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 The Horizons Bible study for 2000-2001 is

Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John

by Frances Taylor Gench

Suggestions for Leaders by Sara Covin Juegst

 

 

2000-2001 Horizons Bible Study Cover

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Author: Frances Taylor Gench

Author
Frances Taylor Gench

Contents

 

Introduction.............2

1 The Word Became Flesh:
The Incarnation of Jesus (1:1--18).............4

2 Cana and the Cross:
A Mother's Role (2:1--12 and 19:16--30).............10

3 Conversation at the Well:
Jesus and the Woman of Samaria (4:1--42).............16

4 Images of Life:
Word Pictures of Jesus (6; 8-9; 10; 15).............22

5 Between a Rock and a Hard Place:
A Woman Accused of Adultery (7:53--8:11).............28

6 The Gift of Life:
Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (11:1--53).............34

7 Anointing and Washing Feet:
Expressions of Love (12:1--8 and 13:1--20).............40

8 Farewell Conversations:
The Promise of the Spirit's Presence (14--17).............46

9 Mary Magdalene:
Witness to Jesus' Death and Resurrection
(18--19; 20:1--18).............52

About the Authors and Artist.............Inside Front Cover

Notes.............58

Books for Additional Reading and Study.............60

Future Horizons Bible Studies.............60

Field Testing.............60

Using the Horizons Bible Study.............61

Order Forms.............63

 

Introduction

From its earliest history, the church has treasured and safeguarded the fact that it has one Gospel in four editions--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--four very different portraits of Jesus to expand and enrich its reflection on his significance for Christian life, faith, and renewal. Three of those Gospels, for all their differences, are interrelated. Matthew, Mark, and Luke share certain similarities in outline, contents, order, and wording, and thus are called "synoptic" (which means that they "see together"). John, however, is in a class by itself. It has been aptly described as the maverick Gospel, for its perspective runs free of those found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Moving from the Synoptic Gospels into the Gospel of John, we enter a very different landscape. The scenery is not entirely unfamiliar, because all four Gospels narrate events related to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Still, the Gospel of John is remarkably different from the others in its ordering, selection, and interpretation of the events; and most notably in its portrayal of Jesus, who speaks and acts in a highly distinctive manner. We find that in John, for example, Jesus is exceedingly verbal. He does not habitually speak in brief sayings or parables, as in the other Gospels; nor does he have much to say about the Kingdom of God or the moral behavior expected of his followers. Instead, in unusually extended dialogues, and occasionally in monologues, he talks about himself. His divine identity is no secret, and he does not urge silence on those who discern it. He speaks openly and repeatedly about who he is and what his coming means for the life of the world. In fact, he speaks far more than he acts, and performs fewer wondrous works than in the other Gospels. For all of these reasons and more, when we enter the Gospel of John, we find ourselves in different surroundings--in a Gospel with a unique perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

As John's portrait of Jesus is unique, so also is its portrayal of women. The Gospel of John is remarkable for its intentional presentation of women as models of faith. They have central roles to play in John's story of Jesus' life and ministry, appearing at all the crucial places: they are present at both the inaugural and concluding events of Jesus' public ministry (John 2;19--20), and at pivotal moments in between (John 4;11--12). One of the most intriguing aspects of John is its utterly egalitarian view of the community of faith.

This Bible study will give special attention to the women who appear in the Gospel of John and Jesus' relationship to them. It will also provide an orientation to the Gospel of John as a whole by engaging readers with other scenes, images, and themes distinctive to John and central to a grasp of its message. There is room for all to engage this intriguing and beloved Gospel, whether one is new to Bible study or a seasoned veteran. Its language is simple and elegant, yet plumbs astonishing depths. John has been memorably, although anonymously, described as "a book in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim." Jump in!

Postscript: The Language of John

In recent years, many Christians have become increasingly sensitized to the ways in which the words that roll off our tongues can limit imagination and understanding of the divine presence in our lives. The scriptures use myriad images in referring to God, and it is clear when reading the Bible that God is above and beyond human gender. Yet many in their prayer and praise still speak of God in exclusively male terms, especially as "Father."

