I begin every course on gospels by stating, “Gospels aren’t biographies of Jesus.” No evangelist provides us with a life history of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were more interested in pointing out the implications of Jesus’ dying and rising for our own lives of dying and rising than they were concerned with giving us a day-by-day account of his activities. After the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued its 1964 paper On the Historicity of Gospels, stressing the three stages of gospel formation, educated Christians stopped producing books entitled The Life of Jesus.
Gospels should primarily be used for the purpose for which gospels were intended. The evangelists presumed those who would eventually read their works would always be “other Christs:” men and women committed to carrying on the ministry of Jesus. They wouldn’t be just information-seeking historians trying to tie this Galilean carpenter into the other religious movements of the early first century CE. Rather, readers would be people deeply concerned about everything this special person said and did. They were his imitators.
We see this imitation emphasized in today’s Acts passage. Notice how Luke depicts Peter carrying on Jesus’ healing ministry. “The people carried the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mattresses, so that when Peter passed by at least his shadow might fall on one or another of them . . . all of whom were cured.” What Jesus began, his disciples continue.
The author of Revelation employs an esoteric, apocalyptic genre to convey his message, yet he basically agrees with Luke about carrying on Jesus’ work. Most probably writing during a period of persecution, the author demonstrates that the risen Jesus remains one with his followers, even when outside pressures are wreaking havoc in the community. “There is nothing to fear,” the risen Jesus assures John’s beleaguered readers. “I am the First and the Last and the One who lives. Once I was dead but now I live - forever and ever.” In other words, if you, like I endure the pain and death being inflicted on you, you’ll also come to life.”
It’s important to remember that the evangelist John originally ended his gospel with the pericope which makes up today’s liturgical reading. (Next week we’ll hear most of the chapter which someone later attached to John’s work.) After the risen Jesus’ Easter night appearance to his disciples, our eyes are focused on Thomas and his doubting personality. But John simply uses Thomas as a tool to help us focus on ourselves.
Though the key words of Jesus in this passage are directed to Thomas, they’re actually meant for us and our ministry. Speaking to the now faith-filled disciple, Jesus proclaims, “You became a believer because you saw me. Blest are they who have not seen and have believed.”
After I inform my Scripture 10:1 students about the second stage of gospel formation - the 40 year interval between the historical Jesus and the first written gospel, during which Jesus was just preached - I point out the obvious: we today have nothing written by eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus. Everything we posses - including the gospels - was composed by people who had experienced just the risen Jesus. It’s the only Jesus they (and we) experience. That seems to be one of the reasons John originally ended his gospel with this statement. No present disciple of Jesus should feel inferior to those who had personal contact with the Jesus who walked the earth between 6 BCE and 30 CE. We all share the same faith in the risen Jesus, and it’s that faith which brings us the life of Jesus.
If we have yet to experience the risen Jesus in our lives, perhaps it’s because we’re not carrying on his ministry.