A gospel apart
Phil Fogarty SJ’s second book in the series Navigating the Gospels, just published by Columba Press, examines the Gospel of John the Evangelist, whose account of the Passion of Christ is read every year in the Good Friday ceremony. In an interview for Religious News Network, (RNN) the author explains how the Gospel of John seeks from beginning to end to preach the divinity of Christ. Unlike the other three gospel accounts there is no ‘agony in Gethsemane’ but rather a portrayal of Jesus acting in full knowledge of what is about to happen to him and why. In John’s account of the resurrection, various types of faith response to the risen Christ are recounted as John underlines the insight that intimacy with Jesus is closely related to resurrection faith. Below is the chapter on Resurrection (20:1-21:25) and a podcast of the RNN interview. [The image published here, with permission, is The Resurrection and the Empty Tomb by David Begley, commissioned by the Church of The Most Holy Trinity, Bunclody, Co Wexford.]
In John’s gospel various types of faith-response to the risen Lord are dramatised. Let us look at each one separately. On the first day of the week, while it is still dark, Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’ tomb, and seeing that the stone has been removed from the tomb, runs to Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple saying ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb but the Beloved Disciple gets there first. He does not go in, but bends down, looks in, and sees the wrappings lying there. When Peter arrives, he goes into the tomb, and sees the burial wrappings on the ground and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, rolled up in a place by itself. Then the Beloved Disciple goes in, sees and believes.
John consistently exalts the Beloved Disciple, believed to be the foundational figure of the Johannine community, and he becomes the first full believer in the risen Jesus. He believes because he sees evidence that Jesus, the man he loves, has overcome death. Having seen the empty tomb, both disciples return to their homes.
John’s story now turns to Mary Magdalene. She has returned to the tomb but stays outside it weeping. She looks in and sees two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been lying, one at the head, and the other at the feet. They ask her why she is weeping. She says to them. They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ She turns around and sees Jesus but does not recognise him. She thinks that he is the gardener. He says to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus says to her ‘Mary.’ Upon hearing his voice,(1) she turns and says, in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ a word which means my Teacher. Jesus says to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”.’ Mary goes and says to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ and she tells them about what Jesus said to her.
When Jesus says to Mary ‘Do not hold on to me’, he is indicating that there is no point in trying to re-establish the relationship she had with him in the past. The days of being associated with the historical Jesus are over. An entirely new situation has arisen. Jesus is about to return to the Father, and so he tells Mary that she is to tell his ‘brothers’ that he is ‘ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’.
Never before, in John’s story, have the disciples been told that Jesus’ Father is also their Father. But that situation is about to change. Jesus is ascending to the Father, and this will create a new situation whereby God the Father of Jesus will become the God and Father of the disciples also. No longer will they be called disciples but ‘brothers’.
In relating these stories about Peter, the Beloved Disciple and Mary of Magdalene, John is telling us that intimacy with Jesus is closely related to resurrection faith. If we love him and become his brothers and sisters we can come to faith in his resurrection.
On the evening of the first day of the week, the disciples, except for Thomas, are in a house with locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders. Jesus comes and stands among them and says, ‘Peace be with you.’ He shows them his hands and his feet. The disciples are filled with joy. Jesus says to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ Having said this, he breathes on them and says, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ Just as God breathed on human beings giving them life,(2) so Jesus breathes his Spirit into his disciples giving them power over sin. This is John’s version of the Pentecost scene we find in the Acts of the Apostles.(3)
Later, doubting Thomas, one of the twelve, is with the disciples. The other disciples tell him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he replies, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
Eight days later the disciples are again in the house, and Thomas is with them. Although the doors are shut, Jesus comes and stands among them and says, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he says to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas simply replies, ‘My Lord and my God.’
Thomas did not touch Jesus because to do so would have signified that his disbelief remained. His willingness to believe without touching Jesus is genuine faith. The irony is that the person who embodied disbelief now professes his belief in Jesus in the strongest possible terms. Although Thomas acknowledges the crucified and risen Jesus as ‘Lord and God’, Jesus reprimands him for demanding a sign before he believes.
