Sermon for St John the Evangelist – transferred
Sunday June 26th
Patron Saints – neglected friends?
Just the other week someone asked me a question, to which I didn’t know the answer and rather than do what everyone seems to do nowadays – go to Google – I just sat with it. The question was this – ‘How do churches get their patron Saints?’ It’s not entirely a question just of the moment for next week I’ve preaching at St Peter’s Caversham for their patronal festival. John this week, Peter next – rich fare. But how are they chosen, and does it really matter?
Of course there are some churches, such as we have here in Dunedin – who sort the problem by having the complete set, All Saints 🙂 Or those who denying the need for mediators ignore the Saints all together and go straight to the top – Holy Trinity – Christ the King . . . a sort of Patronal oneupmanship 🙂
But what’s the deal with Patron Saints? A couple of weeks ago I remarked that we should say ‘Our’ St John the Evangelist. But why?? Why bother with a Patron St at all when for most of the year we treat it as a matter of no consequence. Why not just be Roslyn Anglican Church?
Over the years I’ve served under the patronage of St Lawrence – the patron Saint of toasters – and if you don’t know why, ask me later :-), St Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, St Aidan The Apostle to England. St Margaret of Scotland. Oh yes, and St Mary the Virgin. I have to say that Mary caused me more than a little disquiet, and perhaps was the reason why I tend to think we are missing something important, treating our patronage as it were as an incidental, little more than the occasion for ‘a patronal festival’.
For a number of years I taught in a Roman Catholic High School. I was VERY Protestant at the time, which I failed to see was a HUGE problem, not only re the Saints, but also for being a Christian, period. When I was Year Dean I had to conduct a weekly assembly, and once a year the Head teacher would arrive unannounced to conduct the assembly. Which would be all about Mary. For it was well known that Mr Kyte’s year group did NOT pray the hail Mary!!! When the school building was being re-ordered, a large statue of the Queen of Heaven had to be moved from its pride of place, and my colleagues thought it the height of good humour to reposition it in my office, ‘so that Our Lady can keep an eye on you, Eric’ 🙂 And there she stood for six months, watching me. But there was something far worse to come when as the Vicar of St Mary’s I had to confess to my Spiritual Director that I had a worrying sense of attraction, even devotion to Mary. To which without a moments hesitation she replied, ‘well of course, she is the mother of God’ . . . My heretical Protestantism was at this time beginning to wear a little thin, but all the same, the idea that one might as it were begin to have an acquaintance with the Saint as friends, as someone you might possibly look up to was to me still an awkwardly novel one.
In the Catholic school in particular I was of course encountering that culture which gives us patron Saints – that throughout most of church history these matters were treated with far more significance – after all people thought that their patron saint might indeed be their patron, might be, indeed WOULD be praying for them . . .
Some years ago at theological college I remember one of my lecturers recounting a strange vision he’d had. He wasn’t given to such things and it was a vision, not a dream. He was wide awake. And he looked up and saw slumped in the corner of his study what looked to him like a Roman soldier, a most unkept Roman soldier. He was bedraggled and smoking a cigarette. My friend, at the time of the vision the Vicar of a large suburban church asked the man who he was. ‘I’m your guardian angel’ was the reply. ‘Well if you are,’ my friend retorted ‘why do you look such a mess?’. The ‘soldier’ looked up and replied – ‘because you never give me anything to do!’ He realised with a jolt that the world was not as he had been told
One of the besetting sins of Protestant faith, made worse by the way technology gives us so much apparent control over the world, is that sense of ‘I can do it by myself!’ I can have my Own relationship with God, I don’t need Saints to pray for me – I don’t need the Church. ‘I don’t need you and you don’t need me, and if you do it is because you are less than a whole person. You are incapable of standing on your own two feet’. As I said a couple of weeks back, the compelling aspect of that vision of heaven where people fed one another with 6ft chopstick was that it exemplified the fact of our mutual interdependence which the modern world strives with all its might to deny.
We who are Protestants have lost the awareness of The Communion of Saints – that sense that we are part of a Community of faith, a community of mutual interdependence in the here and now which is at the same time one that stretches back through the years – and is very present and alive to us, did we but know it.
As I often remark, ‘Oh that we could See what was going on as we came week by week to this table, with these people, in the presence of St John the evangelist and all the Saints’. Who better to pray for us than those who dwell in the nearer presence of God, of Christ? Who better than the one who reclines against Jesus at table – who enjoys intimate fellowship with Jesus?
