Text Study for John 10: 22-42 (Part Two)

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The gospel text for this Sunday is placed between two notices that Jesus is causing debate and division among “the Jews.” In John 10:19-21, Jesus’ Judean listeners are torn (the word for “division” is the Greek word “schisma”) by his claim that he has the power to lay down his life and to take it up again (John 10:18). This power over death and life is and should be reserved for God.

Jesus makes an audacious and potentially blasphemous claim, and it stirs up controversy once again. The Johannine author makes a point of reminding the reader that this is not the first such division and confrontation in the story. Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us that such divisions have taken place at John 7:12, 25-27, 40-41, and 9:16 (page 183). This has been a debate building toward a boiling over.

On the one side of the debate were those who declared that Jesus was demon-possessed and therefore mentally unstable. Malina and Rohrbaugh describe this sort of charge as “Deviance Labeling.” They write that in ancient Mediterranean society, people were not known as unique individuals. Rather, people were known by the categories into which they might be placed by others – place of origin, residence, family, gender, age, and stereotypical features assumed by the larger culture.

Identity was not something an individual created or claimed. Instead, “One’s identity was always the stereotyped identity of the group,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue. “This meant that the social information considered important,” they continue, “was encoded in labels such groups acquired” (page 149). These stereotypes could be positive or negative. The stereotypical accusation of demon possession was a negative assessment of the character of an individual.

“Negative labeling,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “what anthropologists call ‘deviance accusations,’ could, if made to stick, seriously undermine a person’s place and role in the community” (page 150). When the Judeans accused Jesus of being possessed by a demon, they sought to undercut his authority and destroy his reputation.

“Such labels not only marked one as deviant (outside accepted norms or states”, Malina and Rohrbaugh observe, “but once acquired could be nearly impossible to shake” (page 150). They note that if the charge could be fixed to Jesus in the opinion of the community, Jesus’ honor would be destroyed, and he would be ostracized from that community (page 183).

This isn’t the first time in the Johannine account that Jesus’ opponents seek to label him as a demon-possessed deviant (see, for example, John 8:49ff.). When Jesus is confronted by this accusation, he points to the work he is doing. He notes that it is “good” (noble, honorable) work. He appeals to God’s word for support and legitimacy. And he turns the accusation back on his accusers. “In this way,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, “Jesus rejects the deviance label his opponents are trying to pin on him, and the crowd (or the reader of the story) must judge if the label has been made to stick (page 150).

“In antiquity all persons who acted contrary to the expectations of their inherited social status or role,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “were suspect and had to be evaluated” (pages 185-186). Jesus had claimed to lay down his life and pick it up again on his own power and authority. But only God (or a demon) could do such things in the ancient Mediterranean view. Therefore, either Jesus was acting on God’s behalf, or he was in the thrall of demonic forces.

This is the debate in John 10:19-21. If Jesus is demon-possessed and mentally unstable, how can he do the things that he does? How, in particular, can such a person open the eyes of the man who was born blind? In the ancient Mediterranean worldview, such a combination of a demon and a healing verges on the impossible.

This is the debate that leads into our text for Sunday. Perhaps this was a debate that raged in the community over a period of months rather than moments. After all, the Johannine author takes us from the Feast of Booths in the fall to the Feast of Dedication in the winter.

The debate had, perhaps, come to a head by this time. As Jesus walked in Solomon’s Porch to escape the cold wind and rain from the west, he was surrounded by opponents. The word which the NRSV translates as “gathered around” in John 10:24 has a much more threatening tone and import. It is the Greek verb “kuklo,” which means to encircle or surround in order to restrict or even to capture. This is not a gathering of students or even a curious crowd. This scene has the makings of a lynching.

“The question posed in this section,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah” (page 184). As readers of the Johannine account, we know the answer to that question. In fact, the very purpose of the gospel, as described in John 20:30-31, is to show that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus. It is putting our faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God that gives us “life in his name.”

Jesus has not answered his opponents “plainly” on this matter. That is, he has not declared himself publicly, for all to see and hear. He has not staked his honor on the answer. This uncertainty and ambiguity are taking a toll on the Jews who are surrounding him. The NRSV translates their complaint as, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” But that may not be the most helpful or accurate translation of that complaint.

The Greek construction is difficult to render in a way that makes sense. As Malina and Rohrbaugh note, the literal translation would be something like, “How long are you taking our life?” The word for “life” here is “psyche,” which is a different word than Jesus will use in talking about “eternal life” in verse 28. Ancient evidence for the NRSV translation, Malina and Rohrbaugh observe, “is scarce” (page 184).

They do note that in modern Greek the idiom means something like “to provoke us.” That would certainly make more sense of the conversation and its threatening nature. How much longer are you going to stir up trouble, Jesus, with your “will he, won’t he” strategy and tactics? Let’s get this out in the open so we can be done with it one way or another!

“It should be noted,” Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us, “that questions posed in public are always an honor challenge” (page 185). This is a very public honor challenge in the midst of a crowd primed and ready for violence. We see that preparation for violence in the follow-up to our appointed reading, where the encircling crowd pick up stones in order to kill Jesus for giving what they consider to be the “wrong” answer.

Those who have surrounded Jesus for this showdown on Solomon’s Porch demand to know why he keeps the Judean populace stirred up with his veiled claims of oneness with God. “Jesus’ riposte to this challenge,” Malina and Rohrbaugh state, “is to avoid any direct answer to the question” (page 186). Instead, he urges them to look at what he’s doing if they want evidence. The reason they can’t accept the evidence of their own senses and experience, Jesus argues, is because they are not “of Jesus’ sheep” (John 10:26). This is the argument that takes us back to the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, contained in John 10:11-18. That metaphor shows an intimate connection between Jesus and the Father, and between Jesus and the flock.

The punch line that describes this intimacy is in John 10:30 – “I and the Father,” Jesus says, “we are one” (my translation). In response, Jesus’ opponents pick up stones again. In this description, Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, Jesus “is speaking of the close, interpersonal relationship of loyalty and trust that John consistently claims exists between himself, God, and his followers” (page 187). His opponents regard such an overt statement of identity (even though it is functional here and not ontological) as a blasphemous claim that no human being can make without suffering the consequences.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note, however, that “the overquick resort to violence in a challenge-response situation was not only dangerous, it was frequently an unintended public admission of failure in the game of wits” (page 191). When one is losing an argument, a violent and bullying response may silence the opponent. But it may also indicate that one’s opponent was right and couldn’t be allowed to continue to speak.

Jesus has “insulted” the crowd, Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, perhaps by noting that they are outsiders (not of Jesus’ sheep), rather than insiders. As a result, they seek to silence him. “Their resort to violence,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue, “is a tacit admission that their tactics have failed. Their resort to violence,” the authors conclude, “indicates that Jesus has won the exchange” (page 191). These stories of violence, culminating in the Crucifixion, would make it clear to ancient listeners that Jesus was the honorable victor in the exchange.

The stage is now set for the penultimate sign in the Johannine account – Jesus’ unwillingness to lose Lazarus and his preview of his power over Death itself. Whether any of today’s post makes it into the body of one’s sermon for Sunday, I think it is important to have the proper framing for our text and not to wedge it into the box of the first half of John 10 simply because it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

References and Resources

Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.

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Text Study for John 10:22-42 (Part One)

For those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) and its predecessors, the Fourth Sunday of the Easter season is always “Good Shepherd Sunday.” This Sunday in the calendar takes on the status of an unofficial mini-festival, at least for lectionary preachers. The appointed Psalm is always Psalm 23. The gospel text is always a section of John 10 – verses 1-10 in year A, verses 11-18 in year B, and verses 22-30 in year C. The common image in all three of these readings is Jesus as the “Good” (or “Noble, at least if one is working with an honor/shame hermeneutic) Shepherd.

Since Good Shepherd Sunday functions as this unofficial mini-festival at the midpoint of the Easter season, we need to ask the homiletical question we pose at every festival. Shall we “preach the day,” or shall we “preach the text”? If you follow my blog, you know that I always prefer preaching the text. That will lend itself to some allusions to the day. But we can “observe the day” in other ways during our worship as well –through other liturgical texts, decorations, commemorations, rituals, etc.

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The preaching problem is compounded somewhat by the fact that our text for Year C is not really in a direct narrative chain with the texts in the other two years. As Karoline Lewis and others remind us, the narrative from John 9:1-10:21 is a set piece. The healing of the blind man in John 9 is the sign that receives its explication and explanation in John 10.

Our text for year C happens two months later on the calendar of Jewish feasts. If it is related to anything, it really looks ahead to the Raising of Lazarus in John 11. John 10:22-30 serves as the bridge and transition from the healing of the blind man to the raising at Bethany. The text takes themes from the previous section and uses them as preparation and scaffolding for the next section. In fact, it is the raising of Lazarus that makes good on the promise that no one shall ever snatch one of the sheep out of Jesus’ (and the Father’s) hand.

