Smith, Robert H., Currents in Theology and Mission
Ash Wednesday--Good Friday, Series B
Four Gospels, Three Years
I don't know whether John is complaining. His fellow evangelists get to have whole years named after them, but we use John as supplementary material, inserting it here and there, especially in Lent and Easter. Of course, chopping up John the way we do, it is not easy to get a sense of the Fourth Gospel as a whole.
It's difficult even when we step back and scan the Gospel in its entirety, asking, "What is the story in John's Gospel?" Here are two attempts to summarize the plot of the Gospel of John in a single sentence. It is of course risky to attempt summing up a complex document of some 15,400 words in a single sentence, but the exercise may be illuminating.
In a book entitled Three Gospels (Scribner, 1996) Reynolds Price traces John's account of Jesus' life over several pages and then sums up by compressing the entire story into this sentence: "The force that conceived and bore all things came here among us, proved his identity in visible human acts, was killed by men no worse than we, rose from death, and walked again with his early believers, vowing eternal life beside him to those who also come to believe that he is God and loves us as much as his story shows" (p. 166).
Price is a voice to reckon with. He has written twenty-six volumes of poems, plays, essays, memoirs, and novels. For forty years he has been professor of English at Duke University, and during his long tenure he has pursued his interest in the Bible and in the Gospels in particular. Because of that interest he has in recent years offered seminars on the Gospels of Mark and John, and now he has written Three Gospels.
By the time he was "broiling in adolescence," he writes, he could see that "the four gospels' successful accounts of a single life, a life that was tortured and then transfigured by the dark hand of the source of creation, had not only shaped the actual Earth and the lives of its creatures through two thousand years." He could see also that "those brief accounts had also produced--as sparks from their core--the work of my early models and masters: Dante, Michelangelo, Milton, Bach, Handel, the late poems of Eliot, those stories of Ernest Hemingway that also ache for sublime transcendence, and a good many more of the props of life for millions at least as curious and needful as I" (p. 14).
Price speaks of his Three Gospels as payment of a "partial installment on my old debt to a pair of tales [the Gospels of Mark and John] that have counted as much in my life" (p. 15).
Here's the effort of New Testament scholar Charles Talbert to get the whole of John's plot or story into one long sentence: "John tells of one who came as revealing, empowering presence; who picked/produced a new community and provided them and others during his public ministry with warrants for a different kind of worship; who privately predicted what their future would be like, offering promise, parenesis, and prayer for that time; and who ultimately made provision for their future community life, worship, and ministry before he returned to whence he had come" (Reading John [Crossroad, 1992], p. 64).
Two who have written more extensively on the plot of John's Gospel are R. Alan Culpepper and Fernando Segovia. Here is my paraphrase of several paragraphs of Culpepper's treatment: Jesus, the incarnation of the divine logos, enters the world with a multifaceted task: to reveal the Father by bearing witness to the truth, to take away the sin of the world, and to authorize the children of God. In doing this he faces opposition of cosmic proportions. The more Jesus announces his redemptive mission the more clearly his identity is revealed and the more intense the hostility toward him becomes. Hostility mounts until, at the cross, Jesus' enemies appear to achieve their purpose. Unbelief appears to triumph over belief. And yet the cross is Jesus' glorification, the moment that finally reveals his glory for all to see. And at the end a community of faith has been established (Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel [Fortress, 1983], 87-89).
For Culpepper, plot development in John is not a matter of how Jesus changes but of how his identity, revealed to readers already at the beginning of the narrative, comes to be recognized and how it fails to be recognized. He notes the way "each episode [in the Gospel] has essentially the same plot as the story as a whole. Will Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman or the lame man recognize Jesus and thereby receive eternal life?" (pp. 88-89) The aim of the Gospel's plot, says Culpepper, is to woo readers to accept its interpretation of Jesus and thereby to join the company of believers glimpsed in the "we" of 1:14 (p. 98).
Segovia sees a twofold use of the ancient biographical "journey motif" in the Gospel of John. First is the cosmic journey of the Word of God moving from the world of God to the world of human beings, becoming flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and carrying out the mission of the Father in and to the world (1:1-18). Upon completion of the mission, the Word returns to the world of God (18:1- 21:25). In the second place, the public life of the Word made flesh (1:19-17:26) is narrated as a series of four journeys to Jerusalem.
After a long section on the journeys and the structure of the Gospel, Segovia turns in a very helpful manner to what he sees as "a rather complex variety of strategic functions for the Gospel as a whole" (p. 47).
1. Strong didactic function. Jesus engages in "widespread and sustained teaching regarding the ways and values of God, his own status or identity as Word of God, and his role or mission in the world.... As a result ... the implied readers of the Gospel are indeed drawn thereby into the community of believers ... the children of God are those who believe in Jesus and carry out his commands."
2. Very strong polemical function. "Jesus as the Word of God undertakes a broad and sustained attack on the ways and values of the world at large.... The community of believers, the children of God, should see itself as deeply estranged from and at odds with the world, the children of the devil--in fact, they have been 'taken out of' the world and are no longer 'of the world."'
3. Admonitory function. "The readers of the Gospel are specifically warned that an acceptance of the ways and values of God in the world implies and entails severe opposition from the world," including hatred and oppression.
4. Clear consolatory function. "An acceptance of the ways and values of God in the world implies and entails a very privileged position while in the world, ultimate victory over the world, and an abiding union with God in the world above: the community of believers shall receive glory not only in the world of human beings but also in the world of God."
5. Exhortatory function. "The mission of the Father must be undertaken as appointed regardless of the consequences.... Only through trials and defeat in the world can the teaching of God be properly disseminated and the mission properly accomplished." (Fernando Segovia, "The Journey(s) of the Word of God: A Reading of the Plot of the Fourth Gospel," Semeia 53 , 23-54)
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Publication information: Article title: Preaching Helps. Contributors: Smith, Robert H. - Author. Journal title: Currents in Theology and Mission. Volume: 29. Issue: 6 Publication date: December 2002. Page number: 480+. © 2009 Lutheran School of Theology and Mission. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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