Rowan Williams lead a Theology Morning on John’s Gospel at St Mark’s church

I was very enthusiastic about hearing Rowan Williams and was not surprised to see the church full when I arrived.  I was relieved to find a seat, although I was disappointed to have my view obscured by a pillar.  However I was relieved to find that the talk was also displayed on the screen so I could see Rowan Williams as he spoke. We had 10 minutes of worship using the screen for responsive prayers.  1John 4v7-16 was read and there was a music meditation whilst a picture of a cross by a lake was displayed.

Rowan was introduced as a speaker not only of Welsh but also 9 other languages.  His topic was John’s Gospel.  Rowan described John’s gospel as the gospel, which gave a complete perspective on all the life of Jesus and its insights and framed the whole enterprise of Jesus.  Up to the 19th Century John’s gospel was the most valued gospel but then it was criticised for not reporting events as the other gospels did.  It was also thought to have been written later than the other gospels in the early 2nd Century; as it was quoted by writers from the 2nd Century onwards.  The pool of Bethsaida with its 5 porticos was seen as symbolic until archaeologists found a pool with 5 porticos in Jerusalem.  A confident pessimism then further discredited the priority of John in the last Century.  It was seen as historically unreliable. Rowan decided to give his own opinion about the gospel, as there are so many conflicting opinions about it and its authenticity.

Rowan described it as an eye witness report about Jesus, as it had unexpected points in it.  The story ended by saying that it was a trusted testimony of an eye witness in the gospel.  John’s gospel had local details such as the pool of Bethsaida and is nearer to the flesh and blood location of Jesus than the other gospel writers, who handled traditions handed down.  However, if you visit Jerusalem with John’s gospel in your hands you can see what he is talking about.  The text was not written down by the eye witness, but we accept that it is the testimony of the eye witness.  The writer of the gospel would have been part of a believing community who sat at the feet of the eye witness as he talked about Jesus and his life. We can imagine the writer asking him to give more details about Nicodemus and why Jesus had talked about being born again.  What did Jesus say the night before he died?  It was a mixture of meditation and memory, not all simple direct reporting about God in that text, but it tells us what we need to know about Jesus.

It is a dramatic version of lengthy dialogues with Nicodemus, the woman at the well and with Pontius Pilate.  Jesus declares who he is, by being drawn to people who recognise something in him.  In the raising of Lazarus in John 11 Jesus drew out a confession of faith from Martha, as in conversation he asked her to think beyond what she had thought before.  John’s gospel is an inexhaustible source of meditation and we are invited to give our opinion and challenged as to whether we believe.  The writer of John’s gospel collates the eye witness reports and adds his meditation to challenge us.

The compiler of John’s gospel selected what he included in the gospel and acknowledged that it was not the whole story of the life of Jesus, as he did a lot of other things; the whole life of Jesus and his actions would be more than the world could contain.  Rowan reminds us that we are now part of this story.  The writer picked an example of a typical healing story, a story of meeting an outsider, the feeding of the multitude and a series of icons, when Jesus is in action or a conversation here or there in his life.

There was also a dark side to the gospel; Jesus’ attitude to the Jews as villains; children of the devil.  This is disturbing in the age of anti-Semitism, the anxiety it brings and disturbing aspects of global violence.  The roots of anti-Semitism were in the New Testament. The early church had struggled with the more powerful Jewish communities, so many had savage things to say about the Jews in Jerusalem, those who engaged in dispute with Jesus, yet the authority of the testimony and salvation came from a Judean, as the author was a Jew.  The authoritarian Jews wanted to destroy Jesus and push his followers out of the synagogue; it was Jews criticising the Jews.

Who wrote the gospel?  Who was the eye witness?  Rowan sees that the eye witness was probably John, the beloved disciple, St John the disciple of Jesus.  Elsewhere it was acknowledged that it was Peter, John and James who were authoritative in the early church.  Rowan feels sure that the eye witness source was John.  Very early in the church it was thought that John’s son Zebedee was the editor of John’s gospel.  Maybe that is old-fashioned but as far as Rowan is concerned that explanation made sense.  The language used in the gospel is very carefully written, when the evangelist uses the Greek word more than once in different contexts.  As most people don’t understand Greek they can miss the richness of the language.  There are little internal echoes, a phrase used in earlier chapters such as when the risen Lord is by the Sea of Galilee and has a coal fire on the beach; where was the last time a coal or charcoal fire was mentioned?  It was when Peter betrayed Jesus 3 times, and the same fire is recalled and the threefold questions reverts the betrayal.

