We come to the end of our time in John’s Gospel tonight. It is the first time in 10 years that I have spent serious time studying this beautiful book, and I have found it a rich journey. There were some lovely moments when our passage tied in with something striking in the news, and i particularly enjoyed preaching the feeding of the 5000 during the uprising in Egypt. You can read the sermon here.
Then there is the video reflection on the theme of ‘life’ from our final John sermon which you can find here, and, below are my thoughts on the Chapter 21 question. I hope you have enjoyed your time in John’s gospel as much as I have.
Epilogue – the two endings of John?
For all the elegance of John’s gospel it has a rather odd ending. While Chapter 20 wraps things up so beautifully with the story of St. Thomas and his doubts, and then the simple words. “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” sounding all the world like an simple and effective ending.
And then comes John 21 rather jarring, and for all its humanity, a bit rough round the edges. The story of Jesus preparing breakfast on the beach for his disciples after the miraculous catch of fish (including the exact number of fish caught) is a beautiful one and it would be sad for us not to have it recorded. And the reinstatement of Peter and his unique commissioning would have been particularly important for the early church. And this strange confusion about whether the ‘beloved disciple’ (probably John himself) was going to die or not is, well, interesting. But it is not how one would expect a gospel which started with the literary elegance of Chapter 1 to end. Some argue that it is a mirror of that dramatic literary preview offered by John 1, but John 21 is rather more prosaic. Others argue that it is therefore a late addition and should probably not be in the text (like John 8:1-11). However that view has gained little traction, and it seems very unlikely that the chapter would have remained included in the text if it didn’t (as v24 claims) carry the authority of John himself. The explanation that seems most likely is that Chapter 21 is a later addition by the apostle himself. He seems to be tying up lose ends, clarifying some confusions and addressing some issues in the early church, asserting the authority of Peter and most poignantly addressing a rumour that he (the last of the apostles) would not die. He probably knew in himself that his death probably wasn’t far away and didn’t want people being too shaken when he died.
And so what we are left with is a touching image of an old man adding a final chapter to his masterpiece at the end of his long life, and concluding with what may be nostalgic hyperbole in the final sentence. “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
It seems tragic that anything that Jesus did in his short and incomparable life should not have been recorded, and so perhaps we should be very grateful for this final insight offered by Chapter 21, and the strikingly ordinary miraculous encounters that it describes. The resurrected Christ enjoys nothing more than a barbecue on the beach with his friends. That is quite an image to end with, or perhaps to look forward to.