The Gospel of John, writes Jean Vanier, stresses how life is both 'relationship' and 'communion', with God and with each other, but that we discover through John that these relationships are also about transformation, that 'human beings need to be gradually transformed, body and soul, to enter into a fullness of love.'
In this chapter-by-chapter exploration of the Gospel of John, Vanier explains how Jesus taught this lesson at every step of his ministry. He includes stories from his work with L'Arche that express in earthly terms the great privilege we can have of developing our relationships with one another and with God.
The Gospel of John was written by Vanier following a visit to the Holy Land. At the L'Arche community in Bethany, Vanier was introduced to a young Muslim woman with cerebral palsy named Ghadir. 'She awoke a deep tenderness within me, as would a small child ... Ghahir was for me a little prophet of peace... When I visited her family I saw people were brought together by this little girl.'
'My hope', Vanier reflects 'is that all that I have received from John may be shared with many others. John has formed my heart, my prayer, my life, my spirituality, and my theology. I am grateful to him. May each of us become, as he was, a beloved friend of Jesus.'
An excerpt from The Gospel of John, The Gospel of Relationship by Jean Vanier, follows:
The Gospel of John was written around AD 90-95 by someone who calls himself "the Beloved Disciple." Did this disciple think Jesus loved him more than he loved the others? No. Rather, this name reveals to us this disciple's deepest identity, which is also the deepest identity of each one of us. Our identity is not, as people often think, our role or what we do. Our deepest need is to be loved, and our deepest identity is to be the beloved of Jesus.
The author of this Gospel is most likely John, the brother of James; both were sons of Zebedee. Through Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria in the early Church, we understand that he was the disciple who rested on the heart of Jesus, and who received Mary at the foot of the cross as his mother. In the early third century, Origen said that to understand this Gospel one must first have rested on the heart of Jesus and taken Mary as one's mother.
The author of this Gospel seeks historical accuracy about dates, time, places, and Jewish feast days. He is deeply Jewish, infused by the vision and the spirituality of the Torah, the prophets, and the books of wisdom. John, deeply rooted in Judaism, is a privileged witness to Jesus - to his life, his vision, and his person.
Why Was This Gospel Written?
Why did John write this book? He explains clearly, at the end of chapter 20, that it was written "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, and that in believing you will have life in his name." It was written that we will have life! This is the Gospel of life, written so that we might become fully living! What is this life? For Aristotle, life is everything that moves and has movement from within. But what does this life move toward?
For John, life is relationship, life is communion - especially the life and communion in God, with God, and with each other. The Gospel of John is the Gospel of relationship, and it tells of a growing relationship with Jesus. It has a beginning. There is a meeting, which grows into a friendship. In friendship we abide or dwell one in another. There is growth, and then there is a fecundity, the desire to give life. In this Gospel of relationship, we learn to grow in love. It is a spiritual journey; it is growth into a deeper communion with Jesus, a friendship with Jesus and through him with his Father.
The big question for us human beings is: Who is God, and who is Jesus? Growth comes through the gradual discovery of the vulnerability of Jesus, the Word who became flesh. It will be an emerging understanding that in his fragility, he is giving us life. At the same time, through this Gospel, we will better understand who we are, with our fragility, our vulnerability, our fears, and our prejudices. We will come to understand our own need to be transformed by Jesus, who came to reveal the Father to each of us.
The Gospel of Transformation
This is not only the Gospel of relationship but also of transformation. All relationships start through the body. The first relationship is that between a mother and her little baby, to whom she tenderly gives life. The mother says to the child through gestures and words: "You are precious to me." There can also be moments of wounding, when the child does not meet the expectations of the mother, or the mother does not respond to the needs of the child. Thus there are moments of brokenness in their communion. A healthy relationship is not always simple. It is not possessive or controlling, nor is it being absent. Relationship implies a purification. The mother is called to respect the child profoundly, saying, "You are different, and you are uniquely precious to me." However, for the mother to separate from the child, and to encourage the child to grow in freedom, can be painful and difficult. She must be purified so that her child can remain "other," become fully himself or herself, and not be suffocated by the relationship. Our humanity grows and develops in relationships through which we are transformed and grow in freedom.
All this happens in and through the body. John is very careful to make clear that Jesus is fully human: There were moments when Jesus was tired or anguished. John lived in an era when both within and outside the community of believers there were those who denied that Jesus was really human. Therefore, the whole message of John attempts to show that Jesus did have a physical body, and that presence and communion are transmitted through the body. The Word became flesh. We will discover through this Gospel that human beings need to be gradually transformed, body and soul, to enter into a fullness of love.
This Gospel Incorporates All That John Received from Mary
In this Gospel, we discover something special. The last words of Jesus on the cross are: "Woman, here is your son"; then he looks at John and says, "Here is your mother." It is said that "from that moment, he [John] took Mary as his own," as his treasure. Thereafter John lived with Mary.
As the mother of Jesus, Mary naturally had an intimate physical relationship with him. Jesus had lived nine months in her womb, had suckled at her breast, and was nourished by her milk. Mary thus had a knowledge and experience of Jesus that nobody else did. For about thirty years, she and Jesus lived together with Joseph.
Obviously, the story told by John, about who Jesus is and who God is, will be uniquely influenced by John's relation- ship with Mary. Jesus said to John, "Here is your mother." He did not say, "Welcome my mother." He said, "Here is your mother." Thus, we can assume that John carefully chose events to tell us about Jesus in the light of the gentle understanding John received concerning Jesus through his own special relationship with Mary.
The Gospel of John, The Gospel of Relationship by Jean Vanier, is published by DLT, and available now in paperback priced £9.99.