Not even death can steal one of the sheep for which the Good Shepherd gives his life. “The focus here,” Lewis writes, “that no one will snatch them out of Jesus’ hand, that they will never perish, can also be viewed through the lens of the last sign that follows, the raising of Lazarus. Not even death will be able to separate the shepherd from his sheep,” Lewis continues, “That they will never perish is made abundantly clear in chapter 11.”

The allusions to the Raising of Lazarus continue. As we know from earlier in John 10, the sheep hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and respond by following that voice. Here we note that it is only by hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd that the sheep are able to put their faith in him and to have life.

Remember some of the details of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus calls out to him with “a great voice” (see John 11:43, my translation), ‘Lazarus, come out!’” Lazarus hears the voice of the Good Shepherd. The result is that Lazarus has “life” and is so closely identified with Jesus that his life is soon also in danger.

Our text, therefore, is an Easter text, par excellence. Yes, we have moved “backward” in the Johannine narrative. But “forward” and “backward” are somewhat arbitrary distinctions when we interact with the Johannine account. The themes and images of the Johannine work interweave, turn back on themselves, build up layers of meaning by repetition. The text is much more like a rising spiral than it is a straight line. When we take that seriously, we can have a better sense of what the Johannine author seeks to accomplish.

John 10:28 is an example of this intentional interweaving. “And I am giving them eternal life,” Jesus declares, “and they shall certainly under no circumstances perish, and there is not anyone who can snatch them out of my hands” (my translation).

The NRSV and other translations use the word “never” to render this verse – “and they will never perish.” The construction in the Greek is an emphatic negation. This is, according to Wallace, the strongest possible negation available in Greek syntax (page 468).

While the English word “never” can be used to communicate a similar sense, it also has a more temporal flavor to it. Most often, I think we would tend to hear “never” as “at no time” or as “such a time will never come.” The emphatic negative here has more of the sense, I think, that such a thing – someone snatching the sheep from Jesus’ hand – is no longer possible.

The grammar of negation is found as well in the assurance that no one can snatch the sheep out of the Father’s (or Jesus’) hand. The language of “snatching” here takes us back to the earlier sections of John 10. It is thieves who snatch, who kill and destroy. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, comes that we have may life and have it in abundance. God is never a taker. God is always The Giver. Eternal life, again, is that quality of life where it is no longer possible for us to be snatched and stolen away from Life.

This is a reminder of the way in which the Johannine author wants us to think about “eternal life.” This is not merely biological existence that has no expiration date. Instead, this “life of the ages” (as it is translated literally) is a qualitatively different kind of life. It’s not that death has merely been put off indefinitely. Instead, this is the life where death is no longer in charge. This is the life where a time will come when death is not delayed. Instead, it will be impossible.

As a result, that life is already available and impactful in the here and now. “The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses,” Elizabeth Johnson writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “It does not say, ‘Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.’ It says, ‘You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.’ Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).”

More important than the details of grammar is the reference being made here. Perhaps you hear an echo of John 3:16 in John 10:28. In the earlier verse, God saves the world in this manner – by sending the only-begotten Son into the world. God does this in order that no one may “perish.” It is the same verb as we have in 10:28. The result of this saving is God’s gift of “eternal life” – that which Jesus gives to the sheep in 10:28.

Therefore, what was attributed to the Father in John 3 is now equally attributed to (and claimed by) Jesus in John 10. His statement in John 10:30 – “I and the Father: we are one” (my translation) – is not a new addition to the discussion. It is, rather, a summary of what Jesus has declared in the previous verses.

Jesus is not entering into the theological debates of later centuries regarding the ontological relationships between the Father and the Son – issued addressed at the Council of Nicea and Constantinople. Instead, the oneness Jesus notes here is the oneness of the “work.”

O’Day and Hylen point out that the Greek for “one” is not constructed to indicate that Jesus and the Father are “one person.” That assertion would require a masculine form. Instead, the word for one is grammatically neuter. Therefore, O’Day and Hylen continue, “Jesus’ work and God’s work cannot be distinguished, because Jesus shares fully in God’s work” (Kindle Location 2349).

Our friends on the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast note this week that at least some of our Good Shepherd Sunday texts are favorite texts for the Service of the Burial of the Dead. That is especially true for Psalm 23. But I have used John 10:22-30 as a funeral text on several occasions as well. It is especially poignant and appropriate in response to deaths that were sudden and/or unexpected, times when the loved one was literally “snatched away” from the bereaved.

It may be helpful to keep that context in mind as we are preaching on Sunday – that some folks may connect this text to a funeral service for a loved one or friend. Even if that connection isn’t made, perhaps we ought to make it for our listeners.

A simple rationale for this is that often even the most active of Christians have very little notion of what might make for a “good” funeral text. I have found over the years that when I make suggestions of “good” funeral (or wedding or baptism or confirmation) texts during my regular weekly messages, people take notice and sometimes even remember the suggestion when the time comes.

More than that, we might use this sermon at the midpoint of Easter to give our listeners some additional framework for experience and interpreting the losses in their lives. Even when it seems that a life is stolen from us, the Good Shepherd assures us that this is not the case. “Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice,” Johnson writes, “the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise—a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.”

References and Resources

Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Six)

You may not have known that April 2022 was “Second Chance Month.” I only knew this because of the “Second Chance” emphasis at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. I regularly take in the worship and preaching at OSLC (online) and have recommended Pastor Tobi White’s sermons here on more than one occasion.

Second Chance Month was supported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The purpose of the observance was “to help individuals, communities, and agencies across the country recognize the importance of reentry and their role in supporting safe and successful reentry – building second chances!”

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The “reentry” under discussion here is the transition from incarcerated offender to law-abiding citizen. The official resources offered for this transition are paltry in amount and pathetic in impact. Just imagine being released from a state prison after months or years inside. Your family and friends may have decided to end their relationships with you. Corrections officers deposit you at a local bus station with your clothing, personal effects, and a hundred dollars. And they wish you good luck.

It may be that you have accumulated some funds if you were fortunate enough to participate in the Community Corrections part of the state carceral system. Perhaps you have a job waiting for you because you made connections during that time and demonstrated your value as an employee. Those things do happen – but they are very much the exception to the rule. For the most part, the official approach to reentry historically has been the YOYO rule – “You’re On Your Own.”

In recent years, governing bodies have begun to recognize that the YOYO rule creates a closed loop from prison to the streets and soon back to prison. The difference in recidivism rates for those with reentry support and those without is astonishing. Those with support tend to re-offend at the rate of somewhere between five and twenty-five percent, depending on the jurisdiction. Those without such support tend to re-offend at the rate of somewhere between sixty and ninety-five percent. Thus, financial support, such as grants through the “Second Chance Act” has been created to dismantle the closed loop.

Essential to reentry support are community efforts that provide structure, resources, community, accountability, and friendship to those who are seeking a second chance. The FEAST ministry at OSLC is one such community effort, now fifteen-plus years in operation. This is a ministry of friendship, food, study, serving, singing, and support – and all of it as partners in Christ. If you are interested in second chance stories, take some time to get better acquainted with the FEAST ministry and its related activities.

I mention all of this, because I wonder about the lens of the “second chance” as a way into our text in John 21:1-19. One of the things I learned early on in my association with the FEAST ministry was that “you can’t get a new past.” For the ex-offenders in the program, there was no going back and starting over. There was, instead, going forward and starting new. Of course, that’s true not only for ex-offenders, but for all of us who continue to be offenders – since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

One of the most difficult parts of the reentry process for these ex-offenders was the completion of a job application. If you do not have a felony criminal record, you have not had this experience. You have come to a certain question on the application, marked it without a second thought and moved one. That certain question is something like, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony offense?” For the ex-offender, this question creates an intolerable dilemma.

In my experience, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of employers who got a “yes” answer to that question simply discarded the application on the spot. That “yes” was a deal-breaker. Therefore, the ex-offender could tell the truth and be fairly certain of frequent rejections. Or the ex-offender could lie on the application and risk being found out and fired later. I discovered that I was in no position to give advice on how to respond to that question.

It was another demonstration that in very practical ways, you can’t get a new past. Life doesn’t offer “second chances.” There is no going back and starting over. There is only going forward and starting new. I can start new by denying my past and living a lie. Or I can start new by dealing with my past and risking rejection. Those are the options in a universe where the arrow of time points relentlessly to the future.

Three times, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” The details of the inquiry vary from question to question. But the import is clear. Peter, how will you go forward after denying your discipleship three times in the courtyard of the High Priest? Will you deny that past and tend to your nets? Or will you deal with your past and take on a new identity?

Jesus doesn’t confront Peter in order to condemn him. He confronts Peter in order to free him for the life of loving service Jesus wants to give him. The French proverb tells us that to forgive is first of all to condemn. Unless I have offended, there’s nothing to forgive. The converse is that to repent is first of all to admit. Unless I have offended, there’s nothing to repent. Any conversation about setting things right means that at some point things were wrong. That’s not being judgmental. That’s just acknowledging the facts.

