Friday, December 27, 2013

Third Day of Christmas 2013 John Apostle and Evangelist

December 27, depending upon where you are in the greater Christian community, can be a feast day for a few different things, but for many western Christians (Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians) it is the feast day of John, Apostle and Evangelist.

It is an irony of the church year, that two days after we tell stories about Baby Jesus, we celebrate a gospel that has no stories of Baby Jesus. In fact, we sometimes forget that only two of the four canonical gospels have any talk of Jesus's birth or childhood.

But John does have this cosmic "origin story" (to use a comic book term). "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . "

The writers of this gospel (and we can assume it was a community that identified with John in some way that compiled this gospel---it certainly isn't the apostle John---sorry if that ruins Christmas for you, but there it is) give us what we theologically trained folks call a "high christology." It's written later than the other gospels---around 100 C.E., some scholars placing it a little earlier, others later, even much later---and so the followers of Jesus had come to think about who they were, who Jesus was, in ways that the earlier gospel writers maybe didn't. This community imagined Jesus as someone who was in control, self-aware of who he was as the Son of God, and who was clear on the reason for his life.

Certainly, one of the most devastating pieces of the Gospel of John is it's clearer distinction between the followers of Jesus and emerging Judaism. While there are things said against certain sects of Jews in other gospels, John paints with a broader brush. "The Jews" become the villains of the stories, not just the Pharisees. This eventually has horrific consequences on history.

It is difficult---maybe impossible---to unravel all of this, but it seems likely that the writers of John---the Johannine community---would be as horrified as we are by the ways their words were eventually used. to justify inhuman atrocities.

How can we ever know that something we do, with intention of bringing Good News to the world, will pave the road to something like Auschwitz?

It is important to remember that these things happen. We have to own this piece of our history and we have to let it color our celebrations and commemorations of the Gospel of John. We are not wrong to cringe at every mention of "the Jews" in the Gospel of John, because it is right to remember that people who professed faith in Jesus used those words to torture and kill millions of people, not only in German ovens, but also in Inquisitions and in smaller scaled incidents where humanity was---and is---denied Jewish people. We Christians have to have the humility to recognize and confess that these incidents come from among us, from our zeal and certainty.

We have no excuse, really. We can only repent.

But the Gospel of John is not only about remorse and unintended consequences.

John is also the poetry of the prologue. It is also the story of the woman caught in adultery. It is also the comfort to millions of grieving people to know that, when confronted with the death of his friend, Lazarus, "Jesus wept."

John is not my favorite gospel, it may even be my least favorite of the four, but for all it's problematic history and tendency towards a triumphalist theology (which I find problematic, too, but that's maybe for another post), there is much beauty and comfort in there.

My art history and sound art professor from grad school days, Jeff Abell, responded to a thread about these issues on Facebook today in this way: "Like so many writings that have influenced history, beauty and difficulty go hand in hand."

 That succinctly sums up my pondering on this feast day of John, Apostle and Evangelist: beauty and difficulty and the humility needed to own up to both.  

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