The Two Endings of John

Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2023 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

The year was 2003. It was a drab, wet December day in Charleston, West Virginia. I was at my parents’ house for Christmas break during my junior year of college. We went to the movies and saw The Return of the King, the third and final film in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I’ve been a huge Tolkien fan since I was a kid, and I loved the movies. I was nervous going into the third one, hoping fervently that the filmmakers wouldn’t mess it up. They didn’t, and I wound up crying so hard for the last half hour of the movie that I gave myself a migraine headache.

The thing about this movie, and the biggest thing that critics disliked about it – despite it winning all eleven academy awards it was nominated for – is that the movie ends about six times. Over the last twenty minutes or so, the movie keeps ending! It closes the story on this region and this set of characters, then on that region and that set of characters. Again and again, it ends, until, finally, Samwise Gamgee walks home to his front door, picks up his little daughter and says, “Well, I’m back,” which is exactly how the book ends too.

The reason I’m mentioning The Return of the King, besides the fact that I like sneaking nerdy pop culture references into my sermons, is that I think J.R.R. Tolkien borrowed a page from the Gospel According to John. Today, we read the end of the Gospel. Did you hear that last line? Jesus has finished his conversation with Thomas, and the narrator picks up the ending: 

“Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31 CEB)

That’s a pretty good ending, isn’t it? Fade to black, end credits roll. No need for a post-credits scene. “And that believing, you will have life in his name.” Great ending! This is the first and only time in the Gospel that the narrator addresses the reader…right here at the end. Here’s why we wrote the Gospel down for you, future generations of Jesus’ followers. We wrote it down so that you might believe, and in believing, find the abundant life that God yearns for you to have.

And then, do you know what happens? There’s a whole other chapter added on, and then the Gospel ends a second time, just like The Return of the King! Most scholars think the last chapter of John was added a few decades after the original text was composed, added by an editor that moved some stuff around, bulked up a few spots, and, crucially, dropped a new chapter at the end. In the second ending of John’s Gospel, Jesus meets his disciples while they’re fishing, they have breakfast on the beach, and Jesus has that beautiful conversation with Simon Peter, in which Jesus brings Peter back into the fold after Peter’s denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Then the Gospel ends again with these words:

“Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.” (John 21:25 CEB)

This is the only time in the Gospel that the narrator speaks in the first person: “I imagine…” The narrator muses that Jesus’ impact is so great as to overflow the world – remember, the kosmos, the universe – with books about all that Jesus has done. Another great way to end the Gospel.

But here’s the thing. Taken together, these two endings teach us something about the Gospel, about the good news of God in Christ. They teach us that the Gospel does not ever truly end. The Gospel – the good news – lives on in the lives of those who believe and have life in Jesus’ name. We are those books and scrolls that are being written about all that Christ continues to do in this precious kosmos of God’s creation. And not just us, but everything that God makes proclaims the good news of God’s creative, redemptive, and sustaining work.

The Gospel does not end. The good news grows as we share God’s movement in all the myriad ways that our gifts and passions illuminate that movement. Our gifts and passions, our successes and our failures, our joys and our scars – all of these can lead us to God’s movement, specially incarnated in our own lives.

My gift is finding words to share the good news with you. What’s yours? How is Christ still writing the Gospel in your life? Maybe you are filling the world with art. Maybe you are marching for justice with those experiencing oppression. Maybe you are sitting silently at home and breathing in the lifegiving Spirit so that you can breathe peace into the world. 

This Easter season, I invite you to pray about how God calls you to keep proclaiming the story of the Gospel in your life. Sit down with a friend or loved one and have a talk filled with prayerful imaginings about what gets your blood pumping and how to translate that energy into good news. If not a friend or loved one, then call me. I would LOVE to have that conversation with you.
And most of all, remember that the Gospel has never ended. The words on the page come to a conclusion (twice), yes, but the Word of Life keeps speaking life into this kosmos. The Word of Life keeps speaking you into being. Listen for that Word, and then speak it, proclaim it, everyday, in all you do, with all you are.

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