23 September 2011

New beginnings in … Saint John’s Gospel

In the beginning was the Word (Laurie Thompson)

Patrick Comerford

Reading: John 1: 1-14

First of all, may I thank [the Revd] Dr Richard Clutterbuck and the staff for the opportunity to be here today and to share this quiet day with you at Edgehill Theological College.

By now, all the academic and teaching staff members have visited the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and I think I am the last staff member to visit Edgehill.

So this is a new beginning, and yet another expression not only of our co-operation as two centres of theological and ministerial learning, but a new stage for me in making the covenant between our two churches a lived reality.

For some here today, you are facing a new academic year, and you know what to expect here; for others, today is the beginning of a whole new exploration.

As you get into the work, the coursework, the assignments and essays, putting up with each other, where do you begin? Where do I begin?

It sounds like the opening words of a Frank Sinatra song: “Where do I begin?”

For many years, I worked as journalist, in provincial and national newspapers.

And one of the many problems I found among even the best of journalists and writers was: “How do I get started?”

It is a common difficulty that faces many journalists when it comes to writing their reports.

They know how to gather their material, how to burrow down and find the hidden details that no-one wants them to know. They have collected all the facts, and all the opinions. They know how to get to the kernel of the matter.

But when it comes to writing a tight 400 or 500 word report, they so often do not know where to begin.

The Red Queen advises Alice: ‘Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop’

Lewis Carroll, who was an Anglican clergyman, provides good advice in Alice in Wonderland for all who wonder where to start.

In Chapter 12, the White Rabbit put on his spectacles.

“Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

At another point in the book, the Red Queen advises Alice: “Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop.”

If you prefer musicals, then you may recall how Maria advises the children in The Sound of Music:

Let’s start at the very beginning
A very good place to start
When you read you begin with A-B-C
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi

“Begin at the beginning” was sound advice to give to those journalists. To begin at the beginning is always the important first step in any journey, in any story.

Saint John truly does manage to begin his Gospel story at the beginning.

By now, you have noticed how the Gospel writers offer their readers very different beginnings.

Saint Matthew begins with the human beginning, with a genealogy that could be taken straight out of a first century Burke’s Landed Gentry. he begins at the genealogical beginning – but what a genealogy. Jesus is the Son of God, the heir of Abraham and David, the prophets and the kings, the exiles in Egypt and the exiles in Babylon. But he is also the descendant of the marginalised and despised and despised: he is the son of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. The Son of God is the Son of Man, he is truly human and truly divine (see Matthew 1: 1-17).

Saint Mark begins with the baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan. Forget about his childhood, forget about his family background: Jesus has an important ministry and let’s begin with that. Mark is so human. And yet, there is a profound Trinitarian statement there – the Son of Man is sent by God the Father, who loves him, and is filled with, empowered by, sent out by the Holy Spirit (see Mark 1: 1-11).

Saint Luke begins with the events of the day; the context, the political climate, the news, and the hum-drum daily life that engages us all in ministry, are set out clearly. This is a Gospel writer who is also a good story teller, who is going to tell us stories that give us good examples of what it is to live a life of discipleship (see Luke 1). And the first of those disciples are two women, Elizabeth and Mary – strong feisty women, who confidently affirm each other and who challenge the injustices of the established order even before their children are born.

Saint John, on the other hand, begins at the beginning. There is no annunciation, no nativity, no crib in Bethlehem, no shepherds or wise men, no little stories to allow us to be sentimental and to muse.

He is sharp, direct and gets to the point:

“In the beginning …”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

You probably have already looked at Saint John’s Gospel in terms of the signs and the “I AM” sayings. In Saint John’s Gospel, we have seven signs and seven “I AM” sayings disclosing for us who Jesus truly is:

● 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).

The seven signs in Saint John’s Gospel are:

● Turning water into wine in Cana (John 2: 1-11);
● Healing with a word (John 4: 46-51);
● Healing a crippled man at Bethesda (John 5: 1-9);
● The feeding of 5,000 (John 6: 1-14);
● Walking on water (John 6: 16-21);
● The healing of the man born blind (John 9: 1-7); and
● The Raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11: 1-46).

