Next weekend I will be in conversation with preachers about preaching the Gospels. Here are some things that we may highlight from the Gospel of John.
The Gospel of John tells us there are so many stories about Jesus they cannot possibly fit in one book. In fact, John goes on to say the world could not possibly contain the books that would be written. Obviously, John wants us to know there is much that could be said about Jesus. He also wants us to know that the stories we find in this Gospel are written that we might believe.
This is emphasized from the very first chapter. There when Jesus meets Nathaniel, the episode ends with Jesus saying “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” Right away we hear the emphasis on belief and we get that John is not writing about Jesus’s skills of identifying who sits under what tree. As we near the end of the Gospel Jesus says to Thomas “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
In between these episodes, the chapters are full of sayings and signs and other stories that encourage us to believe. After all, John wants us to know that “These are written that you may believe… and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
A harmony of the Gospels is an interesting exercise but any attempt to do it likely results in missing out on the emphasis of the individual gospel writer. Thus, preaching should result in telling the story as the gospel writer tells it. Ben Witherington says it like this, “let the evangelist have his say.”
For example, the first century view of crucifixion makes it somewhat surprising that John presents it as a moment of triumph. The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus. Witherington refers to Mark as providing “gut wrenching feelings.” Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.” I agree.
As a side note, if you are unfamiliar with Witherington’s commentaries, his John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an excellent one to start with. Preachers will find his sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” particularly helpful. He suggests that John includes “many ironies and peculiar turns to the story of Jesus.” He goes on to say that “none is more strange than the way this story ends.”
In his discussion about the ending, he introduces a word from J. R. R. Tolkien to the conversation. Eucatastrophe is defined as a fortunate disaster. He then suggests that the death of Jesus is an illustration of such a fortunate disaster.
Such a triumphant, victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray. If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing. But the crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play. We have here “the benefit of hindsight and insight” – we have eucatastrophe!
Preaching John’s narrative does not put preachers in a place to describe crucifixion or retell history. When we preach John’s version of the story, we are preaching for the same reason that he wrote, “so that you also may believe” (John 19.35).