John field notes 14a: Mixing the modes

“For I am going to prepare a place for you.” Is Jesus getting around to answering Peter’s question in John 13:36 – “Lord, where are you going?” It took me a number of readings before I considered this possibility. In my own defense, the question and the answer are separated by a change in tone, and almost a change in mode. Only the question and answer seem to hold the text together, it seems to me now. But John uses the tension between the dialog and the changes in tone and mode to communicate meaning beyond what the words alone carry. So here’s the text:

Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus replied, ‘I am going where you cannot follow me now, but one day you will.’  Peter said, ‘Lord, why cannot I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’  Jesus answered, ‘Will you really lay down your life for me? In very truth I tell you, before the cock crows you will have denied me three times.

‘Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me.  There are many dwelling-places in my Father’s house; if it were not so I should have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I shall come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also. [John 13:36 – 14:3, REB]

The chapter break, a long-after-the-fact construct that I have designated above with a paragraph break, seems appropriate here. Chapter 14 breaks away in tone, and seemingly in subject matter, from the drama of Peter’s protestations and Jesus’ dire prediction that end chapter 13. Jesus shifts from addressing Peter alone to addressing all of the apostles. We move also from the Passover Seder interaction — more of a narrative mode — to something like instruction, applicable to all people at all times, and we stay chiefly in this mode through chapter 16 with only brief interruptions by the questioning apostles, Greek style, to remind us that Jesus’ disquisitions are also dialogs.

With this change in tone and mode, chapters 13 through 16 feel like the radical change in mode during Exodus’ recounting of the first Passover. Here’s how Exodus does it. Pharaoh and Moses close Exodus 10 with their final and most dramatic confrontation. In Exodus 11, God describes to Moses his final, and most awful, plague, the death of the firstborn males. But before these events play out, Exodus shifts to instruction. The first twenty-eight verses of Exodus 12 offer detailed rules for celebrating Passover — annual commemorations of what the text hasn’t finished narrating.

Why this shift in mode? I like Everett Fox’s explanation, set out in part here:

[The insertion of instruction] was obviously meant to move the Exodus story, with all its historical aspects, into what historians of religion call “mythical time.” In our text, history becomes present event: the hearer is no longer “in the audience” but actually acts out the story.

The effect is stunning when Exodus returns to the Passover story. The transition back to narrative begins with instructions on answering our children’s question, “What does this service (mean) to you?” The prescribed answer is a summary of the events, which leads seamlessly back into the narrative. This back-end integration of modes is striking, but the resulting confusion over who is speaking is even more so. Verses 29 forward suggests that the narrator has resumed his story, but the transition indicates that we’re still answering our children’s question. The ambiguity suggests that we, too, have become the Bible’s storyteller, a holy and vital calling heretofore not shared by the narrator. From a literary perspective, the ambiguity works the way my mobile phone would if it were playing sounds from two apps (which it does sometimes) and the sounds were somehow complementing each other.

In John, likewise, Jesus switches to instruction while continuing his interaction with Peter. The effect is to maintain the narrative force while putting Peter’s then-future denial in a larger, less threatening perspective. The effect foreshadows the regretful and cathartic tone of Jesus and Peter’s last interaction in John in which Jesus subtly suggests the benefits of Peter’s by-then-completed betrayal and restoration.

It’s appropriate that the Last Supper, which is a Passover celebration modeled on Exodus’s instruction, should model the first Passover’s mixing of modes, and that John’s transition between modes would be both as stark and as subtle — and as efficient a carrier of meaning — as the transitions in Exodus.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

By Peter

After stints as a trial lawyer and a church worker, Peter Stephens has settled in as a Virginia high school English teacher. Peter has read several books and poems. He wrote none of the posts below filed under "Passages." Click the link at the end of each post to see it in the context of the author's original post.