Why write a gospel?
Short sermon at All Saints, Coddington: Easter 2, 2015
Acts 4.32-35; John 20.19-31
“…these (things) are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name”
Have you ever asked yourself why someone writes a gospel? The clue to why this someone wrote his lies in that opening text, the last sentence of to-day’s gospel. That gospel’s first hearers lived around the turn of the first century. By then, seventy years after the Resurrection, all the apostles – including St John - were dead. The Judean Church had been scattered across the empire when a Roman army destroyed the Temple and sacked Jerusalem. That was in AD 70, the year after Nero began his persecution of Christians who failed to recognise his personal divinity. More persecutions would come. It’s thought that Mark’s gospel was written down in Rome, prompted by a fear that Christian teachers would be killed by Nero and their witness lost forever. Was John’s gospel prompted by similar fears? We do not know. What we do know is that – greater even than fear of persecution – was the bewilderment Christians felt. They were bewildered because, seventy years after Jesus’ resurrection, the world was still going on. Had not Jesus promised that the end was near? Christians were dying, not only from persecution, but from illness or old age BEFORE the anticipated return of Jesus to usher in God’s rule on earth. This was not what Jesus had apparently taught. It was not enough to say “he will come soon”. You can do that for ten years, twenty even – but not for seventy years.
Our gospel compiler had to explain what looked, at best, like a delay, or at worst like a mistake. He had to show that, whatever the appearance, God’s plan was nonetheless being unfolded. He might have fallen into the trap of telling his hearers that they should re-think Jesus’ return. If he had suggested that God’s rule is something other-worldly and spiritual and not to do with worldly matters, he would have found a ready audience. Some of the mystery religions, some branches of Judaism, the old eastern religions - all these had strong elements of this other-worldliness which they called Gnosis or Knowledge. These Gnostic believers thought this world to be of passing importance, whereas the ultimate spiritual reality lies beyond our world. Many Christians were – some still are - drawn to such a view, and they revised their hopes of the return of God’s mashiach accordingly.
But the author of John’s gospel responded by revisiting an earlier gospel - Mark’s, of which he must have had a copy. However, he didn’t just copy Mark. Indeed, he seems to have taken the contents of Mark’s gospel and juggled them, deliberately changing details of time and place, altering the sequence of events, and inventing dialogue where Mark had written none. In addition, he included other stories he’d heard. But in compiling his new gospel, he was walking a tightrope. On one hand, he had to avoid teaching that Gnostic message of an illusory world and an other-worldly messiah. But, on the other hand, he had to respond to the growing desperate idea that perhaps Jesus – or his apostles – had got it wrong.
What we get from our author is a new view of Jesus. Jesus is the mashiach, have no doubt of it. Jesus is God’s Son: you can believe it. Jesus healed the sick and even raised a friend from the dead. He was himself raised from the dead by his Father – as his followers will be. But the risen Jesus is not about to burst out of the heavens with an angelic Seventh Cavalry. He reigns now at the right hand of God, and requires that those who love him follow confidently in his footsteps. Believe in this Jesus and you will have life. And the author spells out for his hearers what that life entails. Jesus is to be our way, our truth, our life. We are the branches of his vine, nourished by his roots. And the gospel tells us that we followers have even now entered into eternal life. No waiting for the end of time and a dramatic showdown. Right now, we live a life in this world, whose ultimate fulfilment is in God and with God.