28 February 2008

An introduction to the Biblical foundations of spirituality: (3) Johannine Spirituality

Saint John the Theologian listens to voice in the cave on Patmos and dictates what he hears to Prochoros

An introduction to the Biblical foundations of spirituality: (3) Johannine Spirituality

Patrick Comerford


In the lectionary readings this year for these Sundays leading up to Easter, we are reading from Saint John’s Gospel. Last week, we had the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus in the night, this week we had the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman meeting at the well, and next Sunday we have the story of the healing of the blind man, the healing at the pool of Siloam, and the controversy over the healing of the blind man. And on Easter Day we will have that wonderful Johannine account of Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the Resurrection.

In addition, the bishops who are preparing for this year’s Lambeth Conference began their six-month spiritual preparation earlier this month with a programme of studying Saint John’s Gospel.

For students in many theological colleges and seminaries, the approach to Saint John’s Gospel can involve placing it within the context of Johannine literature, looking at the context of the Johannine community, comparing it with the material in Synoptic Gospels, or similar approaches.

When we read the 21 chapters of Saint John’s Gospel, we discover images, ideas, and concepts that are not to be found in the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, putting an emphasis on comparisons can only serve at times to allow us to miss out on the rich spiritual treasures in the Johannine literature. You will notice there are words that are part of John’s favourite vocabulary – word, I am, water, sign.

As you work with the Johannine writings in your own practice of daily reading, or preaching from it in the cycle of lectionary readings, or use them in studies, such as midweek Bible studies in your parishes, you will need to ask what John is trying to get across to his first century readers and why. What is his message? What do we need to hear? What does the world needs to hear? What do men and women need to hear? But you will also need to ask, what do I hear? How is this very special approach in the Johannine writings challenging my thinking, my understanding of my relationship with the Father, my relationship with the Son, my relationship with the Spirit, my relationship with the Trinity?

Any study of Saint John’s Gospel must attend to the writer’s use of symbolism and irony to portray human spiritual limitations, and his emphasis on the need for a spiritual transformation and rebirth in the spirit. And any discussion of Johannine spirituality must understand what is meant by “indwelling” or “abiding” and agape, which are unique Johannine ways of explaining how we can know God and how we can pattern ourselves on Christ.

The spirituality of the fourth evangelist has been called mystical. Origin described Saint John’s Gospel as “the first fruit” of the Gospels (Comm. on John 1.6, ca. AD 200). Over a century later, Eusebius said that “John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel” (Historia Ecclesiastica, ca. AD 320).

Saint John’s Gospel has been described as “God’s love letter to the world” (Henry Ward Beecher, ca. 1850). WG Rollins once said: “The Mona Lisa and the Fourth Gospel share two artistic qualities, beauty and enigma.”

The Johannine text is beautiful in its construction, in its poetic and its dramatic presentations. It is literature. It is also prophetic in its revealed anticipation of the constant struggle that the followers of Christ will have, until the end of time, with the demonic forces of evil at work in the world.

But we must remember that the Johannine spiritual approach is unique. While the Apostle Paul stresses the sinfulness of humanity and our need of grace to cope with our fallen nature, Saint John emphasises humanity’s innate blindness and our need for light from Christ who is the Light of the world.

Personally, since my own experience of God’s light breaking into my life in my late teens, I have found Johannine spirituality particularly enriching in my spiritual journey and pilgrimage.

The place of Johannine spirituality:

Today, with an ever-growing awareness of world spiritualities, there is a tendency to see Jesus as a norm for spiritual growth rather than as a personally-involved covenant partner. But in the Johannine literature, spirituality is a matter of committed love, not just self-development. The writer of the Fourth Gospel has a very realistic perspective. True faith is shown by commitment to the God-given community, first by Jesus’ commitment to Israel despite being put to death, and then by the permanent commitment of the believers to the community through committed love. There are no ambiguities about the necessity of a personal commitment to Jesus as the source of eternal live [John 6: 68].

