John Writes Home
Four letters from
John bar-Zebedee to his parents, written between AD28 and AD30
© Francis Gardom, May 1999
The French have a saying reculer pour mieu sauter
Literally this means "To withdraw in order to jump better"
Now, although we often criticise people for trying to withdraw "walk away" from their problems, there are circumstances (like the one alluded to in this saying) when walking-away is the most sensible thing to do.
For example: you're walking in the countryside find yourself confronted with a small watery culvert, which is too big to step across in one stride. The sensible thing is to walk away from it in order to take a short run at it and jump across. To jump from a standing position is less likely to be successful. Similarly on army manoeuvres, a high stone walls can be most easily scaled by firstly going up to it and looking for the best footholds in the wall itself, and then withdrawing from it in order to take a good run at it. So walking away from an obstacle is sometimes the best way of surmounting it.
A retreat may be thought of in the same way. From one point of view "going into retreat" looks like escapism walking away from one's cares and anxieties; yet most of us have discovered in practice that taking a day off, or simply having a good night's sleep both of which, incidentally can be thought of as a mini-retreat helps us to see more clearly the way ahead and gives us the impetus to scale the apparently insurmountable object lying across our path.
So the business of a retreat conductor may be thought of as providing a distraction, an incentive to walk away, so to speak, from the cares of daily life. To help us do this the Retreat House provides surroundings where the demands made on us are kept to a minimum. There is peace, quiet and a beautiful countryside to enjoy.
So our purpose in retreating, in walking away from the cares of our everyday lives, is not, as we saw a moment ago, in order that we may avoid ever having to face them again, but rather that we may be able to surmount them more easily when they confront us again on Monday when we find ourselves back in the everyday world.
Of course the particular distraction which Im going to offer you may work better for some retreatants than others it would be a miracle if it worked equally well for everyone; but the exercise of reculer pour mieu sauter retreating-in-order-to-jump-better will still have been worthwhile if it has enabled everyone who take part in it to stop the wheel of worldly care from turning inexorably in his or her mind, and enjoy a good rest at the same time.
My attempt to distract your attention from its current preoccupations is in form of four imaginary letters selected from a number of those written by St John, the beloved disciple, to his father and mother, Mr & Mrs Zebedee of Zebedee & Sons, wet and dry fishmongers of Capernaum, during John and James's experience of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Let me say at once that I have not come across some new first-century documents that nobody else has discovered; and secondly let me say that I am not a New Testament scholar (or indeed a scholar of anything else!) so if you spot inconsistencies between these imaginary letters and the gospel narrative you should unhesitatingly go back to the gospel every time. For example, one Evangelist (Matthew) suggests that John's mother may have been amongst those standing at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, in which case it doesn't make much sense for John to have been writing to her describing the crucifixion as he does in the third letter. Significantly, John in his gospel account says nothing about her being there, so in the Third letter I've supposed she wasn't. If details like that worry you, then simply do a quick cut-and-paste operation and just imagine that this particular letter was addressed by John to Zebedee to his father, only back at home in Capernaum.
I have used modern notations for the calendar, the time of day and days of the week and so forth. As a rule, people dont want too many scholarly asides about how they reckoned such things in the first century AD. If you want to know more then there's sure to be a commentary in the Library that will go into it in as much detail as you wish.
So let me fill you in a little about John's background.
John was a dutiful lad and resolved to keep in regular touch with his parents after he'd left home. As we shall see, he didn't always manage to stick to his resolution: but he realised that his father and mother had both been deeply upset for a number of reasons by the sudden decision which he had taken with his brother James to throw everything up, leave home and follow Jesus, the itinerant carpenter-turned-preacher from nearby Nazareth.
The Zebedee parents were both upset because their family had always had a tightly-knit one and the brothers' decision to leave home together had come as a great shock to them rather as if it had been a sudden bereavement.
Secondly Mr Zebedee was upset because he found himself left with a worry about the family fishing business. He'd had intended that his sons should take over from him in a year or two's time to enable him to retire. Now he found himself left running it on his own.
Thirdly, of course, Mrs Zebedee, like many mothers before and since, was convinced that her darling boys would come to no good the moment she took her eyes off them. Finding that James and John had fled the family nest to follow an itinerant preacher was, in her own words, "taking this religion business much too far".
So let me read you, without more ado, this First letter which was in fact the third of a whole series of letters written by St John to his parents after his call by Jesus from the seashore of the Lake of Galilee to become a "Fisher of Men".
Part of his reason for writing was to reassure his parents that both he and James were alive and well in spite of Mrs Zebedee's deep misgivings; but I think I can also detect from the tone of the letter the voice of someone who has discovered a whole new dimension to life which he is very keen to communicate to others, not least his parents.
How John's letters managed to find their way from Jerusalem and elsewhere to the Zebedee parents in Capernaum in the absence of a postal service is something which will we shall discover in the course of this correspondence.
This letter, the third in the series, was written by John in AD28, the first year of Jesus' public ministry, about four months after the brothers Zebedee had left home to follow Jesus.
Dear Mum and Dad,
Jim and I send you greetings from the great city of Jerusalem. We are both well and in good spirits as are the bar-Jonah brothers, Simon and Andrew.
Jerusalem is a wonderful place. There is so much to see here that one could spend a lifetime sightseeing and not see a tenth of what is there. Of course I have been here quite often before with you when we have come to deliver dried fish to the High Priest's house. I know how valuable that contract is to our family business, so if I get the chance I'll call in and say "hello" to Rebecca, the serving girl who takes the order in when we deliver it. She's always been quite a chum of mine as you know and it will be useful to remind her of our existence in case they start thinking of getting their fish somewhere else. Besides, Rebecca always give me the low-down on what is happening inside the High Priest's household which, in view of what I'm going to tell you in a minute may be quite useful.
So even though I'm no longer at home to catch the fish in the Lake I may as well make myself useful as a sort of travelling salesman on your behalf. Who knows, there may even be other wealthy families in Jerusalem who've never discovered how delicious a real Galilean carp tastes.
Unfortunately, working with Jesus doesn't leave very much time for sightseeing. You may think it's hard work running a fishing business, but believe me, being "fishers of men", as Jesus calls us, leaves us totally exhausted at the end of the day.
Jesus seems to have endless energy and to expect us all to have it as well. He's up in the morning before any of the rest of us, praying for an hour or more. Then the day is one ceaseless round of preaching, curing the sick, comforting the bereaved, teaching us the job of Evangelists (that's another name he has for us; it's a Greek word and means, I am told, "Good News Bringer"). Then there's often a lot of discussion and questions from us, which he takes endless trouble to answer. Finally we flop into bed at about 10 o'clock (always supposing we haven't nodded off during the discussion as Jim is given to doing!) only to find that Jesus is still up after midnight praying. How he manages it I don't know. There's something almost superhuman about him as I have said on more than once in my previous letters to you. Of course I don't mean "superhuman" in the sense that the pagan gods are rumoured to walk about the earth from time to time, sort of macho-men and women throwing their weight around.
No, the great thing about Jesus is that he doesn't throw his weight around, and yet he's the kind of person you instinctively look up to. I realise that sounds strange, because I know as well as you do that the only way to be successful masters of servants in the fishing business is to leave them in no doubt as to who's the boss. Of course you can be kind to them when they're ill or in trouble but that's something different.
When I tell you that Jesus our Master (for that's what we call him Rabbi in fact) actually takes his share in doing the shopping, the cooking and the washing up you'll realise just how unlike your average Rabbi he is. He's got a different attitude towards the whole matter of authority of being in charge. Somehow, in a way I don't fully understand, he manages to combine being both Master and Servant all rolled into one. But, (and this is the most uncanny thing which I just can't explain: it has to be experienced for oneself) all the time one is with him there is the underlying sense of power and purpose; almost as if he was being driven by some internal force. I asked him about it the other day and his reply was "I must do my Father's will". He meant of course doing God's will.
And that's another strange thing about him. He seems to have an intimacy with God that is quite amazing. Most of us find it pretty difficult to say our prayers; but with Jesus it seems to come naturally, rather like someone who can swim seen through the eyes of someone who can't. It all looks so easy and yet to begin with it seems as though we are never going to learn.
Do you remember the trouble we had with Jim learning to swim? It looked as if we were never going to succeed and he felt that the whole thing was impossible. But then one day he just did it, and from then onwards it came naturally. Well, perhaps it may be like that with praying to God.
