It feels like a natural thing to be reflecting on the spirituality of St John’s gospel; after all, it has been referred to as ‘the spiritual gospel’ since the early church. Mark’s driving narrative presents us with Jesus as a man of action, making clear who he is through what he does. Matthew’s organised presentation depicts Jesus as the new Moses, sitting on a new holy mount bringing down a new ‘law’ and fulfilling the destiny of God’s people. Luke’s careful research presents us with a radical Jesus, reaching out to the marginalised with his agenda for the poor, supported by women in a mission that spills over into the gentile world (in his sequel).
But John offers us something different. Here, Jesus acts, but every action has a surplus of symbolic significance. Jesus teaches, but his teaching is at once simple and obscure, and his listeners struggle to make sense of his multiple meanings. Jesus reaches out, but every missional word and act is laden with spiritual significance and offers a glimpse of his cosmic stature.
This is indeed ‘gospel’, a good word of the good news of what God has done for us in Christ. But it is good news reflected on, with the full implications drawn out, so that it invites us in to make sense of its account, to render judgement ourselves, and eventually to join our testimony with the testimony it offers. The stage on which the drama unfolds is a cosmic stage on which we, and all of history, eventually become players. In the same way that this gospel offers a different perspective from the other gospels, it also offers a different perspective on spirituality which challenges many of our assumptions.
And John’s gospel becomes particularly significant as we approach Easter, the cross and resurrection, as John offers us a distinctive perspective.
1. A Spirituality of the Mundane
One of the most striking things about John is where he starts his gospel. Mark is content to make brief reference to the prophetic anticipation of the events he recounts, where Matthew and Luke, whilst tracing his genealogical roots, start with the beginning of the life of Jesus. John is much more ambitious—he takes us back the beginning of life itself. Whilst this could leave us with an other-worldly perspective, John in fact brings us right down to earth: this cosmic origin of all life is now before us in flesh and blood. John is not concerned to set the supernatural over against the natural; rather, he shows us the supernatural made manifest in the natural. It is when the Word becomes flesh that we see the glory that he had before all worlds.
This focus on the natural as the bearer of the supernatural, on the mundane as the bearer of the holy, makes itself felt throughout the gospel. Where the other gospels focus on miracles which provide dramatic proof of Jesus’ radical new authority, in John the miraculous is merely a ‘sign’ pointing to a greater reality—often a sign given in secret, communicating the truth only to those with eyes to see. In Mark, the first day of Jesus’ ministry sees demoniacs convulsing, demons shrieking, onlookers amazed, mother-in-laws miraculously cured and all kinds of diseases banished. At the end of Jesus first miracle in John, wedding guests are rather pleased at a vintage year of Chateau Cana and only the disciples know its secret significance.
Each mundane element of John then bears spiritual significance. In John 3, a teacher of Israel comes to Jesus ‘at night’; he still hovers in the darkness of spiritual ignorance, something of an irony given his status. In John 4, a rejected woman of a rejected people encounters Jesus in broad daylight, the discomfort of the noon-day sun signalling both her rejection by her peers (who would have fetched their water in the cool of the morning) yet also, paradoxically, her willingness to accept the Light of the World who sits before her. In John 13, Judas leaves the scene of footwashing to betray the servant of all—and, John tells us, ‘it was night’. There is no reason to doubt the chronology, but much more important is the significance. It was indeed night—the deepest, darkest night in the history of God’s people, in the history of the world, when the one who was with God from the beginning came to his own, and his own, who dipped his bread in the same dish, betrayed him.
In all this, John’s gospel challenges us to see God at work in the mundane as much as in the miraculous. We are to see the presence of God in timings and conversations as much as in prayers and healings. And this is the work of the Spirit, who blows where he wills and brings life and significance to whatever he chooses.
2. A Spirituality of Testimony
Testimony makes its presence felt right from the beginning, and is weaved like a golden thread thoughout the gospel—at some times coming to the surface and glittering before our eyes, and at other times hidden beneath, from where we still see glints and flashes of light behind the individual encounters and conversations.
John the Baptist comes as someone testifying to the Lamb of God, and his testimony is so significant that we only here of Jesus’ baptism and the descent of the Spirit through him, rather than directly. In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus also speaks of his ministry as being one of ‘testifying’, and he later goes on to claim that his heavenly Father also testifies on his behalf (John 5.37, 8.18), thus satisfying the biblical requirement for a valid testimony to be attested by two witnesses.
Other characters throughout the gospel express their belief through testimony. Many Samaritans come to faith because of the testimony of the woman at the well. The man born blind give what could be seen as the model testimony: ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. I do know one thing—that although I was blind, now I can see’ (John 9.25). John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances is interwoven with testimony, and the question of whether those who have not yet encountered the risen Lord will believe the testimony of those who have. This leads to what can be seen as the climax of the gospel: ‘Blessed are those who have not seen [that includes you, the reader] and yet believe’ (John 20.29). In this way, the whole gospel account is set out as testimony which invites our acceptance as true.
Spirituality is often thought to be a personal, interior thing; it is about the ‘inner life.’ But for John, this inner life only finds its true purpose when it is expressed outwardly; our own experience of God is only complete as we offer an account of our experience—our testimony—to others.
(continued here) (This is the first half of an article originally published in The Reader magazine. The first two pictures are from wall paintings in Luzern, Switzerland.)