Johannine literature:

Johannine spirituality is found in five separate Johannine books in the New Testament: Saint John’s Gospel, the three letters or epistles, I John, II John and III John, and the Book of Revelation. Between them, these five books provide three different literary genres.

Saint John’s Gospel reached its final form toward the end of the 1st century. It is quite different from the other three Gospels, which were probably not available to the Johannine writer.

I John contains the controversial Johannine comma; II John is the shortest book in the New Testament, containing only 13 verses; III John is second shortest book.

The Book of Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature. It uses symbolic imagery to communicate hope to those in the midst of persecution. The events which occur in Revelation are ordered according to literary, rather than strictly chronological patterns. Does the Book of Revelation simultaneously describe contemporaneous events and prophecies of events to come, foreshadowed by those contemporaneous events?

The book can be seen as a warning to be spiritually and morally ready for the end times, whenever they may come (“as a thief in the night”), but that they will come at the time of God’s choosing, not something that can be precipitated or deduced. The prevailing Anglican view is that the book of Revelation should be seen as a book of hope and also a book of warning. It gives hope to Christians who are being persecuted, assuring them that their suffering is not in vain.

Some theologians also see the liturgical worship of early Christianity, particularly the Easter rites, as the background and context for understanding the structure and significance of the Book of Revelation. This view is shared by Professor Massey H. Shepherd of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific at Berkeley, California, an Episcopal theologian, in The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (new ed, Cambridge: James Clarke, 2004), and by Scott Hahn in The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth. Those who hold this view say the Book of Revelation provides insight into the early Eucharist, saying that it is the new Temple worship in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

The structure and content of Saint John’s Gospel:

After the prologue [John 1: 1–5], the narrative of Saint John’s Gospel begins with verse 6, and consists of two parts. The first part [1: 6-Chapter 12] relates Jesus’ public ministry from the time of his baptism by John the Baptist to its close.

In this first part, John emphasises seven of Jesus’ miracles, always calling them “signs.”

The second part [chapter 13–21] presents Jesus in dialogue with his immediate followers [13–17] and gives an account of his Passion and Crucifixion and of his appearances to the disciples after his Resurrection [18–20]. In Chapter 21, the “appendix,” Jesus restores Peter after his denial, predicts Peter’s death, and discusses the death of the “beloved disciple.”

Raymond E. Brown, a scholar of the Johannine community, labelled the first and second parts the “Book of Signs” and the “Book of Glory,” respectively. Brown identifies three layers of text in Saint John’s Gospel:

1, an initial version he considers based on personal experience of Jesus;
2, a structured literary creation by the evangelist which draws upon additional sources;
3, the edited version that readers know today.

The Gospel of John is easily distinguished from the three Synoptic Gospels, which share a considerable amount of text. John omits about 90 per cent of the material in the Synoptics. The Synoptics describe much more of Jesus’ life, miracles, parables, and exorcisms. However, the materials unique to John are notable, especially in their effect on modern Christianity.

The opening Hymn to the Word declares that the Logos is God (Greek: theos) and was with “God” (Greek: ton theon). John portrays Jesus Christ as “a brief manifestation of the eternal Word, whose immortal spirit remains ever-present with the believing Christian.” The gospel gives far more focus to the mystical relation of the Son to the Father. The gospel also focuses on the relation of the Redeemer to believers, the announcement of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter (Greek Paraclete), and the prominence of love as an element in the Christian character.

Summary of Johannine spirituality:

John is steeped in Greek culture and thinks in terms of polar opposites. Such dualities as light/darkness, truth/falsehood, spirit/flesh, and life/death permeate the text. The author’s idea of the universe is also dualistic: he conceives of existence as divided into two realms: the world above and the world below; the world below is the world of earth and humanity, of darkness, fleshiness, and sin; the world above is the world of God and heaven, of light, spirit, and holiness.

