah, but Rabbouni. This is an Aramaic word that a student uses for a beloved teacher. It is an intimate form of the word Rabbi. In the resurrection this remains the title of Jesus – Rabbi, Teacher. John translates the word just so his Greek readers get the point. Jesus remains the teacher even after his resurrection.

Do not touch!                        We do not know if she fell at his feet or embraced him, but Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. The Greek is translated in various ways. In Latin it became Noli tangere – “Do not touch me” and was the subject of many paintings and sermons. People have claimed that Mary was forbidden to touch Jesus because she was a sinful woman, which defies the whole meaning of the gospel. Others said that she could not touch Jesus because the resurrection was still in process; he had not yet assumed full corporeal form. Raymond Brown’s rendering of the phrase as “Do not cling to me” is helpful. Mary had been looking for the dead body of Jesus to hold on to. Now she had the living Lord, but she still wanted to hold on to him. She wanted to possess him and keep him, but she could not. Just as Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper, he had to return to the Father, but in returning, he could be with the church forever.

Ascending            This brings us to one of the most theologically difficult things in this passage. Jesus says that Mary cannot hold him since he has not yet ascended to his Father, but there is no ascension story in John’s Gospel. Matthew and Luke tell of a physical ascension in which Jesus’ body rises on the clouds, but there is nothing like that in John. This is one of those times when I think we should not push too hard for consistency in the biblical account. John is facing a problem that confronts many writers. How do you describe in chronological, linear fashion things that are not bound by time and space? The key point is this verse is that Jesus says: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This echoes Ruth who said that Naomi’s people would be her people and Naomi’s God her God. Jesus came from the Father so that we might be united to the Father. We are sons and daughters of God because of Christ. And Mary Magdalene was the one sent by the Lord to proclaim the good news. That means she was the first apostle. Tune in next week to hear about Jesus’ appearance to the men.

Lessons from John, 19:33-42 Death and burial

John 19:33-42 Death and Burial of Jesus

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Oct. 6, 2007. Craig D. Atwood, 

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week in your home. I was away all week in Herrnhut, Germany, but thankfully I was able to be home in time for Madeleine’s eighth birthday. It was a good conference on the significance of the old Unity of the Brethren. There were only two papers given in English, both by Americans, and unfortunately my German is not very good. I had the opportunity to talk to a group of young people studying for the Moravian ministry. We had a good discussion of how to use history in the church today. I met a lawyer from Surinam who told me that the reason he is a Moravian today is because the Moravians educated his ancestors when it was illegal to educate black people. It was quite a witness to the positive aspects of our heritage and our mission. One of the most exciting papers was about the discovery last year of two boxes containing hundreds of records from the last bishop in Bohemia. They were hidden just after the Battle of White Mountain. Scholars will be working on them for years.

While I was there, I got to visit Niesky, which was founded about the same time as Bethlehem. They have one of the largest Moravian stars I have ever seen. More than six feet in diameter with 144 points. It was beautiful. The stars in Niesky are much more complicated than ours. The pastor said it was the biggest Moravian star in the world, but I told him about the one on top of Baptist Hospital. I don’t think he believed me. I also learned that the women who serve lovefeast in Germany wear black skirts with white aprons. I think we ought to think about going to the more traditional look here at Home Church.

I have a true story from a family member. While her daughters were cleaning their bedroom, she heard one say “Maybe we could it on the chair.” She went in to see what they were doing. One of the girls told her the preacher said we shouldn’t leave the Bible on the shelf” so she was putting it on a chair.

Spear Wound                        Last week Dr. Vinson gave a wonderful lesson on the crucifixion in John’s Gospel. John’s account is a little different from the other gospels. Jesus gives up his spirit without any cry of abandonment. Simon of Cyrene was not there to help shoulder Jesus’ burden, but the Beloved Disciple was there with Mary, his mother. Zinzendorf suggested that the first church was simply Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the feet of the cross. What Jesus says from the cross in John is different as well. The famous Seven Last Words are taken from all four gospels, not any one gospel.

There is one verse unique to John that has been the topic of much discussion over the centuries. As you heard last week, one of the soldiers poked Jesus with a spear. Apparently he was checking to make sure that Jesus was indeed dead. There doesn’t seem to be any desire to abuse Jesus in this action, but when the spear entered his side blood and water came out. Over the centuries, this story grew into legend. The soldier was promoted to a centurion and given the name Longius, which means spear. He was identified with the centurion in Mark who declares Jesus was the Son of God, and he became a Christian. During the Middle Ages there were dozens of spears that churches claimed was the spear that pierced Christ. According to a non-canonical gospel, the soldier stabbed Jesus’ right side, and so most Catholic paintings show this wound on the right, but there is good reason medically and theologically to assume it was over the heart of Jesus as it is in Moravian artwork.

Many researchers doubt this event took place. For one thing, it is not mentioned in the other gospels. Presumably something so important and dramatic would have been mentioned elsewhere, but we have found things reported only in John that appear to be historically reliable. It is possible that Mark either did not know about this incident or omitted it from his gospel. Interestingly, we have events in the other gospels that might symbolize this event. The climax of Mark’s account is when the veil of the Temple was miraculous torn asunder at the moment Jesus died. Matthew adds dramatic supernatural details about the rocks splitting and the dead rising. There are no such miracles in John. His account of the piercing of Jesus is much more restrained and more believable than the other gospels.

Blood and Water            The second objection to this story is a bit harder to address. Dead bodies don’t bleed, and if they did, it is very unlikely that water would come out with the blood. I’m sorry to talk about such things on a Sunday morning, but this is part of our Scripture.  For over 200 years there have been physicians intrigued by this story. I wish we had Dr. Kahl in here this morning to verify this information, but apparently the best medical explanation for what happened when Jesus was stabbed is that either he was not quite dead or he was so recently dead that the heart was still full. If John’s account is accurate, then the spear must have pierced the heart of Jesus, which becomes an important metaphor for the crucifixion itself. John is depicting the literal breaking of God’s own heart in love for his creation.

The water is more difficult to explain, but many physicians think it was some type of clear fluid that had built up in the lungs during Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion. In order to prove this historical accuracy of this account, some conservative scholars are willing to sacrifice biblical literalism and assert that it was not really water. The most we can say is that it appears possible that this could happen to a human body, but it was very unusual. John is aware of just how strange this little story is, so he highlights the fact that there was a trustworthy eye-witness.