In John 21, Peter doesn’t get a second chance. Instead, he gets a new life. That’s what I really learned in my association with the FEAST ministry. If it is possible to offer apologies and make repairs to past damage done, without doing more harm than good, then we should do that. If I need to suffer the just consequences for my actions, then I should do that. But none of that past-oriented behavior determines how I will live in the future. That’s where the new life is located. And that’s where Jesus invites Peter to do his best work.

“If you love me, Peter, feed my sheep,” Jesus says. Love the people I love in the way that I love them. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus told his disciples in John 10. We learned there that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. In the Johannine account, the crucifixion takes place at the time when the Passover lambs are slaughtered for the sacrifice. Jesus loves his flock (including us) and loves them to the uttermost. Now, he invites Peter to be a partner in that life-giving mission.

One of the choices we made early on in the FEAST ministry was how to refer to our new friends from the Community Corrections Center. We settled on the title of “partners.” We didn’t minister “to” our new friends, as if we were doing one-way “charity work” – although sometimes we did respond to specific and concrete needs they had. We didn’t minister “for” our friends, as if we were their saviors or rescuers – although sometimes we did engage in individual and systemic advocacy for them. We ministered together as partners in the reentry project. And we in the “outside church” benefitted at least as much from the ministry as did our partners in the “inside church.”

Jesus doesn’t, I think, merely offer Peter a second chance. I don’t want to denigrate the language of second chances or the experience of those who get them. I just want to think and see further. Jesus offered Peter a new life, a first chance to become what God had created Peter always to be.

Repentance and repair are important and necessary parts of dealing with our past (and present). But repentance and repair are not the end of the journey. They are stations along the way. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5, “there is a New Creation.” It’s not merely that the person in Christ is made new. Instead, all of Creation is renewed every time new life in Christ is given. That’s a second chance, but more than a second chance as well. That’s a first chance to become what God has created us always to be.

And the ministry of that new life, as Paul reminds us, is the ministry of “reconciliation.” That doesn’t mean putting things back together the way they were. That won’t do. Instead, reconciliation is the making right of all Creation just as God intended from the beginning. When Jesus calls Peter to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, and to die as Jesus died – Jesus calls Peter into his part of that ministry of reconciliation.

I can’t get a new past. But I can live into a new future. I can be part of the ministry of reconciliation that sets things right in Creation. That will likely cost me something. It may well cost me everything, as it did Peter. But what it costs me is a past that is passing away. Jesus is loving you and me into the world where He makes all Creation new, always beginning right here and right now.

P. S. I hope you might consider a gift of support to the FEAST ministry or some similar ministry of reentry and reconciliation. Thanks!

References and Resources

Allen, Jennifer M. “John 21 and Christian Identity: What John’s Gospel Reveals about Cultural Trauma.” https://www.academia.edu/42951581/John_21_and_Christian_Identity_What_Johns_Gospel_Reveals_about_Cultural_Trauma. Accessed April 28, 2022.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

Schreiber, Melody. “What One Million COVID Dead Mean for the U.S.’s Future.” Scientific American, March 29, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-one-million-covid-dead-mean-for-the-u-s-s-future/. Accessed April 28, 2022.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Five)

Theorizing and theologizing about trauma are highly visible in my information networks these days. While inter-generational trauma has been a known and acknowledged reality in communities of color for generations, this psychosocial reality has become mainstream in the last few years. A primary reason for this shift is obvious and ubiquitous – the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating impacts on American society and societies around the globe.

Why does this matter for my writing in this space? One way to examine, interpret, and apply the reading from John 21 is through the lens of trauma theory, theology, and pastoral care. But first, let’s review some of the realities of this historical moment.

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As of this writing, the United States is days from recording the one millionth death from the Covid-19 pandemic. This number is certainly a significant undercount, perhaps as much as 200,000, based on the additional deaths recorded during the pandemic that exceed expected mortality rates. “These immense losses are shaping our country,” Melody Schreiber writes in her Scientific American article, “how we live, work and love, how we play and pray and learn and grow.”

These losses will have generational impacts. This pandemic will be an historic “anchor event” – similar in this way to September 11, 2001, or – to expand the cultural and generational framework – April 4, 1968, or November 23, 1963, or December 7, 1941. For example, Schreiber reports, nearly a quarter of a million children lost a caregiver to COVID. Older Americans as a cohort and communities of color have been particularly hard hit. The consequences of these concentrated impacts will only unfold over the coming decades. “On average,” Schreiber notes, “every death from COVID leaves nine people grieving.”

Other age and social cohorts have been hit in other ways. The death rate among working-age Americans is the highest ever recorded in the experience of the American insurance industry. These death rates are forty percent higher than they were pre-pandemic. By comparison, a ten percent jump in the mortality rate would be considered a once in two hundred years catastrophe. The current death rate is unprecedented.

This working-age death rate was especially concentrated in the fields of food and agriculture, warehouse operations and manufacturing, and transportation and construction. “And working in a nursing home,” Schreiber observes, “has been one of the deadliest jobs in the U.S.” during COVID-time. The overall losses suffered so far are more than double the American deaths recorded during World War II. Just as it has taken generations to process and to continue to grieve those losses, it will take generations to process and grieve the devastation of this pandemic.

Some of the impacts have been immediate. Over one million women so far have left the work force during the pandemic, primarily to deal with disruptions in childcare and other caregiving responsibilities. Many older adults, who were primary caregivers in the unofficial world of childcare, are simply no longer there. This loss has been concentrated in communities of color that depend more heavily on the unofficial childcare network and resources. This loss of primary caregivers has physical and mental health consequences for children as well as economic ones.

“The Bible is one long series of traumatic events and accounts of how people struggle to speak about God in the face of them,” Serene Jones writes in Trauma and Grace. “Two traumatic biblical events jumped out at me immediately,” she continues, “the crucifixion and the resulting trauma of those Christians who experienced it” (Kindle Location 124). The crucifixion was an experience of terror and torture, of humiliation and shame, of personal agony and political theater. “So, for Christianity,” Jones suggests, “understanding trauma is not just a kind of secondary issue—it is rather the most central event of our faith” (Kindle Location 129).

Jennifer Allen writes that all traumatic events cause cultural trauma, a change in the collective identity of group members in response to and in the wake of that traumatic event(s). Allen quotes Jeffrey Alexander in this regard. “Trauma,” Alexander writes, “is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity” (Allen, page 6). This entry results in an “enculturation” of the trauma which produces shared memories, stories, and interpretations of the traumatic event.

Allen applies these insights to the telling and writing of the gospel accounts. She points, in particular, to Shelly Rambo’s description of the Johannine account as a “survivor narrative.” Allen writes that, “The emphasis on witness and the many post-resurrection narratives in John provides a significant basis for claim-making and transformation of the collective identity” (page 6). The disciples carry the experience of the trauma of the crucifixion (and resurrection) and discern the meaning of these events as they tell and re-tell the gospel stories. In this way, the event changes the collective identity of the group.

“The Christian story is bathed in trauma,” Allen writes, “and in understanding God and our relationship to God in the face of historic, enculturated trauma. It is in the face of the shared narrative of trauma,” she continues, “where Christians can gain an understanding of God and God’s relationship to their own brokenness” (page 12). She argues in her thesis that John 21 offers a story that attempts to explain God’s presence in the trauma and to offer Jesus’ instructions on how to proceed in response to the trauma.

Allen describes Peter in John 21 as a “survivor seeking healing.” He responds to all that has happened by trying to return to the way things used to be when he and his companions worked and lived as Galilean fisherman. I imagine many of us church folk think immediately of the desperate desires in our congregations for things to return as quickly as possible to “the way things were before Covid.” But in John 21, we see that there is no going back to the before times. “Peter’s lack of success in fishing,” Allen argues, “proves that he will not be able to return to life ‘before,’ but will need to reintegrate his life with the presence of trauma” (page 18).

Nonetheless, when (with the prompting of the Beloved Disciple) Peter swims to shore, he seems to rejoice that perhaps he and his companions have gotten past all that unpleasantness and may be able to move on in triumph. The rest of the disciples clearly see that this avoidance and suppression of the traumatic memory isn’t possible. They know who Jesus is but won’t risk talking about how exactly he got from where he was to where he is.

In the threefold questioning, Jesus leads Peter to review and re-narrate Peter’s own place in the traumatic story. Jesus meets Peter where he is and allows Peter to come as far as he can in the conversation but presses him no further for the moment. “In Peter, we see the effects of trauma in their earliest and least processed manifestations,” Allen writes. “Peter has not yet processed the trauma to the point where he is able to share the narrative with others, establish trust, or reconnect relationships,” Allen continues. For Peter to become a “carrier” of the tradition to the community and succeeding generations, “he needs to begin processing his own trauma and he needs a witness who can hear his narrative and help to integrate it into the larger narrative” (page 20-21).

Allen examines the roles of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple in similar ways, and I would encourage readers to take some time with her fine thesis (as well as the books to which she refers). But there is something about Peter in this text that makes him a helpful focus for preaching this week. In our historical moment of trauma, we are, I think, most like Peter. We would like very much to get back to fishing in the way we did before all this stuff began to happen to us.