For those who are concerned about inclusive language, the Gospel of John presents a dilemma in that it refers to God as Father far more than any other New Testament document (more than 100 times). There is no easy solution, but it may help to understand the significance of this language. John's point is not that God is male, but rather that God is intimately related to us in Christ. As New Testament scholar Gail O'Day has pointed out, "Father language in John is essentially relational. . . . This language then is not the language of patriarchy, but is instead the language of intimacy, relationship, and family." It is used not to reinforce patterns of male domination, "but in order to evoke a new world in which intimate relations with God and one another are possible."4 For this reason, substituting God for Father is problematic, for it runs the risk of obscuring the relational and familial imagery that is central to John's understanding of what God has made available to us in Christ. Some may wish to substitute the word parent, others will not. My own decision has been to limit the use of father language in my own commentary on the text and retain it when quoting from the Bible. This is not an entirely satisfactory solution, but it attempts to respect diversity within a diverse church. Let us be patient with each other, and patient also with the Gospel of John, so that we do not miss the clarity with which it depicts the one who grants us power to become children of God.

Suggestions for Leaders

Using Suggestions for Leaders

The Gospel of John contains some of the most beloved passages in the New Testament. For that reason, many people often cite it as their favorite among the Gospels. This study provides an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the unique perspective offered by this Gospel on the life and message of Jesus Christ.
Your challenge is to help your group use that deeper understanding as a key to a richer and fuller commitment to the one who is truly the light of the world. Approach this task prayerfully, asking for God's guidance and help, as you seek to lead others into this commitment. You have been given a precious treasure.

Each suggestions page contains five parts: Opening, Presenting the Lesson, Exploring the Lesson, Applying the Lesson, and Closing. You may not have time to use all of the suggestions, so choose those which are most suitable for your group. It is important to encourage participants to read both the lesson in the study book and the suggested scripture references before each meeting. All of the following segments appear in each of the nine lessons.

Opening

Begin each lesson with prayer asking for God's guidance. Lead in prayer yourself or ask a member of the group to pray. Suggestions for prayers are provided in this section.

It you choose to sing, it would be helpful to have taped music of the hymns as accompaniment.

Presenting the Lesson

The purpose of this section is not only to examine the scripture, but to experience it as vital and contemporary. A variety of ideas are offered for presenting the scripture material: reading aloud, pantomime, dramatized reading of scripture, silent reading.

Exploring the Lesson

This is a time to reflect on some of the deeper meanings of the scripture, by probing difficult passages and discussing the information given in the study. Various methods are suggested, such as picture study.

Applying the Lesson

What does it mean for us? This is a key question in Bible study. How do we connect our stories and The Story? Suggestions are given for exercises, questions, and activities to make the lesson come alive for each participant.

Closing

Allow time for an unrushed and worshipful close to the lesson, using prayer, creative summaries and song.


Lesson One Spread
Lesson One

The Word Became Flesh--
The Incarnation of Jesus
John 1:1--18

Key Idea

Jesus' incarnation makes possible for us a new
and intimate relationship with God.

The Gospel of John's distinctive landscape emerges in its opening verses. Entering it, we find that we are not at the banks of the river Jordan where Mark begins with the story of the adult Jesus' baptism (Mark 1). Neither are we in Bethlehem years earlier in the company of Luke's shepherds or Matthew's magi, pondering the birth of the holy child (Matt. 1--2; Luke 1--2). John pushes the beginning of the story back further still, transporting us to the dawn of time. We have stepped onto a cosmic plane. Fortunately, a road map is provided for our travel-a hymnic prologue (1:1--18) that becomes a lens through which John's entire Gospel is to be read.

"In the Beginning Was the Word . . ."

"In the beginning," God created the heavens and the earth by uttering a word (Gen. 1:1--3). John's opening verses take us back to that beginning and give a glimpse behind the curtains of creation: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (1:1--2). From the outset, we are given to understand that we have entered a Gospel narrative of cosmic scope and significance. Although it will be the story of a human being in history, at the same time, it will be the story of one who comes from beyond the world and from the beginning of all existence--the story of one who preexisted with God before creation. That eternal one, referred to as the Word (Logos in Greek) was distinct from God and in communion "with God," yet also identified with God ("was God"). This profound mystery, which is confessed rather than explained, gives expression to the early Christian community's ever-deepening reflection on the absolute significance of Jesus Christ: "Christ is so important that he could not have come into being like any other person or object."