Why?            The question for biblical interpretation is why John focused on this. There is more to it than the fact that Jesus’ legs were not broken, which the other gospels report. First of all, this appears to be a way of proving that Jesus was really dead and not in a coma. Secondly, John tells us that this fulfilled a prophecy in Zechariah, one of his favorite books to quote. “They shall look on him whom they pierced.” Actually, you will not find this exact quotation in the Old Testament. Oddly enough, the Greek and Hebrew versions of this verse differ slightly. One says that the people will look on God whom they pierced; the other that they will look on Israel who has been pierced. Perhaps John intentionally left it ambiguous by saying “him.” Some scholars have suggested that John made up the whole story of the piercing just to fulfill this prophecy, but it is such an obscure verse that seems unlikely. No, John used this verse to help make sense of the details of Jesus’ death.

There is another reason John draws our attention to this blood and water. Although many Protestant scholars disagree, it seems clear that John saw this as a reference to baptism and the Eucharist. As we talked about months ago, John does not have a story of Jesus being baptized or instituting the Lord’s Supper. This has led some scholars, like Bultmann, to claim that this gospel is anti-sacramental, but we have seen several places where John uses sacramental imagery. This scene shows the two sacraments of the church flowing directly from Jesus. Jesus himself is the new Passover. Some of the earliest Christian theologians saw something else in this blood and water. It reminded them of the creation of Eve in Genesis. She was born out of the side of Adam as he slept. Here Christ is asleep on the cross and his bride is born out of his side. We don’t talk this way today, but this idea that the Church is the Bride of Christ born on the cross was very important to Moravians over 200 years ago.

Joseph of Arimathea                        All of the gospels report that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for permission to bury Jesus. This is almost certainly historical since it is reported by multiple sources and is such a surprising turn of events. We know little about Joseph, except that he was wealthy, well respected, and a member of the Jewish council. He was so different from Jesus. He had a place to lay his head in this life and in death. He was the kind of man who had access to the procurator, and he sat on the council that condemned Jesus, but he had not consented to the injustice of the Sanhedrin. He was a secret follower of Jesus who risked a great deal by asking for the body of his teacher. The time for secrecy was past. What Joseph was doing was something that the Torah praises people for doing. In Judaism it is very important to treat the bodies of the dead with respect, and it was act of mercy for a rich person to bury someone whose family was too poor to do so. Joseph was a righteous man in the Jewish sense. He was not only honoring Jesus; he was showing mercy on Mary at this terrible moment.

Since there is so little we know about Joseph, it was easy for Christians to make up legends about him. One is that he collected the blood of Jesus in the cup that was used at the last supper. This was the Grail that Arthur went in search of. Another legend is that Joseph and Mary Magdalene fled Jerusalem and sailed to the south of France where they founded a church. You can visit it today, but be aware that it was built in the 12th century. Some legends even bring Joseph to England so that land becomes part of salvation history. I prefer the historical Joseph who was a rich man who did what he could for Jesus. He is the male version of Mary of Bethany earlier in the gospel, and he should be a patron saint for all people with wealth who refuse to consent to injustice and do what they can for Christ.

Burial                        All of the gospels agree that Jesus was buried in a new tomb owned by Joseph, but John goes into the most detail on the burial. In fact, this section is almost as long as the narration of Jesus’ suffering and death. John includes Nicodemus in the story. We met Nicodemus at the beginning of the gospel. It was night and Jesus taught him that he needed to be born from above, and here he is at the time of death as the sun sets. There is poignancy in seeing Nicodemus at the cross. I think he represents those who are reborn through the death of Jesus. No longer does he hide in shadows. He is part of this new community of the cross with Mary and the Beloved Disciple. His story also shows us that rebirth does not happen in a moment. It took the whole gospel to bring Nicodemus out of the shadows of doubt.

Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of ointment to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. That is a lot of ointment by anyone’s standards. It is enough to bury a king in high style, which is probably what John was trying to say. The Romans may have mocked the king of the Jews, but Nicodemus and Joseph bury Jesus as if he were a king. This extravagant ointment is consistent with the theme of abundance throughout John’s gospel. Think of the hundreds of gallons of wine at Cana, the surplus of food when he feed the crowds, and the expensive nard Mary poured on him. Even in death, the blessings of Jesus overflow so that all cups are running over.

There is one problem with the story of the anointing of Jesus’ body which you may have noticed. In the other gospels, Jesus was buried too quickly to be anointed, so the women return to the tomb after the Sabbath to do their duty. John could not imagine that Jesus would have been buried unprepared. There have been attempts to reconcile the different accounts, such as claiming that the women did not know what Nicodemus had done or that Nicodemus gave them the ointment but they could not use it because of sunset. I think we should just accept that we have two different memories that evolved in their own ways. You may choose which is more historical and which is more literary. Each has its own meaning.

It seems to me that John’s Gospel wants to make sure that the reader knows that Jesus was really, truly dead. There is no question of Jesus having been in a coma from which he awakened two days later. He was buried according to the standards of the day. John may have been responding to an early form of Gnosticism that denied that Jesus was mortal, or he may have been addressing Jewish polemics that claimed that Jesus had been resurrected since he had not died. We cannot know for sure, but John presses home the point that the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus were real. The Word of God that took human flesh died a human death.

Great Sabbath            John draws attention to the fact that Jesus was buried on the Day of Preparation for the Passover and that the next day was the Sabbath. He says that the Sabbath was a “high day,” or a special holy day. The oldest part of the Christian liturgical calendar is the three days from Good Friday to Easter. In the early church, this was one extended holy day. Saturday was called the Great Sabbath because that was the day when the Son of God rested from all of his labors. Just as the Creator had rested on the seventh day, the Redeemer rested. The eighth day of the week – Easter Sunday was the day of new creation. Often the church baptized new Christians on Great Sabbath evening so they could participate in the Eucharist on Sunday morning. As they were lowered into the water, they were told that they were being buried with Christ so they could be raised with Christ. Then the congregation would keep an all night vigil in the church awaiting the dawn and the words that the Lord is risen!

The Eastern Orthodox churches continue this type of observance, but the only Western Church I know that does something similar is the Moravian Church. You are probably familiar with the Easter Dawn celebration and the fact that the band, at least, keeps an all night vigil. You may not know that it used to be traditional to have a lovefeast on Great Sabbath. Here at Home Church the Great Sabbath lovefeast is held after sundown on Good Friday. Remember, the Sabbath begins at sundown. We gather to remember the Lord in death and to stand by the tomb. We remind ourselves that we are mortal and will die one day. But we rejoice that his death has blessed our death; his Sabbath rest in the grave blesses our rest in God’s Acre; and his resurrection is our resurrection. This Moravian observance is based on this account in John’s picture of the death of Jesus. For John, the Word of God continued to speak even in death.

