A ‘fictitious letter’ written by the ‘Beloved Disciple’, using imagination to lead us through the real events of Holy Week, and inviting each of us to the place of the Beloved Disciple, be with Jesus at the cross, at his resurrection and as we celebrate his supper to this day.
Written by Fr Tom in Lent 2008: 2,500 words
The Beloved Disciple
The fourth gospel, which we call the Gospel of Saint John, is the subject of much debate as to who wrote it. The Beloved Disciple, who at the end of the gospel says he is the author and that he has written these things ‘so that you and I can share in the mystery of Christ’, for various reasons is almost certainly not John the Apostle. The last half of the gospel at least, is told entirely in Jerusalem during the feast days and has all the signs of an inhabitant of Jerusalem rather than a visitor from Galilee. The title the Beloved Disciple, is used three times in the gospel and there are good reasons why this is not John of the Peter, John and James, apostles. One thing for instance is that when you think of what nearly happened to Peter because he was recognised as a follower with a northern accent, the chances that any male disciple of Jesus would have been allowed at the crucifixion is extremely remote: women yes, (women get everywhere), but men are rather restricted.
I am now going to read to you a fictitious letter from the Beloved Disciple to a friend towards the end of the first century. We are assuming that the Beloved Disciple was the teenage son of the family where Jesus had the Last Supper and then later on was very close to John the Apostle and to Mary the mother of Jesus. In fact in Ephesus in the next century there were two tombs, two apostles that people revered, and both are marked John and the suggestion is that that young man somehow worked with John the Apostle to write what we have as the fourth gospel. Probably in a number of different drafts and perhaps the earlier part in Galilee comes more from John the Apostle and the last part in Jerusalem comes more from Johnny boy.
My dear friend,
You have asked me to write some of the details of Jesus’ last week as I remember them. Of course, they are imprinted in my memory so clearly. I know you are familiar with what has already been recorded in the other accounts.
Well my parent’s house was in the close-packed area of Jerusalem down south-west of the Temple. They had met Jesus when he had come up for the feast days and they offered him a safe house if ever he needed it.
Well six months before the end, he had sent his disciples on from Galilee ahead of him with the main pilgrimage from Galilee. They came up for the feast of Tabernacles. He had then made his own way, quietly, and came to us in secret. Everyone was surprised when he then appeared in the Temple. That was when I really got to know him, but he insisted that even his closest friends should not know where our house was. And then later the feast of Dedication, another major conflict with the authorities, so that if he came again for the feast of Passover, they would be forced to take action.
Well three months later everyone in the city knew that he was in fact making his way up for the feast, he and a growing number of disciples as well as the twelve and some of his relatives, his mother and the women who had accompanied him. Most of the pilgrims came into the city or camped in the nearby hills as was normal, but he held back, he held back for a number of days. He went to Bethany, as you know, and restored Lazarus from the tomb and then, because many of us from the city went out to Bethany to see for ourselves, he withdrew to Ephraim, ten miles to the north. On the way he left a message with a friend to have a donkey ready when the time was right for his entry into the city. He was waiting, you see, until more pilgrims had come and was careful to keep his distance. But all of us in the city wondered if he would come at all. It was bound to be the finale.
You know the glory and the pathos of his strange entry when at last he decided the hour was right, and how, for the next two days, he was active in the Temple, withdrawing across to the Mount of Olives at night. Although thousands were moved by what he did and taught and deeply moved by his own person which seemed so intimate with God, yet many were disillusioned by his failure to take command of the situation as the Messiah was surely expected to. And the twelve too, his closest friends, they too were bewildered. Jesus had spoken so often to them about the coming of a new order which would restore the nation, but all he seemed to be doing was to provoke the powers that be.
And then on the fourth day Judas went to the authorities. Why did he go? Well perhaps we’ll never know. Was he bitter? Was he impatient? Did he think that if Jesus was arrested he would have to declare himself? Now Jesus knew that Judas had gone, knew that the time was short and decided to hold the supper a day earlier than normal. He asked me to go and ask my parents if they could have the supper at our house and he and I arranged that the next morning I would be at a certain spot inside the city gate, carrying a water jar, and so, as you know, it all worked out.
Peter and John followed me early the next morning and we prepared for supper in the evening. When they all gathered for the supper it was a great surprise to me that he invited me, not only to join them, but to recline next to him on his right where Peter surely should have been. Perhaps he was teasing them a bit, teasing them out of those questions they had been asking about who should be on their left and right, who should have superiority and so on, as he was teasing them too when he washed their feet.