Incidentally, Jesus has taught us a new way of going about it. He says that we ought to begin by saying the words "Our Father who art in heaven". He says he'll teach us a bit more every day about how to pray so that by the end of a week or two we shall have a completely new framework. I gave it a try last night and I must say that thinking of God as our Father (rather than our Sovereign King like the Rabbi taught us, though of course God is that as well) does give one a whole new lot of ideas about what prayer really is. It's altogether more like "keeping in touch with someone" rather like I'm trying to do with this letter and yourselves. As I said in my last letter, Jesus is just "full of surprises". You certainly can't take him for granted. You think you know him and then suddenly he says or does something which is so unconventional that you realise you hardly know him at all.
The Establishment (that's what they call the High Priest and his entourage locally) doesnt like Jesus one little bit. He makes everyone, including themselves, think about things which they assumed and took for granted to be true. I only hope he doesn't fall victim to some kind of Establishment plot to do away with him. Knowing them I wouldn't be surprised.
And yet Jesus isn't "anti-establishment" in the usual sense of the word. He pays the Temple tax. He keeps the Law both in spirit and often to the very letter. But all the time you get the impression that he is trying to "get back to" what's really behind the Law. In this as in so many things he's totally different from the Scribes and Pharisees who seem content to take it simply at its face value and despise anyone who doesn't.
But Jesus never despises anyone that's another wonderful thing about him. I guess as his apostles or evangelists or disciples (or whatever he chooses to call us) we're a pretty rum bunch each with his own shortcomings. But Jesus accepts us as we are, shortcomings and all, without for one moment suggesting that we needn't do anything about them. He just makes me feel (like nobody else I've ever met) that I want to do things better "for his sake" as you might say.
That's really what gets up the noses of people like the Temple Clergy and especially the High Priest. Their whole way of life, as Rabbi Eleazar in Capernaum used to teach us in school, revolves around this idea of God's holiness, that is to say his total apartness from sin. So, very understandably, they go out of their way to distance themselves both physically and spiritually from people like tax gatherers and sinners.
All of which makes perfectly good sense until you meet up with someone like Jesus. For he's as near perfect morally as anyone I've ever met and yet he actually goes out of his way to meet with publicans and sinners and even go out to dinner with them. Worse than that (from the priests point of view) our latest recruit to the disciples is someone called Matthew ben-Levi who was one of the most, if not the most notoriously hard-nosed tax collectors in the country. He was sitting at his desk one day in Nazareth, the Master's home town, when Jesus walked up to him. "Hells bells!" thought Matthew, "here comes another moral lecture about the immorality of my profession from one of those damned rabbis!"
However, Jesus said nothing of the kind. As with Jim and myself a few months previously, he simply said "follow me" to Matthew and much to everyone's amazement, not least his own, Matthew did just that! Up-sticked and left everything behind and followed him! Having had the experience myself I know how difficult it is to describe to anyone who hasn't. The nearest I can get is to think of it like a piece of iron being attracted to a lump of lodestone. Some mysterious invisible force in the lodestone seems to "jump the gap" and draw the metal irresistibly towards itself. One day no doubt man will discover just what makes it happen, but for the present we just have to accept that people like Jesus just have this ability to "draw all men to himself".
It's beginning to look as if there must be two kinds of "holiness" around in the world. Somehow I'd never thought of that before, but one of the things about living with Jesus is the way he simply makes one think about things which one had always taken for granted. And if there are two kinds of holiness then it seems obvious, even to a bear of little brain like me, that they are going to come into conflict with each other sooner rather than later.
That's why, as I said earlier in my letter, I thought it would be a good idea to renew my friendship with Rebecca at the High Priest's house. If there's going to be trouble between Jesus and the Jerusalem clergy which seems increasingly likely then having a foot in the door of that house so to say may prove useful in the future.
I knocked at the tradesman's entrance and, as luck would have it the door was opened by Rebecca herself. She recognized me immediately, but I didn't say anything about being a disciple of Jesus. To have done so at this stage might well have put her on her guard against saying too much.
Well, we talked about this and that and the other, the weather and the price of fish and whatnot, and then Rebecca let slip the fact that she was sending a whole lot of empty fish boxes back to our firm in Galilee at the end of the week. That suddenly gave me the idea that, with a bit of sweet-talking I might be able to persuade her to let me slip this letter inside one of the boxes so that it would reach you at no cost to either of us. That would be a great blessing because with no obvious source of income we followers of Jesus are permanently strapped for cash.
Happily Rebecca agreed and I promised to let her have the letter by Friday when the man calls to collect the empty crates. Of course it means that I shall have to be rather careful about what I say in these letters because there is always the possibility of someone finding and opening them, but it does mean that if this plan works Jim and I will be able to keep in touch with you at home on a regular basis, and if you want to tell us anything just put it inside the next delivery of fish.
I tentatively steered to conversation around to the subject of Jesus versus the High Priest. Rebecca was obviously anxious not to be disloyal to her boss, but it quickly became apparent that there is no love lost between the High Priest and his cronies and Jesus, and more to the point so far as I was concerned that Rebecca herself has gone along a number of times to hear Jesus preaching and been struck in precisely the same way as we were: that here is someone who "speaks with authority" as if he really knows what he is talking about. Time and again he uses expressions beginning with "You have heard it said by people in the past that...." followed by "but I am telling you....". And then again Rebecca pointed out how often in his preaching Jesus spoke of God as "My Father" as if he somehow had a special relationship with him, different in kind from the one which the rest of us have.
So you see it's not just Jim and I who are drawn by Jesus. People like Rebecca who have nothing to gain and everything to lose by associating with him and hearing what he says find themselves going back to hear him time and again.
All in all it's a very curious feeling for someone like myself whose chief ability is netting carp in the Sea of Galilee to find myself unwittingly caught up in a movement which gives every appearance of going to turn the world upside-down at least the religious world, that is. Heaven only knows what this might not lead on to politically if our numbers continue to grow at the present rate. The local Roman Governor who is called Pontius Pilate is a deeply insecure man in a job that is just too big for him, and he has been known to over-react when things look like turning nasty. Remember our friends from Galilee whose blood he mixed with their sacrifices in the Temple a few years back. They were perfectly harmless peasant folk who had saved up to make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Temple at Jerusalem but because of some misunderstanding which arose between them and the Temple Guard Pilate called out his own Roman troops from the barracks as he said afterwards "to sort those Jewish rebels out and teach them a lesson". The guards were only too glad to have an excuse to have a free-for-all. The only trouble was that the Temple Guard had mistaken these harmless Galileans for members of the guerrilla Zealot Freedom Fighters party. Pilate got the most fearful dressing down from the Emperor at Rome and nearly lost his job as a result. That means that he's on the look out all the time to do something smart by detecting a real revolution and nipping it in the bud, so to speak, in order to get back into favour with the powers that be. Pray God he doesn't pick on Jesus and us to try his hand out at being clever.
Well, I must break off there. I heard the door-latch go and that means that Jesus and Thomas Didymus have come back from doing the shopping. Back to the grindstone, or rather the kitchen range then!
Peter and Andrew send their regards. James of course sends his greetings, as do I to mother and yourself.
From your loving sons
JOHN & JAMES
P.S. James asks if you could you dig out his second pair of sandals from his clothes chest and send them up with next consignment of fish to the High Priest's house. His sandal strap is hanging on by a whisker!
This letter was written by John in AD29, during the last twelve months of Jesus' public ministry. It shows signs of having been written over several weeks judging by the various dates that appear in it. Most of the letter concerns Jesus ministry in Galilee, but the ending hints about a planned visit to Jerusalem at the forthcoming Passover-tide. It is number seven in the series of letters and was written from northern Galilee at a time when Jesus fame and popularity were both at their height, and it follows a after significant gap of time between itself and its predecessor
Dear Mum and Dad,
I am sure that you will have been worrying about us not having heard from me for the last two months. It's not because we've been in any kind of trouble or danger but because there is a new sense of urgency about Jesus attitude towards his ministry and mission.
None of us, I think, fully understands what it's all about but there is a feeling abroad amongst us that things are moving towards some sort of climax. This is reflected in the fact that no sooner does Jesus begin to be listened to by the locals in one place than he decides that the time has come to move on to another. It's as if he feels that the whole country has got be covered by his ministry and the preaching of the Gospel before some deadlinen
But it's not as if Jesus is a one-man-band kind of person. He has said over and over again that we are to see ourselves as his apostles which is a Greek word that roughly means "messenger" in our language. But "messenger" is not a strong enough word for it, because after all a messenger may just be a person who is entrusted to carry a message between points A and B without understanding in the very least what it says. That's why some army generals deliberately choose messengers who can't read so that if they fall into the hands of the enemy they can't possibly know what the message said.
