Picture the apostle John, as the first century draws to its close, living on the Island of Patmos, just off the Turkish coast. He is very old now, and his young disciples know that he has more years behind him than ahead. Something crystallises for him his last great task: that of writing the Gospel that bears his name.
Of course, there is no fully-formed New Testament as yet; but there are already accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry that are circulating among the different groups of Christians around the world. Matthew’s Gospel is specially loved by Christians with a Jewish background: it recounts the story of Jesus in five great sections, rather like the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Then there are the two books by Luke, which have greater resonance among Greek converts to Christianity, as the faith they speak of spreads out from Jerusalem to gentiles the world over. Both of these copy large chunks of an earlier work: we call it the Gospel of St Mark. And there are other scrolls besides: a collection of Jesus’ sayings, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, that are not so universally esteemed.
Will anyone read yet another Gospel? ‘What will be its unique selling point?’ is the sort of question a publisher would ask. We can imagine John lost in thought, pondering for many months the legacy he will bequeath to the Church, planning how best to set down his understanding of his faith.
Very different from the existing gospels, his will be a great meditation on the meaning of Jesus’ life. It will be a witness, a testament to the true significance of the man from Nazareth. He will set down, not just a chance collection of miracles, but a sequence of signs that point to God’s activity in the world: the wedding at Cana, the meeting with the Samaritan woman, the raising of Lazarus. He will record not simply what Jesus happened to say on some random occasion. John will paint a gallery of vivid pictures as he explores who Jesus really is: ‘the good shepherd, the true vine, the resurrection and the life’. And through these pictures, decades of John’s reflexion about the life of his saviour will distill down for us.
A scribe waits expectantly, papyrus ready, quill poised. At last, as he paces the floor of his room, John and begins to dictate. Black, Greek letters stream across the parchment: ‘Now this was John’s testimony…’ Over four days of narrative, John introduces us to Jesus through the witness of the Baptist. On the first day, he explains the Baptist’s own ministry: whose task is to point us to the one who is to come. The next day, John says, the Baptist recognises Jesus as the Lamb of God, on whom the Spirit descends: ‘This is the Son of God’, he proclaims. Next day, the Baptist points his disciples toward Jesus, and two of them immediately follow him. They hail him as Rabbi, teacher; and Messiah, the anointed one, the King of Israel. Finally, Jesus himself chooses a title: Son of Man. Only later does John add the famous prologue to his Gospel, that speaks of the Word made flesh, coming to dwell among us. But as he sets down title after title, and begins to unfold for us the mystery of Jesus, John is using a sort of theological shorthand.
Sitting at my mother’s knee, I remember quizzing her about the strange squiggles she was making on her pad of paper. I was six: I’d done writing at school, and knew all about it. It took a long time: a full sentence could take me nearly half an hour! Her rapid shorthand squiggles certainly didn’t look like proper writing to me, and I could make no sense of it. Unless you know the code, shorthand is impossible to decipher. But this was nearly sixty years ago: I don’t suppose anyone learns shorthand any more: it will become as unreadable as ancient Assyrian cuniform.
So it is with John’s shorthand: what does ‘Lamb of God’ actually mean? You need to know that lambs were ritually killed at the beginning of the Passover each year. You need to know what the Passover commemorates, and why it is celebrated. What does ‘Messiah’ mean? You need to be familiar with a lot of Old Testament history to grasp the longing for a descendent of David to lead his people once again as King of Israel.
The same is true with much of what we do together as Christians. Ask someone if they have been washed white by the blood of the lamb, and even we would struggle to connect up the New Testament allusions. But not so long ago, this would have been a common shorthand in some Christian communities. The hymns we sing, the creed we recite, the symbolism we enact as we break bread and share the cup together: to increasing numbers of people all this is as indecipherable as shorthand.
I’m very conscious, when families invite their friends and relatives to a baptism service, that for some of these people, this is the first time they have ever attended worship in church. What we do seems entirely normal to us. But to anyone unfamiliar with Christian worship, it must seem more strange than anything else they have ever experienced. Prayer: how does that work, then? We believe in one God, the Father almighty: hang on a minute, what does all that mean? Hymns? I’ve never sung in public before, and I don’t know the tune.
This is not to say we need to apologise for what we do, nor dumb it down to offer only worship-lite. John, as he writes his Gospel, brims with confidence that he is proclaiming the truth. We can be full of that same confidence. But I remember reading in a newspaper where someone complained that they had been to a service in a strange church one Christmas, and the vicar had constantly interrupted the service to explain what was happening, and how irritating this had been. Irritating, if you are familiar with what’s going on; but if not, then perhaps merely welcome good manners.
To step outside what we have become used to, and try to approach it as though for the first time would help us identify with the awkwardness and unfamiliarity that some of our guests feel when they worship with us for the first time.
For in these shorthand introductions, we hear as Andrew meets Jesus for the first time. After spending the afternoon with Jesus, the first thing he does is to rush and find his brother, to tell him, ‘we have found the Messiah!’ We have found the one for whom our people have been waiting, for centuries. Imagine his excitement! Imagine his shining eyes, and the urgency in his breathless recollection! Try to recapture the awe and wonder that build within him; his amazement deepening, even as he tells his brother whom he has met. Try to recapture what Andrew feels, as he meets Jesus, and then rushes to tell his story. For this is what John is trying to do at the beginning of his Gospel: introduce us to Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Son of God.
And I picture John again, perhaps weeks, perhaps months later, dictating the final words of his Gospel: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God; and that through believing you may have life in his name. Amen.
© Jon Russell 2020