READING JOHN FOR DEAR LIFE: ASpiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel. By Jaime Clark-Soles. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xi + 173 pages.
Perhaps it’s because of the three-year cycle of the lectionary, which centers on the Synoptic Gospels, or the feverishly pursued quest for the historical Jesus, but John's Gospel is often set aside as theologically intriguing but historically irrelevant. When scholars attempt to put together the life of the historical Jesus, they don’t find much room for John’s portrayal of Jesus. It is true that John’s portrayal of Jesus differs significantly from that of the Synoptics, but perhaps we miss out on something important if we neglect the fourth gospel, especially in terms of our preaching.
We are fortunate that there are scholars willing to invest their life and work in John’s Gospel. One of those scholars is Jaime Clark-Soles, Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. I had the opportunity to meet Jaime and hear her speak on John’s Gospel, with a focus on the 21st chapter of the gospel this past October (Rochester College’s Streaming conference). She spoke of her forthcoming book, and I’ve been privileged to read and explore John with her in person and in this book.
This is a book written not for the scholar, but for the person who wants to dive into John and find in it spiritual resources for life and ministry. It’s deeply rooted in the author’s scholarly pursuits, but it also reflects her spiritual commitments as a Christian scholar. This means that the book is written in an accessible manner, much like her previous book Engaging the Word, which is an introduction to the reading of the New Testament, with the hope that it inspires a spiritually rewarding encounter with Jesus in the pages of John’s Gospel.
With this book, she takes an aspect of that earlier work—Engaging the Word—and dives deeply into the message of John, which she treated in brief earlier. This is in part commentary, but it is also something more than simply commentary. It is, I believe, an invitation to enter a conversation with John (whose identity is unknown) about Jesus. She opens up the possibilities of the historical contribution of John, which are often ignored, but that’s not the focus. As she notes in her introductory chapter, John makes clear his purpose, that is the hope that the reader will believe in Jesus as messiah, Son of God, so that one might have life (John 20:31). Thus, “everything from 1:1 through 21:25 was written not merely to inform us, but to transform us” (p. 2). John isn’t interested in simply providing us with biographical information about Jesus. He wants to invite us into a relationship with Jesus that will be life altering. That might not please the historical scholar, but for those who seek to follow Jesus and find in him abundant life, then John is a good guide. Fortunately, Jaime is an excellent guide toward that end.
It should be noted that she doesn’t cover every episode and every chapter of John in this book. Instead she’s chosen to focus on some of the parts of the story. The reader may want her to comment on a chapter or story not included (I was disappointed that she didn’t take on the task of engaging John 6), but as she notes at the end of the book, every chapter is worthy of book of its own.
Even as the author didn’t cover the entirety of John’s Gospel, neither can I explore every corner of this book. You will want to read it for yourself. However, let me give a few morsels. I’ll note, first, that Jaime doesn’t give attention to chapters 2, 6-8, and 10. She doesn’t explain why she skips these chapters, which include the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5000, and the woman caught in adultery, but these stories apparently didn’t fit her purpose.
She does begin with John’s prologue (John 1), noting the connection with the story of creation in Genesis 1, reminding us that the creation story permeates the Gospel, and she notes that “John wants us to perceive that the stuff of earth is the stuff of God” (p. 12). This is a book that reveals the ways in which God is incarnate in Jesus. As for what John believes is truly Christian, she writes: “He has a brief litmus test for what is Christian and what isn’t: if it is life-giving, if it promotes the flourishing of all creation, then it is Christian; if it is death dealing, it may be real, but it is not ultimate and is certainly not Christian: ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). (p. 12). This is our starting point—the story of the incarnation and how the incarnation invites us to embrace life in all its abundance.
Due in part to her commitment to disability studies, Jaime takes special interest in such stories as the man who waits for healing at the pool of Bethesda (chapter 5). She takes note of how John compares and contrasts characters, thus there is a chapter about Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus in the dark of night, and finds it difficult to believe (John 3), which is followed by a chapter dealing with the Samaritan woman, who meets Jesus in the light of day, and becomes an evangelist. These two stories illustrate the message of light and darkness that are introduced in the prologue and function throughout the Gospel as a central image. Speaking of the Samaritan woman, Jaime takes note of the women whose stories are prominent in John. There is the story of Martha and Mary at the Lazarus, reminding us that the women speak but Lazarus does not. She takes not of the connection between Mary’s washing of Jesus’ feet (John 12) and Jesus’ washing of the feet of the disciples (John 13). Then of course there’s Mary Magdalene’s presence at the Tomb, wherein she becomes the primary witness to the resurrection.
Since John’s purpose is different from the Synoptics, Jaime reminds us that John deals with the Passion/Crucifixion differently than do the Synoptics. In John, the cross serves as the moment of Jesus’ coronation as Son of God. Remember that in John Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and thus the moment of coronation is different from that of the world: “There on the cross the King is crowned, not with diamonds or laurel wreath, but with thorns. And from that lofty height, he births the church (19:25-27), h is ally in announcing the truth: Loving Truth wins. Over and over again. Long live the King” (p. 129).
A careful reader of John will note that there are two endings, chapter 20 and chapter 21. The first chapter includes the witness to the resurrection, first of Mary Magdalene, and then to the disciples. She takes note of the witness both of Mary and of Thomas. Regarding the latter, she speaks not of “Doubting Thomas,” but of “Believing Thomas.” Remember this is a gospel about believing and being transformed. Thomas may have had questions, but he was no different. In the end, he believes and he confesses that Jesus is his God and Lord. There is much in that chapter that is worth exploring. But it’s not the end, for at some point someone added an addendum, another ending, chapter 21. In that chapter, Jesus appears to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee and serves them breakfast. Jaime spoke of this chapter in her presentation in October, and I was fascinated by its Eucharistic potential. She also makes sense of Peter’s encounter with Jesus, noting that it appears that Jesus spoke to Peter in the presence of the other disciples, taking note of the meaning of the word “these.” The question for Peter is not whether he loves Jesus more than the other disciples, but whether he loves Jesus more than his “stuff,” including his fishing gear! Is he ready for radical discipleship? Oh, and as for the difference in wording—agape versus phileo, she helpfully notes that John uses them interchangeably. There is no higher level versus lower level of love implied in the encounter.
Finally, in an appendix, she deals with some of the sticky issues of John’s gospel, including the word “the Jews.” She helps us see the use of the words hoi Ioudaioi in John in context. That is, the words that have been used to incite anti-Semitism, need to be reexamined. There are different uses and thus different ways of translation. There is a national sense, a geographical sense, and finally reference to leadership. Context will decide how to translate. This appendix is itself worth the money to read.
If you are interested in meeting Jesus in the coming year, I would ask that you consider meeting him in light of the Gospel of John. Furthermore, I would encourage you to do so in the company of Jaime Clark-Soles, for she understands better than most the historical, the theological, and the spiritual message of John. In her hands, John becomes a message for today’s church. Yes, I wish she had taken time to explore John 6. Perhaps that is a book yet to be written, for as she reminds us, each chapter of John warrants its own book. In the meantime, take and read "John for dear life," and be transformed, for that is John’s purpose.