John (1) – Loved

John the Disciple who Jesus lovedWith all the story tellers in this book, we can only wonder about what else they could tell us and John is no different.

Please read John 20:30-31 & John 21:25

The disciple John and his brother, James were the sons of a well-to-do fisherman, Zebedee and his wife, Salome, thought by many to be the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and companion of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and other followers. Cousins of Jesus and called ‘the Sons of Thunder’ because of, at times, their impetuous behaviour (Luke 9:49, 54) and outlandish requests (Mark 10:35-45), John and James were key figures among the central group of twelve.

Together with Simon Peter, John and James were often to be found with Jesus, but without the other disciples: at the healing of the daughter of Jairus as we’ve seen; on the mountain at the time of the Transfiguration and then again in the Garden at Gethsemane. It was John who ran to the tomb with Simon Peter at the behest of Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning.

The authorship of the three New Testament letters that bear John’s name and that of the Fourth Gospel has been subject to debate for centuries. If John, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, wasn’t the actual writer then he was almost certainly very closely associated with it. Similar debate has surrounded the issue of whether or not John is in fact ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. Apart from a brief reference to the sons of Zebedee (John 21:2), John is not actually named in the eponymous Gospel so if he was the author then it would seem not unnatural to refer to himself in the third person (in the same way perhaps that the author of Mark’s Gospel appears to do so [Mark 14:51-2]).

As the writer of this website is no academic theologian, for the purposes of this story, and for simplicity’s sake, we will assume the potentially incorrect approach that John was the author and also the beloved disciple. There again, as we consider what we can learn from this particular story, the uncertainty over the exact identity also begins to pale in to insignificance.

John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is not saying in his writings that Jesus loved him more than the other disciples. If we are learn at least one thing from this particular storyteller, it is that he knew he was loved.

John knew he was loved by another person. He was secure in that love. He felt valued because of it. He knew he was loved because he was called. He knew he was loved because he was listened to – even when he was wrong. He knew he was loved because he changed. He changed from a ‘son of thunder’ to ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. He knew he was loved because he was allowed to be present at significant events. He knew he was loved because from the Cross he was entrusted to care for Mary, the mother of Jesus. They were all signs that John knew he was loved by another person.

We may experience, give and receive such love in many different ways. It’s well recognised that, by looking at the Greek, the Bible indicates four different types of love:

  • Eros: sensual or romantic love.
  • Storge: family love, the affectionate bond that develops naturally between parents and children, and brothers and sisters.
  • Phileo: love for and from fellow humans: care, respect and compassion for other people.
  • Agape: divine love that comes from God. Agape love is perfect, unconditional, sacrificial, and pure.

For John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, the Greek has the word agape on four of the five occasions that that sobriquet is used: John 13:23-25, 19:26, 21:7, 21:20; whereas in John 20:2, phileo is used. It’s partly a stylistic approach but is perhaps also a further indication that John knew he was loved by other people and, as we will see later, that he was also loved by God.

Expressions of love based on eros are felt most strongly within loving, sexual relationships, which we should acknowledge are not experienced by everyone. Arguably, the vast majority of people will both give and receive love which stems from storge and phileo, although they are not without complications at times either. As we will see later, agape love is that which is perfected in God but there are times when it is given and received from other people also.

What’s happened in the last week that showed you that you are loved by other people?

Using storge, phileo, eros as headings, write lists of the ways in which you receive and give these different types of love.

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

John (2) – Beloved

John the disciple who Jesus lovedJohn knew he was loved by other people. John knew he was loved by God.

Please read 1 John 4:7-12, 16

This is the God who loved Mary and Joseph. This is the God who loved the daughter of Jairus, the woman from Samaria and the man from the Gerasenes. The God who loved Judas, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary, John, Nicodemus and Thomas. And, yes, Pontius Pilate too.

Agape. This is the God who loves you.

In the above passage from John’s first letter, in the Greek, the love that is talked about is agape love. We are to love, agape, one another. God’s love for us is agape love. Love that is perfect, unconditional, sacrificial, and pure.