Thereupon follows another affirmation that is equally profound: "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being" (1:3). In other words, the preexistent Christ/Word is the agent of divine creation as well as redemption. Surely this affirmation, too, arises from early Christian conviction about the absolute significance of Christ for human life: "So fundamental to the sense and purpose of existence is the revelation in Christ that he must be conceived as the shaping force in the very beginning of existence!" Moreover, it has implications for Christian understanding of the world and salvation. We can hardly think of the world as evil, either by origin or nature, for "All things came into being through him." Nor can salvation be envisioned as escape from the world. As commentator Fred Craddock explains: "To think of salvation as basically escape from this world of people and things is to turn one's back on that which God, through Christ, has created. To have a view of salvation that does not embrace all that God created is too small and partial."

Thus begins the Gospel of John--with heady theological affirmations. But John is not primarily concerned with philosophical speculation. The thing that matters most is what the Word means for our lives and for the life of the world. Why? Because "What has come into being in him was life" (v. 4)--the life God intended for us at the very beginning of creation. Hence, that "life was the light of all people" (v. 4)--illumining the meaning and purpose of our lives in relationship to God. Though our travel with John begins on a cosmic plane, we are promptly brought down to the realm of human history (see v. 10), where "the Word became flesh and lived among us" (v. 14). There, in the midst of everyday human reality, the light continues to this day to shine, for "the darkness did not overcome it" (v. 5).

"And the Word Became Flesh and Lived Among Us . . ."

The Gospel of John is almost unique in the New Testament in referring to Jesus as the Word. In a day when we find ourselves bombarded with words--literally up to our ears in junk-mail, e-mail, and advertising jingles--we may underrate the significance of words. But this was not so in the first century when words bore sacred power. Readers of John who were familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, would surely have associated the "word of the Lord" as both the power of God that called creation into being and the message of God for the human community conveyed by Israel's prophets.

This is the staggering claim of John's prologue: the Word has become a person! The eternal one, who is the very self-expression of God, fulfills that function by taking on human flesh: "The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (v. 14). This emphatic affirmation is the hub of John's prologue and the New Testament's boldest expression of Christ's incarnation. It is also at the heart of John's maverick perspective--a difference that may be illustrated in graphic form. If we were to graph the Synoptic Gospels, we would do so horizontally, for Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a horizontal view of God's saving activity:

Synoptic Gospels

creation prophets John the Baptist Jesus

According to the synoptic presentation, God works in and through history, guiding the world toward a goal. John's Gospel shares aspects of this point of view since it insists that the Word became flesh in history. But by and large, we would have to graph the Gospel of John vertically, for it sets forth the descent and ascent of the cosmic Savior:

Gospel of John

The eternal Word, which became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, had a previous life with God before he came below--a life that he manifests in human history. Then, at the end of his earthly career, he returns from whence he came. His cross is referred to as the moment in which he is "lifted up" from the earth (3:14; 8:28; 12:32--34)--the moment in which he departs from the world and returns to God and to the glory that was his before creation.

A fascinating image in John 1:14 further illustrates this distinctive perspective, though it is often lost in English translation. Most translations convey that the Word became flesh and "lived" or "dwelt" among us when, in fact, the Greek verb employed (eskenosen) is much more graphic. The Word quite literally "pitched a tent" among us--the Word "camped out" among us. This striking image is significant on two counts. For one thing, it conveys that the Word's residence in the world is temporary--he is on a journey. We are to keep in mind where he came from and where he is going. For another thing, the image calls to mind the tent or tabernacle in which God's glory was present with the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings, long before there was a temple. For John, the implication is plain: Jesus is now the place where God is manifested to humanity, where God's glory is revealed.