>For John, Jesus:

● comes from the world above,
● has traversed the chasm which separates the world above from the world below,
● has testified to the truth from above,
● has been “lifted up” [John 3: 14; 8: 28; 12:3 2] in order to return to his home above,
●offers the chance for those who believe this to become animated by the life of the world above, and, ultimately, to abide in the world above with Jesus.

Saint John’s Gospel depicts the Son bringing the light of the world above into the darkness of the world below.

This theme of the Son descending from heaven and ascending back there is encountered throughout the Gospel. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” [John 3: 14]. He tells Pharisees that “you are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” [John 8: 23]. At the Last Supper, he declares: “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father” [John 16: 28].

As the One from Above, Jesus discloses to the ignorant world below the things of the world above. In particular, he reveals the Father so thoroughly that those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father [John 14: 7]. Through a series of rich metaphors, John exalts Jesus as the one who reveals and who makes the Father accessible, and who is “the way, the truth, and the life” [John 14: 6]. For John, Jesus is the “bread of life . . . that came down from heaven” [John 6: 35, 41]; the “gate” [John 10: 7, 9]; the “good shepherd” [John 10: 11, 14]; the “light of the world” [John 8: 12; 9: 5]; “the true vine” [John 15: 1, 5]; and “the resurrection and the life” [John 11: 25].

Those who believe that Jesus has been sent by the Father are those who are “born from above” [John 3: 3 – a word-play on being “born again”]. They are born of the water [a baptismal reference] “and the Spirit … which blows where it chooses” [John 3: 5, 8]. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water,” by which Jesus refers to the Spirit [John 7: 38-39].

This Spirit is unleashed at Jesus’ death, as symbolically shown by the blood and water gushing from Jesus’ side, a detail unique to Saint John’s Gospel [John 19: 34]. He is the “Lamb of God” [John 1: 29, 35] who dies as the lambs are being sacrificed for Passover.

Believers perceive that Jesus and the Father are “in” each other [John 14: 11]. Consequently, the love which the Father has for Jesus comes into believers [John 17: 26]. The Father and the Son [John 14: 23] and the Spirit [John 14: 17] come to dwell in believers. And so, believers live according to Jesus’ only commandment in this Gospel, “Love one another” [John 13: 34; 15: 12, 17]. This is what John means by eternal life. It is a sharing in the love-relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. It is a love and life that transcends human death. It is a relationship with the Father made possible because the Son came down from above and has returned to his home above “to prepare a place” and take believers there [John 14: 3].

The Johannine church was probably traumatised at some point when its Jewish members were expelled from the local synagogue community [John 9: 22; 12: 42; 16: 2]. It is in the aftermath of this expulsion that we must understand how the author uses the term “the Jews” throughout the Gospel, although it is obvious that almost every character, including Jesus, is Jewish. The author conveys the alienation experienced by the Johannine Jewish-Christians who feel deprived of their Jewish heritage by so-called Jews. The factor which precipitated the expulsion was probably what Johannine Jewish-Christians were saying about Jesus. The exalted picture of Jesus as the One from Above was understood in the synagogue as asserting the existence of two Gods: the Father and the Son [John 10: 33]. Such a perceived breach of Jewish monotheism was intolerable in the synagogue.

The main Christological point in John, then, is that Jesus comes from Above and brings the eternal life of the world above; namely, the love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit, to those who believe. Authentic discipleship, therefore, is defined by the bond of love which unites believers [John 13: 3 5].

The Gospel of differs from the Synoptic Gospels in ethos and theological emphases. The Gospel appears to have been written primarily for Greek-speaking Jews who were not believers: “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” [John 20: 30-31].

A second purpose was to counter criticisms or unorthodox beliefs of Jews, John the Baptist’s followers, and those who believed Jesus was only spirit and not flesh.

Of the four gospels, John presents the highest Christology, describing Christ as the Logos (Greek λόγος, a term meaning “Word,” “Wisdom,” “Reason,” “Rationality,” “Language,” or “Discourse”) who is the Arche (ἀρχή, in Greek philosophy, the beginning or first principle of the world, who “existed from the beginning" or who is “the ultimate source of all things”), teaching at length about identity of Christ as saviour, and declaring him to be God.