But Jesus, on the contrary, expects us both to understand and be able to interpret the message which he has entrusted to us. In other words he has commissioned us to act on his behalf. It's all rather alarming really but somehow it seems to work. If I tell you that your son and my brother James performed his first miracle of healing yesterday you will see why we are all finding life so bewildering. Jesus himself had gone off to see some local nobleman whose son was dying of a disease which the doctors hadn't been able to do anything about. So when a young girl came to the digs where we are living in a state of great distress because her baby had almost stopped breathing we were faced with the sort of situation which I had privately been dreading over the last few months, namely what to do when Jesus simply wasn't there.
Well, the ten of us had a bit of a private discussion as to what the Master would do under the circumstances. Thomas (typically) suggested that we should wait until he got back on the grounds that anything we did might turn out to be the wrong thing. I rather lamely suggested that we should say some prayers, which we did. But then the most extraordinary thing happened. As everyone said "Amen" at the end of our devotions and we were slightly wondering what we would do next, James suddenly stepped forward, took the child from his mother's arms into his own and began what I can only describe as an inspired utterance. I don't remember the words he actually used, but I do recall that he said something like "in the name of Jesus Christ, may you be healed". There was a pause, and then little by little the colour began to return to the child's pale cheeks and it began to cry quite heartily like a newborn infant. It was obvious to one and all that whatever had been the matter was no longer the case. James handed the baby back to his mother but rather in the way of someone who was sleepwalking. He then said "please excuse me, I don't feel very well: I'm going to lie down", and took himself off to the dormitory. When I went up to see if he was all right, he was sound asleep. Later on that afternoon after he was awake I asked him how it felt to be a miracle-worker. He seemed to have little or no recollection about what had happened at all. "What baby?" he asked, when I tried to remind him. Clearly he had only the haziest recollection of what he had done. "Well I'm glad the baby's all right now" was all that he said.
That's another of the curious things about working with Jesus. It's not a matter of what one has achieved oneself but what he has achieved through, and sometimes despite, ourselves. Somehow it doesn't seem to matter who does the miracle because the power to do them all comes from the same source Jesus. In fact it rather looks as though those like me who have a bit of the gift of the gab are less gifted when it comes to healing people. Perhaps that's why Jesus has chosen such a very different lot of people to be his closest friends.
We've had the most remarkable bit of good luck in the past week. Two more people have joined our company at the invitation of Jesus. One is a chap called Bartholomew who turns out to have been a former chef in the High Priest's house but got slung out on his ear for suggesting that the staff should be allowed time off to attend the Temple worship on the Sabbath. I learnt from Rebecca that the High Priest got very shirty about it and gave him the heave-ho on the spot. "Worship is the job of priests like me," he said to Bartholomew; "your place is in the kitchen" so run along and don't get ideas above your station". Well, Barty (as we like to call him) decided to stand his ground and pointed out that "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath" a direct quote from something that Jesus had said in public only last week. Whereupon Annas flew into the most frightful rage and shouted at Bartholomew "don't you start giving me all that poisonous crap being put about by that son-of-a-bitch Jesus" (language which one would have thought more befitting to an Egyptian camel-driver than a High Priest) and sacked him on the spot. However, every cloud has a silvery lining, and Bartholomew's cooking ability have quite transformed our meals from the endless lumpy bread and ghastly stews that we have got so used to preparing for ourselves.
The fact that a High Priest could behave in this way brought to my mind something which I wrote to you in my very first letter home. Do you remember that I said how people like Rabbi Eleazar used to teach us in school about God's holiness, his total apartness from sin, and that the work of Priests and Rabbis was to help us live better lives by setting us an example of reverence when they performed their duties in synagogue and the Temple.
Well, he was perfectly right in one way of course. Religion does have to do with reverence. But working with Jesus I'm beginning to see that the word religion can have two rather different meanings. One refers to the sort of things that go on in the Temple; the other has more to do with having a right relationship with God by loving him "with all our heart and mind and soul and strength" as it says somewhere in the Bible, and making this apparent through the love we have for our neighbour. As Jesus said only the other day in one of his teaching sessions on a nearby hill "You must let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven."
Of course when you come to think of it, it stands out a mile. The prophets who spoke to our ancestors were always on about God "preferring mercy to sacrifice". But it's only when people like the High Priest in their dealings with Bartholomew so obviously get it wrong that one begins to realise that someone like Jesus is needed every few years or so to remind ordinary people that "religion" isn't just something you do on the Sabbath, but rather is a whole way of life.
You must forgive me if I get a bit carried away sometimes. You just can't be around with Jesus for any length of time without discovering so many things which you always knew to be the case but which had somehow got covered over in the course of everyday life.
But Bartholomew and his cooking isn't the only bit of good news. Jesus has called another apostle to make the number up to twelve which he evidently regards as being the ideal number of close associates to work with "because you represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel", he said to us as he introduced our latest recruit. This new chap's name is Judas and he comes from Kerioth. He's good news firstly because he's the only one of us whos had a really good education; he can speak Greek fluently and make a very decent showing of Latin. This means that when we find ourselves really cornered in a discussion with a learned Rabbi who questions what we preach, Judas is just the person to be able to come up with the right answer.
The other advantage is that Judas is a real charmer, especially with the women. You might suppose that a prophet like Jesus would be altogether a bit "iffy" on that sort of subject. But I have to say that he's got altogether a more positive attitude than anyone I've ever met even though he is a single man himself. And that's another reason why he gets up the noses of the Rabbis.
One of them asked him a question about marriage and divorce the other day. As you know some of the Pharisees have gone a pretty long way down the road of accommodating people who've divorced their wives and found another one. You only need to find a Rabbi who's good for a soft touch, tell him you've got tired of your wife's face (or something like that), and he'll write you out a Bill of Divorcement on the spot. Some of the more traditional Rabbis are very critical of this, and I think the one who asked the question of Jesus was one of those.
Well, Jesus answer staggered everyone, ourselves included. "From the beginning it was not like this", he said. "Scripture says: 'for this reason a man must leave his family and be joined to his wife so that the two become one flesh. What God has joined together, man must not separate"
Once again we were wrongfooted by Jesus, so to say, "going back behind" what the Rabbis have been doing in practice, and looking at the principle upon which the whole idea of marriage is based. When you do that you find that a whole new set of ideas starts to develop in your mind. You begin to see that there is a definite connection between the relationship which exists between husband and wife, and the way in which we are related to God. Unfaithfulness in either case is something deeply wrong and sinful.
I mustn't go on preaching like this, or you'll never want to have your son home back again! the trouble is, it's contagious! So where was I? Oh yes, I was telling you about Judas and the ladies. He has a wonderful knack of being able to see things the way they do. That means that they all talk to their women-friends about him and they start coming to hear him preach; then their husbands come along as well to see that they don't get into mischief. All in all we must have added at least twenty young couples to our mission service attendance.
Besides which, Judas is a real expert when it comes to keeping accounts. Before he joined us he was responsible for keeping the account books of one of the largest olive growers in this region. That means that our finances are a complete doddle to him. You've no idea of the muddles we used to get into before Judas came along. You'd think that the less money people have the fewer problems they get into over accounts, but believe you me it's quite the other way about. Time and again the ten of us (as we were then) used to have an upper-and-a-downer over some quite small amount which had gone missing, or else it was over the price of onions or oranges: one of us would always know a cheaper source than the one we had bought from.
Jesus really had to speak to us quite severely about this. He's no way in favour of waste or extravagance, but what he is really worried about is the way in which money can become such a distraction from what we are doing.
However, once Judas took over the accounts we've had no more problems. He always knows exactly what's in the bag down to the last denarius. You've only got to ask him and he comes back with an answer straight away. It's almost uncanny, somehow, to those like myself who had such difficulty with arithmetic at school!
I realised today that I had still not sent this letter off to you, and somehow being in Galilee, although I'm only about fifty miles away from home it's not as easy to think how to get it to reach you compared with the system we had worked out with Rebecca and the fish-boxes in Jerusalem.
However, I think we have the answer. Judas is being sent off by Jesus to Jerusalem to "listen in" to what people are saying about him (about Jesus, that is).
Well Capernaum is almost in a direct line between us and Jerusalem, so Judas has agreed to drop the letter in to you. That means that you'll get this letter (at last!) and also have a chance to meet him and see for yourselves what a remarkable person he is.