So, how do we really know we are loved by God?

We can trip the familiar words off the tongue, can’t we: ‘God is love’… ‘God so loved the world…’ ‘God showed his love for us in that while we still sinners Christ died for us’… ‘(nothing) can separate us from the love of God’. There are so many affirmations of the truth and what reassuring and comforting words they are.

It can often be easier to acknowledge God’s love for us when life is going well. Times when his love for us is tangibly demonstrated through answers to prayer, unexpected blessings, love from others – again, so many ways: and how reassuring and comforting they are too.

With practice, as we reflect on through Mary and Joseph and also Martha and Mary, we can see God’s love for us in all the ordinary things of life. Those moments of blessing. Those glimpses of glory. A sunset, a bunch of flowers, children playing, older people laughing, a dog running in to the sea. Those times when God says: ‘Look. That’s for you.’ When the peace of God passes all understanding.

But what was it like for John walking with the distressed and agitated Jesus to the Garden at Gethsemane (Mark 14:33)? And standing at the foot of the Cross helplessly watching the helpless Messiah whom he loved and who loved him. Standing alongside Jesus’ own mother and others contagiously grieving their own sorrow and distress (John 19:25b-27)?

While it may have been the case during the preceding three years and was definitely so later in John’s life, at this precise moment, standing at the foot of the cross, in the midst of the trauma and pain, there is no room or energy or desire to reflect on God loving him so much that he sent his son to die for him.

In the reality of our lives, how do we know we are loved by God, truly know, deep down inside, when life is tough and horrible?

Ah, if only there was a simple answer.

And there isn’t. And maybe accepting that fact is helpful in itself. Knowing God’s love and his presence in difficult times is in itself difficult.

The person you are is the person God loves and wants you to be. Think back to the first Easter morning and all that was encapsulated in that one word, that calling of a name: ‘Mary’. Jesus calls your name, for you are his, and that is who you are.

We, like Mary and like John can know the love of God simply through the calling of our name – and thankfully God’s love is much bigger than that too.

Returning to your lists from part 1, write down the ways in which you receive God’s agape love.

Man from the Gerasenes (1) – Healing

The man from the GerasenesHaving arrived in the country of the Gerasenes after a stormy trip across Lake Galilee, Jesus is faced with a challenging situation. There’s a man who’s ‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’… and there’s no time for a risk assessment. (Please be aware this entry considers the sensitive topic of deliverance ministry.)

Please read Mark 5:2-9

This man was somebody’s son. He’d been a child who sat on his mother’s knee. A boy who splashed in the waters on the Western shores of Lake Galilee. And now look at him. He didn’t live with the living: he lived with the dead. Whatever happened? Whatever went wrong?

Today, we’d have a name for ‘people like him’. A nice, politically correct name:

Excluded    Marginalised    Vulnerable

He’s named by his situation not by who he is. The anonymous outcast becomes known by the name of that which possessed him: Legion.

Demon possession is not just the stuff of horror films and ancient history. Exorcism isn’t about spiritually cauterising the victim until they writhe on the floor, screaming unintelligent sounds and foaming at the mouth. Deliverance ministry is highly specialised. It’s to be undertaken only by people who have been specifically trained and who operate under the authority of and accountable to a recognised and well-established church. Carried out in the context of prayer, with no publicity, in collaboration with appropriate healthcare support, and with continuing pastoral care for the person concerned.

The role of deliverance ministry, which is how Jesus’ encounter with the man from the Gerasenes could be described, is essentially one of providing a cure not a punishment (those who are possessed are never described as sinful). In Biblical times, there was a belief that demons would be free to roam the earth until the Judgment Day came and they did this by taking possession of people.

This possession was often associated with disease, because in those times – note, in those times – disease was often seen as the consequence of sin and a sign of being in Satan’s power. Thankfully our understanding of disease has changed and improved considerably but this also helps explain why when Jesus expels a demon there is often a cure as well. This is healing is for the whole person.

The man from the Gerasenes was an outcast – literally cast out of the city.