Conclusion                        It seems appropriate to end our lesson here with the friends of Jesus leaving the tomb. Among them were two members of the Jewish Council who were merciful to the dead and to a mother who had watched her son die. We end with the picture of Jesus being lovingly anointed and covered in linen cloths. We end with the picture of the Beloved Disciple taking Mary home with him so they may comfort each other. And we end with the image of the Son of God asleep in the tomb. There are different lessons and blessings in each of these images. John asks us to leave Golgotha in silence without earthquakes and eclipses and shouts. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”


Lessons from John, 19:1-16 Mockery

John 19:1-16 Mockery

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 23, 2007. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Old Salem. The weather was so heavenly this week, it was hard to stay at my desk and do my work, but I do have a lesson for you today. Wednesday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day, so I told my class that a pirate’s favorite prayer is “Ourrr Farrrther.” Next Sunday, Dr. Richard Vinson of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond will be filling in for me while I am away at a conference in Germany. The conference is being held in honor of the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Moravian Church, and I will be giving a paper on Moravian theology in the early years. I’m grateful to Dr. Vinson for sharing some of his vast knowledge of the NT with you. 

Today we are continuing our discussion of the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Last week we saw that John draws a contrast between two types of people, two types of leaders. There is Jesus: a sojourner for truth who invites his accusers into eternal life. And there is Pilate who has a legion at his command and sits on the judgment seat, but is weak and frightened. James Russell Lowell’s words “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, Yet that scaffold sways the future” in the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” captures John’s image well. Pilate is not shown as evil, but weak. He tries to avoid making a decision and plays games with the Sanhedrin. In the end, though, he does condemn a man he thinks is innocent. Weakness can make us immoral. As Raymond Brown put it, “Pilate tried to be neutral to the truth, the truth that sets men free; and now he is enslaved by his own fears.” (Brown, II:891) I will be reading from ch. 19 of John’s gospel, using Brown’s translation.

Scourging:             Matthew, Mark, and John all report that Pilate had Jesus scourged or flogged. Luke indicates that Jesus was beaten. None of the gospels give the details of the scourging, perhaps because the original readers knew all too well what such a flogging meant. Historians have learned that the Romans had three degrees of physical punishment. Beating with sticks was for lesser crimes. Flogging was for more severe crimes, but not for capital offenses. In both of these, the victim would be released after the ordeal. Scourging or verbatio was done in preparation for crucifixion in order to speed death. It is not clear which was done to Jesus since the Greek words do not match precisely with the Latin terms in Roman law. In both Mark and Matthew, the scourging takes place after Jesus has been condemned, which implies he suffered the most severe form of the punishment. This is what Mel Gibson depicts in such gory detail in his movie The Passion of the Christ. Catholic piety focused on this brutal punishment during the Middle Ages, but John devotes a single sentence to the whipping of Jesus; far less than he devotes to Jesus’ conversation with Pilate. The whipping of Jesus was an historical fact, but it was not central to the good news about Jesus, and it is wise not to dwell too long over the gruesome details. It is enough to know that he suffered as a human being before he died.

John’s portrayal of this scene implies that Pilate was ordering the lesser punishment since he intended to free Jesus after he was whipped. It is hard to understand why John would have placed the scourging before Jesus was condemned. Different scholars offer different explanations, but none of them are really convincing. This different sequence of events does how that John probably had different sources for his gospel than Mark had used.

Robe and Crown            All of the gospels record that Jesus’ ordeal included mockery. John says that Jesus was mocked by the Jewish police when he was in the home of Annas and that he was further mocked by the Roman soldiers. Mark and Matthew agree with John that the Roman soldiers who had fun abusing their prisoner. Luke alone tells that Jesus was sent to King Herod whose soldiers mocked him. The details are a little different, but Matthew, Mark, and John say that a crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head. Any number of trees or bushes could have provided the thorns, by the way. There are lots of thorns in Palestine. The crown the soldiers plaited was probably a mockery of the laurel wreath worn by the emperor. The symbolism of this derision is clear: Jesus claimed to be a king, but his crown was made of thorns that cut into his scalp. What was a source of amusement to the soldiers became an important aspect of Christian devotion.

The four gospels agree that the soldiers then put a robe on Jesus. According to Mark and John, it was a purple robe, which was the color of royalty because purple dye was so. Over the centuries as the church took over many of the characteristics of the Roman Empire, purple became the color for bishops, by the way. Matthew says that the color of the robe was scarlet, not purple, which causes some confusion in the Passion Week Manual. Matthew wisely recognized that it was unlikely that the soldiers would have “wasted” such an expensive robe on a prisoner, particularly if he were still bleeding. The historical robe probably was red, but was remembered as purple because of the greater symbolic value of purple.

Ave Caesar!            After putting the crown of thorns and robe on Jesus, the soldiers mockingly paid homage to him, shouting out “hail, king of the Jews.” There is no reason to do the historicity of this. Not only is this ritual humiliation attested in all of the gospels, we know that Roman soldiers acted this way in other cases. Prisoners about to be killed in the arena were often ridiculed for the amusement of the crowds. Moreover, there was even a game Roman soldiers played in which they set up a “mock king” during Saturnalia. (Brown, 888) 

We should not forget theses Legionnaires. They were not forced to humiliate this poor Jew from Nazareth. They placed the crown on his head because they enjoyed reducing another human being to an object of scorn. This mocking of Jesus is one of the most painful aspects of the passion narrative for Christians. We remember these soldiers in the gospel narrative, not to inspire hatred, but to make us ashamed of who we are. Those who are weak and on the fringes of society are often subjected to cruelty masked as fun. For some reasons, people like to make themselves appear bigger by making other people small. Just think back to the humiliation visited upon those who did not fit in at high school or work.

Last week I watched the wonderful Roberto Benigni film “Life is Beautiful” about an Italian family taken to the concentration camp. The death camp was simply the final stage of a process of humiliation, degradation, and cruelty. The main character, Guido, was a Jew who tried to shield his son from the degradation by pretending that it was all a game. To the very end, he laughed at those who murdered him. In the church, we remember another Jew who was mocked, scourged, and executed by another empire. This story has been retold for 2000 years to remind us that our Lord and Savior suffered, but he did not respond to enemies with hatred and scorn.