When I say, “we, of course, I am referring primarily to White, privileged, and propertied people in the United States and western Europe. We are far more accustomed to triumph than we are to trauma. In fact, we love triumph so much that we have willingly inflicted trauma on others – especially upon Native, Black, and Brown people – in order to maintain our triumphant and privileged positions. One of the realities that makes our current trauma so terrifying is that we White, privileged, and propertied people are in the process of “losing” all of that advantage.

It’s no wonder that we want to go back to the way things were, back to fishing as if nothing important had happened. But that’s not an option for us or anyone else. The downstream consequences of the COVID trauma will be with us for generations, just as the consequences of White Supremacy have been visited upon Native, Black, and Brown people for generations. We White people might get our feelings hurt as we hear these stories, but we can either sit and listen, or we can try to silence the testimony with violence.

Allen notes that the Beloved Disciple has made more progress than Peter in processing and integrating the trauma of the cross and resurrection. Thus, the Beloved Disciple serves as both a witness and a partner in Peter’s process, whether Peter wants that to be true or not. Perhaps this is an invitation for us White, privileged, propertied folks to recognize the partnership of the traumatized among us. Now is the time to listen to Native, Black, and Brown people, to women, to the disabled, to the LGBTQIA+ community, to those who do not conform to the tyranny of the “normal.”

They know what we don’t. We may not be able to fish as we once did. But that’s not an end to the old life. It’s an invitation to the new one.

References and Resources

Allen, Jennifer M. “John 21 and Christian Identity: What John’s Gospel Reveals about Cultural Trauma.” https://www.academia.edu/42951581/John_21_and_Christian_Identity_What_Johns_Gospel_Reveals_about_Cultural_Trauma. Accessed April 28, 2022.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

Schreiber, Melody. “What One Million COVID Dead Mean for the U.S.’s Future.” Scientific American, March 29, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-one-million-covid-dead-mean-for-the-u-s-s-future/. Accessed April 28, 2022.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Four)

What is the best translation for Jesus’ question to Peter in John 21:15? Ilaria Ramelli demonstrates that the emphasis in the question should fall on “me.” As a result, the verse reads, “Therefore, when they ate breakfast, Jesus says to Simon Peter, ‘Simon [son of] John, do you love me more than these [other disciples? Things?]” (my translation).

There is no case to made for an emphasis on “you” in the question. In fact, the pronoun for “you” does not appear in the verse. This absence of an emphatic subject “makes it strongly implausible that Jesus is contrasting Peter, the subject of the phrase, to the other disciples as the one who loves Jesus more than the others do” (page 333). In his response, Peter asserts his love for Jesus without the comparison and thus ignores the real kernel of the question.

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Ramelli shows that the contrast Jesus proposes is between loving him and loving someone or something else more. Thus, the second issue is the phrase the NRSV translates as “these.” These what? Some translations and interpretations assume that “these” refers to the other disciples. But, as Ramelli notes, the word for “these” can just as easily be neuter in gender as masculine here. That is, the translation “these things” is readily permissible in grammatical terms.

“Peter should love Jesus more than anything else,” Ramelli continues. “This is why Jesus predicts his martyrdom soon after” (page 334). The translation of “these things” is necessary, according to Ramelli, in grammatical terms beyond the ambiguity of gender in the construction. Ramelli disagrees with Raymond Brown in this regard. Brown argues that a choice for Peter between the material things of this world and the risen Jesus would be “ridiculous, but it is precisely the choice between Jesus and all the rest of the world,” Ramelli responds, “including his own life, that leads Peter to total service and martyrdom” (page 334).

Ramelli reminds us that some scholars argue against a comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love for Jesus felt or expressed by the other disciples. Such a comparison would indicate a rivalry among the disciples which runs quite counter to the nature of the discipleship community in the Johannine account. In addition, Ramelli notes that in the Johannine account it is the Beloved Disciple who is pre-eminent in love for Jesus, if any comparison is to be made (page 335).

The one possible translation that makes sense of the comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love for Jesus on the part of the others is a translation with an ironic sense. “So, Peter, do you think you love me more than these other characters do? I’m not sure your track record stands up to that scrutiny, if in fact that’s what you think of yourself.” While Ramelli merely mentions this translation possibility in passing, I’m not sure we should dispense with that possibility quite so easily – especially given the frequency of irony and double entendre in the Johannine account.

If, on the other hand, the translation really needs to be “these things” rather than “these other characters,” then the ironic translation is either inaccurate or has a different twist to it. Ramelli launches into a dauntingly detailed grammatical and philological analysis of the Greek phrase. The analysis covers several pages, several languages, several genres, and several centuries. If that sort of thing is your interest, then be sure to read the article (probably several times to get it all).

Ramelli concludes that the grammar, syntax, and textual analysis demand the translation, “Do you love me more than these things?” In particular, the phrasing of the question in other contexts and documents connects love for Jesus to martyrdom, especially in first-century, New Testament contexts. Thus, this is likely the best translation of the question.

Commentators note the connection between John 21 and the call of the disciples in Luke 5:1-11. In the Lukan account, the disciples leave “everything” and follow Jesus in response to the miraculous catch of fish. Peter is overwhelmed by the power of the event. He falls to his knees before Jesus and confesses that he is a sinful man. Karoline Lewis suggests that the placement of the large catch of fish at the end of the Johannine account “will necessitate a reevaluation of what discipleship means” (page 254).

Lewis argues that abundance is a consistent theme within the Johannine account, and that this theme is central to our text for this week. “The resurrected Christ will be seen in displays of abundance,” she writes, “The ascended Christ will be known when his disciples establish opportunities to experience abundant grace” (page 255). The ascended Christ is certainly known at this moment as the disciples experience abundant fish. For just a moment, at least, I have to wonder if these “these things” refers to the fish.

That may seem to be an odd and trivial connection, but I’m not so sure about that. Peter, do you love me for me? Or are you grateful that I can provide you with such an abundance of stuff? If the fish went away, would you still feel the same need to connect to me? Are you committed to me for me, Peter, or for you?

This is an ongoing question in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I think about the Satan’s question to God regarding Job. “Does Job love God for nothing?” Some translations render this question along the lines of “for no reason,” but I don’t think that’s right. Job is swimming in abundance – of stuff, of honor, of family, of well-being. What’s not to like? But the Accuser focuses on the ambiguity of such abundance. Can we sort out our love for God from our love for satisfaction and security?

There is nothing more attractive to us than the realization that someone else loves us. In fact, too often we can mistake our love for being loved as being our love for another. Jesus lifts this up in the Lukan sermon on the level spot in chapter 6. If I love those who love me, how can I sort that out? If I do good as part of a mutuality pact, how can I discern my real motives? If I lend at interest, how can I call that altruism? Instead, love with no expectation of return. That’s what makes us “children of the Most High.” That’s the way to be merciful as our Father is merciful.

Peter, do you love me more than these fish? I don’t know if that’s actually the question. But I think it may actually be the question. Peter, do you love me for me or for the benefits? When the benefits went away, for example during Jesus’ trial, Peter’s love seemed a fleeting thing at best. “In John, Peter does not deny Jesus or knowing Jesus,” Lewis reminds us, “but he denies his discipleship. Jesus will now reveal to Peter what discipleship demands” (page 256).

Lewis argues that the threefold question in John 21 is not only about Peter’s forgiveness, reinstatement, and/or rehabilitation. “None of these summaries adequately recognizes the significance of Jesus’ request of Peter,” she continues. “Peter is not simply restored to his role as disciple, but he will have to imagine discipleship in an entirely different way” (page 256). So will we.

Jesus puts the question to me. “Do you love me more than these things?” These things, in my case, are probably not a netful of large fish (although I have not been above praying for a large catch on particularly slow fishing days). These things might be some other sort of material stuff. These things might be my privilege, power, position, or property – these things that might be at risk if I really followed Jesus fully. Do I love Jesus more than I love these things?

Well, now we’ve gone from preaching to meddling, as they say.

It strikes me that my response to this question is more about giving myself to Jesus than it is giving myself for Jesus. Loving Jesus means placing myself in his loving care, come what may. That’s far more frightening than making heroic sacrifices for Jesus — acts for which I could perhaps take credit now or later. This love is most clearly expressed as trust regardless of the circumstances. I can’t think of any greater “demand” on me (except that it’s an invitation, rather than a demand).

“Trust is our gift back to God,” Brennan Manning writes in Ruthless Trust, “and [God] finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it” (page 2). This is the real conversion for believers, Manning suggests. “The faith that animates the Christian community is less a matter of believing in the existence of God,” Manning notes, “than a practical trust in [God’s] loving care under whatever pressure” (page 6). Peter, will you love me even when the fish are scarce, and the fears are plentiful? More important, will you trust me to love you to the end?