"The Word became flesh and 'camped out' among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (v. 14). What does this bold affirmation of incarnation mean for our lives and the life of the world? It means that "human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible"--they are given "intimate, palpable, corporeal access to the cosmic reality of God." Who among us has not longed for such access--for a glimpse of the divine--one little peek at God! The disciple named Philip voices this desire for all of us at a later point in the Gospel of John when he says to Jesus, "Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied" (14:8). Jesus' response is this: Look at me. "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (14:9). The prologue concludes on this same note: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (1:18). Therein lies the Fourth Gospel's central claim, elaborated on every page: Jesus is the fleshed-out truth about God!

The incarnation and the new access to divine reality that it provides are significant in one further respect: it makes possible a new relationship with God. On the one hand, the incarnation binds God to us. God did not stay distant from us, but chose to live with us, to know our struggles and to identify with us completely: "To become flesh is to know joy, pain, suffering, and loss. It is to love, to grieve, and someday to die." In the incarnation, God's own self has been bound to everyday human experience. On the other hand, the incarnation binds us to God and to each other in a new and intimate relationship as God's own children. In John's view, this story has a tragic dimension. Not all will receive Jesus as the revelation of God's own self or accept the gift of life he offers (see vs. 10--11). "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" (v. 12).

John is convinced that everyone longs for an intimate relationship with God. In fact, it is significant that the first words out of Jesus' mouth in the Gospel of John are these: "What are you looking for?" (1:38; see also 20:15). This central question of invitation is asked of every one of us who enters John's story calling us to discern and articulate our deepest longings. St. Augustine once expressed much the same sentiment when he prayed: "You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless still, until they rest in you." Jesus' words of invitation summon us to travel further into John's story in order to grasp more fully the light and life he offers. Now equipped with a roadmap, a lens with which to read everything that follows, let us take Jesus up on a second invitation, uttered on the heels of the first: "Come and see" (1:39).

Discussion Questions

  • For many John is the most beloved of the Gospels. Would you describe it as your favorite Gospel? Why, or why not? What stories or passages in it are your favorites?
  • John highlights Christ's divinity, but also insists on Christ's humanity. Which presents the greater challenge to contemporary Christian faith? Why?
  • John is filled with intriguing word plays. One appears in verse 5: the Greek verb katalambanõ can mean to overcome, but also to comprehend. Thus, the darkness did not overcome the light, or, perhaps, it did not comprehend it. Both translations are acceptable. Which do you prefer and why?
  • "What are you looking for?" Imagine a reporter asking this question of passersby on the street. What responses do you think might be given? What would be your response about your own deepest longings?
  • What new insights have emerged from your study of John's prologue?

 

Prayer

O God, our hearts are restless
until they find their rest in you.
Bless our study of John's witness
to the One who brings us
face-to-face with your glory.
Open our minds and hearts
to your Word and to each other,
that we may know ourselves to be
your children, and sisters and brothers
in Christ. Amen.

 

Lesson One

Suggestions for Leaders

 

Ahead of Time

Pray for God's guidance as you study the lesson and make your plans for leading the discussion. Read the entire lesson and all of the scripture references. Decide which of the questions are most appropriate for your group. Do not feel obligated to follow the suggestions given below but choose those which will work best in your situation. Keep your group in mind as you pray and plan.

Materials needed

  • Pictures of the nativity of Jesus (Christmas cards, fine art prints, Bible storybooks, etc.). Provide enough so that each person will have one.
  • Hymnals or songbooks with the words of the songs you will use. A tape of the music will also be helpful.
  • Copies of John (1:1--18) for the unison reading, so that all will have the same translation.

Opening

  • Begin with this prayer or use one of your own:

Light of the world,

You came into the world and
the world refused to accept you.
Often, we, too, refuse to let
your light shine in our hearts and lives.

Forgive us, renew us, and give us power to become the children of God in word and deed. Amen.

  • Sing the third verse of "Silent Night, Holy Night," PH #60.

Presenting the Lesson

  • State the key idea for the lesson.
  • Give a brief overview of the Gospel of John, using information from the Introduction
  • Share responses to question 1 of the study.
  • Read in unison The Prologue of John (1:1--18) using copies you have prepared.
  • Ask the group members to repeat aloud the phrases in the passage that are most meaningful to them.