But another approach to Saint John’s Gospel is to look at how it offers us new beginnings, and offers us them constantly:

The Baptism of Christ is a new creation, a new world order: out of the dark, new light comes to the world, the waters part, the Holy Spirit hovers above like a dove, we have a new humanity, and God pronounces that it is good (John 1: 29-36).

The Wedding at Cana … new beginnings and new families

At the wedding at Cana, not only is water changed into wine, a refreshing new beginning, but new families are created too (John 2: 1-12)

We often read this story, and the Lectionaries confirm us in this choice, from verses 1 to 11. But sometimes I really think the miracle at Cana is in verse 12:

When the wedding is over, Jesus heads back to Capernaum, which was on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. He goes there with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples. New relationships have been formed. Some of them go back as new brothers-in-law, perhaps one of the them is a new father-in-law. Someone has become related to Christ as a new member of his family.

You are and I are called to be one of that family. Christ calls us into new relationships, with him, with God the Father, through the power of the Spirit, and with one another.

And in those new relationships, there are new expectations.

The banquet is an image of the Kingdom of God, and we are invited.

But accepting the invitation means new beginnings, new relationships, including new beginnings and new relationships with one another.

Nicodemus visits Christ in the dark ... he is invited into the new light, he is offered the opportunity of a new beginning

Nicodemus comes in darkness, but is invited into the new light, is offered the opportunity of a new beginning, a new birth (John 3: 1-21)

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well new understanding of the community of faith and of mission (John 4: 5-42) is given new water, a new mission in life, a new self-respect. But we too are given new ideas of who is counted in within the community of faith, who proclaims the Risen Lord, and how do we respond to that proclamation.

A traditional Greek Orthodox icon of Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well

The woman caught in adultery (John 8: 3-11) is literally given a new life. She was facing death and now, in Christ she has a new beginning in her life.

Lazarus too is given a new life (John 11: 1-44).

At the heart of the Covenant meal, for Saint John, is a new beginning: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13: 34-35).

In The Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland, we regularly use John 13: 34 at the Eucharist as the introduction to the peace (see p. 207). We are a new family, and that new beginning is best celebrated in the meal.

At the foot of the Cross, a new family is formed: “Woman, here is your son” (John 19: 26); “Here is your mother” (John 19: 27). This is a new beginning, specifically for Mary and John. But it is a new beginning for us too. We are not just Christians who communicate with one another. We have a new beginning at the foot of the Cross, we are all a new family, all of us who stand at the foot of the Cross, just as those who went home from Cana are a new family.

Mary at the tomb is the first to see the transformed, transfigured, Risen Christ (John 20: 1-19). If Christ had died and not risen, then things would have gone on as they always did. But she has seen the Lord. Things are never, ever going to be the same again.

And Thomas’s confession, although it echoes Mary’s confession of faith, is a new beginning for this doubting disciple (John 20: 26-29). And that new beginning is offered to us all, even though we have not seen.

The commission to Peter at the Lakeside in Galilee (John 21: 15-19) has a different emphasis than the commission at the end of Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28: 19-20). Matthew’s account of the commission is exciting, but John’s, at first appears to be more pedestrian: “Feed my lambs” … “Tend my sheep” … “Feed my sheep.”

Feeding and tending Christ’s lambs and sheep is the the very mundane, daily task of ordained ministry – pastoral care, ministry of word and ministry of sacrament.

And in each, if we exercise our commission in the way Christ calls us too, then they will find new beginnings and find too that they are invited to the banquet.

Let me leave you with some images … In the beginning was the Word, two icons of the Wedding at Cana, a stained glass image of Nicodemus coming to Christ in the dark, and an icon of the Samaritan Woman at the Well.

You may like to use them as visual aids as you read one of those passages and reflect on it. But as you are reading and reflecting try to ask yourself two questions:

Where are your beginnings?

How do they define your beginnings?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This address the first of three addresses at “I Make all Things New,” a quiet day for the beginning of the academic year, in Edgehill Theological College, Belfast, on 23 September 2011.

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