Its as though Jesus has some plan to return there next Spring. Personally I rather hope he doesn't decide to. His mission is having such a success round these parts, in a way that it never did in the Holy City. But somehow in Jesus mind it isn't a question of success or failure but of "doing his Heavenly Father's will". It seems as though he is waiting for some kind of "signal" from God as to when the time has come for him to go South again.
So that's all for now, then. Judas sets out the beginning of next week and there doesn't look to be much chance of writing any more to you before then.
James sends his love. Every blessing on you both
[The letter, however, did not end just there. It is followed by a postscript which was evidently written in great haste and reads as follow...]
P.S. Judas is just waiting to leave, but I simply have to tell you about an experience which three of us had yesterday morning. It puts a whole different perspective on Jesus and makes one see that his plan to return to Jerusalem in a very different light.
What happened was this. Before we went to bed on the Sabbath evening Jesus drew Peter and James and myself aside into a quiet corner and said that he wanted us to get up early and go out and pray with him. That itself was a bit unusual because Jesus usually prefers to be on his own and sometimes spends several hours in prayer whilst the rest of us are still fast asleep.
Well he woke the three of us up long before sunrise and led us out too the top of a very steep hill about two miles away. We climbed to the top and sat down. Perhaps it was the darkness or the earliness of the hour that did it but somehow, one by one, the three of us dropped off to sleep.
Suddenly the three of us were woken up with a start by a noise the like of which none of us had ever heard before. I call it a noise but in some ways it was more like a sensation which I can only describe as being submerged in a presence. It was something like the feeling you get if you dive down into the depths of the Sea of Galilee.
But the noise, or the Presence, or whathever you choose tl call it, wasn't all. We were surrounded by the most brilliantly dazzling light, which seemed to come from Jesus himself. His face shone like the sun and his clothes had become whiter than any laundry on earth could possibly make them. And there, alongside him on the mountain top we could see two men talking with him. One of them I knew to be Moses from the fact that to begin with he was wearing a veil which he took off to speak with Jesus. The other I believe was Elijah since he looked so much like John the Baptist and Jesus has often told us that John was in fact who the prophets meant when they said that "Elijah must return first". The two men were talking with him about I know not what but I just managed to come-to enough to pick up the odd words like "rejection", "death", "Jerusalem" and, most clearly of all, the one complete sentence "it is not fitting that a prophet should perish outside Jerusalem".
All three of us were frightened out of our wits by what we saw and heard. Peter, who sounded still half-asleep, blurted out something about "making tabernacles" but I don't think he really knew what he was saying. But what was absolutely overpowering was the Voice we heard speaking to us which said, quite distinctly "This is my Beloved Son: listen to him".
I know it sounds silly to say that we were literally "overwhelmed" by that voice. All three of us found ourselves being propelled flat on our faces by it. The nearest thing I can liken it to is the sensation of suddenly opening an oven door and being driven backwards by the blast of the heat that escapes from it.
Then suddenly it was all quiet and we were in the semi-darkness which comes before the dawn. There was nobody else there but Jesus alone. He took each of us by the hand and pulled us to our feet. "Tell nobody about this until the Son of Man is risen from the dead" he said.
What he can have meant I can't imagine. I suppose in a way that I shouldn't be telling you all this now in the light of what he said to us, but somehow I simply had to tell someone. Never again will I be so critical of those people whom Jesus healed who acted against his instructions and told everyone about it. Please don't pass this information on to anyone else. It all has to do, I'm sure, with his forthcoming plan to go up to Jerusalem early next year.
Incidentally Peter was, if anything, even more shaken than Jim and myself. He had a conversation with Jesus immediately afterwards which I simply mustn't repeat to you. But this I can tell you, that as a result of it Jesus gave Peter a whole lot more responsibility. It's as if this whole experience the other morning marks a watershed in Jesus ministry and our relationship with him. Somehow Jesus has singled out the three of us out of the twelve to share some of his confidences. Why he should have chosen us, goodness only knows. Intellectually we're the three dimmest of the whole boiling. If it was leadership he's looking for you'd have thought that he'd have chosen Andrew whose spent most of his life keeping his impulsive brother Peter out of trouble; or for that matter Judas Iscariot might have seemed far and away the most obvious candidate.
Monday, April 9th
This letter was written in AD 30. John breaks off abruptly during the evening of the Monday before the Passover to deal with a sudden crisis. It's not till Friday that he resumes writing by which time things have gone from bad to worse...
Well, here we are back at our digs in Jerusalem. Judas returned to us in Galilee from his "reconnaissance" trip to Jerusalem in early January. It's really good to have him back because needless to say in his absence our finances got into the most frightful mess again.
He reported to Jesus that there was a good deal of speculation going on in the City itself as to whether he would or would not come up to the Passover. By the way, after Judas had called on you to deliver my last letter he went and called on Jesus's mother in Nazareth where he happened to run into two of his cousins, Reuben and Isaac.
They both wanted to know whether Jesus was going up or not. Reuben I think believes as we do that Jesus really is the Messiah; Isaac seems much more sceptical about him. Since they all grew up together it was very interesting to hear from Judas some of the accounts of Jesus's childhood, and of course his Mother was able to tell him a great deal more than either of them.
The cousins are most anxious that Jesus should go up to Jerusalem, whatever the risk to himself or to anyone else for that matter. Reuben thinks he should because it's not going to help anyone believe in him unless they see and hear him for themselves. Isaac wants him to go up, Judas thinks, because he wants to bring matters to a head and supposes that it is cowardice which is keeping Jesus away from Jerusalem. If only he knew Jesus like we do he would realise that that's the least likely explanation of all.
Anyway, Judas's report seemed to help Jesus make up his mind that we would go there the following Passover but incognito as it were; and so we set out about mid-February in order to time our arrival to coincide with the beginning of the Festival.
But I mustn't digress here, because I'm writing this to you in one of the rare moments of leisure that we have. The incident I wanted to tell you about happened this morning when we went together into the Temple.
We go there most mornings and I've sensed that Jesus has been deeply offended by the way in which the Temple has become a kind of market-place with all the wheelings and dealings that you come to expect of such places: shortchanging, shoddy goods, pick-pockets . . . you name it, there it is.
Well, today matters came to a head. I noticed that Jesus was busy earlier in the day with a stick and some pieces of fine cord making them into a kind of cat-o'-nine-tails.
I imagined that this was going to be one of the teaching aids which he so often uses. He doesn't just talk; he often illustrates what he's saying with the real thing, it may be a handful of seeds, or a lighted lamp or a piece of fishing net.
But in this case it was something different. He went into the Temple as usual and then he suddenly began to throw all the tables over, open up the sheep-pens and set upon the stall holders with his whip till the entire temple courtyard was clear of them.
Of course there was the most frightful row. The Temple Police and the Chief Priests came along and tried to stop him by force; that supernatural power I spoke of earlier seem to have taken hold of him this time in a physical sense. I was reminded of those words of the prophet "Zeal for thy house will devour me". They simply could not stop him.
When the job was complete he was utterly calm again, like one of those eerie calms which descends all of a sudden after a storm on the Sea of Galilee. And then he said something what mystified us all. "Destroy this Temple", he said, "and in three days I will build it up again"!
I just don't know what to make of it all. The Chief Priests and the temple guard went away muttering the man must be a lunatic, since how could anyone rebuild in three days what had taken 46 years to complete?
And yet whatever he is, Jesus is no lunatic. In an uncanny way what he says always "sounds right". You may not understand it at the time but you feel that, if only you hang on long enough the answer will be forthcoming. Rather like those stories which gradually unfold and so you can see that things which once were seemingly meaningless have a vital role to play.
Of course there's going to be trouble. But I must say it really did need someone to do something about the scandal of the Temple. The whole business of its being a national shrine had become a joke; and worse than a joke something which was putting the gentiles who were interested in learning about God off the whole business. Somehow I never imagined, thought, that I should see those words of the prophet Malachi when he said "The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple and purify the sons of Levi" so dramatically fulfilled before my very eyes. One had just come to accept that the Temple was "there" and that one had to put up with all the shortcomings that had come to be take for granted.
Sorry, I really must break off there. Something really rather dreadful has happened. Judas has just come in to say that he was mugged outside the Temple and the bag with all our money in it was stolen. We call it The Bag, but in reality it's my old brown leather fishing pouch with the drawstrings at the top. Judas always wears it round his neck for security reasons, and they must have grabbed it pretty hard in order to break the drawstrings I would have thought.
Judas told us that he chased the thieves though two streets but then lost track of them. That's pretty serious for us, so Jesus is sending us out to all our friends and acquaintances in Jerusalem to ask if we can borrow some cash from them to be repaid when the festival is over. I'm going to see Mary the mother of John Mark because she is always very hospitable and although she is a widow she will almost certainly help us if she can. So no more letter just for the moment....
