I just realized: John 21 is the post-credits scene.
When I sat down the first time to write this post, I felt like I had nothing new to say about today’s chapter. Peter and John’s foot race to the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Messiah, Thomas’ insistence on empiricism: for nearly two thousand years, wiser individuals than I have been saying things about these scenes, and what could I add to them? As I’ve been reading and re-reading the chapter here, I don’t even have any fresh insights that I’m noticing for the first time. But how is it that I’ve never before discussed Thomas on Chocolate Book? I, a professed Christian skeptic? And of all the topics I could retread today, none seem more worth recapitulating observations on which you may well have heard before than our friend Doubting Thomas.
I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with the gospel of John. Of all the four gospels, it was the one that most saturated my childhood. I have these random memories: reading it with my mom at a TCBY as part of homeschool lessons, memorizing John 3:16 and thinking about God’s love for the world while swinging on a pull-up bar on the playground. In high school, I became increasingly aware of the scholarly skepticism surrounding it, its alleged late authorship and its authenticity. The sun moved, everyone’s favorite gospel suddenly became shrouded in shadow, and for years afterward reading through it became weird for me.
If you’ve read even one gospel, the events of John 18 will seem pretty familiar to you. There are passages in John which read like him whispering, “Come hear this thing about Jesus that you never knew!” But between Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter’s three denials, the inquisition at the Jewish temple, and Jesus’ questioning before Pilate, this chapter feels like John’s just hitting all the events that everyone knows happened. What is this: four chapters of John-exclusive content at the Last Supper, and then suddenly a synopsis of the synoptics? Not quite. The events may be the same, but John includes a few new details about them. Let’s take a look at one such detail.
I might as well confess: I don’t pray in groups much anymore. That’s not to say that I don’t pray out loud, but when I do pray out loud, usually the only one who hears me is God. Or I’ll be offering a cursory ritualistic prayer before eating a meal with family or church family. I bring this up because when I do pray as part of a larger praying group, sometimes I become acutely conscious of the other people hearing my prayer as well as God. Sometimes we pray with witnesses to the act, or an audience, or however else you might term the third parties listening to what you’re saying to God. And as a result, we may say certain things for the benefit of the people listening.
Here it is: the final chapter of Jesus Christ’s final message to his disciples before his crucifixion. And absurdly enough, I can’t help thinking of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The fourth novel in the trilogy (yes, you read that right) presents God’s final message to his creation as “We apologize for the inconvenience.” Of course, Jesus takes a higher view of God than the silly and irreverent Hitchhiker’s Guide, which persistently presents God as roughly as incompetent a manager of affairs as the rest of us (if he exists at all), but one has to start a blog post somewhere. Let’s dispense with this frivolous introduction and continue investigating what Jesus has to say when faced with impending death.
Remember yesterday, when I said today I might take a further look at the Holy Spirit in today’s post? Well, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and bears witness of the Son. That’s verse 26. It’s the only verse in this chapter about the Holy Spirit. There! Now that we’ve taken a further look at the Holy Spirit’s role in this chapter, we can move on to consider the other 96% of the text.
If you don’t want to hear Jesus’ last message to his disciples before his crucifixion, you’d better either close your Bible or skip ahead to John 18. The other gospel authors each spend maybe half a chapter on the Last Supper, but John devotes an entire three chapters to Jesus’ words over the meal, plus a fourth chapter in which Jesus gives a prayer entrusting the disciples to God the Father. It’s time to dig into these meaty chapters, so in the words of professional video game expert Tim Rogers: click that X, or buckle that seat belt. You make the choice.
In John 13, we get into Jesus’ last Passover, and as you might expect, there’s a cloud hanging over it. Last things have a tendency to be sad. (And of course a song comes to mind; here I’m thinking of “The Last Unicorn.”) But in spite of the path before him, Jesus doesn’t focus on his own suffering, present or future. Instead, he begins the Passover by washing his disciples’ feet.
I could talk some more about Lazarus today, along with his sisters. They show up in this chapter. But I only have so much time and space to talk about the chapter, and it seems there are bigger things going on here. In any of the gospels, when you come to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, you know you’re entering the endgame.