Compared to the Synoptic Gospels, John focuses on Jesus’ mission to bring the Word to his disciples. Only in John does Jesus talk at length about himself, including a substantial amount of material Jesus shared with the disciples only. Certain elements of the Synoptics, such as parables, exorcisms, and possibly the Second Coming) are not found in John.

The Seven “I am” sayings in Saint John’s Gospel:

The phrase “ego eimi” is used with a nominative predicate seven times in Saint John’s Gospel:

● I am the Bread of Life [John 6: 35, 41, 48-51];
● I am the Light of the World [John 8: 12, 9:5];
● I am the Door of the Sheepfold [John 10: 7, 9];
● I am the Good Shepherd [John 10: 11, 14];
● I am the Resurrection and the Life [John 11: 25];
● I am the Way, the Truth and the Life [John 14: 6];
● I am the True Vine [John 15:1, 5].

There are other additional sayings that are also counted by some as “I am sayings.” Two are “I am” statements of Jesus if “I am” with no object is included: “It is I; be not afraid” or “I am; be not afraid” [John 6: 16-21]; “Before Abraham was, I am” [John 8]. And in the Book of Revelation we have other examples, including: “I am the Alpha and the Omega” [Revelation 1: 8], “I am the first and the last” [Revelation 1: 17].

The use of the phrase “I am” (Greek: ego eimi) is distinctive to the Fourth Gospel. It is significant because it is the name by which the God revealed himself to Moses as he commissioned Moses to set the Exodus events in motion [Exodus 36]. The revelation of the Divine Name to Moses [Exodus 3: 14] is significant. In English, the rendering would be “I Am that which I Am.” The definition of God is himself. He is the essence of being. There is no other meaningful name by which he can reveal himself.

God reveals himself to Moses under a name which translates from the Hebrew into English as "I am that I am.” The peculiarities of Hebrew tenses, in fact, are such that these words can equally well be rendered, "I will be what I will be” … "I am sovereign in my self-determination. I will turn out to be for you what I will turn out to be for you. Not what you choose, but what I choose shall govern our future together." As well as meaning "I will be" the Hebrew verb also conveys the idea of being present: "I will be present among you as all that I will turn out to be."

Later, in Isaiah, we find similar ideas: "I am Yahweh, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you, I have given you as a covenant to the peoples, a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am Yahweh, that is my name; my glory belongs to no other ..." [Isaiah 42: 6].

Elsewhere [e.g., Isaiah 55: 12], we hear: “I, even I am the one who comforts you.“ In the Septuagint translation of the Wisdom passages of Proverbs 8, the phrase ego eimi is used to emphasise the characteristics of Wisdom.

Seven signs:

We could see a deliberate use of the significance of “seven,” the perfect number, indicating that Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father to the world, and that the work of salvation initiated by the Father is perfected in him. Some scholars, including Stephen Smalley, want to link the seven “I am” sayings to the seven signs, although it is not that simple. He links the Water into Wine with “I am the true vine.” However, different scholars associate different signs with different sayings.

In any case, the seven miracles in John are referred to as "signs." These signs are given to confirm the deity of Jesus. The seven principal signs in Saint John’s Gospel are:

● John 2: 1-11, water into wine
● John 4: 46-51, healing with a word
● John 5: 1-9, a crippled man at Bethesda
● John 6: 1-14, the feeding of 5,000
● John 6: 16-21, walking on water
● John 9: 1-7, the man born blind
● John 11: 1-46, the Raising of Lazarus.

In addition, some scholars talk about Seven Themes in this Gospel: Life, Truth, Faith, Light, Spirit, Judgment and Love.

The context of Johannine spirituality:

In discussing Johannine spirituality, it helps to look at both the context of Johannine spirituality, and the content of Johannine spirituality.

