Throughout the month of July, I attempted to blog about each chapter of the Fourth Gospel in order to get a sufficient grasp of the Gospel as a whole. I did this as part of my preparation for designing and teaching a class on John this upcoming Spring semester at CDSP and, more importantly, as part of my preparation for writing my dissertation on John. During July, I also finished writing my dissertation proposal which has received a ‘thumbs up’ from my committee. I will be sharing the proposal with my fellow students this Friday and then presenting the proposal to the Christian Spirituality faculty at GTU in mid September. After getting the ‘go ahead’ from the faculty, I will present my proposal to the doctoral council and, if they approve of the proposal, I will officially become a doctoral candidate.
Earlier this year, I told myself (and others) that this was going to be a year of proposals. I was going to propose my dissertation and propose to my girlfriend before 2015. A couple days ago, I proposed to my girlfriend on Moonstone Beach in Cambria CA. Just as Jesus asked Peter by the Sea of Galilee, “Do you love me?” I asked my girlfriend by the Pacific Ocean, “Will you marry me?” Fortunately, I only had to ask her once and she had not previously denied me three times.
After spending the better part of a month with the Johannine Jesus, I had to get back to some other responsibilities: preparing lectures for a seminary course, preaching and teaching at School for Deacons, working in cataloging at the GTU library, getting ready for the third program year of the Marin Episcopal Youth Group and doing supply work throughout the diocese, which basically means “substitute priesting.” Although writing about the Johannine Jesus is actually my primary responsibility right now, I can’t afford to not do all this other stuff. Like Peter in John 21, I had to say, “This Jesus stuff has been great, but I still have to pay the bills so I’m going fishing.”
(I’m actually doing supply work tomorrow morning at a church in Crockett, where I’ll be using material from my post ‘John in July: The Devil and Daniel…’ which has proved to be the most popular of my John posts.)
I reunited with some old friends and colleagues as I got back to “fishing” just as John 21 reintroduces the reader to our old friend Nathaniel whom we haven’t heard about since John 1 (all the way back in early July). It’s here that we learn he is from Cana in Galilee, which may (or may not) explain his prejudice towards Nazareth, perhaps a rival town: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46).
Several days ago, the Episcopal Church celebrated the feast day of St. Bartholomew, which some believe might be another name for Nathaniel. This tradition comes from the fact that Nathaniel appears only in John while Bartholomew, who is listed among the disciples in the Synoptic Gospels, does not appear at all in John. So perhaps the author of John knew Bartholomew not as Bartholomew (which means “Son of Tolmay”) but as Nathaniel just as the homeless person at the Western Wall knew me not as Daniel but as “Ben Bob.”
In The Fourth Gospel: Its Purpose and Theology, E. F. Scott suggests that Nathaniel is John’s way of talking about the Apostle Paul, who called himself a “member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee” (Phiilippians 3:5). Perhaps Nathaniel was John’s way of acknowledging Paul as a “True Israelite” (1:47) who is a “Gift of God” (the meaning of Nathaniel) and who should be seen as an apostle.
The Smell of Charcoal Fire
In my dissertation, I intend to spend some quality time with this mysterious gift of God, Nathaniel, and pay attention to how Jesus responds to his prejudice (“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”) as well as his complicity in violence. By forsaking Jesus, Nathaniel (along with the other disciples who forsook him) indirectly participates in Jesus’s crucifixion. Simon Peter represents the disciples who forsook Jesus and he even goes far as to deny him three times. He is not willing to risk his own safety and reputation in order to stand up for the victim so he denies any association with the One he called “teacher” and “Lord.”
Peter was warming himself by a charcoal fire as he began to fall into a downward spiral of denial (18:18). He had already denied Jesus once and he will do it again and again before the cock crows. The smell of the charcoal fire sears itself into Peter’s memory, reminding him not only of his cowardice but also of his betrayal, his complicity, and his shame. What makes the shame so hard to bear is that it he felt ashamed for someone he loved, so ashamed and embarrassed and frightened that he wanted nothing to do with him. He didn’t even want to be mentioned in the same sentence as Jesus of Nazareth.
The Risen Christ has not brought this up to this Peter. The Risen Christ has said, “Peace be with you…Receive the Holy Spirit…and forgive” (20:19-23). Jesus has said this to the disciples who forsook him. We see how Jesus responds to our cowardly complicity in violence. After we participate in his death, Jesus responds by saying, “Peace. Here is a gift. Now go and forgive just I have forgiven you.”
“Do you love me?”
Peter did not just forsake Jesus. He denied him three times. So when Peter arrives on the shore where Jesus is cooking breakfast, he smells the charcoal fire (21:9) and remembers his betrayal, complicity and shame. Jesus responds by feeding him and then asking, “Do you love me?”
