The Gospel of the third and fourth generations

The West Window, Holy Trinity Church Geneva

This week’s blog looks at a Gospel text that appears in the lectionary every year – Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ, and its consequences. I also include (with permission) a hymn linked to Thomas by the Episcopal hymnwriter Professor Thomas Troeger. I especially enjoy Troeger hymns because of their theological perceptiveness as well as literary qualities. The illustration depicts the West Window of Holy Trinity Church Geneva, which effectively conveys the sense of Christ of as Lord of all time and space. It was photographed by Emma Charles.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship; clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Over my years of studying and teaching the Bible there have been a number of books which at one time or another I have thought to write but which have not, so far at least, seen the light of day. In some cases that was probably a wise decision.

I started early. My first aspiration in this area came when I was studying A Level Religious Studies. Our Old Testament paper focused on the Prophets and I was fascinated (I still am) by the Book of Hosea, and the ‘story’ of his life (and marriage) which was constructed out of the biblical book given his name. It was also around the time that I had discovered ‘religious historical novels’ in a big way – having read Taylor Caldwell’s, Dear and Glorious Physician (subtitled ‘a mighty novel of St Luke’) and Lloyd Douglas The Robe (about the centurion who receives the garment of the crucified Christ). I would still say that the first of these two is definitely worth reading: I am less sure about the literary qualities of the other. But they had prompted me to think of writing my own potential contribution in this field – which I intended to focus on the marriage of Hosea and his wife Gomer and was going to be called, ‘For I desire steadfast love’, a quote from Hosea 6.6. By the time I got to university my friends had convinced me that the title at least was a bit of a hostage to fortune, and I cooled on the concept. I have never quite warmed up on it again.

However my next idea for a so-far unwritten book was one that I still think would be worth pursuing, and one day, when other books (that are currently in the pipeline) have been written, and I am less busy with my various retirement honorary roles including in this Diocese, I might like to take it forward. It came out of my experience of teaching at St George’s College in Jerusalem in the 1970s, and once again I already have a title for it, The Third and Fourth Generations In this case I think I would definitely want to stick with my chosen name. Though the wisdom of years mean I appreciate the complexities and pitfalls of the topic in a way that I didn’t in my mid-20s, I still think this would address a key question that both the Church and individual Christians need to engage with.

The theme I would hope to explore in this book is linked to the Gospel reading which the Common Worship lectionary suggests for the coming Sunday, John 20.19-31. Checking the lectionary I have recently realised that this Gospel is suggested for the Sunday after Easter Sunday in each of the three lectionary years. In one sense that feels a bit strange and repetitive, on the other hand it does suggest that the questions raised in these verses are seen as fundamental to the life of the Christian community. And I think they are. 

There are three interconnected elements. First the story of Thomas’ initial scepticism and eventual faith in Jesus, expressed in his words ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.28). Secondly the short comment that Jesus makes in response to Thomas, especially the concluding sentence, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!’ (John 20.29) And finally the following two verses in which the purpose of this Gospel is clearly set out, ‘These [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20.31) Whateverthe precise history of the literary relationship between chapter 21 and the rest of the Gospel these verses at the end of chapter 20 have the feel of being intended to function as a conclusion for the Gospel of John.

Chapter 21 however does make more explicit something that is lurking in the rest of the Gospel. The discussion about the potential death of the beloved disciple (John 21.23) suggests strongly that the Gospel (at least the version that included chapter 21) was written as the original apostolic eyewitnesses to the life and resurrection of Jesus were themselves ageing and dying. No longer would direct apostolic testimony therefore be possible. Those who came to faith in Jesus would no longer be able to draw on this as a channel to faith. I think that the story of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas is also reflecting these concerns, as Jesus specifically blesses those who will not (unlike Thomas) ever be able to see him bodily in the flesh. My so-far unwritten book would suggest that the Gospel of John was deliberately written (to a degree far more than the three Synoptic Gospels) to respond to the needs of this constituency who had (to paraphrase Jesus’ words) ‘to believe without seeing’. If the ‘first generation’ consisted of the apostolic eyewitnesses, and the ‘second generation’ those who physically met these eyewitnesses, the ‘third and fourth generation’ are those whose faith in Jesus as life-giver had to discover other starting-points from which it could develop.