All that John says about the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately concerned with salvation, which he normally describes as “eternal life” [see John 3: 16, 36; I John 1: 2].

This life is the gift of God [John 17: 2; I John 5: 11], mediated to the believer through Christ in his incarnation, death, resurrection and exaltation [see John 3: 14 ff; I John 4: 14], and made possible in the Spirit [John 3: 5, 8; I John 4: 13].

John’s theology of eternal life takes its particular character from his perception of the sacramental context in which God’s saving activity has taken place.

The thought patterns in Saint John’s Gospel and the Johannine letters are not only symbolic (for example, the contrast between light and darkness in John 1: 4, 8: 12, and I John 1: 5-7), but they are also sacramental. In this way, all Christian experience is derived from a unique conjunction of the material and the spiritual in the Word made flesh [John 1: 14; see I John 1: 1-3].Jesus is one in being with God [see John 10: 30; I John 5: 20]. He is also “flesh” and so is one with humanity [John 1: 1-14; I John 4: 2; II John 7]. From the decisive moment of the incarnation, therefore, history assumes a new meaning. As the seven “signs” of the Fourth Gospel illustrate so tellingly, the temporal becomes the potential carrier of the eternal.

Jesus makes God known in a new way; now, in a new way, humanity can know God in a new way, and live in him and for him [John 1: 18; 6: 63; 17: 3; I John 4: 12]. This Christological focus becomes the basis of John’s teaching about the work of Christ. Because Jesus took part fully in the two natures, his death and exaltation, or glorification [John 17: 5) became the means by which believers could pass from death to life [John 5: 24; I John 3: 14], enabling them to walk in the light and to live as the children of God, which continue as the twin themes of I John.

2, The content of John’s spirituality:

The concept of “abiding” is one of the leading categories used in the Johannine literature to interpret Christian experience.

The dynamic unity between the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ [John 14: 10] is the source of the believer’s continuing unity with God the Father [John 17: 21; I John 4: 15 ff.], Christ [John 15: 4 ff; I John 2: 24] and the Spirit [John 4: 23 ff, I John 4: 2]. This is also the foundation of unity between the believer and other Christians [John 17: 11]. In the same way, the spiritual life of the Christian is nourished by the abiding presence in the believer of God the Father [John 14: 23; I John 3: 24], and the Spirit [John 14: 16; I John 4: 13].

In order to demonstrate the infinite truth that a new humanity can share in the divine life of eternity [see John 3: 5, 8], John uses the language of love [John 14: 21; I John 4: 8 ff], and he uses this language to summarise the profound mystery of reciprocal abiding, both human and divine: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in him” [I John 4: 16].

The English writer Evelyn Underhill describes this as “John’s most characteristic contribution to the interpretation of Christian life” (Evelyn Underhill, The Mystic Way: a psychological study in Christian origins (1913), p. 242). His was that piercing vision which discovered the Spirit of Love is one with the Spirit of Truth, and that only those who love will understand. It was this which definitely established the essentially mystic character of Christian faith.”

John and the believer’s experience of God

The Johannine literature regards three elements as fundamental in the believer’s experience of God: worship, service and mission.

In the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman – which was our lectionary Gospel reading for Sunday last and in the chapel last night (27.02.2008), and the subject of a Bible study I led in Whitechurch parish on Monday night – we find the classical presentation of the place of worship in the believer’s experience of God.

In this passage, Jesus speaks of the necessity of worshipping God “in spirit and truth” [John 4: 23 ff]. But this reference is not to purely “internal” worship as opposed to “external” worship. In the Johannine community, worship included such “external” dimension as prayers, the exposition of Scripture, baptism and the Eucharist. The contrast is made between worship in Jerusalem and worship on Mount Gerizim on the one hand and, on the other, worship in spirit. This recalls the familiar Johannine distinction between the dimensions of earth and heaven. Jesus is saying that the Spirit inspires the worship that replaces the rituals and liturgies in the Temple [see John 2: 13-22]. God the Father can be worshipped worthily through the Spirit who gives new life [John 3: 5], who is also the Spirit of Truth [John 14: 16 ff; I John 5: 6].