Exploring the Lesson

  • Discuss the charts in the study. What is the difference in the view of God's saving activity found in the Synoptic Gospels and in John?
  • Give one of the nativity pictures to each participant. Ask participants to share with the group how the picture shows the divinity and/or the humanity of Christ. Discuss question 2 of the study.
  • Often the original languages of the Bible contain word plays that are not easily translated. An example is found in verse 5. Discuss question 3 of the study.

Applying the Lesson

  • Discuss this question: What do we learn from John 1:1--18 about Jesus' relationship with God that can sustain us in our personal lives?
  • The author of the study states that John believes that every one of us longs for an intimate relationship with God. Jesus' first words in the Gospel are "What are you looking for?" How would you answer this? What are your deepest longings?
  • What steps can we take to share "the light that is the light of all people" (verse 4) in our own communities? With the world?

Closing

  • What new insights have emerged from your study of the prologue to John?
  • Sing the third verse of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," PH #43.
  • Ask for prayer requests and close with the prayer at the end of Lesson One, or with a prayer of your own.

About the Authors

Frances Taylor Gench is professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to joining the Union PSCE faculty in 1999, she taught for thirteen years at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina (B.A.), and of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (now Union-PSCE, M.Div., Ph.D.).

Born in Bristol, Virginia, Frances grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and Atlanta. She currently resides in Baltimore, and is parish associate at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, where her husband, Roger J. Gench, is the pastor. Frances has served on the Presbyteries' Cooperative Committee of the General Assembly, and authored the 1992--1993 Horizons Bible study, James and the Integrity of Faith. She is also the author of Hebrews and James in the Westminster Bible Companion series (Louisville: Westminster John Knox press, 1996).

Sara Covin Juengst is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a certified Christian educator. She has served as a local church educator, overseas missionary, campus minister, General Assembly staff associate, and director of continuing education at Columbia Theological Seminary. She is a frequent speaker and workshop leader at Presbyterian gatherings.

Sara is currently the supply pastor of the Lincolnton Presbyterian Church and is the author of numerous articles and curriculum pieces. She has published eight books, including Breaking Bread, Sharing Faith with Children, Like a Garden, and Equipping the Saints: Teacher Training in the Church. In 1996 she wrote the Horizons Bible study for Presbyterian Women, Encounters with Jesus: The Gospel According to Matthew, and won an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press.

In 1994 Sara was presented with an honorary doctor of divinity degree by Presbyterian College in recognition of her years of service to the church and, in 1996, she was given a Life Achievement Award by the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators, honoring her contributions to the field of Christian Education.

She and her husband, Dan, live in Willington, South Carolina. They have four grown children and eight grandchildren.

About the Artist

Born in the North Indian village of Azamgarh, Frank Wesley is a contemporary Indian artist and "respected guru" in the community of Christian artists in Asia. He held his first exhibition at the age of 12, and in 1947 his Blue Madonna was used on the first UNICEF Christmas card. When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, the government held a competition for the design to be used on the urn that would hold his ashes and Frank's design was chosen for this honor. In spite of such accomplishments, Frank Wesley did not voluntarily sign any of his works until after the death of his master teacher in 1973, considering all he did to be attributed to his teacher.

Frank uses light from the person of Christ or the presence of God to illuminate his paintings. He concentrates his thought and prayer into the expression of biblical images, drawing on the variety of artistic styles he has developed over the years. Most of the art selected for use in this Bible study comes from the book Frank Wesley: Exploring Faith with a Brush by Naomi Wray (Auckland, New Zealand: Pace Publishing, 1993).


Still available:

Women and the Word: Studies in the Gospel of John
English Large Print, HZN-00-150, $12.00
Spanish, HZN-00-110, $4.00
Korean, HZN-00-120, $4.00
order button Arabic, HZN-01-125, $4.00
Bulletin Covers (pkg; of 100), HZN-00-170, $6.90
Audiocassette, HZN-00-180, $8.00

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