The Role of John's Gospel in the Three Year Lectionary

William Loader

Our Lectionary has a Year of Matthew (A), a Year of Mark (B) and a Year of Luke (C), but where is John? The answer: scattered over all three. On closer examination we find that of the 70 passages (including repeats) used from John's gospel about 30 are in Year B, compared with about 20 for each of the A and C. Most appear in Lent and Easter.

Some favoured passages occur every year. Thus in Holy Week, for instance, we have selections from John 12­13 and 18­20. Only in John do we have the account of Jesus washing his disciples' feet. Similarly John 1:1-14, which tells of the Word made flesh, makes an appearance every year in the Christmas season.

Otherwise the pattern tends to be that in Lent we have the great symbolic passages, and in Easter those concerned with Jesus' final advice to his disciples (John 13­17). Thus Lent (mostly in Year A) brings us Jesus as the new temple (2:13-22), the bringer of new birth (3:1-17), living water (4:5-42), light (9:1-41) and resurrection life (11:1-45).

The odd ones out are the passages about Jesus as the giver of new wine (2:1-11) which comes earlier, in Year C, the true bread (6:1-69), spread over 5 Sundays late in Pentecost in Year B, and the good shepherd (10:1-30), which appears in some form every year in the Easter period. It fits well with the theme of Christian community. As a general guide, in the season of Lent the Lectionary uses passages from John which focus on who Jesus is. In the season of Easter the focus is on being the Church.

The Gospel of John deserves to be treated differently. It is quite appropriate that we hear something from it in every year. It has been called 'the spiritual gospel', not because the others are unspiritual, but because it has a special way of drawing our attention to who Jesus is and challenging us to make a personal response to him.

The first three gospels consist of sayings of Jesus and anecdotes about Jesus which are ancient in form and reflect a consistent style and theme. John contains some echoes of the other gospels, but uses a more imaginative and artistic way of presenting Jesus. Comparing the first three gospels with the fourth is like comparing a photograph with a work of modern art. It reflects a lively Christian community of the late first century, which, perhaps, traces its roots to the apostle John, who gave the gospel its name.

John's gospel belongs in a community which loved symbols. Probably this was because many of them had been Jews who had loved symbols and spoke about God's Law using symbols. Old Testament and Jewish tradition hailed the Law as life, light, bread, water, wine, and as Wisdom, the wise woman. Now they used all these images of Christ. Wisdom the wise woman is now Jesus the Word. Anecdotes about Jesus, much like those which appear in the other gospels, became the platform from which to launch profound reflections about Jesus. Thus the feeding of the 5000, which appears in all the gospels, becomes in John 6 a meditation on Jesus as the bread of life. The healing of the blind man in John 9 becomes a reflection on Jesus as the light of the world. The raising of Lazarus in John 11 is now a celebration of spiritual resurrection and life.

In developing their portrait of Jesus the community of John's gospel expanded earlier material and created speeches and dialogues in which Jesus, himself, expounded these symbols. What God was saying in the whole event of Jesus' coming is now crystallised in speeches and sayings throughout the gospel. For the preacher this means that you will find that the message of many passages is the same, over and over again; only the imagery varies. You then need to decide which aspects should be to the fore, but you will do well to let the symbols inspire both your sermon and your liturgy.

The message which returns over and over again is that Jesus is the bringer of light, life and truth. Behind it is the message that God is the source of that life and that it is by trusting in Jesus that we can share in that life, often called eternal life in John. The gospel constantly calls us to a relationship of trust. The call is not to a complex system of beliefs, but simply to believe that Jesus really is from God and that to relate to him is to relate to God. He is God's Word in human reality (1:1-18).

In the Year C of the Lectionary the main concentration of passages from John occurs in the Easter season. These are taken mainly from Jesus' final words to his disciples (John 13­17). Pentecost and Trinity also draw on these chapters. The first three gospels tell us little of what Jesus said on the night before his death. The main thing was the last supper. This had to change because there was a widespread interest in people's last words. Already Luke transferred some teaching which Mark had late in Jesus ministry into the last supper scene (22:24-27; Mark 10:41-45). In John's gospel we find traces of two stages in composing Jesus' last words. The first version probably ended at 14:31, which makes a neat transition to 18:1. The final version added John 15-17.

The concerns of the community of John's gospel at the time are reflected in these chapters. They tell us what the Church heard Jesus saying to them and also believed was the kind of thing Jesus would have said to his disciples on that last night. In a community threatened by division and lack of trust the message is: love one another! (13:31-35). That is how we remain connected to the true vine (15:1-12). Throughout the gospel, relationships of love are fundamental. This is how God relates to Jesus, Jesus relates to us and we are to relate to one another. It is Jesus' prayer for his own: unity in love (17:20-26). This is not something abstract. It needs to show itself in concrete action, as 1 John 3:16-17 reminds us. By the time 1 John was written there had been a split in the community. We can hear John 13­17 as trying to prevent that failure.

The concern of the earlier version of Jesus' last words focusses more on Jesus and the Spirit. It offers comfort and encouragement to the disciples. They have seen God. What more could one ask for? They had seen God in Jesus (14:1-14). Comfort and care for the disciples is also a theme of the great shepherd imagery in 10:1-30. Even after Easter, when he will no longer be with them, he will be there in the Spirit; he will be with them in their great mission (14:8-17 - the Pentecost reading). There is a deep unity in being and in love among the Father, the Son and the Spirit (16:12-15), which sets a pattern for relations in the rest of creation and helps make it possible.