Ecce Homo            Pilate endorsed this humiliation of the Messiah. He brought Jesus out to the priests, dressed in his crown of thorns and his robe, and declared: Idou ho anthropos, which is more famous in the Latin: Ecce Homo. Behold the man. Scholars debate how to translate this phrase even though the Greek is simple. Some interpreters think Pilate is saying “here is a true man,” and expressing admiration for Jesus’ courage. Some have thought that this statement is proof of the Incarnation, that the beating and mockery have shown that Jesus is truly human, a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. Others have thought that this statement does the opposite and is identifying Jesus as the heavenly Son of Man who will return in glory. I think Pilate is proclaiming that Jesus is merely a man and no man can stand against the emperor.

It is possible, perhaps likely, that Pilate wanted to send a message to all Jews that no one can stand up to Rome. It is possible, perhaps likely, that Pilate wanted everyone to see that Jesus was powerless and they should not follow him. It is possible that Pilate hoped that the sight of Jesus in humiliation would convince the priests that he was no threat to their power or authority and they would agree to drop the charges. We do not know what Pilate hoped would happened when he said “Behold the man,” but we do know that the priests had no more compassion than the soldiers. Seeing the Messiah brought low, the priests called for more blood.

Innocent of the Charges            Pilate’s game failed, and now he must take responsibility for the fate of Jesus. He proclaims again that there is no legal case against Jesus. He tells the priests to crucify him themselves if they want to, but they refuse. They are shrewd and refuse the bait. They tell Pilate that Jesus has violated the laws of their religion and must die. Thus, the truth leaks out. The Greek is more clear here than some English translations. It says that he “made himself the Son of God,” rather than he “claimed to be the Son.” The evangelist knew that Jesus was innocent of the charge that he made himself the Son of God because it was God who named Jesus the Son. It is not blasphemy to claim to be the Son of God if you really are.

Pilate’s Fear            It is not clear why Pilate was so frightened when he heard the response of the chief priests that Jesus made himself the Son of God. Pilate was probably frightened because he realized that this case was a religious matter not a political matter, and religion is a dangerous and unpredictable power. If Pilate refused to punish someone for offending Jewish law, he risked antagonizing the priests and the people. He had already been forced to put down violent uprisings. If he executed someone that the people thought was the Son of God, he might have a bigger uprising on his hands, but if he failed to execute a blasphemer, there could also be a riot. Or, since Pilate was a pagan who believed in many gods, he may have simply been frightened by the though that Jesus was a demigod who might defend himself with divine power.

We do not know why Pilate was frightened. In any case, he went back inside and asked Jesus where he was from. Since this question comes immediately after the statement that Jesus had made himself the Son of God, we can assume that the evangelist intended something more than just a geographical answer. Pilate was really asking Jesus if he was from Galilee, he was asking about the origin of Jesus: was he from the heavens? Was he the son of one of the gods of the pantheon?

But Jesus refused to answer. This is one of the great moments of silence in the history of the world. There are times when silence communicates more than words could. Throughout the Gospel Jesus says that he has come from the Father and will return to the Father, but such teachings were not for pagan governors who have just ordered an innocent man to be tortured. Pilate deserves no answer. His treatment of Jesus ought to have been based on the truth, not on his fears of offending one of the gods or his fear of the crowds. Jesus has offered Pilate the truth, but he scorned it and mocked the truth-giver. Now he receives silence. How often we complain of the silence of God without wondering if God is silent because we are unjust, merciless, scornful, and cruel.

Threats and Violence            Pilate responds in the only way he knows: with threats and promises. Jesus’ life is in Pilate’s hands. Like all tyrants, Pilate exults in the fact that he has the power to take life or to grant it. He is like the little boy who feels powerful because he can kill an insect; like the psychopath who feels godlike because he can abuse and kill women and children; like the politician who thinks that sending troops into battle is a demonstration of his resolve and strength. Pilate thinks that the power to take life is the same as the power to grant life, but Jesus reminds him that he has no real power. Pilate is the puppet of the emperor in Rome and his life is just as tenuous as the lives of his subjects. Pilate has no power of his own; his power comes from above him.

According to John, Jesus told Pilate that those who handed him over have greater sin than Pilate. Up to this point, the verb translated “handed over” has referred to Judas. Here John is probably referring to the chief priests who handed Jesus over to Pilate. Their sin was greater than Pilate’s. Pilate sinned out of weakness, ignorance, and laziness, but the priests knew what they were doing. They knew the Law and the Prophets but do not recognize the one sent by God to bring reconcile the world to himself. Those who knew the Law failed to recognize the truth. Worse, they betrayed him. The more Pilate tried to release Jesus, the more insistent they were that he had to die. Sin is so often compounded sin.

No King but Caesar!                        Finally, the tensions reach a fever pitch. The chief priests threaten Pilate at his weakest point. They tell him that he is no friend of Caesar if he does not execute the Messiah. “Friend of Caesar” became a formal title in the Roman Empire to indicate someone who had shown great loyalty to the emperor. It was an even more exalted title than “Friend of Bill” was in the 1990s. We do not know if Pilate was considered a friend of Caesars, but we can assume that this was a desire of his. We can perceive the threat behind these words. If Pilate failed to execute Jesus, the priests would send someone to Rome to inform the emperor and ask that Pilate be investigated. His misdeeds and misrule would come to light. His chance for advancement would wither. The priests thus affirmed what Jesus just told Pilate. He has no power of his own – unlike Jesus. It is Jesus who has the power to lay down his life and to take it up again. It is Jesus who can give life instead of death. Jesus can ignore Rome; Pilate can’t.

Judgment            Finally, the trial is over. Pilate sits on the judgment seat and officially sends Jesus off to be crucified. There is an ambiguity in the Greek so that it could be read that Pilate set Jesus on the judgment seat, as if he were continuing to mock Jesus (O’Day, 822), but it seems very unlikely that the governor would do that. No, the time for games was at an end. Judgment had come. Pilate presented Jesus one last time and forced the priests to repudiate Jesus and declare loyalty to Caesar. “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked cruelly. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. This is a shattering statement. Not only have the priests rejected Jesus, they have rejected the idea of the Messiah and embraced a pagan emperor as their ruler. This statement seems like a rejection of the teaching of the Torah that God is the true king of Israel. It is a tragic moment in the gospel that echoes in silence.

