If you reached behind the gospel according to John and grabbed hold of its editor’s lapels and snatched the coattails of its intended audience then you’d have seized hold of a community in crisis. The gospel of John is crisis literature, as are the letters of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John which were written with the same style and vocabulary, showing similar theology, and likely the product of the same editor for the same audience. Scholars call this community the Johanine community. Raymond Brown, who gave his life in studying John’s gospel and letters’, famously called it the Community of the Beloved Disciple, naming it after the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ who is mentioned throughout John’s gospel but never named.
I want to tell you about this group of people, and what crisis they were going through, and then I want to say something about what Jesus said to this community in chapter 12 of John’s gospel and what it means for our own community in our own times of crisis.
The Johanine Christian community was an isolated group. In some ways they were like the West Islip Church of Christ, a little Island church, with no real affiliations that extended across vast geographies, and influenced great masses of people. They had no para-church organizations. There was no embedded complex hierarchy. They were aware of other Christian communities, like the one led by James the Lord’s brother in Jerusalem, and those started from the missions of such notables as Phillip, Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and Titus, but they themselves were separate from the mainstream of the growing movement.
How did they become so isolated? Well for one they were Jewish, but not Judean. They were Jews of the dispersion, which meant they had Hellenistic leanings (i.e. they were influenced by Greek thinking). Some say they were located in Syria to the north of Palestine. Others say they were a Christian group from Alexandria in Egypt. Whatever the case the way they appropriated the gospel was different than the way the mother church in Jerusalem appropriated the gospel. The Johanin community was its own mother church, and they stood, to a degree, outside of Jerusalem’s sphere of control.
Second they were Christ followers, but in some ways followers of a different Christ. They had received different stories about Jesus, stories that are told in their gospel alone. Ninety percent of what we read in the gospel of John is material you can’t find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some suggest they used as a source an unknown proto-gospel that was a collection of signs and wonders that Jesus performed—like the turning of water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana, a miracle not found in the synoptics, and a miracle different in ‘kind’ from those found in the synoptics. Others have suggested that the unnamed beloved disciple had been an eye witness to the ministry of Jesus and now served as spiritual leader of the community and the gospel of John is a collection of his rememberings.
Whatever the case, if you are a careful reader of the gospels, you will notice straight away that John’s Jesus speaks and acts entirely different than the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s Jesus never performs an exorcism. John’s Jesus never gives a parable. John’s Jesus is never baptized. John’s Jesus never institutes the Eucharist. John’s Jesus enters into long, enigmatic, symbol laden speeches that are philosophical in nature. John’s gospel is so different in feel, that many scholars believe the community that produced it had never seen the likes of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Is it possible that for John’s community this strange, stand alone gospel was all there was? This raises all kinds of interesting questions. If John’s gospel says little about baptism then was baptism wide spread in John’s community? If John’s gospel does not mention the Last Supper then was the Eucharist practiced? Did John’s community ever hear a parable? Did they have any stories of Jesus’ birth? Did they know that Jesus was tempted in the desert, or that he was transfigured on a mountain with Moses and Elijah? Without Matthew, Mark, and Luke–maybe not!
But for all they didn’t have, at least they had each other. I remember feeling like that growing up in a little Church of Christ in Northern Maine. Oh there were other Christian communities, but we were not like them. We had our own traditions and peculiarities. The other churches had members who were prominent in the community; we had none. The other churches had schools attached to them; we did not have a school. The other churches got covered by the press, or had politicians visit them in election season, or created a buzz with their well staffed, polished, and expensive programs; we had no press coverage, no politicians, and we couldn’t afford our light bill. We had none of what they had, but we had each other. When other church buildings would clear out five minutes after the benediction our little church would hang out and sing a few extra songs, or eat a meal, or the adults would laugh and tell stories on the stoop while the children played tag on the lawn. John’s community was the same way, and so John’s gospel says a lot about ‘love.’ It is in John’s gospel that we receive Jesus’ ‘new’ command love one another. It is in John’s gospel that we learn the true identifier of the disciples of Jesus By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. It is in John’s gospel that Jesus pleads with his disciples to love one another as I have loved you. It is in John’s first letter that we read Those who say “I love God” and do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen. Isolated communities stick together, they’re survival depends on it.
