Mission Matters: Lenten Bible Study

By Tony Holmes, Communications and Community Manager

One of my great joys every year is studying how each of the four gospels vividly paints a different portrait of Christ.  Understood to be the first, Mark grounds us in the idea that Jesus is a great prophet and on how to follow his teachings about ‘the Way’.  Matthew, considered by many to be the most Jewish of the four, gives us Jesus as a lawgiver, wrapping him in the narrative framework of Moses and Exodus.  Luke, the great storyteller, wants us, I think, to see Jesus as the new Adam, bringing together all of mankind into a new covenant family -- Jew and gentile alike.

…And then there is John!  Adam Hamilton, author of John: The Gospel of Light, says the Gospel of John is thought to be the most deeply spiritual of the four. The text includes some of the most loved and inspiring verses in all of scripture: "And the Word became flesh...," "For God so loved the world...," "You who are without sin cast the first stone...," "I am the way, and the truth, and the life."

The Gospel of John stands apart from the others, both in how it approaches the sequence of event in the life and death of Jesus as well as in its characterization of people in the stories.  Still, it’s been understood since the very early days of the church that whatever we make of the surface narrative there is deeper, richer meaning to find.  As early as the second and third centuries, the fourth gospel’s profound sense of meaning became the subject of extensive commentary.  The church father Origen writes, “The scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not such only is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes notice of most.  For those (words) which are written are the forms of certain mysteries, and the image of divine things.”

This year in Lent, the Bible study group will undertake a journey through the Gospel of John, focusing on the deeper spiritual meanings tradition tells us to seek.  We will use the commentary found in Adam Hamilton’s book, mentioned above, as a study guide.  His approach is designed specifically for Lenten study, and presents us with the opportunity to go deer into the text.  We will also draw upon the work of the Right Reverend John Shelby Spong as we explore John’s spiritual themes.  Bishop Spong has authored an array of popular books.  While some find his work controversial, his skillful scholarship is questioned by few.  In his recent book, John: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, we find he walks-back some of his original ideas about the Gospel of John, seeing it now as a powerful, sacred text standing in the tradition of first century Jewish mysticism. We won’t probe into the polemics often surrounding the Bishop’s other work, but instead will use his rich understanding of Jewish mystical thought to help us discern this remarkable gospel. 

The approach will be simple.  We will read John for ourselves, answer some basic questions posed by Hamilton, and then contextualize them with some commentary on mystic symbolism by Bishop Spong.  In the end, we will spend most of our time reflecting on how the text touches us personally.  In many ways, Lent is about giving up the things that distract us from God.  So, I hope you will give up some time and perhaps some preconceptions about ‘surface details’ to join us for this Lenten journey into John’s truly remarkable portrait of Jesus.

Find out more about Bible Study here.