Living our faith in the realities of our own times … hearing the message of “the book of signs”

The book of signs, the fourth Gospel that we have in our New Testament, is attributed by tradition to the apostle John. It is most likely that it draws on stories that originated with that apostle, but they have been retold, elaborated, passed on, reshaped, developed, and eventually written down in a form that corresponds with the Gospel that we have today.

This Gospel contains many distinctive elements. It recounts incidents where Jesus encountered a number of individuals who do not feature at all in the other three Gospels, the so-called Synoptic Gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew, and Luke. It opens doors into aspects of the story of Jesus which are not found when we read those first three Gospels.

We meet four such characters over the coming four Sundays, as the revised common lectionary provides us with accounts of the interaction that took place between Jesus and the Pharisee, Nicodemus (John 3), an unnamed woman beside a well in Samaria (John 4), a resident of Jerusalem who had been born blind, and his parents (John 9), and then Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus is said to have raised back to life after his death (John 11). This last story includes two characters who, it is thought, appear also in the Synoptic Gospels—Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42).

The accounts of these four characters are located in the first half of the Gospel (John 1-12), before the second half of the Gospel is devoted to an extended scene, where Jesus farewells his closest followers (John 13-17), before moving into an account of a sequence of event told also in the Synoptic Gospels: the arrest, trials, sentencing, crucifixion, burial, and then resurrection appearances of Jesus (John 18-21).

The first half of the Gospel, then, provides collection of public events in the life of the adult Jesus, some of which touch on events recounted n other Gospels, many of which are distinctive to this book. They are narrated in a long section often called the Book of Signs (2:1–12:50).

This terminology is drawn from the descriptions provided by the author (2:11, 3:2, 4:5411:4712:37, and 20:30). What was most likely the original conclusion to this book notes that Jesus did many other signs … which are not written in this book (20:30), which leads me to use the description the book of signs when referring to this Gospel.

However, these chapters contain more than simply “signs” (miracles) performed by Jesus. For instance, this “book” begins with a miracle in Galilee (2:1–11), an incident in Jerusalem (2:13–22), an encounter with a Pharisee in Jerusalem (3:1–10), another encounter with a Samaritan woman in Sychar (4:1–26), and a second miracle in Cana (4:46–54).

Relevant teachings of Jesus are interspersed amongst these happenings. The pattern of alternating encounters, teachings and miracles continues, with the addition of a sequence of controversies as Jesus engages in increasingly tense debates with Jewish leaders (5:10–186:41–50; 7:14–52; 8:12–59; 10:19–39).

Sometimes Jesus delivers his teachings in lengthy monologues (for example, 3:11–215:19–47; 9:41–10:18); more often, his teachings are punctuated by questions and responses from others. On his final visit to Jerusalem (from 12:9 onwards), Jesus summarises his teachings in a pivotal public address (12:23–28; 12:44–50).

It is important to note how this Gospel firmly locates the story of Jesus within the within the framework of his religion—that is, first century Palestinian Judaism. Jesus visits Jerusalem on a number of occasions (2:13; 5:1; 7:1011:55). This is already in contrast to the Synoptic Gospels, in which the adult Jesus stays in Galilee and visits Jerusalem only once (on the occasion leading to his crucifixion—Mark 11 and parallels).

In John’s Gospel, each of his visits to Jerusalem is located within the Jewish calendar—a feature which is also unique to this Gospel amongst the four canonical Gospels.  The first visit, during the Passover festival (2:13), is the occasion when Jesus undertook his “cleansing of the Temple”.

The second visit was during an unnamed feast (5:1; possibly Pentecost, as it was some time before the Passover at 6:4). This leads to a discussion of the story of manna in the wilderness (an integral part of the Passover story). Jesus’ next visit(7:10) takes place during the feast of Tabernacles (7:2, 11, 14).

His last Passover visit, after the raising of Lazarus from the dead (11:55), equates with the one Synoptic visit, for this is when Jesus is brought into direct conflict with the Jerusalem authorities. In addition to these festivals, the Feast of Dedication is also noted in the narrative (10:22). 

The activity of Jesus in this Gospel is firmly grounded within traditional Jewish religious observances. He keeps the conventional Jewish feasts. Jesus is acknowledged as a Jew explicitly by the Samaritan woman (4:9) and implicitly by Pilate (18:35), as well as by the inscription placed on his cross, “King of the Jews” (19:19–22). It is a story which is incarnate, enfleshed, grounded in earthly realities—because, in Jesus “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). 

The whole account thus provides us with encouragement to live out our faith in the realities of life in our own times. Although Jesus was a Jew, living in a different time, within a different culture, in a different location form where we are now living, nevertheless, his story indicates that God’s love is for the whole world, that the Gospel reaches out over place and time and culture, to engage each of us precisely where we are.

