Monday, February 21, 2005

O Brother John, Where Art Thou?

But Peter, seeing [John], said to Jesus, "But, Lord, what about this man?"
Jesus said to him, "If I will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me."
Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, "If I will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?"
John 21:21-23 (NKJV)

Church history tells us that the Apostle John was an old man when he wrote those lines in his gospel account. Church records show evidence of his living at least until the turn of the first century. John certainly must have been looking at his aging self, having seen the other apostles die martyrs' deaths, and written those lines with a good dose of irony - surely the fountain of youth had not been given to him. And yet...and yet...

It is a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church that John did not die in 98 A.D. (the common date of death accepted by the Western Church); rather, he has never died. An account of this tradition is found in the Slavonic edition of the book, The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, published in 1914 by the Christian Print Shop of the Transfiguration Alms House in Moscow (translated in English by the Chrysostom Press, House Springs, MO in 1994). According to the legend, John returned to Ephesus and stayed in the house of Domnus. He converted many and performed miracles. One morning, before dawn, he took some of his followers to a place to pray. Then he ordered them to dig a grave as deep as his height in the form of a cross. He had them cover him with earth to the neck. They kissed him for the last time and placed a cloth over his face, wept bitterly and then covered him entirely. Others soon after, on hearing about this, dug up his grave and found nothing. (All this information is from, posted by Mel Miller in 1999.)

I first heard about this legend a few years ago, and it has intrigued me ever since. I'm not sure if this tradition means that he is still in this world, or whether he was taken up to heaven in the manner of Elijah, but I prefer to think of the former. I mean, what a cool idea - the Beloved Disciple out there wandering around, waiting for Jesus to return. I can imagine him sitting there in Ephesus before his exile to Patmos, writing these last few lines of his gospel account, thinking that old age was going to claim him soon, perhaps regretting that he could not have died a martyr's death like so many of his brethren, but taking comfort in the fact that he would soon join the Lord and his friends. How the Son of Thunder must chafe under the burden of patience if Jesus has really made him live and wait these past two thousand years!

Of course, this brings me to my main frustration with John. First of all, whether he is still alive or not, everyone agrees that he lived to an extremely old age (most Christian sources last report him close to his nineties). Secondly, his ministry ended up being a lot more stable and stationary than those of the other disciples and Paul. Taking these two facts into account, why oh why did John leave us with this tantalizing end to his gospel account?

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.
John 21:25

Granted that John could not have written everything that Jesus did, why didn't he at least write a few more things that Jesus did? I love The Gospel According to John. It is so unique. It took me a little time to get used to the style and substance of the writing, since it is a much more poetic and spiritual account than the synoptics, but now I love it just as much as the others, maybe more. Whenever I read straight through the New Testament, though, I am always left just wanting more of Jesus - more of what He did, what He said, how He looked, how He acted. I get so jealous of the people who lived at that time, especially the disciples. They got to live and talk and eat and sleep and travel and generally hang out with God. And then, most of them didn't even record anything about Jesus, except Matthew, Peter (through his interpreter Mark), and John. Luke seems to have collected his gospel account material from a variety of sources, so he probably got some information from the other disciples and followers of Jesus. Now, I know most of these men and women went forth to do great things for God and His kingdom, and they didn't have a lot of time to sit around and dictate or write historical documents. And, I also realize that many expected Jesus's return to be imminent, so they probably did not think that many historical documents were needed for a posterity that was not to be. That is why I finger John in my frustration. I just think that, out of all the likely candidates for recording the earthly ministry of Jesus, he's the one who could have written more.

I'm very grateful to have the Word. I certainly do not want to seem without gratitude for the richness of Biblical writings than have been passed down to us. It always humbles me to know that God still cares so much about fallen humanity that He makes certain His word is available to seekers, even in this late age. I guess I just wish that I could read more about what it was like actually to be in the presence of Jesus. I know we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, but I want to know what it's like to look in His eyes. My greatest hope is that someday I will know. Then, all the things of this world will melt away, all my questions will be answered, and I'll be left with an eternity to worship Him. Amen to that!

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