The importance of today’s gospel story is shown by the fact that it led to the original conclusion of John’s gospel. The story proper falls into two parts; the appearance of the risen Lord to the assembled disciples on the first Easter Day and his appearance before Thomas a week later. John presents Jesus’ resurrection, his giving of the Spirit and the commissioning of the disciples in a single unified sequence. By contrast, the gospel-writer Luke introduces a time-span of forty days before Jesus’ ascension, and fifty days before the outpouring of the Spirit. Each is communicating the same profound truth within a different theological framework. The text for today can be sub-divided into four parts. In part one, Jesus appears to the fear-filled disciples and greets them with peace. This twofold greeting should be given strong emphasis. Part to consists of Jesus’ commissioning the disciples and breathing out his Spirit upon them. Part three relates the encounter between the risen Lord and the apostle Thomas, culminating in words that implicate us: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe’. The reading comes to a climax with the final summary of the gospel’s purpose: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name”. Each part should be heard by the congregation as a distinct unit. The reading as a whole is a wonderful invitations to renew our faith in Jesus and to live in the peace and joy of his Spirit.
On Good Friday afternoon John’s gospel left us at the tomb of Jesus. Today it takes us back there. With Mary of Magdala, Peter and the disciples Jesus loved, we discover ‘very early on the first day of the week’ that the tomb is empty. What are we to make of this? There’s a striking difference in the gospels between the passion narratives and the resurrection stories. The accounts of the passion are long, with a strong storyline. The resurrection stories, by contrast, are relatively short and enigmatic. They have an air of mystery and obscurity about them. They raise more questions that provide answers. Today’s passage is no exception. Who is the disciple Jesus love? Why is so much made of who got to the tomb or went in first? At this point no answers are given. We are left wonder whether we ourselves have understood ‘the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead’. It may be just as well that the readings finishes where it does because the next verse goes on to say, Then the disciples returned to their homes’. This statement only provokes more questions. Answers begin to emerge with the episode that follows – Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalen. It’s a great shame that the story of this beautiful and touching encounter is never heard on a Sunday.
Every year on this Sunday the story of Jesus’ betrayal, passion and death is told at length. The reading is taken in turn from one of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark or Luke because we always read John’s account on Good Friday. This year we read from Mark. No two versions of the passion narrative are the same. They have much in common but differ in the detail. It is helpful to think of each evangelist as an artist painting a portrait. Portrait painters are creative artists that are not satisfied with presenting a surface likeness; they seek to uncover a deeper truth. What they produce will appear very different, even if the subject is the same. For all the brevity of Mark’s gospel, his passion narrative is just as long as that of the other evangelists. Thus it looms larger in the overall work. In his introduction to the gospels scripture scholar Frank Moloney points out that “Mark tells the passion and death of Jesus in two coherent sequences: Jesus, the disciples and the Jewish leaders and the Roman trail, crucifixion, death and burial.
The Greeks referred to in this text are likely to have been ‘Godfearers’ or non-Jewish people who are attracted to Judaism as a religion. Not being born Jews, they are unable to fully become part of the chosen people of Israel and to enter into its religious life. Here, though, they express their wish to ‘see Jesus’. The classic call to discipleship is ‘Come and see’. There is an element here that builds on earlier references in John to the fact that the gospel is not just for the Jews but for all people who express faith. The call of the gospel is universal. The imminent death of the grain is already beginning to yield a rich harvest. Jesus is well aware of the fate in store for him but accepts that this is the central act of his mission. Glorification and exultation await him. It is in being lifted up that Jesus will draw all people to himself. In what ways do you feel drawn to Jesus at this point in your journey? Reflect back on what caused you to say, ‘Sir, I would like to see Jesus.’ What called you to discipleship?
Nicodemus comes in search of truth but has difficulty in accepting who Jesus is. He struggles to reach beyond the understandings of his upbringing within Judaism. In a sense, Jesus’ words to him are a reassurance that if he publicly embraces faith in Jesus, his life will be saved. Condemnation only comes to those who have had the opportunity to embrace faith but have refused it. In John’s Gospel, the greatest moment in Jesus’ life is the moment of his death on the cross. This is not simply a moment of suffering and death but a spiritual exultation because it is at that moment that God’s love for the world is made manifest. ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son’ so that we could have life. The only proper response to this great love and gift of life is to choose light and not darkness. What have been some of the moments of exultation in your life? What have been the periods of darkness? Is there a struggle in coming into the light?
