Isuspect that most people who have spent any amount of time reading and studying the four gospels will be able to identify the one that most speaks to them—the one gospel they’re most inclined to recommend to someone just beginning to explore the bible. I almost always recommend Luke as an entry point, because his gospel is so very rich with stories and parables. Personally I find the Gospel according to Mark to be the most compelling picture of Jesus, in part because the Jesus I see there seems so very human… he has struggles, he gets frustrated with the disciples, he expresses those agonizing words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I find a strange kinship with Mark’s portrait of Jesus, because it tells me that my struggles and my frustrations are acceptable in his sight.
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I’m not always so sure with the Christ I find portrayed in the Gospel according to John. There are these extraordinary moments in that gospel account where I am utterly caught up: when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, for instance, or when he identifies them (and us…) as his friends. I am struck by the playfulness of his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the no-nonsense confidence with which he engages the Pharisee Nicodemus, and his conviction as he stands before Pilate.
And yet there’s a way in which so much of John’s account makes it seem as if Jesus was so completely aware of his oneness with God that he never once had to ask a hard question or even pray with any deep sense of searching or discernment. He is shown praying, but then it is always followed by a bit of a qualifier, as in the case of his prayer at the tomb of Lazarus:
And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ (11:41-42)
Similarly, in today’s reading of John’s Passion account we read that, “When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’” “In order to fulfill the scripture,” which pictures him as being so very, very much in control of things; of all things, in fact.
As John presents the crucifixion, Jesus makes two other statements, and in both he strikes me as being almost impossibly composed. The one is a stunningly poignant moment, when he looks down to see his mother standing beside John, and he commends them into one another’s care: “‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’” To Mary he seems to be saying that she will find in John the kind of son he himself was unable to be; one who would care for her, and who she could safely love without fear of having her heart pierced. And so John notes, “from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”
The other is his dying statement, which is not the “Why have you forsaken me?” recorded by Mark and Matthew, nor even the, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” which Luke records Jesus as uttering with a loud cry, but rather “It is finished.” “It is finished,” or as it is sometimes rendered, “It is accomplished.” What he has lived for is accomplished in his dying; the victory already won.
Which is truth of course. In his death the needful work was done, and though “he descended to the dead” as the Apostles’ Creed phrases it—though his broken, dead body lay in the tomb until the third day—the power of death has been effectively broken in his dying.
Yet did Jesus know this with such clarity at that moment? Is that even possible? For John, writing many years later and offering his impressionistic memory of all that happened that day, the answer is categorically “yes.” Yet I’ve often struggled with that portrait…
Early in my ordained ministry, I spent six years working as the chaplain at Marymound, a treatment centre for adolescent girls operated by the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Among other things, I was tasked with the challenge of trying to make the gospel live for a group of pretty troubled girls, most of whom had at best just a passing familiarity with Christianity. We had a regular Sunday afternoon chapel service, and I also tried to find creative ways to observe some of the most important days on the church calendar. Given all of its cultural currency, Christmas was easy. Easter, too, was manageable; though how to speak of resurrection without first addressing the death of Jesus? I landed on a format that was based on telling the story by walking the “stations of the cross,” much as some of us did here this past Wednesday evening. Marymound has a lovely carved wooden set of the stations, which are hung on the walls around the back half of the chapel, and so I’d invite any of the girls and staff who wanted to take part to join with a small group and walk through the story of the passion. There were thirty girls in residence, though being a long weekend there were probably only about twenty in the building on a Good Friday. Of those, twelve or fourteen would be interested, so I’d break them into three smaller groups and space them out over the course of the afternoon. It would take us no more than twelve or fifteen minutes to walk the story, and then we’d head into my office for hot cross buns and a conversation… mostly a conversation not about Good Friday, because they typically had other things they were more interested in talking about. Still, it was a good practice, and I was always pleased to know how at home they felt just visiting in my office.
The Stations work through the story of the crucifixion in fourteen steps or stages. At the end are the stations where Jesus dies on the cross, is taken down, and then buried. Up on the wall in that same part of the chapel where we considered those final three stations was a large crucifix; almost life-size in fact. The Christ figure was probably five feet tall, and as is typical of Catholic church art of a certain period, he was made to look as real as possible. His hand, feet, and side were marked with blood, and his head was circled with a cruel looking crown of thorns. One girl’s reaction to that crucifix changed me; or at it least changed forever how I read the Gospel according to John.