Noon on the Day of Preparation            The evangelist includes a detail that may or may not be historically accurate but is theologically rich. The judgment of Jesus by Pilate came at noon on the day of preparation for the Passover. According to Jewish law, the priests could begin sacrificing lambs for the Passover festival at noon the day before the feast. It other words, the priests call for the crucifixion of Jesus at the moment their colleagues in the Temple are lining up innocent lambs for the slaughter. Passover is a festival celebrating God’s judgment of the world, but here the priests judged themselves by judging Jesus. The priests proclaimed their allegiance to the new Pharaoh and called for the execution of the one who could lead people out of slavery. The truth will set you free, Jesus had proclaimed, but Pilate rejected truth and the priests sacrificed the liberator. The question for us is where do we truly stand? Do we stand with the man of sorrows dressed in robes of mockery or with the priests and procurator who have no king but Caesar? Do we stand with those who deal in death and judgment or with the One who offers

life and truth? Pilate sent him away to be crucified. 

Lessons from John, 18:28-19:1 – Pilate

John 18:28-19:1 – Pilate

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 16, 2007. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It was homecoming weekend at WFU and we could not have had a beautiful day after the storms. Julie and I were able to attend the taping of the radio show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me in Wait Chapel on Thursday night. A word of thanks to Molly Davis of WFDD for all the work she and the whole crew put in to make it such a good event. Julie and I are fans of the show, but it was even better in person. Chris Paul was the guest host, and I think he impressed everyone with his poise, charm, and North Carolina manners. Chris is doing a lot of good things in our city and we should be proud of him. 

Trial Drama:                        This week we are looking at John’s version of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Palestine. I was really confused when I started seeming ads for Pilates around town, thinking they were talking about Pilates. I wonder if younger people are confused when they read the Apostles Creed and see that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilates. It is significant that the early church included Pilate in the Creed. Not only did this establish the historicity of the crucifixion, it also placed the blame for Jesus death right where it belonged. There have been those through the centuries who have tried to exonerate Pilate and the Roman Empire. We can see this process in the gospels themselves, but unlike Matthew and Luke, John makes no effort to mitigate Pilate’s guilt for Jesus’ death.

            John tells the story of Jesus’ trial as if it were a play on a stage. Picture a stage where there are two scenes divided by a wall. The setting is the Praetorium or the residence of the Roman governor. On the right side of the stage is the courtyard, with its large, flat stones. There stand members of the Sanhedrin and curious bystanders. On the left side of the stage is the interior of the palace. This is where Jesus will be taken by the guards. Seven times Pilate passes from one side to the other until the final resolution. It is a beautifully crafted piece of drama in which the tension builds to a dramatic conclusion.

            Just because John is a good dramatist, it doesn’t mean that there are not historical details that are reliable. We don’t need to go into this in depth today, but I will point out that John is probably correct that Jesus’ trial and execution were on the day before Passover began. John displays knowledge of Roman legal proceedings than some modern scholars. Though the local governments had authority over many legal matters, the Roman Empire reserved the right to decide capital offenses. The last thing the Romans wanted was for a local government to start executing people without the approval of the Empire. Thus, the Sanhedrin might have had the authority to stone an adulterous woman, but they could not execute a suspected insurrectionist on their own authority – particularly if the governor was in residence in Jerusalem. All in all, it appears that the evangelist took a reliable eye-witness account of Jesus’ trial and used it creatively to illustrate important theological points.   

Read: John 18:28-19:1

Purity of the Priests                        The trial begins at dawn, which is when the Roman workday began. The priests and the police took Jesus to Pilate, but they refused to enter the praetorium so they would not be made unclean before the festival. According to some interpretations of the law, they would have been impure for seven days after entering the home of a Gentile. As with the parable of the Good Samaritan, these religious leaders are more concerned about purity than with human suffering. Here the contrast is even more severe. The priests are handing an innocent man over to be tortured and executed, but they try to avoid being defiled. John is not condemning the religion of Judaism; this is a condemnation of every person in authority who participates in violence and oppression while claiming to be innocent. We read about such people around the world in our newspapers today. They claim seats of honor on the world stage and parrot pious platitudes while justifying abuse and murder. John’s Gospel condemns all religions, including Christianity, when concerns over purity and ritual obscure justice and truth.

Pilate and the Priests            John says that Pilate went out to the priests and asked them what accusation they brought against Jesus. This does not imply that Pilate was ignorant of the arrest of Jesus, as some scholars have claimed. Pilate was simply following the rules of the law. This was a ritual similar to ones judges perform today. There had to be a formal statement of the charges. The priests assure Pilate that the prisoner is an evil-doer and criminal, but their tone is almost rude. This probably reflects the distaste the priests felt for having to work with the Romans. Pilate tells the priests to judge Jesus according to their law. Scholars debate whether this reticence on Pilate’s part was genuine or was an invention of the evangelist. This may have been part of the formal procedures whereby the imperial governor affirms the right of the subject nation to govern itself, within certain limits. Or, it could be an indication that Pilate wanted the priests to judge Jesus so he would not have to make a decision about a popular preacher.

            There has been a long scholarly debate over whether John is accurate that the Sanhedrin could not put Jesus to death. Unfortunately, there is no conclusive evidence for the situation during the time of Pilate. The best evidence that John is correct is that the priests did not take Jesus out and stone him to death for the charge of blasphemy. But it is possible that they brought Jesus to Pilate as a way to avoid taking the blame for the death of the prophet from Nazareth. It is also possible that the Sanhedrin wanted to prove to Pilate that they were supportive of Roman rule by handing over a rebel. It is even possible that all of these factors played a role in the decision to hand a fellow Jew over to the Gentiles to be crucified. It was a shrewd ploy.

Are you the King?            Once the initial public dialog with the accusers is completed, Pilate goes inside to question Jesus further. He cuts right to the heart of the matter and asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews. This was the formal change that Jesus would be convicted of. He was on trial for sedition, but Jesus challenges the charge by asking if he has been arrested by the Romans or the Jews. Has he done anything so bad that Pilate saw him as a threat, or was Pilate relying on the evidence of the priests? Pilate responds with contempt: “Do I look like a Jew?” It is an odd response, but the meaning is clear enough. Pilate sees this as a Jewish matter that he has been forced to deal with. He tells Jesus that his own people have handed him over. Readers of the Gospel will remember the prologue: He came to his own people, but they did not receive him.

            Finally Pilate asks Jesus to tell him what he has done, but instead Jesus answers the first question. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he states. In the other gospels, Jesus is strangely silent before Pilate. It is almost like he did not understand what Pilate was asking him. It is only in John that Jesus engages Pilate in a discussion. It is possible that John was the only evangelist whose sources of information included an eye-witness account of what went on in the praetorium. Or, it is possible that the trial allowed the evangelist to construct the defense that he thought Jesus would have made. In any case, Jesus tells Pilate that he is no threat to the Roman Empire. If Jesus had been plotting to claim the throne of King David, his followers would have fought back when he was arrested. Jesus, in effect, was pointing out to Pilate how ridiculous the charges against him were. Do I look like a king? Kings have subjects, but Jesus had disciples.