One person who believed without seeing Jesus was the Beloved Disciple. When he went to Jesus’ tomb with Peter he saw only the burial wrappings and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. Nevertheless ‘he saw and believed’. He then returned home never to be heard of again. So it can be said that the founder of the Johannine community led the way for future generations of believers: he believed without seeing Jesus.
Finally John gives his reasons for writing his gospel: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’
One would expect John’s gospel to end at this point. However there is a final chapter appended to John’s story. It was probably penned by someone scholars call the Redactor or Editor, another member of the Johannine community. He adds material that is part of the tradition handed on to the community.
Some of Jesus’ disciples gather by the Sea of Tiberias: Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Peter says, ‘I am going fishing.’ The others say, ‘We will go with you.’ They get into a boat, but catch nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stands on the beach; but the disciples do not recognise him. Jesus says to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answer ‘No.’ He says to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ They cast the net, and are unable to haul it in because there are so many fish. The disciple whom Jesus loves says to Peter, ‘It is the Lord’.’ When Peter hears this, he puts on some clothes, for he is naked, and jumps into the sea. The other disciples come in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they are not far from shore.
When they get ashore, they see a charcoal fire there, with fish on it. Jesus says to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught. Peter goes on board, hauls the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them. Although there are so many fish, the net is not torn. Jesus says to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples dare to ask Jesus, ‘Who are you?’ because they know it is the Lord Jesus. He gives them some bread, and does the same with the fish.
The large catch of fish is probably symbolic of the missionary success that brought people into the Johannine community. The meal of bread and fish may well reflect a tradition that the risen Lord appeared at meals,4 and it has Eucharistic overtones.
The last mention of a charcoal fire was when Peter was in the high priest’s courtyard denying Jesus three times. Now Peter’s rehabilitation is fully underway. Three times Jesus asks Peter ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord’, Peter responds, ‘You know that I love you.’ And Peter is then told to tend Jesus’ lambs and sheep. Peter is to shepherd and feed those who believe in the risen Lord with God’s word, spoken and demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus says to Peter, ‘Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ The Redactor already knows that Peter has died a martyr’s death. Then Jesus says to Peter, ‘Follow me.’
Peter turns and sees the disciple whom Jesus loves following the disciples. He was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ Peter says to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus says to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So a rumour spreads in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but ‘If it is my will that he remain until 1 come, what is that to you?’ The Beloved Disciple ‘remains’ because he becomes an ‘authoritative figure’ whose recollections form the basis of John’s story.
The Beloved Disciple, un-named, was a more important figure than appears from the few times he is mentioned in the gospel. By the time John was writing his gospel, Jesus, Peter, and the Beloved Disciple were dead. The Beloved Disciple had been the one who had taken Mary into his home after the crucifixion, and so they became the nucleus of God’s new family, the Johannine community.
Community members vaguely remembered a promise that the Beloved Disciple would not die before Jesus’ return, but the memory was faulty. Jesus had not said that the disciple would not die but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ Clearly it was not Jesus’ will that the Beloved Disciple remain alive until Jesus’ final coming. But the question put in Peter’s mouth, ‘Lord, what about him?’ was a significant question.
While Peter is the appointed leader of the flock, and this is never challenged, the Beloved Disciple too has a major part to play. He is the authority for the community’s story about the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. He is the link between the events of Jesus’ life and the present experience of the community. As the narrator tells us, ‘This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know his testimony is true.’ When the narrator says that the Beloved Disciple was the ‘author’ of the gospel, he may simply have had in mind that the Beloved Disciple was the one who had the story of Jesus written down: he was the ‘authority’ behind it, not necessarily the actual writer.
The additions to John’s gospel conclude with the words. There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’
1. ‘Hearing Jesus’ voice is a reminder of the scene where Jesus, the Good Shepherd, says, ‘the sheep follow him because they know his voice. (John 10:4)
2. Genesis 2:7
3. Acts 2:1-13
4. cf Luke 24:13-35