This week I am concluding a series of sermons on the Gospel of John coordinated with the church calendar. The last few weeks have concentrated on the Resurrection narratives in John 20-21. There is an intriguing sub-theme running through the appearances: the relationship between Peter and the Beloved Disciple, who I will name John (acknowledging the debate and mystery surrounding his identity). I'd like to share the data with you, reflect on its meaning, and suggest some implications.
- John is the first to reach the empty tomb and see the linen (20:5-6)
- Peter is the first to go inside the empty tomb (20:6)
- Peter is the first to see the burial cloth (20:7)
- John is the first to believe (20:8)
- Peter decides to go fishing (21:3)
- John & the others follow (21:3)
- John is the first to recognize Jesus (21:7)
- Peter swims ahead of John & the others (21:7)
- Peter is commissioned to feed/tend Jesus' sheep/lambs (21:15-18)
- John is identified as the true witness of Jesus (21:20-25)
What is the significance of this relationship?
First of all, at the textual level Peter is identified as the first in action among the disciples. He is the mover and shaker, while the others follow his lead. He is the symbolic leader of the apostles, the titular head of the church, and Jesus' appointed shepherd of the flock. We get the impression that the disciples (including John) would not do anything until Peter does it first.
John, on the other hand, is first in insight among the disciples. He sees and understands what is going on. He is the true witness, the recorder of facts and insights, the seer into the deep truths and mysteries of the story of Jesus. We get the impression that the disciples (including Peter) would not know anything until John knows it first.
Secondly, it is clear that the community surrounding the author/compiler of the Fourth Gospel is concerned about the relationship between Petrine and Johannine authority. The Gospel of John acknowledges the authority of Peter (and his successors in Rome?), while at the same time establishing the authority of John (and his successors in Ephesus?). The Evangelist is able to acknowledge both simultaneously by employing the above distinction between the authority of leadership and the authority of witness.
Thirdly, the relationship between Peter and John raises questions about how we understand authority in the church today. I suspect that we assume authority of leadership and authority of witness are usually found in the same person. We expect our leaders (organically and institutionally, locally and denominationally) both to lead us into action and to express insight into truth. While it is not impossible that both charisms may be found in one person, the final chapters of John should give us pause in our expectations.
Could it be that we have expected too much from our authorities? Could it be that our greatest frustrations emerge when we expect witness from a leader and leadership from a witness? Could it be that a differentiated authority structure is possible (organically and institutionally, locally and denominationally)? Could it be that some of us are called to one form authority and not the other, and we should learn to respect those called to the other? Could it be that we would fulfill our vocations more fully if we stayed within our particular given authority?
Do you buy the distinction between leadership-authority and witness-authority?
What would a differentiated authority structure based on this distinction look like?
What other implications might this distinction have?