Abused    Ostracised    Rejected

So used was he to being badly treated by other people, when he sees Jesus coming towards him he is frightened: ‘What have you to do with me… do not torment me.’ Yet, in his running towards and bowing down before the Lord, he grasped the opportunity to get the help he knew he needed. Like so many people before and since, he reached out to Jesus – even though he was afraid of doing so.

Jesus deals with the fears too. Before stepping ashore in to the Gentile-inhabited land of the Gerasenes on the Western shore of Lake Galilee, he had been asleep in a boat with his disciples (Mark 4:35-41). A storm blew up and, woken by frightened followers, he calmed the storm and in doing so calmed their fears also. And now (and yes, it’s a pity about the pigs) Jesus uses that same power to calm the storm that is the life of this man from the country of the Gerasenes.

Think back to a time in your life when you felt as if you were ‘living in the tombs’. A time when life was tough. Perhaps due to illness, difficulties in home or at work, estrangement from family, the ending of a relationship, for example. In what ways did you run towards Jesus? How did he calm your fears and bring healing and wholeness?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Mary Magdalene (2) – Fact

Mary Magdalene at the Garden TombWhile not named, Mary was probably among other women who gathered for the Last Supper and then moved on to the Garden at Gethsemane – and she was certainly involved in what followed.

Please read Matt 27:55-57,61 and John 20:1, 11-18

Like many of us after a death, Mary Magdalene visited the place where her loved one was laid. It was night. She knew she could go there in peace to pay her respects, to mourn, to talk to the one she had lost, to be in that person’s presence even though they are dead: there is something reassuring about being able to do so, isn’t there – it keeps that deep emotional connection.

But on that first Easter morning, as the sun was rising upon the darkened land, Mary didn’t find what she expecting. The stone carefully placed over the entrance to the tomb by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, whom she had watched, had been moved. The body had gone. What loss – and then this.

No doubt, as she sat weeping, Mary recalled Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection. And yet the body had gone. Even the appearance of angels did not bring consolation. A gardener came and she poured out her distress to him. What on earth was going on?

And then one word changed everything. A word charged with emotion. A word which encapsulated all she was, covered all her confusion and distress, and brought together all her faith and hope.

‘Mary.’

In this one word, the simple utterance of her name, Mary has found the Lord. And her Lord has found her. In the deep heartfelt calling of her name, Mary had found the true fulfilment of who God had made her to be. She hears her name and says his in reply.

The 16th Century Italian artist, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1480-1548) captures the moment beautifully in his painting, Mary Magdalene. Mary is turning and understanding.

When someone calls our name, it attracts our attention. We turn to face them. We respond to the voice. We recognise the person who says it. Hearing our name spoken makes us turn in the right direction. And if we are looking for someone we’ve lost, we might call out their name. And such is the joy when we find them – and such is the joy of the person who has been found.

Through the resurrection, Jesus calls each one of us by name.

Through the resurrection, each one of us has found what we are looking for.

Take a few minutes to listen to the voice of Jesus calling your name.

Write down what you feel when you turn and understand.

Nicodemus (2) – Light

Nicodemus at the Garden TombFrom going to Jesus for spiritual direction to defending him in front of his fellow Pharisees (see John 7:43-52), Nicodemus had discerned that this man, this Jesus, is the Messiah the Jews have been expecting. Now, in part 2 of his story, we find him in another garden:

Please read John 19: 38-42

This is a garden that is all set for a burial. A royal burial. The burial of a King – the King of the Jews, as Pilate had decreed (John 19:19-22). Pilate’s is another story we can learn from as well.

Here we have Nicodemus together with Joseph, from Arimathea in Judea. Two rich and well-respected Jewish leaders. Joseph was also a member of the Sanhedrin – and one who had not voted for Jesus’ death (Luke 23:50). Both in their own ways, were ‘secret disciples’ of Jesus although there is some (albeit disputable) evidence that Joseph had been following Christ as he preached around Judea and Galilee.