John’s teaching on prayer is closely related to the Johannine teachings on worship. In the Johannine literature, the practice and results of prayer flow from the intimate relationship, the abiding relationship, that the Christian shares with God though Jesus and by the Spirit.

In this living, abiding relationship with God the Father [John 16: 23-27], the Son [John 16: 16] and the Paraclete [John 14: 17], we find our prayer are answered [John 16: 23; see I John 3: 21 ff, 5: 14 ff]. These requests, prayed and answered in the name of Jesus [John 16: 23] involve the daily needs of life and deepen that life and our spirituality through the in-dwelling Holy Spirit.

Surprisingly then, in Saint John’s Gospel, there is no Lord’s Prayer. Instead, the great prayer of Jesus at the last Supper [see John 17] offers a model for all Christian intercession. In this prayer, Jesus prays for himself, the Church and the world.

Service is the second key theme in the believer’s experience of God in the Johannine literature. In the Johannine writings, Christian spirituality is not only devotional, but is also practical. Those who follow Jesus are invited to worship, but are also invited to serve. The best example of this service is given in Saint John’s Gospel when Jesus washes the feet of the Disciples as an example of sacrificial humility [John 13]. This action of Jesus is, of course, linked to the death and exaltation of Jesus. In his spirit of self-offering, the disciples are to respect others, and to show their mutual love [John 13: 34-35].

On occasions, this service may lead to the ultimate sacrifice [John 15: 12-13; I John 3: 11-18; see also II John 5-6; II John 5-6]. The supreme example of this service is found in Jesus himself, who was sent by the Father [John 13: 3; John 17: 5, 8], and who promises the presence and power of the Spirit to his disciples before returning to the Father [see John 14: 16 ff; 16: 17; 17: 11].

The third element of our experience of God, according to the Johannine literature, is to be found in mission.

According to Saint John’s Gospel, the believer who worships God and serves the community of faith is also sent out to bring the good news of life in Jesus to the world. As I hinted in my sermon last week, John’s special contribution to our theology of mission is to show that the Father’s sending of the Son into the world [John 3: 16] is both the model and the basis for the way in which the Son sends the disciples into the same world [John 20: 21; see also John 21: 1-19].

Johannine thinking also makes a close connection between the mission of the disciples and the sending of the Spirit [John 20: 22; see also John 15: 26-27]. In this way, the mission and ministry of the Church and of Christians is like that of Jesus himself and is salvific [John 6: 39-40; John 20: 31; see also I John 5: 11-13; II John 7].

Each of these three major aspects of Christian spirituality in the Johannine literature – worship, service and mission – is derived from the intimate relationship between Christ and the Christian, which is fundamental to the Johannine understanding of salvation.

The spiritual life of the believer is made possible by the incarnation and the glorification of Jesus, and is sustained by “abiding” in him or his indwelling, just as he abides in the Father.

The ministry of the Spirit is closely associated with the Christian’s experience of all these aspects of spirituality – worship, service and mission.

John’s spirituality has both individual and collective applications: the Spirit brings the believer into a new life that we share with the whole Church [John 3: 1-8; 14: 16 ff; I John 3: 24]. Similarly, for John eternal life is both present and future [John 3: 16-21; 5: 21-29; see I John 3: 1-2]. Christian spirituality begins in the here and now and is consummated in the hereafter.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. This esay is based on notes used for a seminar in the Year I course, Christian Spirituality, on 28 February 2008, and on material presented by Stephen Smalley in ‘Johannine Spirituality,’ pp. 230-232 in G.S. Wakefield (ed), The SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (London: SCM Press, 1983/2003).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This summary presentation is so utterly brilliant in its compactnss.completeness and precision it leaves me in awe. I thank you Canon Patrick for this singular grace. JV