John in July: Listening to the Heartbeat of God (Jn 13)


In Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality, the Rev. Dr. J. Philip Newell traces the rich traditions of Celtic spirituality from the first British theologian and heretic Pelagius, to the inspired universalism of Johannes Scotus Eriugena, to the earthy and ancient prayers of the Carmina Gadelica, to the imaginative works of George MacDonald and finally to the mystical and political spirituality of George MacLeod (pronounced MacCloud), founder of Iona Abbey. Throughout his book, Newell links Celtic spirituality with the spirituality of the Fourth Gospel, a link that actually has some historical validity. At the (in)famous Synod of Whitby in 664, King Oswiu of Northumbria had to decide which tradition he was going to endorse: the Roman tradition or the Celtic tradition. They each had different ways of dating Easter (and tonsuring) and Colman, who represented the Celtic tradition, claimed,

“The blessed evangelist John, the disciple whom the Lord specially loved, is said to have celebrated Easter this way…I’m surprised that you are willing to call our efforts foolish, seeing that we follow the example of that apostle who was reckoned worthy to recline on the breast of the Lord; for all the world acknowledges his great wisdom” (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 3.25).

Although his opponent Wilfrid convinced King Oswiu to endorse the Roman way of dating Easter, Colman’s argument reveals a link between Celtic spirituality and Johannine spirituality. Newell sees both spiritualities as earth-affirming and flesh-affirming in contrast to Roman Catholic spiritualities that developed primarily out of the Synoptic Gospels, especially Matthew. Though the dichotomy that Newell sets up between Celtic/ Johannine spirituality and Roman/ Matthean spirituality is grossly over-simplified, he still makes some interesting points. For example, he writes,

“In John’s Gospel, the woman, Mary, takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. ‘The house,’ says John, ‘was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’ (John 12:3). In Matthew’s version, on the other hand, an unnamed woman is described simply as coming to Jesus and pouring oil on his head as he sits at table (Matthew 26:7). The fragrance of the perfume and the intimacy of the anointing and drying of Jesus’ feet are entirely absent from this account. In John’s Gospel there is a readiness to delight in the sensory and in the closeness of affection. Matthew is more cautious. John’s spirituality accentuates the Light that is within all life, revealing a passion for life in its fullness. The body is regarded as good and intimacy becomes an expression of God’s love” (Newell, 101-2).

Trivial Tasks as Priestly Sacraments

I think Newell might actually be onto something when it comes to the Gospel of John. In this chapter, Jesus gets very “fleshy” with his disciples as he takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, pours water into a basin, washes his disciples’ feet and then wipes them clean with the same towel that is wrapped around his waist.

Margaret Barker helpfully suggests that this was Jesus’ way of ordaining his disciples as the new high priests. She says,

“The ritual washing of the high priest on the Day of Atonement shows that total immersion was a separate act from the additional washing of his hands and feet. The high priest had to immerse himself five times and sanctify his hands and feet ten times [Mishnah Yoma 3.3]. This distinction seems to underlie Jesus’ words to Peter: ‘He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet…’ (v 10). Presumably the disciples had already purified themselves for Passover, as did the other pilgrims who came from the country districts (11:55). This additional footwashing was a priestly requirement, to prepare for temple service. At the last supper, it was to change the status of the disciples; those whom Jesus did not wash ‘had no inheritance with him’ (v. 8)” (Barker, 379).

If this is how Jesus chose to ordain his disciples then it was indeed a very intimate and sensual way of doing it. It reminds me of a poem by George MacLeod that Newell shares in his book:

Show to us the glory in the grey.

Awake for us thy presence in the very storm

Till all our joys are seen as thee

And all our trivial tasks emerge as priestly sacraments

In the universal temple of thy love.

(The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory, 16)

Meet the Beloved Disciple…

And then we read about this disciple, “the one whom Jesus loved”, reclining next to Jesus. Here, for the first time, we are officially introduced to the “Beloved Disciple.” We met an unnamed disciple way back in verses 1:37- 40, who followed Jesus with Andrew. And we met Lazarus who was called “the one whom you love” (11:3), but here we meet the unnamed one whom Jesus loves. Some think the Beloved Disciple might be Lazarus (because of 11:3). Some think it might be Mary Magdalene, but in verse 20:2 she tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple about the empty tomb so that doesn’t really make any sense. Traditionally, the Beloved Disciple has been thought to be John son of Zebedee. Colman at the Synod of Whitby thought he was John, which is why he calls John “the disciple whom the Lord specially loved.” And Colman added his own Celtic touch to his interpretation of verse 13:23, which simply says the Beloved Disciple was “reclining next to Jesus.” Colman said, he “was reckoned worthy to recline on the breast of the Lord.” Reclining on the breast of the Lord is much more physically intimate than reclining next to him. This is where Newell gets his title “Listening to the Heartbeat of God.” If the Beloved Disciple is reclining on the breast of the Lord, then he is likely listening to his heartbeat, which is a powerful image of intimacy between disciple and Lord.

Scholars think that the contrast between Peter and the Beloved Disciple in this chapter reflects later political tensions between the “mainline” Petrine churches and the marginal Johannine community, tensions that seem to resurface in some ways at the Synod of Whitby. In this chapter, Peter apparently has to go through the Beloved Disciple to get to Jesus: “Simon Peter motioned to [the Beloved Disciple] to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking” (13:24). Was the Johannine community implying that they were closer to the heart of the master and that the Petrine churches needed them to interpret Jesus’ words?

Furthermore, Peter brashly insists that he will lay down his life for Jesus, who responds by saying, “Before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times” (13:38). In contrast, the Beloved Disciple makes no such claim, but proves to be the only male disciple who stays with Jesus, even at the foot of the cross.

The Vulnerable Heartbeat

This is also the chapter in which Jesus gives his disciples a new mandatum (commandment): “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you” (13:34). I share the Latin because it shows where we get the name “Maundy Thursday,” which celebrates this new mandatum along with the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet.

In the conclusion of his book, Newell invites his readers to follow the new mandatum by embracing both the Roman/Matthean way of seeing and listening (which involves more institution, structure and order) as well as the Celtic/Johannine way of seeing and listening (which is more earth-affirming and flesh-affirming). He thinks the major tragedy of the Synod of Whitby was not that the bad guys won and the good guys lost but that the church failed to hold both traditions together. The church failed to appreciate the diversity of ways that we can see and listen to God.

I am drawn to Newell’s conclusion/invitation even though I think it might be a little too clean and tidy. The question is: What do we do when “the other side” does not want to embrace diversity and wants to stomp us out? Loving one another means being vulnerable and open to attack. Are we willing to love even if it might lead to our death?

If the Beloved Disciple was actually listening to the heartbeat of Jesus, I believe it would be beating a little faster than normal because he knows that very soon his best friends, with whom he has just been physically intimate, will betray him and forsake him as he suffers and dies. In the next few chapters, he will offer his final words to his disciples, ultimately inviting them (and us) to abide in him, to listen to his heartbeat as it marches towards its destruction, which is somehow also its glorification.

I personally find these chapters difficult to penetrate, but I’m starting to think that delving into these final words of Christ might be one of the best ways to listen to the heartbeat of God…

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