Hence the proposed title for the book.  There would be several linked threads I would want to explore. The first would be that we, even in the twenty-first century, are still part of this third and fourth generation. The second that part of the reason that this Gospel is so beloved and so important in the life of the Church is precisely because it was overtly written to meet the needs and challenges of later generations. Indeed one can argue that the lectionary is right to repeat John 20.19-31 in all three lectionary years because this is exactly the point in John’s Gospel when the question of how the story of Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection, can speak to us today is being explored.

The third thread – which also relates to the other two – would then go on to engage with the question, ‘What does this mean for John’s – and our – understanding of the nature of Scripture?’ This would probably constitute the bulk of the book. I think it is a vital question both for the interpretation of the Gospel of John and for our contemporary understanding of the role of scripture in the life of the church. For once you reach the third and fourth generation and the testimony of eyewitnesses is no longer available to link you to the risen Christ, then we increasingly need to rely on written texts to create a link to the ‘earthly’ Jesus.

It is clear that the Gospel of John itself has some hesitations about ‘scriptures’ – whatever John may mean by this word. ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life…’ (John 5.39).  I find it telling that the first and fundamental title that is given to Jesus in this Gospel is that of ‘Word’ (John 1.1). Any early reader of the Gospel who read this ‘word’ would undoubtedly be drawn to think about a comparison and contrast with the written ‘Word’ of scripture of his or her day – what we today would call the Old Testament, which interestingly had probably just itself been canonised (at the Jewish Council of Yavneh/Jamnia) shortly before John’s Gospel appeared.  

It might be convenient for us at this point if we could think that John’s strictures about ‘Scripture’ applied only to the Old Testament, to what Christians sometimes disparagingly refer to as ‘the Jewish Law’. But I think there are clues within the Gospel of John that suggest that one of the evangelist’s concerns was precisely to ensure that in this ‘third and fourth generation’ the necessary written records of Jesus’ life (and the records of the story of the early Church) did not themselves become a ‘new Law’.  I believe that the evangelist’s great assertion that ‘the Word became flesh’ has implications for his understanding of the role that New Testament, as well as Old Testament, Scripture has in the life of the Church. What does it therefore mean to read scripture in the light of the incarnation? Part of the answer this Gospel offers us is its rich appreciation of symbolism and sacramentality. Another part of the answer must surely be the role of the Paraclete (Counsellor/Advocate) as the Spirit of truth who leads the disciples into ‘all truth’ (John 15.12). There is one further pointer that I will offer in my concluding sentences.

I am glad that I did not actually write that book 40 years ago. One of my learnings over the years has been of the richness of Jewish interpretations of scripture , and of ways of allowing scripture and context to converse with each other. Writing it now I would want to be considerably more nuanced about Jewish scriptural interpretation than I was when I was living in Jerusalem.  In fact the concerns of both Christianity and Judaism in this respect are not dissimilar. But I do think that the Gospel of John – as well as highlighting the issue for us, offers us some vital tools to engage with the challenge.

Underlying so many of the concerns and perplexities that the contemporary Christian community is presented with is the issue of the authority of Christian scripture. It is often said that we all work with a ‘hermeneutical’ starting point for our biblical interpretation. It is clear what is the starting point  of the Gospel of John. It is ‘life’. ‘These things are written … that you may have life in his name’ (John 20.31). Intriguingly the great Anglican Reformation divine Richard Hooker came to exactly that conclusion four centuries or so ago, ‘The main drift of the whole New Testament is that which St John setteth down as the purpose of his own history. ‘These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing have life in his name. (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 1.xiv.4)

*****

“These things did Thomas count as real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
The last frail twitch of flesh and bone.

The vision of his skeptic mind
Was keen enough to make him blind
To any unexpected act
Too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
Until his fingers read like Braille
The marking of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
Whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

(Thomas Troeger, copyright Oxford University Press, 1994, permission pending)

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