Wondering How to Read John

I always have to struggle about how to read John before I can work on a passage for preaching. Here is the struggle for this week.

Years ago I visited two badly frightened uni students. Doors were opening and closing in their house, utensils were swinging on the kitchen hooks, and they had determined that no one was winding them up. There was no one there, but things were moving. All their friends and family were laughing at them.

We said the prayers, and the phenomena stopped. There was a profound healing of the situation. That is what happened.  How it happened, what the mechanisms were which caused the phenomena, and which caused them to stop, remains a mystery.

I think we are far too ready to state our often unverifiable hypotheses of how something has happened as being ‘the facts of the matter.’

We do this in theology, whether it be in the writing of books, or whether it be in personal testimony in church gatherings. I’ve never been able to shake the sense that when it comes to church, we are making a lot of it  up.

D’Arcy Wood, who lectured me in theology, once said he felt people in his Youth Groups shaped their testimony, and remodelled their experiences to fit the way everyone else was talking about things. We do the same with scripture. Either, by forcing our interpretation over the words and squashing the meaning of the author into the corset of our own situation, or by subtly changing the events of our experience; we highlight some things and ignore others, for example, so that we fit the norm.  

My colleague Greg Crawford said recently, “we can [not] really hear a book of the Bible addressing us until we first realise it is not addressing us." I began to write that we ignore this insight; in fact, I think we mostly don’t even realise the truth of what he is saying. We assume it addresses us!

16:2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 

There is absolutely nothing in my life that can understand this experience.

True, I have friends who were  beaten up by the Taliban, and others who were beaten in Iran for not being Muslim, and fled for their lives.

And it’s true that I stood up and shouted out against evil in a community meeting many years ago. And yes, 400 people started shouting and screaming back; I sometimes tell the story saying it was like I could hear the spears rattling!  But in truth, my tribal mother caught my eye across the grass, put her finger to her lips and shook her head. She sat listening to the ruckus, and at just the right moment nodded to me to stand and speak. The place went silent, and I stumbled through a few ill prepared, not very coherent comments. I had been more surprised than scared, and it was all over in ten minutes.

Did the Spirit give me words to say? I don’t know. But I’m certain my experience of “persecution” is not what John was talking about, and that I dishonour the martyrs by drawing a comparison. I know only a glimpse of the experience of my refugee friends; it is not my experience.

My wife and I were ‘rolled’ by a parish. It was terribly destructive; echoes of that experience are still around twenty years later. But we also had people on our side, people who found us a place to live, and income. Although it took me twelve months to regain some health, it seems nothing like the facing of death.

What was notable in that experience was the lack of glory and power that we so often read into John, or into the experiences of imprisoned disciples in Acts. The Spirit was silent. My experience was of a few faithful friends who found us a house and a job, who stood by me as I wandered hopeless and useless around the streets of the suburb, good for nothing, and who visited me when I was sick, and who helped my wife survive me.

It took 12 months of drugs and false starts, before I had any real energy and confidence. Mostly what I gained was confidence to leave parish ministry! It took me nearly a decade to come back. And I still have to take the tablets.

I have been richly blessed through those 20 years. I have gained some wisdom. I think I can sometimes preach with authority. But I do not have the experience of John, or of Luke. (Luke 12:11-12)

Sometimes I find startling words to speak as I am preaching. But this is to friends, not before the courts, and those words come after much preparation. It’s not what John and Luke describe.

I have new truth and understanding, but it comes from hard work, persistence, and just living life. The Spirit has not guided me into all truth. Whatever John meant by that, the statement does not work in our culture and with our understanding of truth, hypothesis,  perception, and knowledge.

All I can say is that as the people of John persisted in their struggles—enormous struggles I thank God I do not face—they survived. They were able to hand down their scripture and their witness that God does not leave us alone.

As I have persisted in my very different struggles, I too have survived, and have something to share. But drawing neat connecting lines between my experience and the experience of John does harm to us both.

If the Spirit of Truth is to guide me into all the truth then I need to listen to the experience of walking down a freeway bound by a cliff rather than a footpath, in the dark and the rush hour. Or of being run over by a truck. John does not understand these things; they did not exist.

“All truth” comes from the honest listening of what happens to me, not forcing my experience to conform to what I think some other person meant, or pretending I know their experience.

Then, maybe, I can read John, struggle with him, and sometimes think, “Mmm... I think I get that feeling about God, too.”

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




This functionality requires the FormBuilder module