The materiality of the symbolism in the Gospel of John helps present a message of a restored past and vision for the future, New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays said at Samford University Thursday, Sept. 6.
Hays spoke as presenter of this year's Howard L. and Martha H. Holley Lectures: New Testament Voices for a Contemporary World in Honor of Dr. William E. Hull. Dr. Hull is Samford research professor and retired provost.
The materiality of John's symbolic world is a reflection of his fundamental commitment to the incarnation of the Word, said Hays, author of A Moral V ision of the New Testament and professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School.
Hays quoted Archibald MacLeish's Ars Poetica, which ends "A poem should not mean, but be," to propose that what the poet says of poetry is also true of John's Gospel.
The fourth Gospel, perhaps more than any other, narrates the gospel through the use of vivid, concrete images that embody the Word, said Hays, citing its "trick ending."
In the concluding chapter 21, the disciples have returned home to Galilee and gone fishing to in an effort to return to the familiar and regain their balance after their interlude with Jesus.
"But, it's not so easy to go home again. After life with Jesus, nothing is quite the same anymore," said Hays, noting the futility of their early morning fishing expedition until Jesus instructs them to cast the net on the right side of the boat. The success causes the light to dawn also in the disciples' eyes as they disembark on the beach.
The story pivots on the small narrative detail of the charcoal fire they encounter beside the mysterious figure standing on the beach.
The Greek word for charcoal fire, anthrakia, said Hays, appears only one other time in the New Testament, and that is in the account of the arrest and trial of Jesus, when Peter denies being a disciple.
For Peter, the fire causes the past to come rushing back and the scene becomes a story of memory, restoration, and pain. "Confronting the risen Jesus is not easy for someone who has denied Him," said Hays.
"In this recognition of himself as betrayer, Simon Peter stands before the charcoal fire as a symbol of us all. What betrayals have we committed? Our culture has a problem with truth-telling about the past," said Hays, nothing hollow non-apologies offered by celebrities who disclaim responsibility for their actions.
"Forgiveness and restoration is possible only when we acknowledge it is precisely the real me that has wronged others," said Hays. "Healing and restoration comes only through looking in the mirror of memory and seeing our lies and evasions for what they really are."
Yet, the moment of memory brings restoration. Jesus, as he stands before the fire with his meal of fish and bread saying, "come and have breakfast," is offering reconciliation and renewed friendship beyond the betrayal, explains Hays.
But Simon Peter discovers that the renewed relationship carries a new purpose: to feed others.
"We are given a restored past and vision for the future. We are to tell the truth about our past, to eat the good breakfast that Jesus gives, and to share that life-giving food with others."
While in Birmingham, Hays also spoke to Samford faculty and to a group at Mountain Brook Baptist Church.