Friday, 13th April
It's all over. Jesus is dead. He was arrested last night in the Garden of Gethsemane, tried, condemned and flogged and then nailed to a wooden cross on Calvary Hill just outside the city gate together with two common thieves and left to die until exhaustion and exposure to the mid-day sun brought a merciful death to the person whom I believed to have God's answers to all life's unanswered questions.
But he, or I or all of us rather, must have been wrong. You must forgive me if this letter seems disjointed. My mind is in a state of total confusion. When one's believed as wholeheartedly as we did in the importance and rightness of what Jesus was saying and doing, to say nothing of the effect that he was having on us, the events of the last two days have left me feeling like I did when I slipped on the deck of our boat and hit my head against the mast, knocking myself out. When I came to, my mind was buzzing with questions like "where am I?", "what has happened?", "am I dreaming?", "is it all true?"
Jesus often talked to us about the need for men to be "reborn of water and the spirit" and the last three years have felt exactly like that somehow we'd started to live a new life, but in him if you can understand what I mean. Now he's dead and gone it feels as though that whole part of my life has suddenly been torn away from me and that (literally) "there's nothing left worth living for"
Of course I know that you and mum always had your doubts about Jesus, and our involvement with him. Well, in a sense it looks as though you've been proved right, and I suppose Jim and I are going to be like that boy in the wonderful story that Jesus once told who left home, made a thoroughgoing mess of his life, and find ourselves coming back to Galilee and saying to you "Sorry Dad, we got it all wrong. We know how difficult we made it for you going off like we did, but will you take us back into the family business, even if only as hired servants?". Of course I know you'll have us back, not just as servants but as sons and that was the whole point of Jesus' story. The boy got so much more than he deserved from his father. "While he was still a long way off his father ran to greet him," Jesus said "and took him back, not as a servant at all but as his long-lost son". You and mum, I know, are those kind of parents too.
But saying that leads me onto a most important matter. As Jesus was dying on the cross there were standing at the foot of the cross alongside him his mother Mary and myself. Almost his last words were "Mother, there's your son"; and to me he said "John, let her be your mother", and both Mary and I realised that he wanted me to look after her from now on. What a wonderful privilege and a responsibility! When I think of what that poor woman must have suffered I am amazed at how composed she is. As I write this letter she is busy tidying the Upper Room where we had our last meal with Jesus on Thursday night and which nobody had touched since. She has been telling me how when Jesus was a baby an old man called Simeon told her that "a sword would pierce through her heart because of her child who was set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel".
At the time, she says, she didn't understand at all what the meant, but now she can see that the first half of the saying (about the sword piercing her heart) has been fulfilled. The second half (about "rising again") still puzzles and troubles her as to what he meant.
I told her that Jesus himself used to talk to us about "rising from the dead", but that we were equally confused: some of us thought he was talking about what would happen at the end of the world when, as the Pharisees like Rabbi Gamaliel tell us, we shall have to stand before God and be judged by him; others of us thought that he must have been speaking in figurative terms about "dying to our sinful selves in baptism, and being reborn" which was the way John the Baptist described it; but whatever it was Jesus meant, it all seems a bit irrelevant now that Jesus himself is dead.
Sometimes Mary breaks down and cries and I put down this letter and comfort her; at other times I find myself bursting into tears and then she leaves her tidying-up and comes over and comforts me. If the ink on this parchment is smudged it's probably the result of our tears dropping on it!
If only to clarify my own mind I would like to try and write down here what actually has happened since Thursday night in some kind of order. Of course there are many things which Jesus has said and done which I shall have to leave out. One day, perhaps I'll try and put them all into a book, though even the whole world would not be big enough to contain all the books which should be written about Jesus. So here are just some of the things which took place insofar as I can remember them.
Yesterday that's Thursday night as we were sitting at supper in the Upper Room in the house of John Mark's mother (the very place where I am sitting now) Jesus took some bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to us, saying "Eat this, it is my body"; and after supper he did much the same thing with a goblet of wine, saying "This is my blood", adding as we passed it round to each other, "Go on doing this in the same way". It all sounded very very strange.
However, that wasn't the only strange thing that happened in the Upper Room. After that business with the bread and wine Jesus told us once again that he was about to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies and that it would be one of us who betrayed him.
Needless to say this caused great consternation around the table. Each of us, myself included I am ashamed to say, (in the light of what happened afterwards, as I will tell you) professed his undying loyalty to him; worse still, at our end of the table an argument broke out between Peter and everyone else as to who would be in charge of seeing that Jesus was given proper protection if it did come to a fight. Philip said it ought to be Andrew because he was the largest; Matthew said it should be Judas because he was a natural leader. Peter thought it ought to be himself because of what Jesus had said to him once about "strengthening his brethren" and made a personal appeal to Jesus himself.
Instead of replying to his appeal Jesus, who was obviously deeply upset by this time, got up from the table, took off his coat, put a towel round his waist and started to wash our feet, just as if he were the most junior slave in the household. Peter was dreadfully embarrassed and tried to prevent Jesus from washing his feet. But Jesus insisted. Then, when he had finished the washing, Jesus put on his coat again and sat down, saying that we ought to "go on doing this to each other". I think I understood that sign better than the bread-and-wine one. You remember how I said in one of my earlier letters that Jesus behaved like both servant and master rolled into one? Well, I think I've learnt one thing from him anyway, namely that such a thing is possible; and not just possible but essential if one is to have real authority over other people. The Good Master (which Jesus undoubtedly was, whatever else he wasn't) is the one who has learnt to be a servant. The prophet Isaiah (whom Jesus used often to quote) absolutely hit the nail on the head when he spoke of God's Suffering Servant "justifying many by his knowledge". I had never thought of that passage as referring to someone like Jesus until I stood at the foot of his cross this afternoon when it suddenly hit me like a bolt from the blue.
After supper was over we sang a Passover hymn and went off towards the Mount of Olives with Jesus leading the way. There were only eleven of us by this time as Jesus had sent Judas off on some personal errand, saying as he left " please be quick about it won't you, we shall be waiting for you in the Garden of Gethsemane.
On the way to the Garden Jesus stopped in front of a great vine growing by the wayside. Jesus compared our relationship with him to the vine. "I am the vine, you are the branches" were his exact words. "Without me you can do nothing" Little did we realise how horribly soon that was going to become apparent.
As we walked, some of us discussed what had happened at the supper and what that business with the bread and wine could possible mean. As we went through the gate into the Garden of Gethsemane, Jim and I agreed that it sounded like some sort of commandment or instruction. I remember that it was exactly there that we had that particular conversation, because it's the last thing that I can remember clearly. Jim and I agreed that, when we next got the chance, we would ask Jesus exactly what he had meant by it. Now that Jesus is dead I suppose we'll never know. Of course I suppose we we could take his words literally and go through those actions again even though he's no longer alive, but it would all seems a bit pointless now.
It was about eleven o'clock when we reached the Garden. We sat down in small groups and chatted about the day's events. Then at about midnight Jesus called Peter, Jim and myself to come some distance away from the others to pray for him, because, he said, he sensed that danger was near at hand.
Of course we went with him gladly. But what happened after that seems like a nightmare. Instead of keeping a sharp lookout the three of us all dropped off to sleep! The next thing I knew was that the Garden was full of armed soldiers. There was a bit of a scuffle in which Peter wounded someone with his sword, I think. Next minute Jim caught hold of my arm and pulled me away shouting "Come on, let's get out of here!", and I found myself running with him out of the Garden and down the street.
Of course the moment we stopped for breath and looked back we realised that we'd both made the most dreadful mistake when we saw that Jesus, instead of running away, had allowed himself to be arrested and was being led away by the police.
Please don't think I'm blaming Jim for what happened. He was concerned for my safety as his brother, and for that I'm duly grateful. Probably I would have done the same in his position. But the fact of the matter is that at the moment of crisis, Jesus had been abandoned by all his closest friends when only an hour before we had assured him that we would follow him to the death if need be.
Jim and I had a quick discussion at the end of the street. We agreed that he should go and look for the other apostles who had run off and persuade them to go back to the Upper Room in John Mark's mother's house where we had had supper earlier in the evening, whilst I should try and find out where the arrest party had taken Jesus to. James said that he thought her recognized Malchus, the High Priest's doorkeeper among them, so that was a useful clue; he also said, though I find this hard to believe even now, that he was almost sure that one of our number, Judas from Kerioth, was the person actually leading the arrest party to Gethsemane.