That’s a question with some real bite (pardon the fishing pun) – both for me as an individual disciple and for us as disciple communities. The answer can set us free to become the fully human persons God has created us to be. “The heart converted from mistrust to trust in the irreversible forgiveness of Jesus Christ is redeemed from the corrosive power of fear,” Manning writes. This conversion, he continues, “is the moment of sovereign deliverance from the warehouse of worry” (page 7).

The fish are going to disappear, Peter. Troubles are going to multiply in their place. You can trust me, Jesus says, in either case. Will you? If so, then you can be freed to love as I love.

References and Resources

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Three)

“Peter is not simply restored to his role as disciple,” Karoline Lewis writes in her commentary, “but he will have to imagine discipleship in an entirely different way” (p. 256). That different dimension of discipleship comes in the form of loving those Jesus loves in the way that Jesus loves them. That call to discipleship is extended once again to us who are continuing to believe in Jesus by means of the witness contained in the Johannine gospel (see John 20:30-31).

A casual reading of the Greek text reveals that Jesus and Peter use two different Greek words for “love” in their conversation in John 21:15-17. Those two words are agapao and phileo. David Shepherd reviews the scholarly consensus on this difference in vocabulary and then assesses whether this difference is a difference that makes a difference. I’ll try to summarize his argument and conclusions to help us discern in detail the nature of the difference, if any.

Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

Shepherd notes that the scholarly consensus these days is that the variation in verbs is a matter of stylistic preference rather than theological substance. “The mortar of this consensus,” Shepherd writes, “is the insistence that any attempts to draw a dependable semantic distinction between agapao and phileo are doomed to failure whether in Greek literature generally, the Septuagint, the NT, or John’s Gospel itself” (pages 777-778).

Shepherd agrees that while it is impossible from a semantic perspective to differentiate between the two terms for “love” in the text, he wants to argue that the difference makes a difference from a narrative-critical perspective. In particular, he wants us to pay attention to the connections between the dialogue in John 21 and the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 13-17. The purpose of this analysis is not merely to score scholarly points but rather to come to a deeper understanding of what Jesus asks of post-resurrection disciples and of how we might miss that point.

Part of the current scholarly consensus is that John 21 was composed by the author of the first twenty chapters or by an immediate successor to that author. The connections catalogued by scholars between John 1-20 and chapter 21 establish “beyond any reasonable doubt that if John 21 was not written by the author of the remainder of the gospel, it was the work of one who consciously or unconsciously wished it to appear as if it were” (page 780). This conclusion is clearly reflected in the connections between John 21:18-23 and the conversation in the Farewell Discourse.

Shepherd notes that Jesus puts the commandment to love one another in John 13:31-38 in the middle of his discussion of discipleship and his own death. Jesus calls his followers to do for one another as Jesus had done for them (John 13:15b). That call is then echoed in John 13:34b in the command that the disciples would love one another as Jesus had loved them. The word for “love” in this section of the gospel account is several forms of agapao. This love is undoubtedly, Shepherd argues, “a love that lays down its life and in so doing marks out those who call themselves Jesus’ disciples” (page 781).

This emphasis on self-giving love as the heart of discipleship is reflected in the structure of the Farewell Discourse itself. The center and high point of the Discourse is in John 15:12-17. It is no accident that later in the chapter, Peter declares that he will indeed lay down his life for Jesus (John 15:37). Shepherd suggests that Peter demonstrates an understanding of the self-sacrificing character of this love. Therefore, “Peter’s eventual denial will stem from a failure of resolve rather than a faulty understanding” (page 783).

We can see this worked out in the narrative, Shepherd continues, especially the scene in the garden in John 18. The fact that Peter attacks the servant of the high priest runs counter to the self-sacrificing love which Jesus commanded just a few hours beforehand. Jesus gives himself up in the garden in order to secure the safety of his friends (see John 18:8). While Peter may have initiated the attack in order to sacrifice himself for Jesus, taking the life of another for Jesus’ sake was not what self-sacrificing love should look like. Therefore, Jesus rebukes Peter’s actions in John 18:11.

“In John, Peter is condemned not for his violence per se,” Shepherd argues, “Instead, the narrative in John implies that Peter is rebuked both for failing to understand the necessity of Jesus’ self-sacrifice and for failing to remember that Peter will not follow Jesus now” but will follow him later (see John 13:36, Shepherd, page 784). In the wake of this failure to understand, Peter goes after Jesus to the courtyard of the High Priest, but he does not “follow” Jesus as a disciple.

Shepherd notes that John 18:27 refers us as readers back to Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial in John 13:38. This verse, then, “invites the reader to the conclusion that Peter has failed, first in the garden and then in the courtyard, to grasp fully or express faithfully the particular kind of agape that Jesus demands of his disciples in his last significant conversation with Peter and the others before his passion” (page 786).

This understanding in the Johannine account that agape is love that lays down its life can help us to understand, according to Shepherd, the variation in the usage in John 21:15-17. In John 21:15, Jesus asks whether Peter “will finally be willing to do as he had promised and follow him in expressing this love (13:31-38)” (page 788).

Peter replies by using a form of the verb phileo. Shepherd argues that the Johannine author is not interested in the specific differences, if any, between the two verbs. “Rather, the point is quite simply that whatever sort of love is indicated by phileo,” Shepherd writes, “it is demonstrably not the sort of love for which Jesus is asking – nor the sort for which he had explicitly asked on the night he was betrayed” (page 788).

Peter’s response, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” therefore indicates precisely (in terms of the Johannine account) that Peter doesn’t yet “get it.” The Johannine talent for irony is thus on full display here. The fact that Peter loves Jesus to the point of self-sacrifice is precisely what Jesus does not know about him in that moment. “Peter’s ‘yes’ thus reflects his failure to draw the necessary distinction,” Shepherd writes, “between the agape that has been requested and the philia that he has offered” (page 789).

If Peter does, in fact, understand what Jesus means, then he will know what this looks like. It looks like the ministry of the Good Shepherd, as described in John 10. The Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for the sheep. That’s what “feeding” the sheep and lambs looks like for Peter. Since we get a snippet of that text next week, the preacher may choose to flesh out that connection more a week from Sunday. But since the lection from John 10 for a week from Sunday does not directly address the self-sacrificing mission of the Good Shepherd, there is good reason to address it here and lay some groundwork for next week.

The clear reference to John 10 and the Good Shepherd continues in the second question and response. Peter continues to use phileo rather than agape. The third question adopts Peter’s vocabulary. Does Jesus surrender to Peter’s resistance? Does Jesus challenge Peter to love even a little bit if not self-sacrificially? Scholars have suggested these options.

Shepherd suggests a different rationale. “Given that Peter has repeatedly failed to hear what Jesus is saying (agapao),” he argues, “Jesus now invites Peter to hear what Peter himself has been saying (phileo) in the hope that the apostle will finally grasp the difference between the two” (page 791). Shepherd concludes that Peter doesn’t pick up on the distinction even when Jesus makes the point this way. Of course, the real question is whether we as the readers/listeners will catch the distinction (the fact that English doesn’t have two different words for “love” here makes that apprehension nearly impossible without the current sort of extended explanation).

Even though Peter continues to miss the point in verses 15-17, verses 18-20 make it clear that Peter will “get it” in the end. Peter will follow Jesus, whether he chooses to or not. The alternation of verbs in this section of chapter twenty-one “is best understood as a crucial part of Jesus’ effort,” Shepherd concludes, “to remind Peter of the kind of love (agape) that Jesus had demanded of him on the night he was betrayed (chs. 13-17) and that Peter subsequently failed to grasp (ch. 18)” (page 792).

Shepherd notes that we are listeners/readers are left to wonder whether Peter will get it at some point. However, I suspect that the Johannine author’s real agenda is to lead us to wonder whether we will get it at some point, whether we will full embrace our discipleship and what that means for us in specific situations. And if we get it in ways that Peter does not, will we have the will to live out that understanding of love for one another in our actions? Ok, now I’m uncomfortable…

References and Resources

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part Two)

Do we have a renewal or a rebooting of Peter’s call to discipleship here in John 21? No, it would seem that in the Johannine account, the narrative in John 21 is the first time that Peter is actually called to follow Jesus as a disciple. Sean Kim argues this point in his 2017 article in Neotestamentica.

Kim observes that the Synoptic authors put Peter’s call upfront in their accounts. In addition, the Johannine author would have had opportunities to describes such a call, for example, after Peter’s confession in John 6 or when Peter said he would die for Jesus. Instead, the Johannine author waits until the very last chapter to describe this call. “What theological idea does the Evangelist communicate,” Kim asks, “by the distinctively Johannine literary arrangement of positioning this call after Peter’s denial and Jesus’ manifestation?” (pages 41-42).

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Kim observes that nearly all call stories in scripture come early in the description the main character’s life and mission. This is true in both testaments. In addition, the distinctive vocabulary of call which is applied to other disciples in the Johannine account, is not applied to Peter until chapter 21. The only “call-like” feature that the Johannine author includes early in the account is the name chapter from Simon to Cephas in John 1:42 (page 45). Even that event is narrated with a future tense verb and not in the present tense.