The prologue is a world changing manifesto, a theological manifesto statement.  No one has seen God, yet the only begotten Son who was next to the Father’s heart.  At the last supper John was the beloved disciple next to Jesus’ heart.  Rob Browning in ‘Death in the desert’ imagined old John dying in hiding.  That sense of place continues as we consider where Jesus is now?  He is next to the Father’s heart.  Word means logic, rational, structure; God’s very being shared and communicated and passed on and embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Word is God’s nature and Jesus is the Word made flesh.   Jesus has been in intimate relationship with God from the beginning.   The witness has first hand recollection of Jesus being pointed out as the Lamb of God, God’s appointed sacrifice.  2 disciples followed Jesus and asked him where he was staying, where he remained.  Was it because they did not know what to say?   In the last supper Jesus talks about places to stay.  In John 14v3 Jesus says that he is going to prepare a place for the disciples.  Jesus is remaining next to the Father’s heart and the disciples will abide and dwell and remain in God’s love as Jesus does.  Where Jesus is there we shall be next to the Father’s heart.  Jesus will clear space for them.  The prayer Jesus makes to the Father becomes our prayer.

After Jesus rose from the dead, Peter went into the empty tomb and saw the grave clothes whereas the younger John stood at the entrance first, then entered after Peter and John saw and believed.  John sees differently from Peter who had gazed at the scene, whereas John saw and perceived.  In the narrative around the Last Supper Jesus said that there will not see me;  he will no longer be there to look at,  but one day the disciples  will perceive and understand.  When we are in a place where it is possible to see, we will see with Jesus’ eyes, the love of the Father and see one another through God’s eyes.   All those themes are connected to how we see and remain with the Father.

Rowan was asked why the 4th gospel is so important.  He explained that it sets out the full scale of salvation.  The significance of  the Passover meal was transformed by Jesus into the Last Supper before his arrest and crucifixion.   In the beginning is the new start, the new creation.  John knew it would be impossible to tell us about all that Jesus had done, so he concentrated on describing Jesus’ relationship with his Father through the Holy Spirit.  Firstly the Son does what his Father is doing.  In the 4th Century, the idea of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were in action.  Jesus does God’s acts; the farewell discourses are anchored in doing what reveals the glory of the Father.  We too are to share God’s glory and radiate His love through us, thus continuing the work of the Father and the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Rowan was then asked whether unbelievers  are condemned?  Those who refuse to trust God’s love are locking themselves out; it is not Jesus condemning them, but it is the perverse action of closing their eyes so they cannot see.  They cannot bear to live with light, as it is too bright.  That is the characteristic way that Jesus talks; here is the light, the door is open for them to come into it, but they can shut it out, condemning themselves as they lock the door to protect themselves from the light.


Rowan was asked what he thought about the words that no one can come to the Father unless the Father draws him.  It is a mysterious text; if we find in our hearts to respond to Jesus, it is not simply a human decision; something in us from the start in Jesus’ words draws us to the Father.  The Father has not got a list of who will be saved or not; that is a Calvinist belief.  Rowan was asked, as the gospel  in sophisticated Greek, what does that say of his audience and the writer himself.  The author would have been part of a community and would have had input from the community as he compiled the gospel.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote their gospels to be read out loud, as it was set out in readable chunks with a punch line.  John’s gospel was something to mull over and study in an intense monastic community; the units are long, but they are presented in a dramatic story way.

was asked why John’s gospel was special to him.   He explainedin my mind, when those amazing words are read or when I read them, bowing my head.

The seventh question he was asked was which the most authentic translation of the Bible and he said ‘The Jerusalem Bible’; however he said that there was no perfect translation from the Greek in all passages.  The Jerusalem Bible was good on nuances, treating the long passages as poetry and it also has good accompanying study notes.  Rowan compared John’s complex, fluid sentences with the poetry of George Herbert, which is long but draws to drum beat moments.

When Rowan was asked whys gospel and he replied He did not know but he reminded us that Jesuss gospel Jesus was seen less as a public teacher,  but as a teacher instructing his disciples by having intimate conversations with them; one to one discussions including bitter controversy with the Jewish hierarchy; it was the more private side of Jesus.

When asked if the chapters of John’s gospel should have been collated in a different order, he admitted that maybe chapters 4,5 and 6 could have been shifted into a different order and that there were 2 alternative endings of the gospel; Thomas in John 20 or Peter in John 21.  Both endings were included and gave us the best of both worlds.  He said that the story of the woman taken in adultery does not really fit in, but he is so glad it has been included.   When passages from this gospel are preached or read, there is always an invitation to come and see for ourselves.  I found the way Rowan considered and answered the questions was excellent and thoughtful.  I must admit he has opened my eyes to the importance of this gospel, depicting excerpts from the life and teaching of Jesus and he has made the gospel far more accessible to me.  I felt privileged to listen to him and his explanations and insight are still making an impact me and I am sure will continue to do so.

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2 Responses to Rowan Williams lead a Theology Morning on John’s Gospel at St Mark’s church

  1. Selwyn Goodacre says:

    What a splendid and full account of the meeting – great to read. Rowan Williams is indeed a great man. I am so glad you got to hear him. And congratulations on the several blogs you have done in the last few days – quite a marathon effort. It is good to read them again.

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