Well, I set off towards the High Priest's house, and at the corner of the street on which it stands I found Simon Peter who had followed them back from the Garden. He was leaning up against the wall, looking quite distraught. He told me that they had taken Jesus inside by the main entrance. He was full of self blame. "Why did I run away?" he kept on asking. "Well, at least you were brave enough to follow them all the way back here," I said; "and besides," I added "didn't I see you putting up a fight in the Garden, which is more than I did"
"Yes," said Peter "but I got it wrong as usual. That wasn't what Jesus wanted at all and he told me in no uncertain terms to put away my sword. If I'd stayed a minute longer I think he'd have told me what he did want me to do, but at that instant I saw them closing in to arrest me. So I took to my heels and now I may never know what he wanted. They're taken him into the High Priest' House".
The moment he said that I was struck by an idea. I realised that we were standing right outside the tradesman's entrance of the High Priest's house where we make our deliveries of dried fish. I knocked loudly at the door and, as I had hoped, it was answered by Rebecca the chief maid, whose job is to check and sign for deliveries including ours.
Rebecca recognized me immediately. I told her that Peter and I had seen Jesus arrested and I asked if we might come in to the courtyard to see what was happening. I didn't let on that either of us was a follower of Jesus because I thought she might say No.
Rebecca hesitated a moment and then said "Well, I suppose it won't do any harm. But no monkey-business please. We've had enough trouble caused in this household already by one of that Jesus-man's followers, Judas Is-what's-his-name Cari-... Cari. . . something. 'Judas Carry-on' he ought to be called if you ask me", she sniggered. "Well, a fat lot of good all that high falutin' moral talk of his about Jesus and righteousness seems to have done him I must say. Ask Rhoda the kitchen maid!"
I hadn't a clue as to what she was talking about, but it didn't seem the right time to ask questions, so I beckoned to Peter (who had been hiding in the shadow outside) and he came through the door. As the sconce-light fell full on his face, Rebecca stopped him and said "Hey, I suppose you aren't by any chance followers of Jesus the Whatsit are you?". "Oh no, certainly not", I heard Peter say, adding nonchalantly "We've just come to see what's going on."
I was several yards down the corridor by this time, and I was in half a mind to go back and make a clean breast of it with Rebecca and explain just exactly that we were indeed disciples of Jesus. But then I though she might change her mind about letting us in, so in the end I said nothing.
Peter and I got into the courtyard and from the colonnade we could see Caiaphas sitting at a table, a lighted candlestick in front of him with the light shining up in the face of Jesus who stood before him. He was pointing a finger accusingly at Jesus and talking a great deal, very fast and angrily. Jesus by contrast hardly said a word.
It was difficult to hear anything that was being said because the crowd, which included the group that had arrested Jesus, were all talking at the same time, and the courtyard was alive with chickens and ducks underfoot. I remember Rebecca once telling me that the High Priest was particularly partial to kedgeree and likes his eggs to be fresh.
But my attention was drawn away from the actual trial by something which happened to Peter. Two or three of the arrest party had made a small fire, and Peter was warming himself alongside. One of them looked up and said to Peter "Weren't you with the prisoner in the Garden of Gethsemane earlier this evening?"
"Certainly not!" said Peter "I've never set eyes on him".
And before I could intervene another said "Oh yes you were! It was you who wounded my brother. I'm going to get him to identify you". And he pushed through the crowd calling out "Hi! Malchus! Come over her a minute"
Then Peter completely lost his head. He shouted across the courtyard."Look, I swear to God I've never had anything to do with this damned Jesus fellow!" And that was the precise moment when by coincidence everyone had stopped talking at once which sometimes happens in crowds.
Peter's words rang out, and it seemed as if they echoed across the whole of Jerusalem. There was a moment's deathly hush and then suddenly a cock started crowing in the courtyard, and this seemed to be taken up by dozens of others through the city of Jerusalem like the signal for the dawn which was even then breaking. And then I saw Jesus turn his head very slowly away from the High Priest and look straight in the direction of where Peter was standing.
I heard Peter gasp "Oh my God!", saw him cover his face and dash down the corridor towards the back door. Then I too remembered the words which Jesus had said only that evening in the Upper Room: "Peter", he said "before the cock crows you will three times deny ever having known me"
Everyone suddenly started talking again at the tops of their voices, but Caiaphas banged the table angrily with his gavel and called for silence in court, saying that unless people kept quiet he'd have them all turned out. That served to distract the men who were in favour of going after Peter so he managed to make his getaway.
Well, the upshot of this so-called trial was that Jesus was found guilty and taken to the Governor to have sentence of death passed on him. I don't suppose we shall ever know what happened in Pilate's palace, though if I ever do find out I will write it down. Whatever it was, Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion on Skull Hill after about two hours in front of Pilate. What that says about "Roman Justice" I don't know, but that was what happened. All that I could do was to stand and wait outside the Residence. Then at about 10 in the morning the execution procession emerged and slowly wended its way through the city towards Calvary Hill.
I joined the crowd which by now numbered several hundred. There was no sign of any of the other apostles. But I did see Jesus' mother Mary and Mary of Magdala with two other women a little way off so I joined them. It scarcely seemed a proper place for women to be at an execution, I mean by they were determined to go through with it.
So Jesus was nailed to the cross and his robe was made the prize of a dice game by the soldiers. I felt totally numb as I stood there. My mind was awhirl with all the things that we'd done wrong that evening, not least myself. I'd fallen asleep in the garden and then run away. So had the others. Peter had denied him three times. And if there is any truth in Jim's belief that Judas was at the head of the arrest party (which I still find it hard to believe, though what Rebecca said was deeply worrying) that is another nail so to speak in Jesus' sufferings.
So as a bunch of followers we all failed him. And yet, as I stood there by the cross I somehow couldn't get away from the conviction that although it was our sins which caused him to be there in the first place, somehow the fact that he was totally innocent of the crimes for which he was being put to death meant that he was, so to speak shouldering the burden for us.
I can't really explain what I mean, but the fact that his very last exclamation before he expired was "It is completed" bears this out. More than once I have heard him say that he had come to "complete" or "fulfil" his Father's will. One of this favourite sayings from the Psalms which he quoted over and over again was "Burnt offering and sacrifice you did not require: then I said: Lo I come to do your will O God". In some way it seems that he could see that by perfectly fulfilling God's will (even if it meant such a death as he died) he was achieving what burnt offerings could never do. Which, I suppose, is what people like Isaiah the prophet have been saying all along.
Well, I must end my letter there. Mary has fallen asleep and sheer fatigue is making me unable to think straight, to say nothing of the ordeal we have both been through. Mary and I are still alone in the Upper Room. No sign of James or any of the others. I must try and get some sleep because it will soon be the Sabbath and time to light the holy lamp. The next day I must go out and try and find work of some sort. One can't live on air in this world, though I must say that the thought of living at all after what has happened seems a bit pointless. Perhaps I'll come home to you in Galilee and we can talk about what to do next.
Your ever loving son
P.S. Since writing this, Jim has returned, bringing Thomas, Andrew and a deeply sorrowful Peter who sits in the corner crying uncontrollably. Shortly afterwards, Matthew came in to say that Judas Iscariot had been found dead, hanging from the Temple railings. Apparently he'd killed himself. There really seems to be no end to our troubles. If only the poor fellow had gone to Jesus, even as he hung on the cross I'm sure he would have forgiven him, whatever wrong he may have done.
So it really looks as if he did have a hand in betraying Jesus after all, though that still doesn't explain Rebecca's mysterious remark about Judas and the kitchen maid Rhoda. But it only goes to show how weak all of us apostles really are. So far from sitting in judgement on Judas Iscariot, my instinctive reaction in the light of all that I did and failed to do last night, is to say, "There but for the grace of God go I!"
This is the last of the letters written by St John, the Beloved Disciple, to his parents in Galilee. you will remember that in the course of the previous letter, John hinted that he was thinking of coming home to Galilee to return to the family fishing business, but also told his parents that Jesus had specifically asked him to look after his mother Mary.
This letter is really two letters. The first part was written in the Upper Room on what we would call Holy Saturday night. It was neither finished nor sent. For reasons which will become apparent it breaks off in the middle of a sentence.
John was in two minds about whether to keep this first letter or tear it up. Happily for us, he chose to keep it, so it eventually came to light many years later when they cleared up his belongings on the Island of Patmos to which he had been exiled.
The second, shorter, letter was written and sent to his parents two or three days after writing the first.
