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5th Sunday of Easter

19 April 2024

28 April, Acts 8.26-end; Psalm 22.25-end; 1 John 4.7-end; John 15.1-8

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JOHN 15.1-8 is straightforward. Bear good fruit, and you are a true disciple. Its simplicity is not weakened by Jesus’s use of a vine metaphor to explain both his relationship with the Father and the disciples’ relationship with him. But consider the context, and a problem arises. The last words before 15.1 are these: “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way” (14.32).

John’s Gospel is more unified than any of the Synoptics. So, this odd ending sticks out as anomalous. Gospel gears are grinding badly: remember that the original text was unpunctuated, and imagine reading “let us be on our way I am the true vine”.

Scholars love problems. Problems are the staple diet of academics, who sometimes seem determined to detect anomalies where none exists. Yet the issue here is real. One standard solution is to look for stages of composition (by a single author, or by an earlier author adapted by a later one) or a conflict between sources (a single writer following first one document, then another). This makes the problem one of unsatisfactory editing rather than flat contradiction.

If this anomaly is evidence — within the polished and uniform whole that is John’s Gospel — of the use of different documents by the one author, that is intriguing. And, if it reveals a conflict between interest groups within the Johannine community (a reasonable scholarly construct, given the four books of the New Testament bearing the name John), that is permission to speculate on who these interest groups were and how they disagreed.

Now, when we look at John 15.1-8, it looks less straightforward. Now we have to ask whether this passage is about Christians versus non-Christians, or whether it refers to one group of Jesus’s followers’ being at odds with another. And this is central to a troubling canker in John’s Gospel, which can undermine its message and problematise its performance in music and liturgy: the demonising of “the Jews”. If branches of the true vine are interest groups in the Early Church, to be saved or burned based on the fruit that they bear, then perhaps this Gospel shows that the Johannine community was driven by an aim of expelling from among the faithful those with “wrong” views.

I have referred more than once to this scriptural “worm i’ the bud”. I doubt Christians in a post-Holocaust era will ever be free from it. How wonderful, then, if scholarship could establish as a “fact” that there were different factions in the Johannine communities (always remembering that these are hypothetical reconstructions), enacting the emblematic culture-clash in the New Testament of groups retaining Mosaic law and Jewish identity with Gentiles pressing for a departure from that identity.

That, in turn, would open up an exegetical bolt-hole. Everything in John’s Gospel which had a whiff of anti-Semitism about it could be blamed on a mere party within the Johannine community, while everything free from this taint (still the vast majority of Johannine writings) could be part of the brave new form of faith in God which was going to win out in the end.

This will not do. It makes me think of an Early Church way of dealing with difficulties that Christians detected in Gospel passages that revealed that Jesus could be wrong, or ignorant, angry, afraid. Those elements, they decided, must be examples of his human nature, while anything that displayed foresight, prediction, or power was surely an expression of his divine nature. This took no account (unsurprisingly, at this early date) of alternative explanations for those contradictions: that the Gospels are complex documents, assembled over time, in different regions, for different audiences, addressing different issues.

I have said little about the detail of John 15.1-8. Sometimes, the meaning in the breaks between sections of a text, as well as in the section itself, calls for reflection. We cannot use a single rough edge in the Gospel (John 14.32) as a way to wash our scholarly hands before the crowd and be done with this taint of Christian anti-Semitism. In church, people will go on being exposed to anti-Jewish elements in the Gospel. And so they should. If nothing else, it is at least proof that we have the courage to wrestle with our past, and not to bury it.

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