We’re discovering, right at the end here, that the Gospel of John is a gospel of mystery!
In addition to the very mysterious identity of the beloved disciple,
there are also some wonderful, tantalizing mysteries concerning the authorship of John.
Who wrote the Gospel of John???
You may think, as many did, and as tradition held for a very long time
that the gospel was written, well, by a guy named John.
In this case, John of Zebedee, one of the original twelve disciples.
And you might also think that since the Gospel was written by John,
and since we’ve now read,
right at the end of the Gospel,
that the until-now mysterious beloved disciple
has claimed authorship at the end of the book,
that the beloved disciple must be John of Zebedee!
Well, probably not.
As it turns out,
authoring a Gospel in the first century
was really different
from that we usually think of when we think about the author of a book.
Jesus in the Fourth Gospel,” has to say about the authorship of the gospel of John:
“Ancient authorship was a very different phenomenon from modern authorship. The modern author is one person (or sometimes a group), who sets out to write a single piece of literature, revises it until she or he is satisfied with it, and the publishes it under the name of the author, who retains control of the material through copyright. The closest to this kind of authorship in the New testament is probably the epistles of Paul...In the case of the Gospels there were at least two phases to the composition. First, a specific community with particular features, concerns, problems, and sensibilities lived the Christian life for some time in response to the preached gospel. This resulted in teh choice of certain parts of the Jesus tradition as particularly apt for this community, the shaping of the stories by the homiletic, liturgical, and pastoral practice of the community, and the loss of some other material that was less adaptable to the community’s agenda. After decades of such “shaping” by community use and practice, the gospel tradition of the community was committed to writing, probably first in fragments that were later put together into a sequential composition. This writing might have been done by an individual (like Luke) or by a small “school” (such as Matthew). The final version might have been the result of several “redactions” or revisions made necessary by any number of factors in community life.”
So, the gospel we’ve been immersing ourselves in
is not the product of one highly skilled writer,
sitting down at a desk, Tolstoy-style, to write his (or her) “opus.”
Rather, it is a product of a community in emergence,
shaped by the experience of that community,
told again and again,
and then captured, expertly,
by a gifted thinker and writer.
And even after the writing,
a few other folks had some things that they wanted to tweak.
For instance, there’s the sort of awkward shuffle the text makes
in reference to the rumor that the beloved disciple wouldn’t die,
which I love.
It has this sort of Monty Python quality.
You can just picture some old guy writing on a scroll,
“and Jesus told us that the beloved disciple would NEVER DIE.”
And then another guy pops his head in and says,
“You know the beloved disciple? He’s dead!”
And the guy writing on the scroll sort of surreptitiously crosses out what he wrote
and then writes,
“and Jesus NEVER told us that the beloved disciple would never die.
That was...a rumor.”
The final sentences of the gospel have an almost whimsical quality:
“If every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books
that would be written.”
There’s an open-ended quality about it.
Unlike the end of the book of Matthew,
where Jesus grandly commissions the disciples,
telling them go and baptize,
or the end of the book of Luke,
where Jesus blesses the disciples and then literally ascends into heaven,
the Gospel of John remains marvelously unfinished.
We leave Jesus and Peter walking along the shore, deep in conversation,
Peter getting a little jealous of the beloved disciple,
and Jesus rolling his eyes a little bit and saying,
And those are his last words to us.
He does not disappear into the sky.
There is nothing grand or theatrical about it.
Instead, he simply walks a ways further down the beach.
It is as unfinished as an ellipsis.
As if to promise that he may appear among us at any time.
And then the writer seems to turn and speak to us, the reader,
Those are the stories I know,
but there are 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.
The “dot dot dot” that completes this Gospel is less of an ending,
and more of an invitation.
For if each of us is, in fact, the beloved disciple,
then each of us has a gospel to write as well.
Each of us has a story of the things that Jesus has done.
So many stories that the world can’t hold the books that we could write.
The end of the gospel speaks of a Jesus let loose upon the world,
present in our lives as individuals and as a community.
We have told these stories again and again,
and through them found a key to our own stories:
of what Jesus has done
in our lives,
in our church.
Each of us has a book in us of the things Jesus has done
and the things he is doing.
He has met us on the sea,
in the deep of the night
when we’re fishing and yet catching nothing.
He has met us noon when the sun is high,
as we stand by the well searching for water,
so that we might never be thirsty.
He has met us when we’re secreted away in an upper room,
the doors locked tight, unable to let anyone in.
He meets us at the tomb
as we grieve for one whom we loved,
one whom he loved as well,
and he has wept with us there.
The gospel have given us these stories
and a glossary full of words
that we might use to tell our story.
If I were to tell my story of the things I have seen Jesus do,
I would tell a story of a person who felt for most of her life
felt that she needed to catch lots and lots of fish.
Because she had this idea that,
as long as she was extremely successful at catching fish,
the world would keep on spinning,
and things wouldn’t fall apart.
I have badly needed to hear Jesus’ words to the disciples:
Children, you have no fish, have you?
Because I don’t.
No amount of fishing, however successful or unsuccessful,
will keep the world from unraveling.
I have needed to be reminded
that it is God, and God alone,
who is capable of holding the world together.
And remind me, Jesus has.
Often, the reminder has come through the very act
of pulling that net up empty
and finding that I have no fish at all.
And yet there is a fire and a loaf of bread to share,
and an unrelenting, un-diminishing love
that is simply given,
And whether I’ve caught any fish
has nothing to do with it.
We share the sermon at St. Lydia’s,
and tonight I’d like to direct our sharing:
Where do you see yourself in the stories that we have read?
What story would you tell of what he has done?