There are four gospels in the bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Three are similar to each other: Matthew, Mark and Luke. One is very different: John.
Let us start with Matthew, Mark and Luke. These are called the synoptic gospels. Synoptic means similar. Why are they similar? Because all three share one of the gospels. All three use Mark as the foundation of their writings. Mark is the first of the gospels and was read not just in Mark’s own churches, but in Matthew and Luke’s churches. Matthew then added material from his own sources to form Matthew’s gospel. Luke added his own material and material he shared with Matthew to form Luke’s gospel. We can therefore see that Matthew, Mark and Luke are similar but not the same; there are differences between the three.
A radical difference
John’s gospel is completely different to the synoptic gospels. The only pieces of narrative that John shares is that of the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection coming at the end of the gospel. Apart from that, and even within the passion and resurrection of Jesus, there are radical differences. I mean radical; nothing is the same.
So, what do we make of the use of John’s gospel for the gospel reading on the feast of the Holy Cross? Let us start again with the synoptic gospels. In the synoptic, in Mark and Matthew the heart of the passion of Christ is Jesus declaiming from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ This is the cry of anguish from a human being under unbearable pain and suffering. This reflects what we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke: Jesus is the truly man figure. And like all people, under unbearable pain and suffering he cries out in his torment. There is no disguising Jesus’ pain and suffering and the gospel writers in their own ways know that this is the heart of the gospel, that Jesus, the love of God, dies out of love for the world.
Now let us turn to John. In our reading from John’s gospel, the gospel-writer says that ‘just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’. Two themes are present: lifting up and belief.
First of all, lifting up. This is directly related to the story in Numbers where a bronze snake set on a pole saved the Israelites from being bitten by poisonous snakes. Moses saved the people by lifting up a bronze snake. So the Son of Man must be lifted up. This is an enthronement. Indeed, John’s passion story is also the story of the enthronement of Jesus. Jesus is a king: lifted up, enthroned. The sculpture above the main altar is a Johannine Jesus. Jesus, clothed in a loin cloth is Jesus alive, resurrected showing his wounds but not being dead. If Jesus was dead, then we would have the synoptic Jesus.
Understand, trust and believe
Belief is one of the crucial themes in John. John is the latest of the gospels, being written between AD90 and 100. This means that all the eyewitnesses to Jesus are dead. John is concerned that people should be able to believe and receive eternal life through that belief. Hence in the story of Thomas, blessed are those who have not seen yet believe. In tonight’s gospel-reading the people should see Christ lifted up, like the bronze snake, and they should believe and have eternal life.
Why are there four gospels that are so different and so similar in the case of three? Historically, this is because of cultural areas that differed and shared documents. But in terms of grace and providence, we have events that are so profound we need to be able to look at them with single lights making a blaze of light that we might understand, and trust, and believe.