So here is the first part of what he wrote:
Saturday 14th April
Dear Mum and Dad,
This letter follows quickly on the heels of the one I wrote yesterday where I said that I might be coming home to you shortly.
The fact is that I've changed my mind, for the time being anyway, because certain things have happened to-day which I will try and explain as best I can, but which have left me in no doubt that Jesus, had he still been alive today, would have wanted me to stay with the other ten apostles in Jerusalem.
Incidentally, we're all back safely in the Upper Room, together with Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala and one or two other followers of Jesus.
Changing my mind started when we discovered what had gone wrong with Judas Iscariot why he had acted as guide to the arrest party at Gethsemane, why he killed himself, and above all what lay behind the snide remark of Rebecca, the High Priest's servant, about Judas and Rhoda the kitchen maid.
Judas, as I told you, came up to Jerusalem last September at Jesus's suggestion to find out what people were saying and thinking about him. Well, quite sensibly, he decided to follow my suggestion and go and chat-up the High Priest's household. You may remember how I said that he was someone who was past master at chatting up the women, and how useful that was to us during our mission in Galilee.
Well in next to no time he was on first-name terms with all the servants, and even pushed his luck by telling them a bit about Jesus and the gospel message.
But then things began to go wrong and it appears that he and Rhoda had been having some kind of romance on the side, and the long and short of it is that she is now carrying his child in her womb.
I don't know if it was a "one night stand" or a more long-lasting affair. Perhaps Judas was feeling lonely living by himself in Jerusalem. But whatever story lies behind it Rhoda's pregnancy must have been a deeply shameful secret for Judas, of all people, to be carrying around with him. Of all of us he was the most forthright in his preaching about the need for "absolute moral purity and sincerity" in people who seek to serve God. More than once I saw Jesus look at Judas in a curious way when he said things like that about moral purity as if he were saying "Yes, Judas, youre right in a way, but its not always as straightforward as that" as if he knew that Judas was walking on thin ice. Not that I'm suggesting that Judas himself was consciously insincere or hypocritical. In fact, I'm sure he wasn't. But his passionate conviction that sexual purity mattered more than anything else in life didn't somehow exactly square with what Jesus himself was saying.
But whatever happened, the news of Rhoda's pregnancy reached the ears of the High Priest, who sent for Judas and threatened to tell Jesus all about it. However, he did offer him one loophole to keep silence. If Judas would only lead them somewhere that they could find Jesus on his own with a view (as he smoothly put it) "persuading Jesus to help them with their enquiries" then not only would they keep silent about the Rhoda-business, but would see to it that he (Judas) had enough money to set himself up in secular employment. And as an earnest of this, they gave him an up-front payment of thirty silver pieces.
Then, just to add the final twist to the argument whilst Judas hesitated, Caiaphas pointed out that Judas could scarcely expect Jesus to take him back as a follower anyway, could he, in view of what had happened; "and besides", added Caiaphas, "in your better moments you probably wouldn't want him to, seeing youve let him down so badly".
Foolishly, Judas believed him and fell straight into the trap. Of course, a moment's thought would have told him that Caiaphas' offer of silence and confidentiality would be worthless the whole story of himself and Rhoda would be round the servants' hall and the city bazaars like wildfire soon anyway.
But Judas succumbed to the temptation and the consequent despair ended in tragedy: tragedy for Jesus, tragedy for us, but most of all for Judas himself.
As I thought about all this last night I began to be convinced that Jesus, had he been still alive, would have wanted me to "stand by" not only Mary his mother and Peter and Andrew, but people like Rhoda and Judas as well, to prevent them from despairing too.
And besides, I feel we have a responsibility towards Rhoda and her baby. After all Judas was one of us, and what Jesus said on Thursday night about the Vine and the Branches helped me to see that "bearing one another's burdens" is all part of fulfilling the new law that he gave us "Love one another as I have loved you" and his prayer almost the last one he prayed that "we should be one as he and the Father are one".
So I've had a word with John Mark's mother who owns the house we are in, and she has readily agreed to take Rhoda in on her staff so that she can have her baby here. I don't know, mind you, whether Rhoda will accept the offer, but I've written a note to her signing it simply from "A Friend of Judas" and suggesting that she should come to this address to pick up some of the deceased's belongings. I've persuaded Thaddeus (that's what we've been calling the other Judas to avoid confusion), who's the least well-known of us, to slip round to the High Priest's back door and slip a note for Rhoda underneath. Of course there's always the risk that the note will fall into the wrong hands and we shall have a raiding-party from the High Priest's house knocking at the door. But there's a pretty good lock on it and I would back John Mark's mother, who is something of a femme formidable to send them packing with their tails between their legs with a few well-chosen words delivered from the first-floor window.
I wonder if you can see the idea behind all this that's forming in my mind? I believe that, although Jesus is dead and buried, one good thing that might come out of it all is some kind of organisation dedicated to the welfare of those in trouble: people like Rhoda and Judas, to say nothing of Peter and Andrew and Bartholomew and the others whose whole way of life has been shattered by misfortune.
Jesus once told a wonderful story when a lawyer asked him "And who exactly is my neighbour?". about a Samaritan who helped a wounded Jew on Jericho Road, and thats the sort of idea I have in mind. The world needs to find some way of ministering to people who are in that sort of trouble regardless of whether they are Jew or Gentile, man or woman, good or bad. If it wasn't for the fact that "Samaritan" is such a dirty word amongst us Jews Id be inclined to call such and organisation "The Samaritans". Perhaps one day when hatreds have died down, someone else will be able to call it that. It would certainly be a fitting memorial to so much of what Jesus taught.
My conviction that we should "stick together" was curiously reinforced later in the evening when we discussed what form our corporate religious devotions should take from now onwards.
It's curious, isn't it, how difficult devout people find it to agree how they ought to go about worshipping God? As I said a moment or two back, one of Jesus' last prayers was that we should "all be one", and yet the moment we try to do anything without him we find ourselves unable to agree about anything. When Jesus was alive we never had any difficulty because he always seemed to know the right thing to do and say. The moment he's there no longer each of us find himself wanting the others to follow our own particular preference in the matter.
There were three schools of thought amongst us on this question of devotions. (leaving Thomas on one side for the moment because he, as usual, opined that whatever we might agree on would prove to be wrong in some way or another: he really is a born pessimist is our Tom!) Philip, Jude and Simon Zelotes thought we should do nothing "because Jesus wasn't there"; Matthew, Andrew, Bartholomew and James Alphaeus said they though Jesus would have wanted us to study the Bible together. The others just said that they'd be content to do what everyone else agreed which is a recipe for disaster, since people like that usually make it quite clear when it comes to actually doing what has been agreed by the rest that if anyone is content then it's not themselves.
I was suddenly struck by the idea that, since Jesus had taken bread and wine at the last supper we had with him and said to us "Go on doing this" we might incorporate that in our service. Peter and James agreed with me, though frankly I think Peter would have agreed to anything. He's a completely broken man, and has never forgiven himself for what he did to Jesus on Thursday night. Yet Peter was the one we believed Jesus intended to become our leader!
In the end we hit on a compromise which was acceptable to everyone. Four of us would read passages from the Bible. Then I, as his closest friend, would represent, as nearly as possible, what he did and said in the Upper Room with the bread and wine on Thursday evening. Finally, because the women were anxious to go and see what sort of a mess Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus had made of the burial procedure, it was agreed that they should go off the to tomb as a group without us, because we are all to some extent "marked men" in the eyes of the law.
So we started our service. People's choice of bible-readings was very interesting, you might almost say inspired. Matthew chose the story of Creation (from Genesis) and the fact that God's "got the whole world in his hands" and that the world was created "good".
Bartholomew read to us how Abraham was asked by God to offer up his only son Isaac on the Mount Moriah (which many people say is near, if not actually identical with, the hill of Calvary) and this seemed to foreshadow the events of yesterday, except of course that in the case of Isaac the events had a happy ending and yesterday's didn't. Thomas read the story of the crossing of the Red Sea under Moses, and God's miraculous salvation of his people from slavery in Egypt. I found that lesson particularly poignant since it was just such a deliverance that we thought Jesus was going to usher in a new age of freedom from sin and oppression. It made the "triumph" of Moses and (if I may so put it) the "failure" of Jesus stand in the sharpest contrast to each other.
But the final reading, chosen by Andrew, of Ezekiel's vision of the Valley of Dry Bones really seemed to hit me personally like a blow between the eyes for it sounded like the absolute answer to all the sad thoughts the readings had raise in my mind.
