Good Friday April 9, 2009

John 18:1-19:42

We have, of course, four gospel accounts of Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Early attempts to harmonize the four into a single true or pure gospel were rejected by the Church. There has never been, and there never will be, a single “take” on this man we call the Son of God. The Church follows a three-year lectionary cycle, reading Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B (this current year) and Luke in Year C. The fourth gospel, John, is scattered through the three years. We always read its Passion narrative on this day, Good Friday.

There are advantages and disadvantages in this use of John. The other three gospels are referred to as the synoptics—a Greek word meaning that they see with the same eye. This is not strictly true; they have some variations in perspective. But John’s is a very different gospel. It was probably the last to be written, at the very end of the first century A.D./C.E. Scholars used to say that it was the least reliable historically, but there is now a growing awareness that its author, St. John the Evangelist, may actually have been the closest eye witness to the gospel events.* What is different about John’s gospel is that, if this is the case, it was written by St. John in extreme old age. So it is the result of a lifetime spent in contemplation of the inner meaning of Jesus, and particularly of his crucifixion and resurrection.

As you entered the Worship Space this evening, you saw that on the oblation table was an icon with a candle burning before it. It is the icon of St. John the Evangelist in old age. It isn’t a very good icon—I painted it on retreat a couple of years ago and it was my first and will probably be my only effort at icon painting. But it tells us some important things about the author of this fourth gospel. St. John is pictured with a very prominent forehead, a symbol of his long and deep meditation on the meaning of Jesus. He is dressed in a green tunic with a brown cloak over one shoulder. Green is symbolic of life in iconography; brown, of the earth, of mortality. So John here is poised between life and death—in extreme old age, contemplating things temporal and things eternal. The background of the icon is dark blue, with gold stars. Dark blue is the color of eternity.

John is holding the book of his gospel, cradled in his arms as the Madonna cradles her Child in Nativity icons. It is his precious baby. And on this book, in Greek, is written the word for life, zwn. It refers to the end of John’s gospel, where the Evangelist tells us that he wrote his account so that we “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

I said that there are advantages and disadvantages in encountering John’s gospel in scattered fashion through the three year cycle of the lectionary. The advantage is that it serves as a counterpoint to the synoptic readings. The disadvantage is that we do not have a chance to work through it from start to finish, learning how to read and pray with this very different take on Jesus. For John’s is a mystical gospel. Last week on Palm Sunday we learned that Mark’s is a very political gospel, written around 70 A.D./C.E. at a time of great political tension in the Holy Land. Mark is urgent, tense. John’s writing is at the other extreme, refective, mystical, concerned with the eternal meaning of Jesus—the green tunic and brown cloak, the gold star-studded dark blue sky. It is John to writes about “eternal life,” John who gives us our understanding of life as sacramental, a combination of outward appearances and inward realities.

And this is John’s concern in writing the Passion narrative that we read each year on this Good Friday (reading the accounts of the other three evangelists in their turns on Palm Sunday). It is here in John that we have Jesus standing before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who asks him the most famous question in the Bible: “What is truth?” For St. John, and for us, the answer to that question is Jesus himself. Jesus is truth, standing there before us. It is truth that is crucified and truth that rises from the dead. Jesus himself is Truth. When Jesus is nailed to the Cross, this is an attempt by the powers of this world to kill Truth. But we, standing on this side of Easter, know that it is this world that is dead. We know that the kingdom of Jesus is of another order, “not of this world,” but of God’s world, the kingdom of Life. It is Truth that is symbolized by the Cross. So the Cross is not finally about Good Friday, but about Easter. It is a symbol for us not of death, but of Life.

When, in a moment, we pray the ancient Solemn Collects, we lift up the concerns of the world before the Truth of the Cross. When we recite our devotions before the Cross, we are laying the lies and sins of our poor lives at the foot of its eternal Truth. We are turning our backs on the world of death and lifting our faces to the Truth that gives Life.

All of this is more than a little strange in this modern world. We live in an age of Twitter, of sound bytes and 24-hour news cycles. We skim across the surface of life, compulsively grabbing at it as it goes by. That is why we need to spend time with the Fourth Gospel. St. John the Evangelist was the only one of the disciples who did not lose his life to blood martyrdom. He was appointed by our Lord to live on into old age, pondering ever more deeply the meaning of what he had witnessed so that he might pass it on to us, that we might “come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we might] have life in his name.”


*See, e.g., Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 358 ff.

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