            Since the early days of the church, this statement in John has been used to talk about Jesus’ kingdom as a spiritual reality rather than a political reality. Martin Luther used this in developing his theory of two realms, which has had the unfortunately consequence of convincing many theologians and ordinary Christians that God is not concerned about secular affairs or the misdeeds of governments. Thus, Jesus’ prayer that God’s “kingdom come and his will be done on earth” gets distorted by using this statement that Jesus’ reign is not of this world. When interpreting this verse we should recall that John typically uses the word “world” to refer to the forces that are opposed to God. Jesus’ kingdom is not of the world because it is from above.

            Just as Nicodemus had to be born from above in order to enter into eternal life; Jesus kingdom is not based on the corrupt world of politics and military might. We saw that his disciples were to be in the world, but not of the world; likewise his kingdom would not be of the world. In short, Jesus is telling Pilate that he cannot even begin to understand the nature of Jesus’ Lordship because his knowledge of power is limited to legions, tribunals, and crucifixions. Pilate understands kingship in terms of oppression, of lording it over others. Jesus’ kingdom is not like that and never will. His kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms. Those who long to create a Christian theocracy under King Jesus also misuse this verse by failing to recognize that Jesus does not rule as other kings.

Not a King?            Pilate pushes further, asking, “So, you are a king?” But Jesus gives an ambiguous answer. The translators of the NIV were so dissatisfied with his answer that they added words. They have Jesus say, “you are right in saying that I am king,” but the Greek does not say that. It may mean that, but literally Jesus replies: “you say I am a king.” Jesus could have been rejecting the title of king entirely. The ambiguity in the text continues with the next sentence. Jesus says that it was for this reason that he came into the world. Some translators think this phrase belongs to what comes before; that this refers to his status as King of the Jews. But most translators think these words lead into what follows: “The reason I came into the world was to bear witness to the truth.” In other words, Jesus deflects the question of his kingship and then tells Pilate clearly why he came into the world. He is not a ruler, he is a truth-teller. He is the one who reveals the hidden mysteries of God. This is why he is hated by the world. He reveals the truth about the world and its corruptions, including the corruption of power. This interpretation of 18:37 is consistent with the rest of the Gospel, and I think it is to be preferred.

            There is little evidence in the Gospel of John that Jesus claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, the king of the Jews, or the Son of David. Those titles are very important in the other gospels, particularly Matthew, but that is not how John portrays Jesus. Jesus will be crowned a king in John, but only in mockery. Here Jesus tells Pilate that those who belong to the truth listen to the voice of Jesus. He does not have subjects he lords over and sends to their deaths in battle; he has disciples who listen to the voice of the truth and respond. In effect, Jesus tells the Roman governor of Judea the parable of the Good Shepherd. At this moment in the trial, he offers Pilate the opportunity to listen to the truth and live in the truth. It is a climatic moment in the Gospel. Jesus offers the truth to a Gentile, but Pilate turns away muttering.

Truth?            What is Truth? Mel Gibson used this question to create a portrait of Pilate as a philosopher-king who explores the meaning of truth with his wife and with Jesus. Gibson’s Pilate is a sympathetic figure who sincerely wants to do what is right while facing political realities. That is not John’s picture of Pilate. This question is not an opening to a deeper discussion with Jesus about the nature of truth. Pilate rejects the opening that Jesus gives him. He is not on a spiritual quest. He is of the world. Pilate is a cynic who believes that the only truth is power and the will to use it. Like all tyrants past and present, Pilate’s truth is what he declares it to be. He recognizes that Jesus is not a threat and that he may even be innocent of the charges brought against him, but he will not release him.

            Pilate goes back outside where the priests are waiting for his official verdict, and he tells them that he finds no case against Jesus. This is like a judge ruling that there is no case against the accused and there is no need for further action. John, more so than the other gospels, makes it clear that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent and that he should be released, but he will not take responsibility for doing so. He decides to play a game with the priests. He wants them to ask for Jesus’ release. He says that he is willing to release Jesus as an act of mercy at Passover.

Barabbas:            All of the gospels record that this was a custom at Passover. The scene is different in each of the gospels, and it is not clear if it was Pilate or the crowds that brought up this possibility. The trouble is that there is no evidence that this ever was ever a Passover custom in Jerusalem. No other source outside of the NT mentions that Pilate or any other Judean official pardoned a criminal each year at Passover. It would make sense to do this because Passover is the celebration of the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. It is possible that this happened; in many countries rulers engage in such a demonstration of power and mercy. Even in America, the President pardons a turkey at Thanksgiving, which is a pale echo of the right of rulers to show mercy to the condemned during a holiday. Thus, the release of a criminal at Passover is a plausible ritual, but there is no evidence to support it as a historical reality. This has led many scholars to claim that the Christians simply made it up. They have trouble explaining why they would do so or why such a fiction became a firm part of the Jesus tradition so early before the gospels were written. The truth is that we know very little about Pilate’s reign in Jerusalem and he may have introduced this custom.

            Based on John’s account, it appears that Pilate wanted to use this custom as a loophole for releasing Jesus without offending the priests, but he failed. People called for the release of another person, known to tradition only as Barabbas. Barabbas is only the last part of the man’s name since Barabbas means “son of the father,” or possibly “son of our teacher.” Some scholars speculate that Jesus himself was known as Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus Son of the Father. Thus there may have been confusion over who to release. There is a report in one Jewish source that the Jews in Alexandria would dress a fool up as a king at Passover and call him Karabbas, but it is not clear what this tells us about Barabbas.

            John says that Barabbas was a bandit. The word he uses means a terrorist. The other gospels expand on the Barabbas story and claim that he was murderer who participated in a recent uprising. Whoever he was, whether historical or fictional, the idea that Pilate released Barabbas who was guilty of serious crimes, but executed Jesus demonstrates just how corrupt the government had become. The church used this story to illustrate the doctrine that Jesus took the place of all sinners on the cross – even a murderer and thief. In John’s Gospel, this story illustrates the idea that the judgment of the world is flawed.

