David Johnson seems an unlikely person to write a book about the Gospel of John. He had a long career as a geology professor and co-authored a standard textbook on the geology of Australia. His book reveals that when he first felt drawn to read the gospels, he did not speak about it to others. Yet it’s clear from his writing that careful reading of the gospels, meditating on them, living with them, and learning to follow the teachings of Jesus, including the inward teachings, transformed Johnson’s life. In 2007-2008, he spent eight months reading nothing but the Gospel of John, verse by verse. In his book, Jesus, Christ and Servant of God: Meditations of the Gospel According to John, he shares what became clear to him through that time.
Johnson begins his chapter-by-chapter meditations on John’s gospel by describing the “eternal mystical vision” that we encounter in the first chapter. John 1:1 begins, “In the beginning was the Word” and continues by speaking of the Light that lights every person that comes into the world. Johnson recommends praying with these opening passages, and highlights the oneness of Word, God, Light, and Jesus: “The equivalence of Word and Light and Truth, all in Jesus, is found throughout John’s gospel. First, the Word, the breath of God, is the creator of all. Second, there is the divine Light that sustains life, and this Light is in all. Third, Jesus was the Word and Light as a physical reality while he was alive on earth. Western minds have trouble grasping the interrelationship of these three, that they are one—and more, that everything is simply a function of this divine creative energy that we can experience as the Light within or as the divinely spoken Word.” (10)
Drawing on passage after passage of words spoken by Jesus, and from his own spiritual experience as he turned to the living Christ guiding him from within, Johnson draws a map of the spiritual journey to which Jesus invites his followers. He reveals, as well, an emphasis in the words of Jesus that has been overlooked in mainstream Christianity, but which is very consistent with Quaker understanding and experience since the beginning of Quakerism in the seventeenth century.
During the secret nighttime visit of Nicodemus to Jesus, Jesus reveals that Nicodemus—and all of us—are called to a spiritual rebirth. The nature of this rebirth is beyond the capacity of our mind to fully understand, and requires a thorough change in ourselves that we all resist. This process involves a pruning of ourselves that can be painful, but is necessary if we are to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Johnson writes:
The change needed within us is more than we imagined. Here is the truth of the matter, which is shocking and hard to accept; this rebirth is nothing short of the dying of the ‘old man,’ the former self, with its reliance on one’s own strength and knowledge and qualification. … This will be difficult language for many, but the truth of it cannot be denied for it is the experience of the holiest people in history as well as the calling within us. If you are hearing this you are probably also hearing your own resistance, as I was. Consider the possibilities of complete humility and powerlessness in this matter, of letting go of that resistance, of praying for help in cutting it loose. For only in facing the inner death can we be brought to spiritual rebirth and the start of that regeneration, during which we must daily and resolutely maintain our fervent attentiveness to the Light within. (38-39)
In Johnson’s reading of the gospel of John, and in his experience, he finds the inward Light to be a reliable and always-available guide in this process of death of the old self and spiritual rebirth: “The mystery of God calls me, and the Light of Christ shows me my errors and the narrow path to follow. This Guide is not a bewildering set of regulations; it is the Light within, available to all, at all times.” (57)
Although clearly Christ-centered himself, Johnson’s writing is gently inclusive of those whose theology and religious language differs from his own, as illustrated in his words on abiding: “I understand abiding as a conscious wish and practice to be attentive to the Light within, whether each of us experiences that as the Holy Spirit, as the presence of Jesus, or as a turning to the unknowable God. The more we seek the divine presence, the more it is revealed to us. We live in it and it lives in us.” (143)
I expected this book to focus primarily on David Johnson’s personal experience living with the teachings of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John. Though his own journey clearly informs his insight into the meaning of the gospel, in the book he reflects primarily on the stories and teachings of the gospel itself. Rather than say a great deal about his own experiences, he sometimes includes passages from the experience of early Quakers to illustrate how the teachings of the gospel have been experienced by Friends, and occasionally he quotes others, including Thomas Merton.
In his commentary on the chapters of John’s gospel, Johnson notes the frequency with which John’s Jesus emphasized a distinction between himself and God, and how he indicated that he does only what God wants to do through him. Thus, Jesus emphasizes his role as servant of God. The first example Johnson points out is in John 4:34, when Jesus tells his disciples, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” In John 5:19, Jesus says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.”
Johnson suggests that Jesus is providing a model for all of us to follow, if we will. To live that way requires us to surrender our own willfulness and to become receptive to the work of the Spirit in and through us:
Can I, can we, become like Jesus, seeking and depending on God’s guidance moment by moment, following so that we say and do just what God asks of us, completely faithful, with trust and courage and simplicity and vulnerability and love, just as Jesus did? To enable the first disciples to do this, to undertake such ministry, Jesus breaths on them, saying: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Jesus used the word “receive”. He does not say, I give you the Holy Spirit. The disciples, and each one of us, have to make a conscious decision to receive the gift. (170-171)
Jesus abides in God, and we, too, are invited to abide in God, with Jesus, in the Light of Christ. Johnson emphasizes that the heart of the matter is learning to love as Christ loves, and to let the love of God flow through us to others:
We are to love one another with no excuses so that our love may become more Christ-like. We find our love is the love of God made available to us. Jesus confirms this new covenant is to love one another that we may abide in him and he in us. The love of his being, the Eternal Christ, can then flow through us. (197)
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David Johnson will be leading a May 5-9 course at Pendle Hill Conference Center entitled John’s Gospel: Retreat and Refreshment. Because of grant funding supporting this offering, the course is considerably less expensive than most 5-day courses at Pendle Hill. David Johnson is a Friend of great spiritual depth and this is a very special opportunity to spend time in the company of this Quaker from Australia. Here’s the link for more information and to register: https://pendlehill.org/events/johns-gospel-refreshment-and-challenge/
Jesus, Christ and Servant of God: Meditations of the Gospel According to John, can be ordered from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback or ebook versions, as can Johnson’s earlier book, A Quaker Prayer Life.
© 2019 Marcelle Martin
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Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) Designed to be a resource for individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences, the book describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all. To order multiple books for a study group, postage free, contact us.
For information about other upcoming courses and workshops with Marcelle, go to Teaching and Upcoming Workshops.
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