It is with that encouragement that we enter into the hearing and thinking about the interactions that Jesus had, with a Pharisee, a Samaritan woman, a blind Jerusalem man and the family of the deceased man, Lazarus. We hear these stories because they can inform the ways that we live out our faith today.

******

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/07/the-paraclete-in-john-15-exploring-the-array-of-translation-options/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/23/in-defence-of-thomas-a-doubting-sceptic-or-a-passionate-firebrand/

Giving up? Or going deep? The opportunity of Lent

Our lives are lived in a regular cycle of seasons. The heat of summer gives way to the coolness of autumn, then to the cold of winter, before the warmth of spring rejuvenates and refreshes, and we find ourselves back in the baking heat of summer, once more.

And so, too, does the Christian year move between seasons, following an ancient pattern which was shaped to provide a focus on the central story of our faith—the story of Jesus Christ. Each December, in the season of Advent, we prepare to celebrate his birth. That is the celebrated in the season of Christmas (which largely been taken over by commercial interests) and the ensuing season of Epiphany.

In the northern hemisphere, where this cycle originated, the days at this time of year start to lengthen, and that process gave the name of the next season: Lent. It comes from the Old English word lencten, which was the old way that the season of spring was named.

Lent has been celebrated for at least 1500 years. It is typically seen as a time of self-examination and repentance, a hard season which is characterised by discipline and sacrifice, a time for giving up, a period of penitence and abstinence.

What are you giving up for Lent this year? If you have not yet decided, the pressure is on. What are you giving up?

More often, now, Lent presented as a time of “preparation” for Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then follows Pentecost, a longer season focussed on growth, lasting almost half of the year, before Advent comes around again.

This ancient pattern offers us an annual opportunity to pause, reflect, and recommit our lives of discipleship and service. For myself, I do not see this as an archaic custom which we can readily abandon; rather, I view Lent as a time for regrouping and rebuilding my walk of faith. In the southern hemisphere, where I live, the days are not lengthening (in fact, the daylight hours are becoming shorter)—but the opportunity to pause, reflect, and recommit, is still valid.

Each year, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This year, that will fall on 26 February. It will run until Good Friday, which this year is on 10 April, and lead into the celebrations of Easter Sunday, on 12 April.

Technically, there are 40 days in Lent, but it actually runs for 46 full days. The six Sundays during the weeks of Lent don’t actually count as part of Lent, as they remain The Lord’s Day, when the resurrection is celebrated. The other 40 days are more sombre, more reflective.

(So, technically, you can indulge to your heart’s content on those Sundays, but maintain your Lenten discipline on the other days of the week. Six days of stringent abstinence, one day of unfettered indulgence, and repeat the pattern six times. That’s the way that Lent rolls, it would seem!)

How will you spend this season of Lent? Many of the regular activities of life will still need to be attended to: shopping, cleaning, working, travelling, preparing meals, gathering with family, visiting friends, reading, gardening, listening to music … and a host of other things that fill the regular pattern of our lives, day by day, week by week. We won’t, or can’t, give up these aspects of life.

So the challenge that sits before us at this time of the year, is this: how, and when, will I find time to dedicate to nurturing my spiritual life, to strengthening my life of discipleship? Instead of giving something up, could we think about Lent as a time for going deep? That is the opportunity, and the challenge, that Lent presents.

In the midst of all the regular activities, a special focus on going deep into our spiritual life and strengthening our discipleship would be beneficial to each of us. To nurture our spiritual lives, my church (along with many others) make use of the Revised Common Lectionary—a modern version of an ancient church practice, to read systematically and listen carefully to the range of scripture passages that can nourish us in our walk of faith.

The lectionary provides four scripture passages each Sunday, drawn from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. And each year, a particular Gospel is in focus (this year, it is the Gospel of Matthew)—although during Lent, the Gospel passages are most often drawn from the Gospel of John. The schedule of passages offered for Lent 2020 can be seen at

https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu//lections.php?year=A&season=Lent

There is a wonderful website called The Text This Week, which collates links to an abundance of resources relating to the seasons of the church year, and the readings set in the Revised Common Lectionary each week.

The page for Lent 2020 is at http://www.textweek.com/lent.htm

And for personal use in reading a daily passage of scripture and reflecting on what it offers to us in terms of our faith, I can recommend an Australian resource (with which I have had a connection over four decades, and to which I regularly contribute), called With Love to the World.

This is a daily devotional guide that provides a reflection on a Bible passage for each day of the year, with questions for discussion, guidance for prayer, and suggestions for hymns and songs to sing. With Love to the World is published four times a year.

You can read about it at http://www.withlovetotheworld.org.au/

Lent is an ancient practice which can be utterly relevant in the modern world. In this period of 40 days, or six weeks, leading up to Easter, we have the opportunity to take time to reflect seriously on our faith, to deepen our understanding and strengthen our discipleship.