In John’s Gospel, hostility exists between Jesus and the Jews from the very beginning of his public ministry. This is probably a reflection of the situation in which John’s community finds itself: that of being excluded from the practice of Judaism after Christians had been ousted from synagogue worship. We should not, therefore, read this text as a criticism by Jesus of Judaism generally. If we read this text only as an example of Jesus’ righteous anger over the greed of those who controlled commerce in the temple precinct, we miss much of the point that John is making. The Jews believed that the offering of sacrifice to God in the temple was a central part of their religious observance. Jesus now brings that practice to an end. He speaks of his own body as the new temple, the new centre of worship. Effectively, Jesus is reinterpreting the religious traditions of the Jews to centre on himself. He becomes the physical embodiment of ‘my Father’s house’. He’s the living temple of the Father’s presence among us.
In the biblical tradition, a mountain is often used as the setting for close encounters between God and his people. In this text, Jesus’ appearance takes on the imagery of the divine. Those who join Jesus are significant: Moses was the receiver of the Law, and Elijah was the first prophet. Here the Law and the Prophets, the fullness of Scripture, meet Jesus transfigured. Understandably, the disciples are terrified, and Peter suggests they build three tents. This would allow them to remain on the mountain and contemplate the face of God. But this is to misunderstand the true call of the disciple. Gazing heavenwards is not enough; the disciple must also listen and act. The mystery of this response will only become clear when placed in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus. There can be no side-stepping of the cross and its invitation to all who are followers of Jesus that they too must loose themselves for the sake of others. How do you understand the divinity of Jesus? When you contemplate the face of Christ, what do you see?
The Baptist had promised that Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit, and at his baptism the Holy Spirit had descended on him. Now that same Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. He is not the master of his own destiny. He is the object of the action of God. There is no murmur of opposition to this. Jesus accepts God’s Spirit and God’s will. As a consequence, the harmony of creation is restored and Jesus ‘is with’ the wild beasts. It is a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah that ‘the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and fatling together’ (Isaiah 11:6–7). The new creation has begun in the person of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. Indeed, he proclaims that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. But Jesus also summons his followers to repent and believe the Good News. Lent is a time to listen attentively to the Gospel and to turn back to the ways of the Father. It is a time for us to consider how close we are to the Kingdom of God. What is ‘good’ for you at this point about the Good News of Jesus Christ? Jesus heralds the new creation. What would be the perfect world for you? Describe what might be different from our present reality in the Kingdom of God. How can you help to bring this about? What tempts you away from the Good News?
This is yet another confrontation between Jesus and evil. In recent gospels, we have seen Jesus overcome possessing demons, sickness and social taboos; many of the themes merge in this text. The leper takes an audacious step in approaching Jesus, defying all the rules and conventions of his society. Despite his exclusion and isolation, he has not lost hope. Jesus reacts in exactly the opposite way from that which may be expected. He is moved by pity not revulsion. Instead of sending the man away, he responds with immense compassion to the man’s courage and faith. He reaches out and touches him. This is not only an act of ritual impurity but of human foolhardiness! Not wanting to be known only as a miracle worker, Jesus orders the leper not to speak of his cure but to undergo the necessary rituals to enable him to re-enter the people of Israel. The priest should be able to recognise that in the cure of the leper, the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled and the Messiah is among them. The great irony is that by curing the leper and allowing his re-entry into the community, Jesus places himself in a position where he is forced to go out into isolation in places where no one lived.
In touching Simon’s mother-in-law and then allowing her to serve him, Jesus is breaking down traditional barriers. He brings wholeness and holiness to her by his presence. The kingdom of God cannot tolerate prejudice and taboo, just as sickness and evil have no place in the kingdom. This text shows us a typical day for Jesus—the first of his ministry. He listens to the Word of God, then worships with his community; he relaxes in the home of a friend; he pursues his work of healing and preaching and, before dawn, he withdraws alone to develop his relationship with the Father through prayer. There is a wonderful pattern of balance here between prayer, work and rest. When the disciples find him, they want him to return to Capernaum to the acclaim he is receiving. Instead, Jesus insists that the boundaries of the kingdom be pushed out. The kingdom of God must reach further and further. It is for this that he came!