Conclusion                        Next week we will look at the rest of the trial before Pilate and the preparation for the crucifixion. There is merit in taking time to explore this story rather than moving quickly toward its resolution. John draws a contrast between two types of people; two types of leaders. There is Jesus who is a sojourner for truth, who invites his accusers into eternal life. And there is Pilate who has a legion at his command and the legitimacy of Roman law. He lives in the praetorium and sits on the judgment seat, but he is weak and frightened. He tries to avoid making a decision. He plays games with the priests and the crowds. In the end, he condemns a man he thinks is innocent. We see how weakness can cause someone to be immoral. 

Lessons from John, 18:13-27 Interrogation

John 18:13-27 Interrogation and Denial

Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast September 9, 2007. Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible of Home Moravian Church. It’s been a hard week for our brothers and sisters on the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. Hurricane Felix left most residents homeless and the church is working hard to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the people. It seems that hurricanes are growing stronger and more frequent, and it is the poor who suffer most. This week brings a reminder of another kind of tragedy in which the innocent suffered. The difference between 9/11 and Hurricane Felix is that human beings were solely responsible for the events of 9/11. In both cases, though, our responsibility as Christians is similar. We need to care for those who have been harmed, do what we can to prevent future harm, and seek paths of justice and righteousness.

is now pursuing the call of God to new ministries. Kevin goes with our prayers and best wishes. On Sept. 20 at 7:00 p.m. there will be a special program in Wait Chapel titled Jazz and Job in which the story of Job is told with the help of jazz music. This could lead to a whole series of new cantatas: Samson and Disco; King David and Country and Western; Elijah Rocks; Ezekiel and a New Age; Paul and Heavy Metal; and the Gospel of John Unplugged.

The House of Annas                        This morning we are continuing in ch. 18 of John’s Gospel. Last week we saw that Jesus was arrested without putting up any resistance and then he was taken to be interrogated by the Jewish authorities. In John’s version of the story, Jesus was first taken to the house of Annas, who was the leader of a clan that controlled the high priesthood of Israel. Under Roman occupation, the position of high priest was the highest political office available to Jews. Rich and powerful Jerusalem families competed over the office, much like Roman families in the Renaissance competed over who controlled the papal chair. Not only had Annas served for years as the high priest himself, five of his sons became high priest. His son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest during the time of Pilate. It is likely that Caiaphas lived in the same palace as Annas in Jerusalem. The house Jesus was taken to was not like a modern suburban home; it was a sprawling complex that housed a large number of servants and guards.

John provides a number of details that differ the story told in the other gospels. We can’t discuss them all, but it is worthwhile noting that it is only John who records that Jesus was brought to the home of Annas. The other gospels say he was brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, for a trial at night. Since it was illegal for the Sanhedrin to meet at night, particularly to discuss a legal proceeding, John’s version makes more sense. Jesus was brought somewhere safe to be interrogated before appearing before the Sanhedrin. In modern terms, this nighttime encounter with Annas is similar to questioning in a police station after an arrest. Annas was examining the suspect in order to prepare for the trial. In the morning, Jesus was handed over to Caiaphas for the formal hearing. The other gospels focus on that event, but John passes over it in near silence. John simply reminds the reader that Caiaphas and the Council had already condemned Jesus before he was arrested. They had already decided to sacrifice him for the sake of the nation.

High Priest            One detail that has confused scholars for centuries is that John calls Annas the high priest even though Caiaphas was high priest at the time of Jesus’ arrest. There has been a remarkable amount of research on this little historical problem, and many scholars have used it as evidence that John did not know history or Jewish law. The answer to the problem appears to be quite simple. A former high priest, particularly one powerful as Annas, could still be referred to by that title as a sign of respect after leaving office. It is similar to how we refer to President Clinton or Senator Edwards even though they are no longer in office. The answer to the question of why the police took Jesus to Annas first is also rather simple. Caiaphas had to appear neutral and impartial for the trial. Annas would do the dirty work and find the best way to insure that Jesus would be executed.

Disciples in Annas’ House?                        John says that Peter and “another disciple” were able to follow Jesus into the house of Annas. This raises many questions for interpreters and historians, but it may tell us who reported what happened in the interrogation. What is strange is that this disciple is not identified. Many biblical scholars through the centuries have assumed that this was the Beloved Disciple who wrote the Gospel, but the text does not make that claim. Some scholars have suggested that it was actually Judas, who is the only one of the 12 who knew the high priest, but that seems very unlikely. I doubt that Judas would have helped Peter get into the courtyard after Peter saw him betray Jesus.

In fact, there is no reason to assume that this anonymous disciple was one of the 12. We’ve seen that the word “disciple” could refer to any follower of Jesus. John said that a member of the Sanhedrin, named Nicodemus, came to Jesus and may have become a follower. Other members of the Council spoke in his favor when they were debating what to do with the Messiah from Galilee. It is perfectly reasonable that a member of the Council or a member of Annas’ household could have been considered a disciple of Jesus. I think some scholars are too skeptical about the tradition that a disciple was allowed to attend the interrogation. Why do we not know his name? Perhaps, the church in Jerusalem protected him from arrest by keeping his identity secret. He remains one of the many anonymous figures of history who did what was in their power to do but whose names are forgotten by all but God.

Peter                        It is a more surprising that Peter would be allowed into the courtyard, since Peter was the one who had drawn a sword when Jesus was arrested. In our discussion after we went off the air last week, we decided that Peter probably had something more like a long fish knife than a military sword. Even so, he would have been considered a threat. Peter was certainly rash enough to try to find out what was happening to Jesus, and it is reasonable to assume that he would seek out an ally who could help him get into the palace. We can picture him standing outside the gate shouting out to a friend he saw inside.

This anonymous disciple spoke to the gate-keeper, who happened to be a woman, and Peter was allowed into the courtyard of the palace. She prudently asks Peter if he was one of the prisoner’s followers. She did not want to let someone in who might try to free Jesus. Peter prudently lied, and so he was allowed in. It was such a poignant lie. In order to be close to his teacher and master, Peter had to deny his teacher and master.   

All of the gospels record that it was a cold evening and the police and guards were warming themselves by a fire. John alone reports that it was a charcoal fire, which is only significant because it shows that John was not simply copying his account from the other gospels. This scene of the servants and police trying to keep warm while the prisoner was being interrogated is a very old part of the gospel narrative. It remains a compelling visual image: Peter standing with the slaves of the high priest and the police warming himself by their fire while Jesus is facing judgment inside. Could any fire warm the heart of Peter as he stood there in fear and despair? We aren’t told where the other disciple was at that time. He was probably inside observing the interrogation. But what happened to Judas who had accompanied the soldiers and police? Did he stay to give his testimony against the Messiah, to tell the high priest that Jesus spoke against the Temple and proclaimed God was his father? Unlike Matthew and Luke, John ignores Judas after the betrayal. He chose to go into the darkness and disappear.