And even in chapter 21, Jesus does not refer to Simon Peter by that full name but rather as “Simon of John.” In the Synoptic accounts, Kim argues, Jesus gives Peter the nickname in response to something Peter says and does. In the Johannine account, the nickname comes entirely from Jesus’ own consideration and imagination. In this way, “the Evangelist implies that Simon’s future life as Cephas will be wholly founded on Jesus himself,” Kim argues, “his will, plan, initiative, guidance, and work for him” (page 46).

Kim wants to show that Peter’s call as a disciple is not rooted in anything native to Peter. Rather, the initiative and the power rest entirely with Jesus. This will be the reason why Peter’s call story comes at the end of the gospel account rather than at the beginning. “It is not that the Evangelist intends to denigrate Peter’s status or to portray him pejoratively,” Kim argues. “It is an intentional design to communicate something that he regards as theologically important” (page 46).

Peter disappears between John 1:42 and John 6:68-69. Peter’s confession in John 6 is one of the high moments of the gospel. It contains major themes from the Johannine account – words and eternal life. Yet, there is no affirmation of this confession, as we would find, for example, in the Matthean account. Peter, according to Kim, needs more time in the discipleship crucible before he is ready for his great calling (page 47).

Peter makes his next major appearance in John 13, where he misreads the significance of Jesus’ foot-washing action. The Johannine author makes it clear in chapter thirteen and throughout the Farewell discourse that this behavior is a demonstration of love. It is also clear that Peter does not yet understand what this demonstration means for him as a follower of Jesus. “Despite seeing Peter’s veneration for him, however,” Kim writes, “Jesus did not give him an apostolic mission at this time” (page 48).

Instead, in verses 36-38, Jesus makes it clear that Peter will not (yet) be able to follow Jesus on his path of suffering service. Kim notes that the first time the Greek verb for “to follow” is applied to Peter in the Johannine account, it is used to state Peter’s inability to follow at that time. Jesus predicts Peter’s denial in all four canonical gospels. “Yet only John’s gospel uses akoleutheo in connection with the denial,” Kim observes. That connection is emphasized in John 13:36-38, where the verb is used three times – all in ways to show what Peter cannot (yet) do (pages 48-49).

The “yet” becomes explicit in this paragraph. In verse 36, Jesus tells Peter that Peter is not about to follow him “now” but will be able to follow Jesus “later” or “in the end.” Yet, Kim argues, this is not just a matter of timing or process. Instead, Peter will discover that he has no capacity within himself to follow Jesus at all, much less to his death. It is significant, therefore, that this is the moment in the Johannine account when Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him (verse 38).

The Greek word for “follow” appears again in John 18. In verse 15, the text notes that Peter did in fact “follow” Jesus to the courtyard outside of the place where Jesus was tried. But this following results precisely in Peter’s threefold and therefore complete denial that he was one of Jesus’ followers. “Peter proved that he was unable to follow Jesus by means of his own loyalty and love for Jesus,” Kim argues, “contrary to his claim that he would lay down his life for his friend (13:37; 15:13). The Evangelist employs akoluetheo,” Kim concludes, “precisely to confirm Peter’s inability to follow Jesus” (page 50).

Now we come to the actual call of Peter in John 21. Peter is called to be a good shepherd of the ones Jesus loves. Kim wants to make the case “that Jesus revealed himself in John 21 in order to give Peter the akoleuthei moi command and to commission him with shepherding Jesus’ sheep in and by Jesus’ love for him, not his own love and loyalty” (page 51). In other words, the Johannine author wants us to see that discipleship comes from Jesus, not from us.

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Bryan Stevenson writes in Just Mercy (page 17). Kim’s argument regarding Peter in the Johannine account brings Stevenson’s line to mind for me. In fact, coming to terms wit those “worst things” (see the previous post) is a real gateway to a life of humble following, depending upon Jesus rather than upon myself. “The ultimate reason why Jesus leads Peter to confess his love is to draw him into Jesus’ love for him,” Kim writes, “into the web of divine love that exists between Jesus and the Father, as a participant therein” (page 58).

Why does Peter’s call story come at the end of the Johannine account and not at the beginning? Kim offers some conclusions. “I have argued here that the reason for this relocation was to communicate the implied theological message that Peter’s own loyalty and love, which were based on his own self-confidence,” Kim writes, “were insufficient as a foundation for following in Jesus’ footsteps and doing his mission. Only when Peter was fully embraced by Jesus’ love, so that he relied solely on Jesus,” Kim continues, “was he able to follow Jesus and tend his sheep. Peter’s work (and his ability to do the work),” Kim declares, “was ultimately enabled by Jesus’ unconditional love for him” (page 61).

Peter’s personal loyalty, gifts, strengths, and determination did not qualify him to serve as one of Jesus’ disciples. In fact, the unjustified self-confidence and hubris which arose from those elements served to be the greatest stumbling block in Peter’s efforts to be a faithful disciple. Instead, Kim writes, “from a Johannine perspective, Peter’s life illustrates that the journey of following Jesus is fragile and faulty when based on one’s own self-confidence and sense of loyalty” (page 61). It isn’t until John 21:17 that Peter begins to depend fully on what Jesus knows rather than on what Peter knows.

I’m not sure the Johannine author is particularly critical of Peter. Instead, I think that Simon Peter is another example of the various ways in which people come to know that the Messiah is Jesus, the Son of God. Peter is not Mary or Thomas (or Judas!). Nor is he a template or model for all the disciples who come after him. His story is like many disciple stories but not the definition of all disciple stories. We can learn something from his story but not everything.

“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards,” writes Soren Kierkegaard. “But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood,” Kierkegaard continues, “exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”

It was not that Peter was particularly slow or resistant or disloyal. This was Peter’s journey to faithful discipleship. If he had taken another, he would have been a different disciple. Sometimes we might wonder if we would choose a different past, were one available. I have thought about that often, and I know that the answer is “No.” With all of the twists and turns, all of the pain and perversity, all the joys and sorrows, my journey has brought me to who I am and where I am. Another journey would produce another me.

For Peter, the challenge was to accept his journey and to accept Jesus as the source and center of that journey. That’s the call to discipleship.

References and Resources

Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for John 21:1-19 (Part One)

You can’t get a new past.

No matter what the science fiction writers propose, past events are fixed, immovable, unchangeable. The past cannot be changed. Only the future is fluid, contingent, still to be determined. This is one of the ways in which we might meditate on this text together. “In short, life is about regrets,” the authors of the Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness write in their preface, “doing what we should not do and not doing what we should. Only the conscienceless,” they conclude, “are immune” (page vii).

I have done a fair bit of work on the subject of forgiveness over the years. I find that the topic of “self-forgiveness” is often the one that occupies much of the conversation for people. I wonder if that was a struggle for Peter as well. The Johannine gospel reports, as do the other gospel accounts, that Peter “denied” his association with Jesus in some way. In the Synoptics, he denies that he knows Jesus. In the Johannine account, Peter denies three times that he is one of Jesus’ disciples (perhaps a greater failing in the framework of the Johannine gospel).

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While Simon Peter is really a bit player in the majority of the Johannine account, here in chapter twenty-one, he takes center stage. He is mentioned by name and by pronoun nearly two dozen times in twenty-five verses. Jesus’ threefold questioning of Peter’s love for him makes it clear that this chapter is the epilogue for the denial narrative and for the gospel account as a whole. Peter cannot deny his denial but rather must deal with it if he is to function as one of the risen Lord’s disciples. So, there is a reckoning in this chapter.

You can’t get a new past. So, what is Peter to do? “In contrast to strategies to cope with wrongdoing by either accepting responsibility or prioritizing oneself over others,” the editors of the Handbook write in their preface, “forgiving oneself entails accepting responsibility for violation of a socio-moral value while also accepting oneself as a person of value” (page viii). It doesn’t appear, from the text, that this sort of self-forgiveness will suffice for Simon Peter.

Thus, he goes back to what he knows. He returns to who he was before this three-year journey with Jesus began. “I’m going fishing,” he tells six of the other disciples. These six include the main disciple characters in the Johannine account, although their identities are rolled out a bit slowly. They decide to go along and get back to the work that they know as well. But there’s no real future in that work. They catch nothing.

The first scene in this text is one of quiet despair in the dark. You can’t get a new past. Peter doesn’t know how to move into the future, carrying the burden of that past with him. There they sit in the boat, at night, doing that which takes as little thinking as possible. It is a poignant picture of anyone who is caught in the dead-end of guilt and shame for a past sin.

Then, the sun comes up. This is the Johannine account, so every small detail matters. Dawn is resurrection time, as we know from the gospel report. New light brings the possibility of new life. Perhaps there is some path forward into a life that is more than an endless cycle of rumination, regret, remorse, and self-recrimination. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu noted, there is no future without forgiveness. But perhaps with forgiveness there is also a future.

