Updated: Jul 19
This morning we heard from the Gospel of John. Most of you probably haven’t noticed, but this is actually a relatively rare occurrence in our schedule of Sunday readings. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that the Gospel of John is simply much harder to understand than the other three. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke mostly concentrate on the story of Jesus, John is focused on his significance. There are differences between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but they are largely very similar, which is why they are called the “synoptic” gospels. The Gospel of John is very different.
Perhaps that’s why the Episcopal Church has chosen to focus on the Gospel of John in the third outing of our “Good Book Club.” The Good Book Club (which you can read about in Grace Notes), is an outgrowth of The Bible Challenge, started in 2012 in response to studies that demonstrated that, “the number one factor by far in church growth and spiritual development is regular engagement with Scripture. This, however, has not been a strong suit for most Episcopalians. Church historian Diana Butler Bass notes that Episcopalians are the best educated of the more than 20,000 Christian groups in the United States, but rank almost last in terms of biblical literacy. The irony is that almost all of the growing churches in the United States excel at encouraging and supporting their members in reading the Bible on a daily basis. Episcopalians rely instead on reading the Bible aloud in worship. Studies reveal, however, that 95% of what is heard is forgotten within 72 hours. Episcopalians offer Bible studies, but less than five percent of our membership participates in a Bible study.”
I have found this to be true in my own experience. Whenever I have viewed the results of a church survey asking what people want more of, one frequent answer is “Bible Study” – yet whenever I have been part of efforts to provide expanded Bible Study to parishioners, the participants are few. This is true regardless of church size, liturgical style, meeting time, leadership, or topic. Episcopalians may be interested in knowing more about the Bible, but they are not that willing to commit to the study necessary to understand it.
This is a shame, because we live in a time and place in which it is crucially important to know what we as a Christian community say we believe – and why. There are many people that believe that Episcopalians don’t “follow” the Bible. This is completely untrue. We believe that scripture is “our foundation, understood through tradition and reason, containing all things necessary for salvation. Our worship is filled with Scripture from beginning to end. Approximately 70% of the Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Bible, and Episcopalians read more Holy Scripture in Sunday worship than almost any other denomination in Christianity.” The Episcopal Church never issues a policy statement without identifying its root in Holy Scripture and all of our decisions and actions are based on our understanding of biblical teaching – but this does not always seem to be clear to either members or nonmembers of our denomination. We need to understand our own theology, even when – like in the Gospel of John- it’s hard.
John is the last of the four gospels, written about one hundred years after Jesus’s birth. That means the people who read it were different than those who had first heard the story of Jesus through the Gospel of Mark. By the time John was completed (and it took several years and a whole community to write), the majority of converts to the faith were non-Jews, or Gentiles. Most were Greek, and their understanding of the world was based on Hellenistic ideas. They were not familiar with the prophecies of the Messiah found in the Hebrew Scriptures, so John’s gospel does not dwell on Jesus’s Jewish lineage, as Matthew and Luke do. Instead, the writers of John frame their description of Jesus with ideas that Gentiles would have understood – and explain things they wouldn’t. This makes John “the most poetic and mystical of all the gospels, steeped in Hebrew scriptures and Jewish beliefs and worship.
It also makes it harder for modern audiences to understand, because, unless you have studied philosophy and/or the Greek language, many of the ideas in John are probably unfamiliar to you. They are the kind of complicated concepts that we’d just as soon skip over, but to do so is to lose out on the chance to truly grasp Christian scriptural doctrine – to understand not just the story of Jesus, but his significance. This is especially true at Christmas when we are so concerned with celebrating the birth of Christ that we tend to overlook its implications – which is why today is one of the few times we hear from John in our Sunday gospel readings.
And what a gorgeous reading it is! When I was a child, this gospel, known as the first gospel of Christmas, was read at the end of the midnight service at our church and was followed by the hymn “Silent Night.” I have added this practice to our Christmas celebration at Grace not only because I find it moving and beautiful and hope you do too, but because it reminds us that amid the fun and excitement of retelling the story of the Nativity of our Lord, we must remember the meaning of that story: that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
This is what the Gospel of John tells us: that Jesus is not only the Son of God, but that he is part of God. He was with God when God created the world. He has been and always will be a part of our lives. Jesus is both divine and human. This idea is referred to as “high Christology.” It provides us with our understanding that Jesus and God are one – that by becoming human in Jesus, God showed her willingness to do anything to save us. This understanding of our salvation is called “soteriology.” These doctrines are two of the primary foundations of our theology. Jesus’s words and laws are not to be confused with those of the lawgivers and prophets that came before him. He is not, like Moses, the giver of the law. He is not, like John the Baptist, a witness to God’s grace. He is the law. He is the seed of righteousness planted at the beginning of time. He is the peacemaker, the light-bringer, the redeemer. Jesus does not merely provide us with God’s word; Jesus is God’s word. He is the one who was and is and is to come. He is the reason for the season.
When we truly appreciate this, we can begin to understand not only what we believe and why we believe it, but what that means for how we enact our faith. We are reminded not only to remember and celebrate the arrival of the embodiment of God on earth, but to contemplate what it means when the true light, which enlightens everyone, comes into our world. We are asked to consider what it means to receive, through him, grace upon grace, not just at Christmas, but endlessly and eternally. AMEN.
 Marek Zabriskie (2012), “The Bible Challenge,” in The Episcopal Church Foundation Vital Practices: Liturgy, Music, and Leadership, https://www.ecfvp.org/vestry-papers/article/319/the-bible-challenge