Today many Christians around the world spent time reflecting on the life of John the Evangelist, the apostle who penned a gospel and three letters found in the New Testament. John is a fascinating figure on multiple levels, particularly with what he “brings to the table” as the one non-synoptic gospel.
One of my favorite reflections on John is found in Donald Miller’s Searching for God Knows What. In the book’s fourth chapter, Miller reflects on some of the biblical writers that he connects well with. Here’s what he has to say about John:
The next guy I like is John the Evangelist. That’s what they called him back in the day. I like John because when he wrote his biographical essay about Jesus, he kept putting himself in the story; only he didn’t call himself John, he called himself the one whom Jesus loved. You figure if a guy gets tortured and beat up and thrown in prison, he might start wondering whether God loves him anymore, but John didn’t. And when John wrote his book he was always taking the camera to the outcasts, into the margins, showing how Jesus didn’t demonstrate any favoritism. He showed how Jewish leaders ridiculed Christ, and he was fearless in exposing the hypocrisy of the ones who led with their heads, not their hearts. At the end of his essay, he captured an amazing conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus keeps saying to Peter, “Do you love Me?” And Peter keeps saying, “Yes, yes I do; You know that I do,” but Jesus doesn’t believe Peter and keeps asking him the same question again and again. It is quite dramatic, really.
The way John writes about Jesus makes you feel like the sum of our faith is a kind of constant dialogue with Jesus about whether or not we love Him. I grew up believing a Christian didn’t have to love God or anybody else; he just had to believe some things and be willing to take a stand for the things he believed. John seemed to embrace the relational dynamic of our faith. And he did so in an honest tone, not putting a spin on anything. He revealed how none of the disciples truly understood Jesus and how they were all screwups, and he didn’t make himself look good, either; he just told it exactly as it was. That’s guts, if you ask me. And then, not unlike Paul, John closed his book with a lot of sentimental talk, very to the point but charged with meaning. He ended his book by telling the reader he was going to die. There were some people around back then who wondered if John was ever going to die because they had overheard Jesus say John would live forever, and because John got tortured and should have died early on, a lot of people assumed Jesus was saying John was going to live forever on earth.
This is beautiful and meaningful because John wrote his essay a long time after Christ had left so he was very old, probably nearly ninety years old, and this was back when communities loved old people. They didn’t put them in homes to watch television; they gathered around them because they represented a kind of gentle beauty and wisdom. This was back when you didn’t have to be all young and sexy just to be a person. And it makes you wonder if John sat and wrote that he was going to die knowing within a few days, a few weeks, a month of gentle good-byes, he was going to go home and leave all his friends, and he didn’t want any of them to be surprised or scared.
When you read the book you start realizing that people who were very close to John read this essay and got to the end and started crying because John was telling them he was going to leave,and then I’ll bet at his funeral everybody was standing around thinking about how John knew he was going to die and told them in his book. And I’ll bet they sat around that night at somebody’s house, and somebody who had a very good reading voice lit a candle, and they all lay on the floor and sat on pillows. The children sat quietly and the man with the voice read through the book, from beginning to end, and they thought together about Jesus as the man read John’s book, and when it came to the end where John says he is going to die, the person who was reading got choked up and started to cry. Somebody else, maybe John’s wife or one of his daughters, had to go over and read the end of it, and when she was finished they sat around for a long time and some of the people probably stayed the night so the house wouldn’t feel empty. It makes you want to live in a community like that when you think about the way things were when Jesus had touched people.
A community like that might sound far-fetched, but when you read through John’s other books, the short ones, all he talks about is if you know Jesus, you will love your brother and sister, and anybody who talked that much about loving your brother and sister was probably the most beloved person in their community, and when he died people would have felt a certain pain about it for a long, long time.
I’ve been a fan of that passage for over a decade, and it still resonates with me, a reminder of the nerve that Miller often struck so well with his readers. Maybe, in that way, he had his own John-like moment.
(image from amazon.com, where you can also purchase the book: it’s under $4 for Kindle right now)