That is why this community was in crisis. Shortly after the Jewish revolt in 70 C.E. the Christian Jews who had been meeting regularly in synagogues across the empire began to break away from their Pharisee brothers and sisters who shared the synagogue space. Some of this movement was voluntary, and some of it was forced. References throughout John’s gospel allude to this painful moment in the history of Pharisee/Christian relations. The crisis is most evident in John 9, where the man born blind is thrown out of the synagogue upon the profession of his faith. In John 12 we learn that many desired to profess their faith but they were afraid of Pharisees and they did not want to lose touch with the synagogue. In John 16 Jesus will warn of a time when his disciples will no longer be welcome, and that those who persecute his followers will believe they are doing so in worship to their God.
This move was hard on everyone involved. For sure there were many caring Pharisees, who although they could not abide with the differences in belief, still hated to see their cherished loved ones leave. For sure there were many mean spirited Christians who lashed out in retaliation from the pain they felt at the loss of their sacred space. And it was more than sacred space. Worshipping in the synagogue meant worshipping under protection of Roman law. Judaism was recognized as a legal religion by the empire; Christianity separated from Judaism was not. Worshipping outside the synagogue meant persecution from the state, and sure enough not long after the split organized state persecutions against Christians became part of the historical record. For John’s community the pain was particularly acute, for they not only found themselves at odds with their Jewish brothers and sisters, but because of their peculiar traditions they found themselves isolated from the wider Christian community as well.
For some in John’s community the risk and the loss were too great. How can you ask us to die to everything we have known? Should we hate our current lives? How can you ask us to leave? How can you ask us to stand alone, to separate ourselves from the stalk of the synagogue and become a single grain of wheat that falls to the ground? John’s community was having to leave behind what they most cherished in life: the identity, nurture and meaning of the synagogue community.
And so we read John 12. Jesus is in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover. Some Greeks approach Phillip and say “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Who were these Greeks? And what is the meaning of their presence here? I believe the Greeks were Greek speaking Jews of the diaspora (the word here is “hellenes,” not “ethne” [the latter word is usually used to refer to “gentiles”]). An earlier reference in John 7:35-36 to the “Jews of the dispersion” supports this.
If this interpretation is correct than the Greek audience asking to see Jesus is comprised of the same kind of people that make up the Johanine community–diaspora Jews. And what does Jesus say when he hears these Greeks are seeking his attention? The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me the Father will honor. Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Upon Jesus speaking these words a voice from heaven declared I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.
When the Johanine community first heard this sermon from John they heard it in light of their own circumstance. Sometimes following your faith will mean leaving behind what you cherished most in life. Sometimes you are asked to die. Sometimes you are asked to hate your life in this world and to separate yourself from the safety and comfort of the stalk where all the other grains are gathered and to descend alone to the ground.
What do you think Jesus meant when he told the Pharisee Nicodemus, a character unique to the gospel of John, who came to Jesus at night because he was afraid of his fellow Pharisees, if you want to enter the kingdom you must be born again? Born again means starting from scratch. It means starting over. What do you think Jesus meant when he said to the Samaritan woman, another character unique to the gospel of John, who was confused about where to worship that worship wasn’t about where you met but about spirit and truth. John’s Jesus was helping a community deal with a painful separation and a new beginning.
And when we read it we are likewise reminded that following Jesus can lead you right out the doors of the places we cherish most. Consider how many women have had to leave a Church of Christ because the freedom of Christ was only found outside the church’s walls? Do you think it was easy for them? How many gifted thinkers who challenged the status quo and who desired greater works for the kingdom than potlucks were shown the door and had to practice their faith in places brand new to them? Do you think it was a welcome relief?
Do you think following Jesus is clinging to the stalk of wheat? Why is it that we believe nothing life giving will ever be asked of us? Did you hear what Jesus said? Sometimes the hour comes. And when it comes we don’t say Father, save us from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that we have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
What if on the eve of our fiftieth anniversary we were asked to leave this place–to give up the windowed walls, and our memorial garden, and the mansard roof, and the expansive lawn? Oh I’m not saying it will happen, but it could. And it doesn’t have to be your place of meeting. Sometimes you have to die to a career, or a relationship, or your savings, or your security. Let go of the stalk and fall down, down, down, and die in the ground. There is no resurrection without death. You must be born again.
But don’t worry. When the dust settles and it’s just the few that fell against the world we’ll sing some extra hymns and talk long on the stoop while the children play tag. We’ll have nothing, but we’ll have each other. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, and whoever serves Jesus the father will honor. If the Johanine community can do it, so can we. When our hour comes, let’s look each other square in the eye, and let’s gain the courage we need to lose our life, let go, fall to the ground, and die.