This is the second half of an article; part (i) can be found here.
3. A Spirituality of Conflict and Decision
Whilst seeming to be the most ‘reflective’ of the gospels, John is also the one which contains the sharpest conflicts. Jesus is in constant debate with ‘the Jews’—not usually, in fact, the Jewish people in general, but either Jewish leaders or Jews who had followed him and then fallen away (8.31). This debate has a series of crescendos, of growing intensity, focussed around Jesus’ claims, first to be the bread of life (ch 6) then to being the light of the world (ch 8 ) and finally to being the resurrection and the life (ch 11). The idea that Jesus was the source of nourishment for God’s people, the light to lead them in their wanderings in this world, even their very future and destiny, was too much to bear. The claims forced a decision on the listeners, and set those who accepted Jesus’ claims against those who refused them, perhaps foreshadowing the later expulsion of Jesus’ followers from the synagogue.
The conflict and decision reach a climax in Jesus’ trial before Pilate. The extended account is unique to John amongst the gospels. Ostensibly, it portrays Jesus on trial, but as the dialogue continues the tables are turned. It is Pilate, not Jesus, who is the victim of events beyond his control. And it is Pilate, not Jesus, who is on trial (and with him those who have rejected Jesus) since he will not accept the truth that stands before him.
We tend to think of spirituality as something that leads to integration, a holding together of all things in a still centre. But there will also be moments of separation, of cutting away. Are we ready to leave behind all that hinders our following the one who has the words of eternal life? And as we express our inner life in the outer world, all who hear are confronted with their own trial—will they follow the truth in the light of our testimony?
4. A Spirituality Focussed on Jesus
In the other gospels, it would be relatively easy to offer reflections on the nature of discipleship from the account of Jesus’ ministry. The twelve are called to follow, are taught, commissioned, and sent out to participate in the ministry that Jesus has started. Indeed, at times, they clearly share ministry with Jesus—sometimes to good effect, at other times with not so promising results. But the same could not be said of John.
The twelve are hardly mentioned, and where they are, it is without explanation; their call and ministry are simply assumed, if they are present at all. Active ministry appears to be the prerogative of Jesus alone, with the disciples watching on, usually with their understanding half developed and only reaching completion after Jesus is raised. If John’s gospel was a film, it would be focussed closely on the person of Jesus, with the background barely in focus. Part of the reason that this gospel is so inviting is that it feels so intimate. As different individuals encounter Jesus, we are alone with the two of them; all the noise and distraction of the outside world are left behind as we eavesdrop on the conversation.
This account focuses on Jesus alone—indeed, Jesus is often alone, a lonely hero who looks to his heavenly Father for the only support he can expect. Nowhere is this more poignantly expressed than in 6.67, where Jesus even has to ask the twelve whether they will continue with him. The only work required by God is to believe in Jesus, the one sent by the Father (6.27) and this is reflected in the direct claims Jesus makes about himself throughout the gospel, centring on the seven ‘I am’s. In the other gospels, Jesus does the things (healing, forgiving, leading) that God does. In John, Jesus is the things that God is.
So whilst spirituality is often thought of as other-worldly, the ‘inner life’ which integrates us and is focussed on ourselves, John’s gospel offers us something rather different. It is a spirituality of the mundane, one that is focussed outwards and at times leads to hard decisions, for us and for others. But is it focussed on the one who is the way, the truth and the life, and it is this focus that leads to life in all its fullness.