Tutu wrote his book to report and reflect on the work and experiences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa. Tutu was the chair and guiding light of that commission. One option in the aftermath of that diabolical system was to simply condemn the perpetrators en masse and abandon them to perdition. Tutu and others discerned that such a path would leave South African society hobbled by the past and destined to a hate-filled future.

Thus, he was certain that there could be no future for that society without a process for confronting the evil, hearing the testimonies of both perpetrators and victims, fostering accountability and forgiveness (if appropriate and helpful), and finding paths toward rehabilitation and hope.

“The point is that, if perpetrators were to be despaired of as monsters and demons,” Tutu wrote, “then we were thereby letting accountability go out the window because we were then declaring that they were not moral agents to be held responsible for the deeds they had committed. Much more importantly,” Tutu continued, “it meant that we abandoned all hope of their being able to change for the better” (page 83).

I cannot get a new past. But I am not imprisoned by that past to pursue an unchanging destiny either. I can be changed. I can grow. I can hear the call to follow Jesus and respond with a life of discipleship. The future is history still to be written. And that future history, as we read in our text, is to be written in the language of love.

“God loves me as I am to help me become all that I have it in me to become,” Tutu writes, “and when I realize the deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover. Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity,” he continues, “have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law” (page 85). Thus, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

What follows this question is not an accusation. We might have asked a similar question and followed up with something like, “Then how could you have denied in public three times that you were not one of my disciples? What kind of love does that!” I might have pushed for an explanation of the misdeed, a way to make sense of why a supposed loved one did such a thing to me. I have asked such questions, and I have been asked such questions. If I loved you, how in the world could I have done that thing that hurt you so much?

On the one hand, Jesus already knew the answer to the question about the past. Peter denied his discipleship because acknowledging it would have cost him his life. It wasn’t a hard thing to figure out. On the other hand, what explanation would have really helped? If I could give an adequate explanation for why I hurt and betrayed someone I loved, then that explanation would become a justification for the action. And, Voila! I would no longer be guilty and in need of forgiveness.

To forgive is first of all to accuse, as the French proverb reminds us. And to repent is first of all to confess. Confession is not explanation. Confession is not self-justification. Confession is not spreading the blame or defending the action. Confession is acknowledging that I did something wrong (or failed to do something right). The result was that someone else got hurt. No, I hurt someone. End of discussion.

“Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are,” Tutu writes. “It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation,” he continues, “exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but, in the end, it is worthwhile,” Tutu argues, “because in the end dealing with the real situation brings about real healing. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing” (pages 270-271).

The breakfast on the beach is certainly a meal of reconciliation. It has echoes of the feeding of the Five Thousand and thus is the Johannine author’s way of connecting us to the Eucharistic meal. Yet, that meal of reconciliation is not the end of the scene. Therefore, when they were done eating, the Johannine account says, the conversation began. “Simon of John, do you love me more that these?”

If you do, Jesus says, then put that love into action now and in the future. Love the ones I love in the way that I love them. Peter, you can’t get a new past. But you can live into a new future – one that is not bound to the brokenness of that past. For Christians, all hope is resurrection hope. And for Christians, the outcome of forgiveness is always new life, both now and forever.

We all know that we can’t get a new past. We can suppress and deny that past. Or we can confront that past, take responsibility for it, make repairs in whatever manner possible, and live in ways that prevent us from repeating that past. These changes may be painful. They may even cost some of us our lives (as was the case for Peter). But without forgiveness, our futures will be just more of the same.

I think it’s impossible, or at least irresponsible, to read this text without thinking about what it means for systemic racism and anti-Blackness in our American history and in our current lives. We will think together about those implications as we move forward this week.

References and Resources

Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.

Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.

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Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Part Seven)

Lay people have sometimes expressed to me the wish that they could have had the experiences of those first witnesses to the Resurrection. After all, the conversation goes, they had up to three years with Jesus. They saw the miracles, heard the sermons, wrestled with the parables, got the explanations, and asked the questions. They witnessed both Jesus’ death and his resurrection appearances.

They had it all right in front of them. It must have been so much easier to believe, based on the direct evidence of personal senses and experience! Doesn’t the Gospel of John say as much at the end of our reading – that those of us who believe without the benefit of seeing are especially blessed? Maybe we get some sort of theological extra credit because we have to do it the hard way. And, if only we could have been among that first generation who had it so much easier!

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That doesn’t seem to be the assessment we get in the gospel accounts. This week, we get two of the four resurrection appearances at the end of the Johannine account. In neither of those cases does “faith in the resurrection” come easily or quickly. Nor is it any better for Mary in the garden, as she mistakes the risen Jesus for the gardener. Peter recognizes Jesus on the seashore in John 21, but that results in an exceedingly difficult conversation.

Next week we get the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are not models of quick and easy belief either. We know that in the Markan composition, the gospel ends with the women terrified and somewhat tongue-tied. Even in the Matthean account, the most confident of the four options, as the disciples meet Jesus on the mountain for the last time, there are still some who doubted.

Then there’s Paul. He has to be knocked flat on his back and struck blind. When he gets his sight back, it seems in the Book of Acts that he gets right to work at witnessing. But in Paul’s own account in Galatians, it seems that he went off for seventeen years to study and try to work things out before hitting the road as a missionary. And I thought seminary took a long time!

The New Testament documents do not report an easy accommodation to faith on the part of hardly anyone in the early Jesus movement. Could it be that the stories from John we have in this week’s gospel lection are intended to offer support and encouragement to people who struggle not only to believe but also to continue believing? That is, could it be that the stories from John we have this week are directed to people just like us?

What is it, at least for those first disciples, that makes faith in the risen Lord Jesus such a challenge? David Norman discusses this question in his article. His thesis, which probably seems uncontroversial to many of us, is that for the first witnesses, the problem wasn’t the Resurrection by itself. Instead, the problem was this. “How was it possible that the one they hoped would redeem Israel (Luke 24:21) could die,” Norman wonders, “and then manifest himself as one with Israel’s God?” (page 787).

Perhaps the first disciples were able to believe in the Resurrection when they realized that it was not really a literal bodily resurrection but rather some intense but psychologically internal group experience. That is the argument that some scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, continue to make. We don’t need to embrace the notion of a literal, physical, bodily resurrection, because that’s not what the first witnesses had to embrace either. Instead, just as the first witnesses were informed by intensely vivid and even communal (but subjective) visions, so we can content ourselves with that same sort of experience. Problem solved.

Norman and others note that such an interpretation renders accounts of the empty tomb at least superfluous and probably fictional. It seems, however, that the gospel accounts regard the reports of the empty tomb as neither inconvenient window dressing nor made up stories. “Without the empty tomb, the argument for a bodily resurrection is sapped of its force and conviction,” Norman writes, “without the empty tomb narratives there is no link between the glorification/exaltation of Jesus and his death on Calvary” (page 791).

“Dispense with the empty tomb,” Norman continues, “and one can argue that after Jesus gives up his spirit on the cross (John 19:30), he experiences exaltation, rendering the physical resurrection of his body redundant” (page 791). Without the empty tomb, the cross is a mere inconvenience or even an illusion. But the gospel accounts do everything they can to render the death of Jesus as a real death of a living person – one whom we believe was “crucified, died, and was buried.”

But, as Norman notes, what is at stake in the gospel accounts is not merely the story of a man who died and is alive again. That’s not where Thomas ends up in his confession of faith. “The question I want to address,” Norma proposes, “is: why did the followers of Jesus suddenly believe in him as Lord and God? What was it,” he continues, “that moved them from men and women covering in fear to courageous advocates of Jesus as Lord and God?” (page 796).

The gospel accounts show clearly that the first witnesses did not immediately recognize the risen Jesus – not as Jesus, and certainly not as their “Lord and God.” It’s hard to imagine why the gospel writers would compose this difficulty as a fictional element of their reports. This difficulty in recognizing the risen Jesus for who he is doesn’t do much to enhance the credibility of the reports. It is more likely that this is how the experience worked (and works).

“The resurrection narratives cry out that the coming to faith was not easy,” Norman observes, “both Mark and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 indicate that the difficulty lies in the cross, the major stumbling block to belief” (page 798). Norman argues that any inner transformative experience coming out of the resurrection appearances has to be reconciled with the reality of Jesus’ death and burial. “There was no belief in Jesus as Lord and God, the one who has the words of eternal life (John 6:68),” Norman declares, “without the simultaneous recognition that this Lord and God is the Crucified One” (page 798).

Norman reminds us that Thomas comes to his resurrection faith in precisely the way the other ten do. His experience is not, therefore, a demonstration of how much better it would be to believe without seeing. Rather, Norman asserts, “It is that doubt itself is the necessary prerequisite to faith, at least for all those who were Jewish followers of Jesus and who ‘had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (Lk 24:21)” (page 805). Every witness to the resurrection struggles to believe, Norman observes, including the Beloved Disciple in John 20:8.