What followed at the supper we have fully recorded and Judas slipped out with only Peter and I knowing where he had gone to. We finished the meal, sang the psalms and Jesus left with the others for Gethsemane. I went to bed only to be woken some time later by my parents in a frenzy. Judas had returned with the arrest party of Roman and Temple police. Gosh there must have been feverish activity to get that party together and to persuade Pilate to come out for an early morning hearing. Judas had triggered the whole affair when he realised during the supper how clandestine that supper was. It was ideal for arresting Jesus in secret. Then finding that Jesus and the others had in fact left our house, Judas had to think again fast. He knew where they must have gone so he led the arrest party out of the city, along the valley and up to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Meanwhile, I was told to run as fast as I could just as I was in my nightshirt, to warn Jesus and the others. But I was too late and I stood aghast as Jesus emerged from the garden after his ordeal. He took immediate command, ordered that his disciples be released telling them to go over to Bethany and keep clear. Well, Judas spotted me in the shadows but I managed to wriggle free when they made a grab for me. It was indeed a cold night to be left naked.
But after they had led Jesus away Peter found me. He lent me his cloak and together we followed at a distance. It was typical of him not to have gone with the others as bidden. He was I think, feeling rather sore that Jesus had said at the supper that he, Peter, would betray him.
Well we first went home, but Peter wanted to follow Jesus and as my family had many contacts in Jerusalem, I managed to get him into the High Priest’s house. You’ll know what then happened. It was only when I got Peter back after his denials of his Lord, got him back to our house, that he realised why Jesus wanted his immediate disciples off the scene. They were marked men and their northern accents made it worse.
Early the next morning I was out in the space in front of Pilate’s palace as were many of Jesus’ disciples and family. It was an awesome time as we felt the crowds being manipulated and then turned against him. The Jewish authorities had been keen that Pilate should take responsibility and Pilate tried to put it back on to them. We learned later from the centurion what had gone on between Jesus and Pilate in private.
Well you know the outcome and how Jesus was led off with the other two carrying the cross pieces and then how the women and Mary and I followed. If you have seen a crucifixion my friend you will have some idea of what those next three hours were like. I shall not say anymore except that for me the most poignant moment was when Jesus gave his mother to me and me to her.
The place where they crucified criminals, just outside the city was by the road where hundreds of pilgrims were passing, they were bringing their lambs to be slaughtered in the Temple and then back to their camps for the Passover supper that evening. You can guess some of their comments when they read what had been written above Jesus’ head.
Well after we had laid him in Joseph’s tomb and the women had done a temporary embalming, we all returned to our house and from that time Mary, his mother, became one of our family.
During the Sabbath, the day of Passover, we laid low trying to console each other especially Peter. And then early the next morning, as you know, the women went back to complete the burial but they returned quite soon with their amazing news, though we did not then know that he had actually appeared to Mary of Magdala who had stayed on at the tomb.
Peter was insistent that he and I go ourselves to see. We found the long burial shroud lying untouched and the head cloth on its own to one side. The implication was clear, the body had not been removed, he had risen from the dead though we did not yet know what that really meant. Well I hastened home to tell the others while Peter stayed on a while and it was while he made his bewildered way back that Jesus appeared to him also. We can only guess the intensity of that encounter.
Shortly afterwards the other apostles returned from Bethany, we locked the doors and only Thomas ventured out to get provisions. And then in due course Cleopas and his wife came, exhausted, and they recounted how they had recognised Jesus in his breaking bread at Emmaus. And then, while all this was being discussed, he himself appeared among us.
Let me add that many years later when John and I and Jesus’ mother moved to Ephesus we began recording not so much what happened during Jesus’ life, as what with hindsight and with experience it really meant. John was getting on in years and for him the Jesus whom he had known, the crucified and risen Lord who is with us still and the Christian community, his Body, had all somehow merged into one. And also the bitter attacks of the Jewish revivalists against Christians in these later years had merged with the memory of the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jesus’ time; they were all for John ‘the Jews’.
And one final point, my dear friend, you ask why I call myself the Beloved Disciple. Well in fact John and I agreed to remain anonymous throughout the story and I used the name Beloved Disciple just three times, at the supper, at the cross, and at the Easter tomb. It is to invite you, and every reader, to be at those three places as one who is loved by the Lord.
O beloved disciple, be with him at the cross, at his resurrection and as we celebrate his supper to this day.
I am your dear friend,