This is how Jesus finally responds to our compulsion to blame and our complicity in violence. Jesus receives the hyssop (which symbolizes our compulsion to blame), becomes the victim of our violence and shame, lets us bury him in the ground and then comes back from the dead to ask us, “Do you love me?”
“You have betrayed me and left me to suffer and die. You have denied me and have been publicly ashamed of me and cut yourself off from me. You have blamed me for everything wrong in the world and in your life. You have participated in my death and buried me. And yet I forgive you and I still want to be in relationship with you. Do you still want to be in relationship with me? Do you love me?”
Commentators point out that a different Greek word for love is used in these three questions to Peter. Jesus first asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” and Peter responds, “Yes, I philo you.” The second time, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” and Peter responds, “Yes, I philo you.” And finally, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you philo me?” and Peter says, “Yes, I philo you.” These words are relatively interchangeable throughout the Gospel so making a big deal of out of them might be missing the point. However, C.S. Lewis uses these Greek words to describe his “four loves”: storge which is affection, philia which is friendship, eros which is romance, and agape which is unconditional love. If we read John 21 in light of Lewis, then Jesus appears to be asking Peter if he loves him unconditionally and Peter only seems able to love him as a friend. If that is the case, then Jesus is willing to meet Peter on his level. Perhaps he is inviting Peter into an agape love while still acknowledging Peter’s limitations and meeting Peter within his limitations. After all, is this not what the incarnation is all about? God meeting us within our limitations? And is not Jesus on the cross saying, “You do not understand all the suffering in the world, but I will place myself under your limited judicial system and allow you to blame me”? Jesus enters our blame-bound existence and meets us there in order to receive the blame and then move us into abundant life and agape love.
Even though it appears Peter is still not quite ready to love unconditionally, Jesus still calls him to feed his lambs and tend his sheep. Jesus calls him to be a shepherd in the same way that Jesus was a shepherd, which means being willing to lay down one’s life for the sheep: “You will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)” (21:18-19). He will follow Jesus by going out to meet the wolf in order to defend the flock. In this way, Peter will move into the abundant life and agape love by following the Good Shepherd, the one who takes the blame and responds with forgiveness, the one who is murdered and then asks, “Do you love me?”, the one who loves unconditionally even if that means being betrayed, denied and crucified by those who claim to be friends.
After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
What is that to you? Follow me
The final few verses of the epilogue might be a way of making sense of the death (or the immanent death) of the beloved disciple. The community likely believed Jesus was going to return before the beloved disciple died so they were understandably concerned when the beloved disciples died or was dying and Jesus had not yet returned, at least not in the way they expected. So here the author is saying, “Don’t worry. Jesus never promised he would return before the beloved disciple died. So if the beloved disciple dies and Jesus has not yet returned, it is ok. Jesus knows what he is doing.”
I also appreciate these verses as one final invitation to stop comparing ourselves to others, to beware of the green-eyed monster. According to mimetic theory, the scapegoat mechanism starts going into effect when mimetic rivalry reaches a boiling point. Mimetic rivalry would not boil over if we could avoid envy in the first place, if we could obey the tenth commandment which the rabbis say sums up all the commandments: “Do not covet your neighbor’s stuff.”
Peter has just been told to imitate Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which means laying down his life for the sheep. Peter responds to this by saying, “Ok, but what about that guy?” Most scholars think that the (sometimes tense) comparisons between Peter and the Beloved Disciple throughout the Fourth Gospel are indicative of tensions between followers of Peter and followers of the Beloved Disciple in an early church community. So in many ways Jesus’s response to Peter also serves as a response to the early Christians who are caught in their own rivalry and webs of comparison. Jesus says, “What is that to you? Follow me.”
Jesus says, “Don’t worry about comparing yourself to other people. They might have a similar vocation to you or a very different one. They might live to be a hundred or they might die tomorrow. Maybe your friend will become a famous church leader. Maybe your friend will write an enormously influential spiritual classic. Maybe your friend will receive mystical visions of heaven. What is that to you? I want you to be concerned about following me in the way that I have shown you, in the way of the Good Shepherd.”
I always need to hear these words because I often wonder, “What the hell am I doing?” Why can’t I get a job like Joe? What about that guy, God? He doesn’t have a PhD and yet he’s got a great job and career and family and all that? Why am I wasting my time with all this PhD stuff, which is just pushing me deeper into debt? What about that guy? Or that guy? Or that girl? Or those people?”
Jesus says, “What is that to you? Follow me.”
By following Jesus, we move into a love that is unconditional and a life that is so abundant it is bursting at the seams, like a net full of 153 large fish.