Year of John

A Year of John

A major Lectionary Mod for Year B is to substitute a Year of John for a Year of Mark.  Certainly, John gets significant attention in the RCL, as Gail Ramshaw noted, especially during festival seasons.  But, whereas the Synoptic Gospels receive extensive blocks of time for semicontinuous readings, John does not.  How is John read in the lectionary cycle?  The answer is mostly non-sequentially.  Each year, there is a semicontinuous series during the week of Holy Week and for Easter Sunday and the second Sunday of Easter.  During the summer of Year B, there is a 5 week series going through John 6.  Otherwise, there are only a few places where two weeks in a row move semicontinuously through a chapter or two of John. [1]

Does this matter?  Yes.  Each Gospel is unique, and worth hearing on its own; but the Gospel of John is the most unique of them all.  Whereas the Synoptics see Jesus with each other, Matthew and Luke likely basing their narratives on Mark, John sees Jesus through a very different lens.  It makes a difference for our understanding of Jesus that our semicontinuous journey through the life of Jesus every liturgical year—especially during the long months of the semester ecclesiae—is always a journey through one of the Synoptics.  There is growing appreciation for the Gospel of John as a unique, coherent narrative: as one example, the 2004 movie The Gospel of John includes every word of John from the Good News Translation; while Jesus’ monologues are long, the movie manages to convey a coherent story and a distinct view of Jesus from what one hears in the Synoptics.[2] One also experiences the narrative of John when one reads aloud or listens to the Gospel of John in one sitting, in keeping with the Gospel’s “heavily oral” nature.[3] John’s different perspective on Jesus’ life and ministry is not sufficiently brought to light in the lectionary, especially since one always experiences the Johannine texts in the context of a semicontinuous Year of Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  In contrast to the more linear nature of the Synoptics, John’s narrative is, in Clement of Alexandria’s famous phrase, a “spiritual” gospel the reading of which, as Gail O’Day writes, is like “climbing a spiral staircase”: John “seems to fold and turn back on itself in the unfolding of its story of Jesus.”[4] If anything, the spiraling nature of John makes hearing and preaching it semicontinuously even more essential, as one recalls what has come before and sets the stage for what comes next in the Gospel, with an ever growing awareness of the Johannine Jesus.  This spiral staircase nature of John is lost when one reads it sporadically.

In Rereading the Shepherd Discourse, for example, Karoline Lewis makes a convincing case for reading the Shepherd Discourse in John 9:39-10:21 in its context in John, directly following the story of the healing of the man born blind in John 9:1-38, as “the discourse in response to the sign of chapter 9,” paralleling the common pattern in John.[5] Lewis places the Shepherd Discourse in relation to what comes before it and what follows it in the Gospel narrative.  As Lewis noted in conversation,[6] however, the RCL divides John 9-10 as follows:

  • John 9:1-41, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A
  • John 10:1-10, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
  • John 10:11-18, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B
  • John 10:22-30, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

While the lectionary includes most of the two chapters, it spreads them throughout the three year cycle, and separates them from their context in the narrative of John.  Much of John is treated this way in the lectionary.  What can be done to change this?  Although Gail Ramshaw states that John “is not set up in such a way as to be divided into fifty or sixty individual lections,”[7] the Joint Liturgical Group of England, for example, divided the Gospel of John into 68 lections for their Four Year Lectionary.[8]

It is worth developing and testing an open source Lectionary Mod for a Year of John.  While one would not necessarily preach the Johannine text every week of a Year of John, the congregation would at least hear John as a connected narrative from week to week, and develop a sense for the distinct Johannine perspective on Jesus.  And, a preacher could more easily help the congregation ascend the steps of the spiral staircase story of John from week to week.  One imaginative possibility is to alternate Mark and John each lectionary cycle, so that, while two Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, would be read each three year cycle, Mark (the third Synoptic Gospel) and John would each be read every other cycle, or one year out of every six.  A benefit of this Mod would be that the rhythm of the three year cycle, shared with many churches around the world, would not be completely broken.  While theoretically a New Revised Common Lectionary with a Year D, a Year of John, might be preferable, for one congregation to unilaterally insert a fourth year into the three year cycle would take them completely out of sync with the rest of the church.  A Year of John as Year B2, however, would not break the three year cycle.

See Appendix J for a Lectionary Mod for a Year of John from Advent of 2011 through September of 2012, focusing on the Gospel texts.  As is evident from the Lectionary Mod, a Year of John is realistic and doable.  John readily divided into 50 preachable lections.  The plan moves through John 1 during Advent and John 2-6 during Christmas, Epiphany, and the beginning of Lent.  At the Third Sunday in Lent through Palm Sunday, the Gospel texts skip forward to pericopes from chapters 12-13 that prepare the way for Holy Week, with the texts for the Liturgy of the Passion and Good Friday covering Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion from John 18:1-19:42.  For this Lectionary Mod in 2011-2012, the Bread of Heaven texts from John 6 sandwich the last weeks of Lent and the first weeks of Easter.  The first few weeks of the Season of Easter take the congregation through John 20-21, and then for the rest of the Sundays from May through September, the Gospel Readings move semicontinuously through the rest of John, ending with two weeks on Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17.  In the same way that Mark needs to be supplemented in Year B, so will John.  During the nine Sundays of October and November of 2012 plus Thanksgiving, we have concluded Year B with a series on essential passages from Mark, ending the church year with several readings from Jesus’ apocalyptic farewell address in Mark 13.  This will be a good way to prepare for the Lectionary Mod of Advent in Year C, which focuses less on Jesus’ Second Coming and more on Jesus’ First Coming.  In fact, for the weeks the congregation hears the Mark 13 passages, it will be good to introduce some of the more eschatological Advent hymns.

A Year of John can be tested and improved locally without changing the whole RCL.  If, after trying a Year of John, one finds that it is not effective, one can go back to using Mark as the framework for Year B.  A Year B2 Lectionary Mod does not mean that one would necessarily preach on John every Sunday for the whole year, but simply that the Gospel readings for that year would mostly be from John.  As I work out the details of a Year of John, decisions will also have to be made about complementary and semicontinuous readings.  I plan to draw on the wisdom of the RCL and the 1990 Four Year Lectionary of the Joint Liturgical Group for readings, and keep in mind any essential texts from the traditional Year B.  I will also give attention to some of the missing texts in the RCL for semicontinuous possibilities of non-Gospel texts.  At the same time, for a Lectionary Mod it is only necessary to choose those texts one will actually read in worship, so if we will not read all four readings each Sunday (especially when some of the longer passages from John are read), one may need to choose only one or two extra texts per Sunday.  While some have doubted the viability of a Year of John, it is worth a try.

[1] For a detailed chart of The Gospel of John in the RCL, see appendix I.

[2] The Internet Movie Database, “The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John,” The Internet Movie Database, (accessed March 5, 2011).

[3] Joanna Dewey, quoted in Karoline M. Lewis, Rereading the Shepherd Discourse: Restoring the Integrity of John 9:39-10:21 (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 58.

[4] Both are quoted in Lewis, Rereading the Shepherd Discourse, 57.

[5] Ibid., 13.

[6] Class discussion, Luther Seminary, June 24, 2010.

[7] Ramshaw, A Three-Year Banquet, 19.

[8] Joint Liturgical Group, A Four Year Lectionary (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1990), 19-20.  While a helpful resource when looking for complementary scripture texts, the lack of narrative continuity between Sundays and the too short John pericopes limit the usefulness of this lectionary for this thesis.