Beyond Belief

A personal reflection on the Gospel of St John

What do I know of the Gospel according to St John? Well, I’ve read it. It’s the last of the four gospels, both chronologically and in biblical sequence, and it’s usually described as being ‘more spiritual.’ From this basis I could find out much more about what theologians (and others who are presumed to know) have said, but I’m not going to because I’ve been asked for my opinion, not other people’s. Aren’t church magazines wonderful? When I agreed to write this I thought I knew what I was going to say, then I realised that I wasn’t really going to say anything that couldn’t apply to the rest of the Bible as well. So what is different about John’s gospel?

A big problem with reading the Bible can be its familiarity. We know what it says. Unfortunately, ‘what it says’ is interpreted through our culture as much as (if not more than) through our faith. So the Bible is seen to be all about behaving yourself or you’ll go to hell. Jesus is much better than you’ll ever know how to be so, even allowing for the dimension called salvation, you’ll all probably go to hell anyway. The gospel writers must have been elderly men (they were all men) in spectacles who might, on a good day - on a very good day - allow their followers to have half an hour off for good behaviour so long as they didn’t do anything exciting. Moderation in all things. With this sort of cultural miasma around me, I found I didn’t really want to write this article. I had a go at it as if it was Eng. Lit, didn’t get very far, then left it to see if over the next couple of days anything would come from God. This is what came. You can decide where from.

John seems to be all about going beyond. Beyond limitations of belief, understanding acceptance, legalism. He begins with ‘In the beginning was the Word’ - and I find it interesting that the ‘right to become children of God’ comes before ‘the Word was made flesh’. The right comes with the universal Word.

With the arrival of Jesus onto John’s pages there is dynamism. Suddenly there is a lot of coming and going. Ch1:35-46 contains: Look!, turning, follow, Come! find, brought, went, leave. There is a lot of coming and finding. (Is this a demonstration of the wind blowing which Jesus tells Nicodemus about in C3?) And in the middle of all this Andrew says to Simon, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ John doesn’t waste time and valuable parchment setting the scene or having his characters say it’s nice weather for the time of year, he’s straight in with the punch line. There’s no sense of a committee about this, no caution, no mediocrity. It’s got more action than Roger Rabbit!

Then there’s this amazing discovery of the endless generosity of God! I know we hear about this in church nowadays - presumably the preachers are on the Hot Line - but you don’t expect to find it in the Bible, do you? I mean, it’s a respectable book. You could give it to your children. Yet here’s John talking about in the beginning, water into wine and being born again. Cosmic God, beyond time, before the creation of the world, beyond measure, all that wine at Cana (no calculation here about how many glasses per bottle and 2p on the empties), beyond human understanding - but try anyhow. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is answering the questions he isn’t asking. Nicodemus sounds like a man struggling to put his thoughts into words - and finding he doesn’t have to. But how does he, how do we, struggle with the answers? Throughout John there is Jesus, reaching over barriers and regulations, saying through his actions: talk to Samaritans, heal on a Sunday, bypass superstitions (like about who’s first into the Pool of Siloam) the sort of narrow mindedness of ‘if I don’t do it this way I’ll get told off, look silly, break something.’ Grow beyond all that. Goodness me, St John’s got p’zazz! Or as Jesus put it, Life in all its fullness.

Life in all its fullness, for me, is how we’re supposed to live all the time. I don’t see it as meaning exuberance in church on Sunday, then too often regarding the world with caution for the rest of the week. For me, ideally it’s the other way round. Jesus says ‘Come all who are weary…’ and church becomes a vast farmhouse kitchen with a pine table and the smell of jam. We come in, we come home, we switch off from the exuberance of life, kick our shoes off, tell God what happened on the way to Grantham, Steve’s exam results and what Mavis said to Doris - and God in liturgy murmurs back at us with his familiar voice, even sings to those of us lucky enough to hear Him through St Peter’s. He gives us our daily bread (toasted with a poached egg or marmalade?) then, when we’re feeling better and see that our problems aren’t that bad after all, we’re able to go back into the sea of life. Not to dabble, whining on the water’s edge, but to dive from the top board into a sea described by John as ever exceeding our expectations and our understanding, and in which, from the beginning, we have been invited to take part.

Ann R Parker
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 25th March 2000