Well we did it! We finished the Gospel of John in our faith-community last night. What an incredible book. Our time in this book (with the aid of N.T. Wright’s wisdom) has helped me to see John’s Gospel in a completely new light.
I thoroughly appreciate what John has done, especially in the last two chapters. His Gospel is a “new Genesis” story around Jesus. Readers cannot help but notice this connection from the opening words of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning…” But John is taking the creation story even further. Jesus is birthing the New Creation. John’s seven “signs” and seven “I am” statements, point both numerically and symbolically to the New Creation emerging through Jesus’ life.
Everything begins to climax in the crucifixion narrative. On Friday (the sixth day), the bloodied and battered Jesus, mockingly robed in purple and crowned with thorns, is presented by Herod to Israel with the words, “Here is the man.” As on the sixth day of creation when humanity is created in God’s image, John presents Jesus on the sixth day as the true image of God, lovingly receiving evil’s blows upon his body. This is what humanity in God’s image really looks like. And then on the seventh day, God rests… in the silence of a tomb.
But then John moves into new territory. The first words he writes after the crucifixion are, “Early on the first day of the week.” It’s a new week. It’s the first day again, but in a whole new way. The seven days of the old creation are complete and the first day of the new creation has begun.
And in the early morning of the first day of God’s new creation, during the first human encounter with the resurrected Jesus, Mary mistakes him as the gardener.
This is Jesus; the new Adam; the new humanity remade in God’s image; the caretaker of God’s new Garden; the steward of God’s new creation.
And in the mystery and pathos of the first day of the new creation, Jesus commissions his students:
“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
New Creation. New Commission. Jesus inaugurates God’s new creation. A new world has broken upon the old. But the task isn’t complete. The door is simply cracked open. The world must be ushered through like Lucy leading her siblings through the wardrobe to a brand new world. What Jesus has inaugurated, he entrusts his apprentices to implement. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Like any good teacher, John reinforces words with actions. He quickly moves from Jesus’ commission to a story demonstrating how the new creation is to be implemented – Peter’s restoration.
Several aspects seem to leap out from John 21:15-25. First is the fact that although the new creation has dawned, it doesn’t instantly make everything better. The Apostle Paul is correct in that at some cosmic level, creation has been reconciled to God through Christ (Colossians 1:19). However, what is inaugurated at the cosmic level must be implemented at the practical level.
Peter is a husk of a man. Just three days earlier he denied knowing Christ. In his eyes, he fears he is disqualified from being Jesus’ student. I’m sure Jesus’ words are echoing in Peter’s mind, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
As Jesus forgives and restores Peter, Peter becomes a living recipient of the new creation in the disciples’ midst. He is an example of how John 20:21-23 works itself out in this strange new world of the new creation.
The second thing I find interesting is how Jesus forgives Peter. He doesn’t simply remove Peter’s guilt with, “It’s okay. We’re good. I forgive you.” He doesn’t encourage Peter with the words, “It’s okay, Peter. You’re still going to heaven when you die.” He doesn’t make light of Peter’s mistake, “We’re all human, Peter. We all mess up from time to time.”
Rather, Jesus excavates Peter’s heart. Like a gardener breaking up the dried and lifeless soil to make room for new growth, Jesus begins to restore the desolation of the old creation in Peter’s life to begin nurturing the new life of the new creation. Three days earlier Peter bragged to Jesus in front of the other men, “I will lay down my life for you.” Now in front of these same men, Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
Three denials by Peter. Three questions by Jesus, “Do you love me?” And with each one of Peter’s answers, Jesus does something mysterious and remarkable. Jesus places his shepherd’s staff in Peter’s hands. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. The people in his care are his sheep whom he has given his life for. But as he ushers the new creation and its restoration into Peter’s life, he gives his vocation and his people to Peter and says, “Feed my sheep.”
Like many things Jesus does, its significance grows over time. The new creation must be given time to flourish. But look at the results in Peter’s life as he writes to a new generation of shepherds:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
1 Peter 5:1-4
Finally, how does the new creation flourish in Peter’s life? What is the process that moves him from this moment of restoration in John 21 to a living embodiment of the Good Shepherd in 1 Peter 5? Jesus tells Peter twice as he restores him, “Follow me” (John 21:19, 22). This too is significant. Until this moment, Jesus has invited people to follow him in his pre-resurrection form. He was physically present, visible and tangible. But in days, Jesus will no longer be physically present. Yet, he still gives the same invitation.
In other words, following Jesus, who is invisible after his ascension, is as possible as following him when he was physically present and visible. In fact, based on things Jesus has said about the Spirit in John 14 and 16, it is actually easier to follow Jesus today than it was when he walked the earth. His resurrection and ascension have opened ways for greater apprenticeship to Jesus now than his original disciples experienced. Again, its the mysterious benefits of the new creation as it dawns upon this old.
John ends his Gospel with a new creation and new commission. This vision must shape us as God’s missional people. Unfortunately, I think one of the problems the modern western church has faced is that we have wrenched the new commission out of the reality of the new creation. In doing so, we focus primarily upon the isolated aspects of the commission without any proper context. For example, most churches emphasize the elements of Matthew’s Great Commission – make disciples, baptize them and teach them to do everything Jesus commanded. Discipleship then becomes a body of information that must be transferred from one person to another. Or discipleship is simply getting people to adopt new patterns of thinking or living.
But a disciple of Jesus is someone who knows first and foremost how to live naturally in God’s new creation now. Like Jesus, they are flowing with the transformational life of God’s future new age (eternal life), which then flows out of them to restore this world. Ironically, Matthew’s Great Commission is actually pregnant with new creation themes. His version of the Great Commission begins with Jesus’ declaration that all authority on heaven and earth are his. That’s new creation! Also, immersing people into the inter-Trinitarian reality of the Church is Matthew’s practical description of implementing the new creation within the old.
So we, God’s people in God’s world, are to implement the new creation that Jesus inaugurated. We do this by making new apprentices of Jesus as demonstrated in Peter’s restoration. We help people turn the desolate soil of their lives into a budding garden of new life. We forgive. We restore. We help people follow Jesus into God’s new creation, becoming like him so that they too can take up his vocation – to be sent as he was sent.