You know how it’s impossible to teach anything in a Gospel Doctrine class that hasn’t been said a gazillion times before? Unless, that is, it’s so speculative and far-fetched that even the tin-foil-hat crazies haven’t thought of it yet? Something new and true and somehow meaningful?
It did today, the only time in my teaching life that has ever happened, so I want to document it. It came about so simply, too.
We were going through Lesson 23, “Love One Another As I Have Loved You,” talking about the activities and teachings in the upper room – the afternoon and evening of the Last Supper. Although it wasn’t one of the points specifically delineated in the manual, I brought up Jesus’s telling Peter that Peter would deny Jesus three times that very night.
I broke out of the scriptural account for a minute to give a brief meta-scriptural lesson, noting that originally the Gospel of John had been written as a single long narrative (I drew a long vertical line on the board as I spoke). At some point the gospel had been divided into chapters (I crossed my vertical line at regular intervals with short horizontal lines), with the chapters being divided into verses (I quickly divided one of my “chapters” with several even shorter horizontal lines).
That makes it easy to find a particular line in the gospel, I noted; I can ask you all to turn to John 13:36 and in only a few seconds you will all have found the same place in your scriptures. But these divisions sometimes distort the scriptures, too: we read one verse as if it were isolated from the verses around it, or read a chapter as if it were disconnected from what comes after.
I wrote the word pericope on the board and explained that that meant a complete, coherent passage from the scriptures, one that ignored chapter and verse divisions if necessary in order to encompass a complete thought. (I sketched a bracket that framed the last part of one “chapter” and the first part of the following “chapter” on my diagram.)
Then I asked a brother to read the last three verses of John 13 and the first three verses of John 14 without pausing, as if he saw no chapter division.
Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards.
Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.
Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
Absolute silence for a moment, then I asked, “Does that change your understanding of Peter’s denial?”
Then the extraordinary moment happened. When I asked that question, everybody raised their eyes from their Bibles as if one string were controlling all heads. Those who were sitting close enough for me to see their expressions were smiling with – joy? delight? something extraordinary. I felt a rush of spirit from the class members, and there was a brief, almost excited discussion about the sudden realization that Jesus loved Peter so much that he forgave him in advance for his coming denial and wanted to reassure Peter of that love before Peter realized what he had done and condemned himself.
Maybe you had to have been there. I didn’t expect and can’t quite convey the reaction of the class members – all of them – to this small and simple tweaking of the way we habitually see scripture, but it was real, and it was something I’ve never experienced before as a teacher.
(Jim Faulconer, who posts notes on upcoming Gospel Doctrine scripture readings at Feast Upon the Word and Times and Seasons, is the one who suggested that these verses be read as a unit. If you didn’t know before, it is a constant stream of insights like this that justify Russell Arben Fox’s praise of Jim Faulconer in his recent The Scriptorian at BCC.)