Each morning of late, The Episcopal Church Daily Office readings are from the Gospel of John, that most mystical, most enigmatic, most christological, most puzzling (to me) of the gospels. I've taken and taught classes on John, read a few books about the book, and still each time I read it something new jumps out at me.
The Gospel of John to me is a wrestling match, and I believe it was written to be exactly that way.
A very familiar phrase caught my attention the other day, from John 8:32: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
Working it backwards, the logic goes something like this: freedom comes from knowing the truth, and truth comes not by analysis, but by being a disciple of Jesus. How? By dwelling in his "word." The saying pulls the listeners back to the beginning of John, with the soaring language about "In the beginning was the Word" and the "Word made flesh" in Jesus. The term that is translated as "word" comes from the Greek, logos, and it is not about letters on a page, but about the mind of God, or the will of God.
So to paraphrase the passage: "Whoever knows me discerns my mind, and the discernment will make you a disciple and that will make you free."
The passage has been used as a commission to go forth and convert people. But do those words really do that?
Maybe it is not at all about our own doing, but about dwelling somehow in the mind of God and knowing that it is not about our own doing, but about the will and work of God. Knowing this can set us free from worry, anxiety, and the need to be in control of things.
But there are more layers to this in The Gospel of John.
A few days later in the Daily Office, we get this from John 10:16: "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice."
The agent of action is not us, but Jesus. It is Jesus who will speak to people, and he will bring them to his flock. There are many tribes, many peoples, and Jesus is capable talking to all of them, each in a way they can hear. The emphasis again is not on us.
Could it be that the our participation in this comes through our own listening -- our own discerning, our own dwelling in the logos -- and then translating our discipleship into how we live our life in acts of service to others? Maybe it is not at all about our going forth to convert anyone to our own way of thinking, but instead being open to hearing others as they hear the Word of God in whatever way it comes to them. Maybe to be a true disciple is to be a listener, not a talker.
Can we trust that people may recognize the logos of God in ways they can hear it?
And then today we get another layer from John 10:31-42. Jesus asks his listeners to "believe" he is the "Son of God," and he leaves us dangling (for a moment) about what the phrase means. He tells us that his actions (not ours) define who he is (John 10:38): "Even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."
The understanding -- the conversion -- Jesus speaks of will set us free from the need to make people think and believe as we do. Maybe that is the true meaning of freedom -- to be free from human-imposed religious labels so that we might wholly dwell in the logos of God.
The Gospel of John, at its core, is a book about conversion; it is a roadmap into the way with the Risen Christ. Yet, at its core, the way contains a paradox: conversion is not ours to control, and as we get closer to the logos, we become reborn as we were always meant to be: wholly one and with God.
Art by He Qi.