Questioning                        John is an evangelist, but he is also a literary artist. The other gospels tell the story of Peter’s denial as one narrative, but John intentionally interrupts the story. Peter denied his was a disciple so that he would be allowed entrance to the courtyard. After that, John shifts the focus to what is happening inside one of the rooms of the palace. Jesus is being questioned by a crafty man who wanted to know what he taught his followers. Annas knew Jesus was guilty of subversive activities; he just wanted the evidence to convict him. It is a familiar story. It is bitterly ironic that a thousand years after this event, it would be the church that trained people to do what Annas was doing. The high priest was acting as the Grand Inquisitor ferreting out information about supposed heresies or blasphemies Jesus had committed. It was Annas, not Jesus, who was the model for the priests in Spain, France, and Italy who tried to trap suspected Jews and Waldensians into betraying their families and friends. It was Annas, not Jesus, who was the model for those who used torture to force people to confuse illicit beliefs.

Public Teachings            Jesus did not face his accuser passively in John’s version. He answered boldly and honestly. He said that he taught publicly and that everything he taught his followers in private was consistent with what he had said in the Temple and synagogue. There was no secret teaching; no plot to tear down the Temple; no secret plan to proclaim himself King of the Jews. This statement in John is important for two reasons. One, it connects Jesus’ teachings to the religious centers of Judaism. John emphasizes the fact that Jesus and his teachings were part of Judaism and the covenant. Though Jesus was critical of the corrupt priesthood and disagreed with Pharisees about the interpretation of the law, his teaching was part of that tradition. We’ve seen how closely tied John’s Gospel is to the Jewish liturgy and the Torah. Here, at a critical moment, Jesus reminds Annas and all of us that he was a faithful Jew preaching openly.

But John also includes this statement as a message to his church. The letters of John indicate that there were divisions in the church of the Beloved Disciple. Some people claimed to have special knowledge that the others did not possess. They believed they were more spiritual and closer to God than the rest of the church. In later years, such people would be called Gnostics, from the Greek word for knowledge. Many of the Gnostics claimed that Jesus had given secret teachings to a few of the disciples and only the spiritual elite could understand them. About a century after the Gospel of John was written, Gnostic gospels began to appear claiming to be the secret teaching given to a particular disciple like Thomas or Mary Magdalene or Philip. This statement in John indicates that there were no “secret teachings” of Jesus. He taught in the synagogues and the Temple. The teachings he gave at the Last Supper were consistent with the teachings he gave publicly.

Truth                        Jesus remains true to his beliefs despite the threat of execution. He does not bow to the authorities and their threats. Even when Jesus is slapped by a guard for being too cheeky with the high priest, he stands firm. He challenges his oppressors, especially their secrecy and violence. He challenged them to bring witnesses to prove that his teachings were in error. If he spoke truthfully, then why hit him. If he spoke in error, prove the error. This was a powerful message for the Christians of John’s time who were facing persecution. I am sure that Perpetua, Justin Martyr, John Hus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and who witnessed to the truth with their lives were strengthened by this image of Jesus demanding truth rather than bowing to violence.

Denial of Peter            Let’s return to Annas’ house. While Jesus was being interrogated, there a different scene was being acted out in the courtyard. One of the slaves asked Peter if he was a disciple of Jesus, and Peter denied it. Even when an eye-witness to his attack on Malchus pointed him out as one of the disciples, Peter said “I am not.” Jesus met his accusers with the great “I Am” and they fell down before the divine presence. Peter miserably sought to save his life by saying “I Am Not.” Those who would save their lives will lose them. Peter denied his Lord and he denied himself. “I Am Not.” I no longer exist. I no longer know who I am or why I live in this world. I am nothing but a cold slave trying to warm this dying body while the one true man is boldly calling for the truth. “I Am Not,” Peter said. And the cock crowed.

John’s account of the denial of Peter is more restrained than that of the other gospels where a crowd gathers accusing Peter. They point out that he is a Galilean and some claim to have seen him with Jesus. In Mark and Matthew, Peter curses and swears when he denies Jesus. Luke adds the dramatic detail that Jesus himself turned and looked at Peter when he denied him the third time. It is a haunting scene, but it could not have happened that way according to John. Jesus was inside facing his accusers while Peter was standing outside in the dark denying he was a disciple. John’s account is less dramatic, but is powerful in its simplicity and contrast.

Crowing:  Like everything in the gospels, the crowing of the cock has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, much more than it deserves. Scholars have studied what time roosters crow in Jerusalem in the spring – usually about 2:30 a.m. Some historians have claimed that this event could not be historical since the Talmud forbids the raising of chickens in the city of Jerusalem, but others point out that the reason such laws are written is because people disobey them. Still other historians have discovered that the trumpet call at the end of the third watch in the Roman army was called cockcrow. It was about 3:00 a.m. One researcher even discovered that there were in fact, three such trumpet calls during the night, with the third coming about 2:30 in the morning. In short, there is no reason to doubt that Peter’s denial came about the time of cockcrow in the early morning hours. Nor is that reason to doubt that Peter did indeed deny his Lord and Teacher. We should ponder the fact that the only person who would have told this story to the church in order for it to be written down would have been Peter himself.

Conclusion                        In many churches, worship services during Lent include hymns or litanies in which the worshipers profess their guilt for the death of Jesus. Some churches even have the congregation shout out “crucify him” just like the crowds in Jerusalem. Others identify the worshipers with Judas betrayed the Lord. Those are vivid images, which may ring true. It is certainly important to ponder those things and ask ourselves if we would have cried out with the mob. But I think this story of Peter provides us a better model of our lives today. We follow Jesus and profess our undying love, but how easily we deny we are disciples. Someone sees us out in the world and says, “aren’t you a follower of Jesus,” and we laugh and say “no.” We see the lies and violence of the world around us, and deny we are disciples of Jesus who stood for truth and peace. Whatever happened to the bracelets that asked “what would Jesus do?” We took them off after 9/11 because we knew the answer but chose to deny it. When have you denied your Lord? When voting, in your business dealings, in your pursuit of pleasure, by closing your eyes to the suffering around you? Remember Peter, and remember that when we deny Christ, we deny our true selves. You aren’t one of those Christians are you?

Next week we will follow Jesus to the praetorium where he is questioned by Pilate.