A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 27th December 2023
There is a rush of important liturgical celebrations in the week after Christmas – St. Stephen, Holy Innocents, St. John today and Thomas a Becket on Friday. I always think it is a shame that the church’s calendar falls in this way as many of us are too busy or too tired to pay the post-Christmas celebrations much attention. But St. John really is important as one of the four Evangelists; and it is to him and the gospel which carries his name that I would like to turn.
From early in the church’s history it was assumed that the gospel of John and the three epistles with the same name were all written by the same author, who was identified as the apostle John, the so-called “beloved disciple.” Scholars now think that we cannot name with any accuracy the author of these books. They probably emerged from a community originally gathered around the apostle, John, and a subsequent disciple or disciples wrote the gospel as a way of passing on the apostle’s teaching. Whatever their precise origins, this gospel is one of the most important in or New Testament, and markedly different from the other three gospels. Matthew Mark and Luke are in different ways portraits of Jesus which are drawn from an account of his life, though with different emphases. John’s gospel by contrast omits details of the life which we might have been considered important. There is for example no birth story; nor is there any account of the institution of the Eucharist. In John’s account of the Last Supper we have instead the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. But in John’s gospel we have what can perhaps be called an extended meditation on the meaning and identity of Jesus. It is as if he is answering the question voiced among the disciples when Jesus calmed the waves – who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him? Or indeed Pilate’s perplexity as to whether Jesus really is a king.
The nature of the gospel is made clear at the outset with the Prologue, a luminous reflection on Christ as the Word of God, the Word made flesh. This is the truth which has dawned on the disciples: God himself has made his home among them. As the book continues this truth is underlined. Scholars often call the first half of the book “The Book of Signs”. The account of Jesus’ often miraculous actions are described with the Greek word meaning “sign” – these are signs of his identity – he creates joy by turning water into wine at a wedding; he heals the sick; he raises the dead. These are the works not of some itinerant wonder-worker or charismatic healer, but signs of what happens when God takes his dwelling among men and women. The second half of the Gospel is in contrast often called the “Book of Glory”, as it traces Jesus’ life and teaching as he prepares his disciples for his death and resurrection, and the coming of the Comforter to be with them always. He will be “lifted up” in what seems to be an ignominious death; but it is the manifestation of glory – the glory of God’s self-giving love.
Another aspect of the gospel marks it out from the other three. There are no parables as a key mode of Jesus’s teaching. And John nowhere uses the Greek word for parable. But there are extended passages of teaching or discourse, and within them the famous “I am” sayings. We know them so well.
I am the bread of life (John 6:35)
I am the light of the world (8:12)
I am the gate of the sheepfold (10:7)
I am the good shepherd (10:11, 14)
I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)
I am the way and the truth and the life (14:6)
I am the true vine (15:1)
The author puts these sayings into the mouth of Jesus to teach
his readers and hearers key truths about the identity of Jesus, so they can in their turn begin to answer his own question to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”. (Matthew 16:15).
To the community of Jewish Christians gathered around John these sayings, these claims about the identity of Jesus, would have been extraordinarily powerful and direct. Just the use of the phrase, “I am” suggests the presence and word of God – as it was how God described himself to Moses when he commissioned him to lead the rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt. (Exodus 3:14). Then the descriptions of the identity of Jesus often had deep resonance in the Hebrew scriptures. When the early hearers of the gospel first heard the claim that Jesus was the bread of life they would have remembered the story of God giving his people manna or bread from heaven for their journey in the wilderness. Claiming Jesus to be the light of the world would similarly have had scriptural echoes of the divine presence. Psalm 27 begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation”. Or there is the great passage in Isaiah, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Is. 9:2) and the description of the Lord’s Servant as a “light to the nations”. (Is. 42:6) Psalm 119 (v.105) declares that God’s word “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Giving to Jesus the title of the Good Shepherd embeds him in the scriptural description of the identity and work of God caring for his people. God is described as the Shepherd of Israel, in Ezekiel, for example (ch.34) – the one who promises to seek out his sheep, to bring them to safe and good pastures. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.” (v. 15) And of course there is Psalm 23 where the Psalmist claims that the Lord himself is “my shepherd.”
We, too, are among the readers and hearers John is addressing. So perhaps. in this post-Christmas season, as the glitz and noise of our festivities ebb away, we would do well to focus our prayers less on the child in the manger and to ponder these “I am” sayings, to ask what they meant to the first hearers; but also what they mean to us. John can then help us to answer that haunting question, “Who do you say that I am?”