It wasn’t the first Good Friday I was there; maybe the second or third. Each time I’d taken these little groups of girls through the stations, I’d leaned toward my own preference for the Passion story according to Mark, such that when we came to those final stations marking his death and burial (standing right beside that big crucifix, remember) I would stress how even Jesus—even Jesus—had felt lost and abandoned at his death. If he could experience a sense of abandonment and doubt, I reasoned, these girls would feel a connection to him… even Jesus.
And then this one particularly angry and fiery girl—a girl who’d begun to trust me, and God only knows why, because given what most men in her life had done to her she really had no reason to trust anyone—stepped back and said, “I could never believe in a god who would do that to his own kid.” At first I thought she was either just kidding or trying to be difficult. But no. She was serious. She looked at me with this unbelievable intensity, and said, “I can’t Jamie. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”
I was stunned. I knew the subtext to her statement, because I knew that her own father had hurt her terribly, and that she harboured a deep resentment toward her mother for not having kept her safe. I’m sure I tried to mumble something in reply, but clearly that session of walking the Stations of the Cross was finished. We all adjourned to my office for the obligatory snack and visit, and predictably the conversation turned to other things… but my head just swam. After a little while they all headed off, and I had to think about what this young woman had said—what she’d alerted me to—and to think about the next group I’d be bringing into the chapel. It was then that I began to become more profoundly aware of what John knew about Jesus…
From the very opening of his gospel, John is unflinching in his proclamation of the truth of the Incarnation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John writes. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In this Jesus of Nazareth, God became one of us; one with us. As the theologian and jazz musician William Edgar said to me, “The Incarnation is God’s great improvisational act;” the perfect resolution of the tension between, on the one hand, God’s deep love for humanity, and, on the other, the reality of humanity’s deep alienation and brokenness. How to reconcile these two realities and bring us home? By entering into the midst of it all, and making a home with us. In Eugene Peterson’s free translation, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” That’s the Incarnation.
And that’s the point on which John is the most clear. When he looks at Jesus, he sees God-with-us. Everything he remembers, and every story that has been passed on to him, are held in that light. He sees Jesus on the cross, and for him it is so clearly God crucified. John sees not a transaction by which God the Father calls the Son to die, but instead the self-sacrificial act of God-with-us.
I was raised by good people. I never once imagined that my father would do anything to hurt me, nor that my mother would fail to do everything she could to keep me safe. I have the luxury, in other words, of reading all four gospels. I can read Mark, and be drawn by a Jesus who struggles and who at the end experiences a sense of desolation and abandonment. For me, it makes him more real. I can read John’s account, and let my eyebrows raise a bit at those points where he seems to be beyond things so basic as struggle; those moments when he prays, not because he has to but because he sees it as a teachable moment. I have the luxury of that kind of engagement with these narratives.
Not so for that young woman at Marymound. “I could never believe in a god who would do that to his own kid… I can’t Jamie. I’m sorry, but I can’t.” Her response was so urgent, and so very, very real. And sometimes my way of engaging these narratives can be so domesticated… safe… arm’s length. I’ve just never been hurt the way that she had.
It wasn’t long before I was due to get the next group of girls to come and walk the Passion story with me, but this time—and every year after that while I worked there—when we came to the crucifixion and death I let John be my guide. “Christians believe God loves us so much that He became a human being, and that He was even willing to die like this for us,” I’d say. “And we believe that somehow it changed everything.”
And it did. Because as John knows so clearly, that day it was finished, accomplished, and done.
I wish I could tell you that when that young woman heard the passion story in that light, everything changed for her. It didn’t. In fact, her life continued to spiral downward, and she didn’t even live to see her twentieth birthday. Sadly, her death was at least as tragic as the rest of her short life.
Yet her question did change me, because it pressed on my assumptions and it deepened me both theologically and spiritually. And if in the death of Jesus it is indeed “finished,” maybe in the death of that fiery, angry, broken, and oh-so-vulnerable young woman she has been met by the God she finally can trust.
“Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”