In an echo of the anointment of Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume by Mary of Bethany just six days previously (John 12: 3) the gifts of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are enormous. This is no simple bunch of flowers to lay at the grave. Nicodemus brings an huge amount of spices (probably in excess of around 30kg [70lbs] in modern terms). Joseph makes his own tomb available (Matthew 27:57-60) and provides the linen in which to wrap Jesus’ body (Mark 15:46). Then with a stone that rolls they seal the tomb which holds the body of their beloved Messiah.

Joseph and Nicodemus had emerged from the shadows to undertake a task for God. The bruised reed that was Nicodemus, the learned, yet confused, man who visited Jesus, has become a strong cedar. In this generous act of devotion, which his beloved Jewish law dictated had to be completed before sunset on that first Good Friday, Nicodemus stepped from secrecy and darkness in to openness and light. Previously unable to publicly show his devotion to the Messiah, he does so now. Unashamed. Unafraid. Unlimited in his generosity. Nicodemus had been born again.

What do you learn from Nicodemus?

In what ways has Jesus led you from darkness in to light?

NEW: The Uncondemned Woman (2) – Absolved*

After things had gone wrong, the words I wrote had meant well. It was written from the heart. I asked for forgiveness and it offered forgiveness. It was responded to with condemnation. It was not the response I had expected.

‘Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”’ (John 8:9b-11)

As elsewhere, on many, many occasions, Jesus’ concern is shown, as one writer put it, not with the law but with people, their own integrity and their relation to God. We see here, as Paul described it, ‘the gentleness of Christ’ (2 Cor 10:1).

As well as the encounter with the woman from Samaria we can compare this incident with another woman judged by others to be sinful (see Luke 7:36-50 – and as an aside, the woman in that incident is not, as was mistakenly thought for hundreds of years, Mary Magdalene or the one involving Mary of Bethany).

Jesus’ words to the woman, ‘Neither do I condemn you’ reflect once again that he did not come in to the world to condemn it but to save it.

And yet, she is forever remembered as the woman caught in adultery: forever labelled by her mistake.

Surely there is much more value in remembering her as the uncondemned woman? As the woman who was saved from death by Jesus. As the woman, who like many others, would have a story to tell about her encounter with the Son of God and how she received a response she did not expect.

Pope John Paul II said this encounter between the woman and Jesus shows us that: ‘In whatever condition we find ourselves, we can always open ourselves to conversion and receive forgiveness for our sins.’

If you are a regular churchgoer, you will I am sure be familiar with the saying of a prayer of confession at the beginning of each service. Thankfully, we can come to God to ask forgiveness at any time of day (or night!). Time to acknowledge when the beam in our own eye is so big that it hits other people in the face. Time to acknowledge those things which are ‘distance creators’ between us and God. Time to ask God for forgiveness for those things we believe are unforgivable.

Many of us condemn ourselves for the mistakes we made (as I imagine this particular woman did also). Sometimes it doesn’t need anyone else, let alone God, to add to that condemnation.

In God’s love and mercy, the intention is not that we will be remembered for what we did wrong or the mistakes we made (although, alas, it is inevitable that some will be). The intention is that we will be remembered for knowing we are not condemned and that we too can go on our way and endeavour not to sin again.

 

Are there aspects of your life about which you feel the need for forgiveness?

 

Thomas (2) – Believing

From doubting to believingAfter the resurrection, Thomas wanted to be sure. He wanted to see the evidence.

Please read John 20:26-29

Poor Thomas. It must have been a difficult week. The other ten disciples and followers, including the Marys, would have been full of the fact that Jesus, their beloved Lord was not dead but was alive (and no doubt also a bit confused by it for themselves, one expects, although they may not have admitted that to Thomas).

In the high emotion of the situation, Thomas could have easily left the rest of the group. But he didn’t. He stayed with them. Listening to them, eating with them and praying with them.

Even so, Thomas must have spent that week wandering around, questioning the words of his closest friends, waiting for Jesus to appear around a corner. What a very long week it must have been. A week of uncertainty. A week of hope, fearing disappointment. A week of shame because he could not bring himself to believe like the others did. A week of waiting.

