Over the past two weeks you have been looking at the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Now we have come to the Gospel of John and the first half of Acts. And the first thing that strikes you in reading John's Gospel is how different it is to the other three. There are fewer of the familiar stories from the other Gospels, though some do crop up: healings (the lame man at the pool of Bethsaida; the blind man in chapter 9); the feeding of the five thousand; the cleansing of the temple. There are also other stories which are unique to John: the meetings with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman; the miracle of changing water into wine; the resurrection of Lazarus. But among these, there are much longer sections of Jesus speaking than are found in the other four Gospels. So what are the things to particularly listen out for this week in John's Gospel?
- From our first Bible reading this morning we know why John's Gospel was written – so that people might believe in Jesus and have life in his name. And this is not just for new converts. It is also so that people might continue to believe and have life in his name. We see at times in the Gospel that people who were following Jesus decide later to abandon him – at the end of chapter 6 this takes place, and of course in the case of Judas. John's Gospel was written towards the end of the first century AD and so at a time when the original eyewitnesses of Jesus' life, death and resurrection were dying out. Therefore it was vital to pass on the truth about Jesus to the second generation of believers, so that they would continue to be his disciples. This is clearly directly relevant for us today. We are not original eyewitnesses of Jesus and we too rely on these testimonies. There are still people who want to persuade us away from our faith – just think of the bus adverts encouraging people to not believe in God. As we listen to John's Gospel this week, this question needs to be at the forefront of our minds – are we continuing to believe in Jesus?
- The second thing to listen out for this week is related to this first point – namely, who is this Jesus we are called to believe in? From the beginning of John's Gospel we are presented with Jesus who is God. Remember the famous words read at carol services every year: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. From the very start we have people confessing that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the King of Israel. And yet at the same time we see a very human Jesus too – he is tired when he sits down at the well and has his conversation with the woman of Samaria; he is thirsty as he suffers on the cross; he weeps at the tomb of Lazarus. John's Gospel is written in some of the simplest Greek in the New Testament and yet at the same time has some of the deepest theology. In a similar way we see Jesus at his most weak and also at his most powerful. Sometimes we can be attracted to one of these, and neglect the other. As we listen to John's Gospel this week, let's try and get the right balance of both the humanity and deity of Jesus.
- Thirdly, though, there is the call to respond to Jesus. Throughout the Gospel people meet with Jesus and are challenged to make a response to him. Nicodemus in the night is shaken out of his assumptions; the woman at the well in Samaria is called to leave her immoral lifestyle; the blind man Jesus heals in chapter nine is challenged to move from believing that Jesus is a prophet to worshipping him as the Son of God. Others deny that Jesus is who he says and try to kill him; some of his disciples leave him when the things he does and teaches become too hard for them to hear. But at all points people are made to decide. There are only two options available to people and John's Gospel contains many ways of conveying this – the contrast between darkness and light, between good and evil, between life and death. We are confronted by Jesus – either we believe in him and have life in his name, or we refuse to believe in his name and remain in death. As we listen this week, let's be aware that Jesus is calling us to make a decision to believe and to continue to believe in him.
- But to encourage us, the fourth thing to listen for in John's Gospel is the work that God does and has done in enabling us to believe in him. In chapter one we are told that no one has seen God, but that Jesus has made God known. In the most famous verse in the Bible we hear that God so loved the world that he gave his Son so that anyone who believes might not perish but have eternal life. Later Jesus talks about how he gives eternal life to his sheep. John's Gospel tells us of the love of God in sending Jesus, so that we can believe in him. Try to hear this week all the promises made in John's Gospel which speak of God's grace towards us.
Also this week you will be listening to the first sixteen chapters of Acts. This is the second part of Luke's account of Jesus and his disciples and follows on well from John's Gospel, as it is the account of the work of the Holy Spirit in the early church. John's Gospel speaks a great deal about the work of the Holy Spirit and in Acts we see that put into practice. So in these first sixteen chapters we have the day of Pentecost, where the Spirit empowers the first disciples to proclaim the good news about Jesus; we see the expansion of the gospel into Samaria under the power of the Holy Spirit; we see the conversion of the first Gentiles, again following a vision given to Peter by the Holy Spirit; we have the council of Jerusalem, where the church is guided by the Holy Spirit to make the inclusion of Gentiles official.
So as we listen to this history of the early church, what can we learn for ourselves today?
- It is clear that Christianity was never an individual lifestyle option. From the very beginning we see that the believers had all things in common and we see the serious consequences when Ananias and Sapphira withhold money from the community and then lie about it. When Peter travels he does not go alone, and Paul always takes travelling companions too – Barnabas, then Timothy and Silas, and even Luke. We see this also in Paul's collection for the church in Jerusalem – there is no such thing as an individual church doing well for itself, because all the churches are linked and all the believers are linked. We see in Acts the body of Christ working together. How can we make this more of a reality today?
- We also see what the church's priorities were and the two top ones were mission and care for the members. In chapter 6 we see a problem arise when people are not being treated fairly, so the disciples sort it out. We also see the Holy Spirit continually sending people out on mission – when the church is persecuted, the believers are scattered and take the gospel wherever they go; Paul and Barnabas are sent out on their missionary journey by the Holy Spirit, after the church leaders pray and fast. The council of Jerusalem's main concerns are that the Gentiles are included in the church, that they keep to Christian moral standards and that they care for the poor. Are we aware of what the Holy Spirit is directing us to do? Do we have the same concern for mission that the early church had? Do we care for the whole church of Christ, or are we more concerned that we do well here at St Paul's?
- Thirdly, we see the persecution which comes when the good news about Jesus is told to people. Some indeed are delighted to hear this news and follow eagerly, but others are infuriated and do their best to kill the believers. Paul's journeys are marked out by the frequent mentions of persecution – it seems to be the standard way of getting him to move on from one place to another! And yet each time, the persecution serves to help spread the good news about Jesus far and wide. The believers see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. How do we see it? What is our response to those bus adverts from the humanist society – are they a threat or an opportunity? As we listen to the book of Acts, let us think through how we would respond in such circumstances.
These then are some of the themes to listen out for in the Gospel of John and the first sixteen chapters of Acts. Are we continuing to believe in Jesus, the fully human, fully divine Son of God? Have we responded to his call to follow him? Do we know the grace of God in giving Jesus for us? Are we as a church being guided by the Holy Spirit in mission? Are we prepared to suffer for the sake of Jesus and the good news about him? Both these books were written almost two thousand years ago but they speak directly into our situation now. As we listen this week, let us try and move beyond simply recognising familiar passages and ask the Holy Spirit to speak clearly to us as individuals and as a church, so we can let others know the good news about Jesus.