What, Norman wonders, led in the Johannine account to Thomas’ sturdy refusal to believe the witness of the other ten on its own? “Just as a dead Messiah led to a dead end,” Norman writes, “in the same way, Thomas could not worship a dead Christ until he had experienced firsthand the Exalted One the other disciples called Lord” (page 808). It is the death of Jesus the Messiah and his resurrection as the Glorified One that make it clear that this One is indeed God in the flesh.

“What was mutually exclusive has become inclusive,” Norman writes, “Israel’s God includes both Jesus and the one Jesus called Abba” (page 808). What made this hard for the first witnesses was that the cross of the Messiah was a profound and scandalous stumbling block to such faith. “The faith of Thomas in Jesus as Lord owes as much to his appearing with his wounds,” Norman argues, “as it does to his appearing in the glory of his Father, in the glory of God” (page 809).

Therefore, Norman concludes, Jesus doesn’t reject Thomas’ demands for physical confirmation of Jesus’ identity. Instead, Thomas becomes the first of the rest – all of us who are challenged to put our trust in the crucified God (as Martin Luther describes Jesus). “Those who, through the power of Christ’s Spirit,” Norman continues, “surmount the hurdle that Jesus’ death poses tread in Thomas’s footsteps” (page 810).

I have never found faith in the Risen Christ to be an easy or intuitive matter. For some, it is just that, and I envy such facility of faith. The Johannine account shows four different personal encounters with the Risen Christ and four different experiences. I’m glad that range of experiences includes the witness of Thomas. For me, such faith started out hard and has never gotten much easier. I’m glad I can find myself in the Johannine account, in the one I can call a “twin” in faith.

“In summary,” Sandra Schneiders concludes, “John’s resurrection narrative is not about Jesus’ vindication after his shameful death. It is about where and how his disciples, the first generation symbolized by Mary Magdalene, and all those who were not with them when Jesus came, symbolized by Thomas the Twin, will encounter Jesus as their Lord and God” (page 34). It is not that seeing and hearing Jesus personally are no longer relevant. The question for us is where we see and hear the risen Jesus now. John’s answer is that we see and hear the risen Jesus now in the witness of the community of faith.
References and Resources

Feltman, Charles; Sue Annis Hammond. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Intervarsity Press, 2020.

Norman, David J. “Doubt and the Resurrection of Jesus.” Theological studies 69, no. 4 (2008): 786-811.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Part Six)

In the resurrection, what color will I be?

In a guest op-ed in the April 15th edition of The New York Times, Esau McCaulley reflected on “What Good Friday and Easter Mean for Black Americans Like Me.” McCaulley is the award-winning author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. I have recommended McCaulley’s book in previous posts and am happy to do so yet again. I encourage you to read the op-ed piece as well – in part because it has generated some surprising pushback.

McCaulley studied with N. T. Wright, and that salutary influence shows through his essay. “Christians believe that our bodies will be resurrected from the dead to live in this transformed earth,” he writes. “Like the earth itself, these bodies will be transfigured or perfected,” McCaulley continues, “but they will still be our bodies.” This means, of course, that McCaulley expects his resurrected body to be Black, just as Jesus’ resurrected body was scarred.

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“The body that God raised was the same body that was on the cross,” McCaulley writes. The disciples, with some difficulties, recognized Jesus as the Lord who had led them to Jerusalem. They talked with him and shared meals. “His body was transformed and healed,” McCaulley observes, “but it still had the wounds from his crucifixion. There was,” he suggests, “continuity and discontinuity with the person they knew.”

So far, so good. McCaulley draws out the implications that we Christians believe the resurrection of Jesus has for our resurrections. As Paul notes, Jesus is the first fruits of a general resurrection. We Christians believe that what God did for Jesus, he will do for us (and, I would add, for all of Creation). Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste, the preview, the down payment (again to use Pauline language) on the resurrection for all at the end of the age. But what will we look like in that resurrection?

“Will we all receive the six-packs of our dreams? Will we revert to the bodies we had in our 20s?” McCaulley teases. Then he gets serious again. “I do not find these questions that intriguing. What is compelling to me,” he declares, “is the clear teaching that our ethnicities are not wiped away at the resurrection. Jesus was raised with his brown, Middle Eastern, Jewish body. When my body is raised,” McCaulley concludes, “it will be a Black body. One that is honored alongside bodies of every hue and color.”

He argues that this continuity of color will be “the definitive rejection of all forms of racism.” Now we come to the punchline and payoff in McCaulley’s essay. “At the end of the Christian story,” he proclaims, “I am not saved from my Blackness. It is rendered everlasting. Our bodies, liberated and transfigured but still Black,” he asserts, “will be the eternal testimony to our worth.”

McCaulley has landed poignantly and powerfully on one of the reasons orthodox Christians have historically confessed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” In its fullness, the Christian faith is a body-delighting creed rather than a body-denying or body-disdaining creed. As McCaulley notes, this matters for Black believers who live with a history of Black bodies as locations of terror and torture, conquest and contempt, looting and lynching.

“The question,” McCaulley writes, “’What will God do about the disinherited and ripped apart bodies of the world?’ can be seen as a central question of religion. Either give me a bodily resurrection,” he demands, “or God must step aside. [Such a God] is of no use to us.” He argues that unless our God restores bodies that have been treated as though they don’t matter, then violent mobs and cruel diseases have taken something that even God cannot restore. McCaulley is not interested in such a God. Neither am I.

McCaulley knows that Christian hope is always Resurrection hope. We who follow the risen Lord Jesus have no other source or ground for our hope. He reports that he is often asked about what gives him the hope to go on in the face of the evil he sees in the world. “I find encouragement in a set of images more powerful than the photos, videos, and funerals chronicling Black death,” he writes, “the vision of all those Black bodies who trusted in God called back to life, free to laugh, dance, and sing. Not in a disembodied spiritual state in some heavenly afterlife,” McCaulley continues, “but in this world remade by the power of God.”

“Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says to Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” Touch my body, Thomas, and see what is really happening. In that touch, you can release your unbelief and come to trust what you hold in your hands. “If Christianity is mere method, a way of approaching reality, then it is inadequate,” McCaulley writes in Reading While Black, “but if Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, then the world is a different place even when I do not experience it as such” (page 134).

The Good News of the Resurrection is that God’s future fulfillment of Creation, God’s restoration of all things, has come to meet us in the present. If, for example, Black people will be raised to new life in their Black bodies, then our belief in the Resurrection requires us to treat them as full members of the body of Christ and full bearers of the image and likeness of God in the here and now. If setting things right is the reality of the Resurrection in the end, then the work of setting things right is the task of Resurrection faith in the here and now.

“Without the resurrection,” McCaulley writes in his book, “the forgiveness embedded in the cross is the wistful dream of a pious fool. But I am convinced,” he continues, “that the Messiah has defeated death. I can forgive my enemies because I believe the resurrection has happened.” In the Johannine account, that resurrection power, the power to bring life out of inanimate clay, is breathed into the disciples. “Belief in the resurrection,” McCaulley declares, “requires us to believe that nothing is impossible” (page 134).

There was a time when White Christian theologians and preachers believed that Black individuals were subhuman and therefore not subject to what was imagined as a humans-only resurrection. This, of course, is the only position that can affirm the rightness of Black chattel slavery and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Those White Christian theologians understood that if Black bodies could be resurrected at the end of the age, they could not be enslaved in the middle of time.

Most White people these days know, at least intellectually, that Black people cannot be regarded as less than fully human. Yet individual, institutional, social, and cultural behaviors and norms continue to regard Black people as less valuable than other human beings in the realities of daily life. We need only to look at differential health outcomes, educational outcomes, income disparities, real estate maps, law enforcement conduct and policies, and other concrete measures to see that our resurrection vision is not impacting our life together in the here and now.

The solution with which some Christians are left is a sort of “color blind” resurrection of the dead. In response to McCaulley’s essay, some commentators are appalled that color would be a consideration in the resurrection of the body. They complain that McCaulley has engaged in a politicization of the doctrine to score partisan points at the expense of theological and scriptural accuracy.

But if the Resurrection of Jesus is not specific, then what are we to make of the interactions in John 20? If the scars have come along into Jesus’ resurrection body, why would we think that his color does not? Of course, we could talk about all those paintings and stained-glass windows that depict the risen Jesus as White. Because that’s the point. For some critics, if they would tell the truth, the resurrection body is not colorless. For them, it is White.

Thus, the pushback to McCaulley’s writing encases the assumption of Whiteness as good, right, normal, and ultimately superior. But that expectation violates the very witness of scripture. “When God finally calls the dead to life,” McCaulley writes, “he calls them to life with their ethnic identity intact” (page 135).

He refers us to the words of Revelation 7:9 – “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (NRSV, my emphasis). Who could tell the differences in national origin, ethnicity, color, or language unless those differences had come along in the final resurrection?

In a single voice, the multitude cries out from their diversity, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Our text is an invitation to make that confession real and concrete in our Christian witness and service in a society, in a world, filled with nations, tribes, peoples, and languages.

References and Resources

Feltman, Charles; Sue Annis Hammond. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Intervarsity Press, 2020.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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