The bones were dry, very dry. "Son of Man, can these bones live?" "Lord, thou knowest." There was a rattling ... bone came together with bone ... the flesh covered them ... and the breath came into them ... and they stood up an exceeding great army ... Thus says the Lord God "Behold my people I will open your graves ... and I shall put my spirit within you ... and ye shall live"
As I listened to the reading I became aware that something uncanny was going on. For one thing, Peter had stopped crying and was looking more like his normal self.
Then in the distance there was a sudden roaring sound like a distant clap of thunder (though the sky was clear and the paschal full moon was shining through the lattice onto the table which we had laid as it was at the last supper). It was a noise like something cross between a landslide, a thunderclap and a gust of wind catching a boat's mainsail. The others heard it too.
But it was during the time that we broke the bread and shared the cup that the most extraordinary thing happened. For I, who was so to speak "standing-in for Jesus" became absolutely convinced as I took the bread and broke it and said the words that he did, that Jesus himself was actually standing behind me!
I know this must sound silly because of course he couldn't have been, being dead and buried in a tomb half a mile away. But the curious thing is that others, particularly Peter seem to have been struck by the same thought.
But what really convinced me that something most extraordinary has in fact taken place is that Peter has suddenly recovered to being his normal self and has once again regained those powers of leadership which we had all come to take for granted.
After we had finished our devotion the women then went off to the tomb, and before sitting down to write this letter to you I had a long talk with Peter about it. It was about one o'clock in the morning when he and I started chatting.
Peter said to me, "You know, John, the most extraordinary things have happened. First of all there was that noise we all heard. Then when I heard you say those words of Jesus "this is my body" I looked up at you and I was absolutely convinced ...."
[Here the first letter breaks off abruptly as if the writer had been interrupted in mid-sentence. The second letter follows below. Evidently it was written a day or two later].
Tuesday 17th April
Dear Mum and Dad,
I know you're not going to believe this, but Jesus our Master and Lord is ALIVE!!! He has risen from the dead in a body which looks very much like the one we saw on Friday. It still bears the print of the nails and the wound of the spear. But it is a body with a difference. the only word I can think of is a "glorious" or "glorified" body, but they are pitifully inadequate to describe that it's really like.
No, your son John hasn't gone off his rocker! All of us and his Mother Mary and the women who followed him have seen him (except for Thomas, that is, but I've no doubt he'll see him in due course). We have talked with him, eaten with him, listened to him. So if I've gone bonkers I'm in very good company.
I've told you already how on Saturday night we decided to hold a memorial service for Jesus. We all heard a distant noise like thunder or a landslide but thought no more about it. Then, as we were in the middle of a kind of communal meal which he had told us to "go on doing", several of us became convinced that something mysterious and supernatural was happening. Jesus seemed to "be there". I can't put it more clearly than that.
After the service was over stayed in the Upper Room whilst the women went off to the tomb as planned to see what kind of a job Nicodemus and Joseph had made of burying Jesus. I didn't go with them, partly because I reckoned they would probably rather be left to their own, the way women do when they've got a job like that on their hands, but even more because I wanted the chance to have a heart-to-heart talk with Peter on my own.
We sat together and had a long talk about the mysterious, uncanny feeling that we had both had as we broke bread and shared the cup. Peter even went so far as to say that he "felt a different man" as a result of doing what Jesus had told us to do "in remembrance of him". He felt that in a way Jesus had personally come and forgiven him his disloyalty on Thursday night.
Certainly Peter seemed quite a different fellow from the shattered wreck who spent the whole of Friday night and Saturday sobbing uncontrollably in the corner of the room.
Then I sat down to write a letter to you saying I'd changed my mind about coming home, at any rate for the time being.
I was well into that first letter (which I shall probably tear up because it all seems irrelevant now), when there came a furious banging at the door. It was about 3 o'clock in the morning and the women had returned in a state of great agitation to say that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb. "They've taken it away", blurted out Mary Magdalene, "and we don't know where they have put him!"
Well, Peter and I ran straight to the sepulchre. I ran faster than Peter and found that the great stone had been rolled away. I peeped in, and saw that the linen cloths were on the slab where the body of Jesus had been ... but there was no body inside them!
I was afraid to go into the tomb by myself, but thank goodness Peter came puffing up having run so fast. It's a proof of what I said earlier about his having recovered his leadership qualities that he went straight into the tomb without hesitation whilst I still was dithering about outside.
Peter saw the cloths; and he saw what I hadn't seen the napkin that had been wrapped around Jesus head lying, not with the graveclothes, but in a place by itself.
Peter's boldness in going into the tomb encouraged me to go in as well. And whilst Peter stood and stared, obviously unable to make head or tail of it, I suddenly tumbled to what had taken place.
"Peter", I cried "don't you see what's happened? He's passed clean through the graveclothes like water through a sieve, and that means he's alive and around somewhere.
Well, we searched the garden and the nearby streets, but found nothing. So we went back to the Upper Room and told the others.
Mary of Magdala insisted on going back to the tomb to see for herself. She came back about an hour later saying that she had actually seen and talked to Jesus himself (though not actually touched him because he told her not to do so).
Jesus had ordered Mary to go back to the Upper Room and tell us to wait for him. So we waited. and sure enough, that evening, through the locked and bolted doors of the Upper Room, in walked Jesus himself! Clearly his risen body is not bothered by little things like locked doors or even great big stones at the mouth of the sepulchre.
But of this there is no doubt. Jesus is alive. The Christ has risen. He has, as I said, eaten, drunk, talked with and listened to us. There is only one word for it ... the word the Rabbis taught in Synagogue to say in thanks to God when something really good had happened: "Alleluia, Praise the Lord".
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
From your loving and quite-beside-himself son
P.S. My system of slipping these letters to you into the empty dried fish boxes waiting to be returned to you outside the High Priest's back door has worked well in the past, but I simply daren't risk trying it any longer. However, as I was trying to work out how I was going to get this letter to you, the answer walked in at the door in the person of Rhoda.
What happened is this. Rhoda's brother, Ephraim, is a cleaner in the Temple. He's been following most of what has been going on there, and in the course of sweeping up found under a chair one of the silver pieces which Judas threw back at the High Priest before doing himself in. It's unlike the Sanhedrin to be so careless in matters involving money, but I dare say they had other things on their mind at the time I guess they'll have a whole lot more to worry about before the day's out!
So Ephraim picked the silver piece up and took it round to Rhoda on his way home after work, reckoning that if it should go to anyone she had the strongest claim.
Well, it seems that Rhoda got the note safely which Thaddeus had pushed under the door on Saturday evening, and immediately decided to take up my suggestion. So on Tuesday evening which was the first opportunity she had of slipping away unnoticed from the High Priest's house whilst everyone else was recovering from the Passover festivities, she packed up her few belongings, slipped out of the back door and made her way along here.
Imagine my surprise when the first thing she did was to hand over the leather Bag which Judas claimed had been stolen from him in the street. The drawstrings were intact so it would seem that Judas's story of having been robbed was just another fib which he had been obliged to tell in order to explain how he had come to have lost it. That's the trouble with untruths: once you start telling them you always have to go on doing so until you start believing them yourself.
The truth was that he had given the Bag and its contents to Rhoda. Thomas, always the sceptic, believes that Judas was simply trying to buy her silence, just as he imagined (wrongly, of course) that he'd succeeded in buying that of the High Priest and his colleagues.
I'm inclined, perhaps wrongly, to take the more charitable view that Judas realised the mess he'd got Rhoda into already, and wanted to try and make amends by providing for her and their baby as best he could. After all, I knew Judas quite well and I'd like to think better of him than some of the others here do. In fact it's one of the questions I want to ask Jesus about if I get the opportunity how he now sees the whole problem raised by Judas's treachery and suicide. There's no sense in trying to be more judgemental about it than the person who was the principal victim of it, is there?
Well I looked into the Bag to see what was in it, and found not only the remains of our money but also that selfsame silver piece which Rhoda had been given by Ephraim, which she insisted that we accept from her in sheer gratitude for our taking her in.
So, with everyone's permission, I've been out and changed it and am using a small amount of it to send this letter to you by special messenger. We all agree that the sooner the good news of Jesus's resurrection gets to Galilee the better.
Of course in the near future we'll soon be strapped for cash (or "boracic" as the locals in Jerusalem call it) even though the silver piece means that at the moment we've got more in the bag than we've had for a very long time. But I'm not letting that fact worry me now. Since Jesus is risen, little things like money seem to matter to us so much less than they used to!
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© Francis Gardom, May 1999