There are times when we want to be absolutely sure of something aren’t there? When we want evidence to clear up the confusion and the doubt. Some people have even likened Thomas to that of a scientist.

Thomas was fortunate: he had Jesus right there in front of him. How we would all long for such an experience! Yet note Jesus’ words in John 20:29. Thomas now believed because he had seen Jesus once again – and Jesus tells him how much greater is the blessing for those who believe without seeing him.

We, with all our doubts, come to Christ in the knowledge that we have not seen him. We come to Christ in faith, trusting that, in the balance of probability, he is alive and he is with us. He takes those doubts, that faith and that trust and he blesses us.

How else can we respond but by saying ‘My Lord and my God!’

Look back at your list of doubts. What evidence might there be to challenge them?

Now write a list of those things – anything you like: faith, life, work, whatever – which cause you to respond:

‘My Lord and my God!’

Woman from Samaria (2) – Pride

The woman at the wellThey stand at the well.

And they talk.

Please read John 4:7b-15

Continuing as it does to verse 28, this is the longest recorded conversation between a woman and Jesus in the whole of the Gospels. Initially, it has a feel of jolly repartee to it as if the woman is jesting, flirting even. After all, she has had five husbands! ‘Sir, you have no bucket… the well is deep… so where do you get this living water… are you greater than Jacob?’ (Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.) But the very fact she engages in conversation reflects her deep need for love, acceptance and respect.

Initially, Jesus responds in a calm, pragmatic way: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water (in the well) will be thirsty again.’ But see how effortlessly he turns from the practical to the spiritual – ‘but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.’ Jesus addresses her thirst. A thirst for acceptance. A thirst for love. She’s a mess. She’s had five husbands. She’s living with someone. She’s been excluded. Life is not good. Life is dry and she is thirsty.

Here, now, in the heat of the midday sun, stands a man, perhaps the first man, who accepts her for who she is and who loves her because she is to be loved. Through meeting Jesus, she finds her pride has been restored.

So what do we learn from her story in the day to day reality of our life and faith?

As with the woman from Samaria, the issues we face and the difficulties we have may not go away. The woman did not go to a wishing well to find a magic wand: and Jesus didn’t give her one in return for her efforts. And neither will he do so for us. But it is by going to the source of this living water, by reaching beneath the surface to the place of deep refreshment that will provide a different perspective.

We might think of ourselves as coming to the well in the heat of the different aspects of our lives. Thirsty for acceptance. Thirsty for love. Bringing the parts of our lives which are dry.

Jesus offers each of us the gift of living water. He offers water to quench our thirst, to refresh the dry areas of our life. The water Jesus speaks of is everlasting. It’s constant and continually flowing. It will never dry up. And, like the woman at the well, we have a choice about whether to drink from it.

Or think of it another way: are you a fountain or a spring?

A fountain is dramatic. Everyone watches the water as it plays out in different shapes and forms. Yet fountains recycle the same water all the time. They don’t need much depth to operate. They can be switched on and off. Some people have fountain-like faith – church on Sundays, everyone sees them, they say the right words and sing the right hymns, they get up and sit down at the right times. They sit on committees. But the tap gets turned off when no one else is looking.

A spring is different. Often quieter. Sometimes unnoticed. Spring water is always fresh, always changing, a constant flow 24 hours every day. Springs rise up from the depths. They feed in to the well of those of who draw upon them. People who are like springs have a stability and security in their faith: drawing on deep refreshment. There is a depth often marked by wisdom and a love for others – and themselves.

This water dwells deep within us. The woman from Samaria and Nicodemus encountered these depths of the love of God by taking the time to be present in his presence, listening to him and talking to him. Alongside setting aside the time, setting aside the place is also important. For the woman it became the well. For Jesus it was the mountains and other places where he could be alone. Putting aside time and having a specific place within one’s home can help: a place set apart for prayer, Bible study, worship or whichever way enables the drawing up of water from the well. A place free from other distraction. A place set aside for you and God to meet.

Which aspects of your faith and your life are like fountains and which are like springs?

In what ways do you feel the water of eternal life gushing up inside of you?