One of the matters that is concerning me at the moment is this question of living as an intergenerational community. We take it as a given that young folk and old folk live in separate worlds, at least in the church – so we are separated now. But One way in which we might begin to address this is simply for those who are older to actively disciple those who are younger – to be as it were parents in faith, older brothers and sisters. And so ‘Our’ St John – like in my family we say ‘Our Hannah’, or you might say ‘Our dad’, so ‘Our St John’ – Whanau
Our brother John is the one who gives the lie to individualised faith. And so often portrayed as the one who makes faith ‘other worldly’, is actually the one who says to us ‘Reality is staring us in the face’. As we begin to explore what it means to be disciples of Jesus we learn from John – ‘by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another’. What does Jesu say is the Essence, the core of the Christian Life, of being a disciple?? Reading your Bible? Praying daily? No. Having a wonderful time with God on Flagstaff?? No. our older brother John points us to Jesus – by THIS shall you be known as disciples, your love for one another. The mark of authentic Life is mutual devotion to the flock. We love Jesus no more than we love his body, and indeed ‘the least of these’. With THESE people. THESE people????!!!!Yes, they desert me, they will abandon me, they let me down, I feel as if no one cares for me here . . . me me me me . . . but of course you have done the same to them. None is without sin. Here is the thing John is trying to tell us. Life is found in the company of these sinners . . . open your eyes – Here is Reality
John tells us of that wonderful conversation Jesus has with Peter, where Jesus asks ‘Do you love me?’ and when Peter protests his love, Jesus redirects his gaze to the church ‘love them, then’. I don’t know if you are given to warm devotional feelings in the presence of Jesus?? They’re only as real as the warm devotional feelings you have to those people who deny you, let you down, abandon you . . . Love one another as I have loved you, they abandoned you? They abandoned me. Did I love them the less??? And you are saying that you NEVER did the same to them??? How many of my body go hungry and you dine sumptuously every day? How many of my body go naked and you are always dressed in the best money can buy? . . . do I need to go on?? . . . There is no devotion to Christ without devotion to the ungainly fleshly incarnation of his body. John like the big brother in faith he is shows us that there is no love for Christ that is not evidenced in love for his flock. There is no such thing as an individuals ‘spiritual’ relationship with Jesus, locked away from the realities of the Church – for Our John tells us, ‘The Word has become flesh’
Our Life is in the other.
And here’s the thing, miracle of miracles, it is precisely in that difficult, at times all but impossible devotion to the Saints that we encounter Christ in Reality, not the Jesus of ghastly emotional pietism, but the one who is The Truth. Devotion to the Saints always leads to truthful devotion to Jesus. All else is an illusion. I know of no authentic Christian whose life speaks Truth who is not devoted to the Saints – all of them, those we can see, and those who gather in myriad clouds with us around the table. Life. We have been taught, a relationship with ‘Jesus’ is easy – it is our relationship with his followers that is difficult. But that is a Lie – it is Unreality – illusory. Jesus makes it clear over and over and over again, to be his disciples is Hard. ‘Do you love me? Really? Show me – love my body – really Love me . . .’
Faith in Christ is only known in Community – in shared life. Listen again to Our John, to the words he has written to us . . . imagine him now listening, like a good elder brother hoping we will hear him, hoping we’ll get it We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Listen to his language – rooted in the community of faith – We declare to you, what we have heard, we have seen, we have touched – we are writing these things . . . The Community of faith . . . The Rich fellowship of faith. We declare to y’all – can you hear the church that has gone before us speaking to us? We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us . . . Come! Join us! ‘so that you also may have fellowship with us – and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ!!
As I have said, we are trained in our culture in individualism, we may deny we are individualists but we lie. It is the air we breathe and only together might we begin to craft a different way of being b the Grace of God. But, I wonder how we heard those words of Peter as he looks behind him to John – ‘but what about him?’ We might be thinking, yes but Jesus treats us as individuals – which of course is true – he gives to each different giftings, to each there is a different calling. But they are to be worked out in the Community of faith. We all to easily miss the richness of Peter and John’s relationship. Peter at the last supper only has to motion to John for John to ask Jesus who is to betray him. Perhaps here too Peter looks back and sees John nod towards him, motion him ‘What about me?’ Peter’s question might not be one of ‘well that’s not fair what about him??’ It may well be, what about my brother John, what have you got for him?? After the resurrection, for a large part of the book of Acts, Peter and john are inseparable – Peter and John went to pray, Peter and John before the authorities, Peter and John in Samaria. Is not Peter’s question a mark of devotion for his dearly beloved brother John . . . Our brother John . . . who is always finally doing one thing – directing US as his sisters and brothers towards Jesus. That WE together might enjoy the fellowship of all the Saints in glory – with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ . . . and note his love, or rather the love of the Saints for the church here below . . . we are writing these things that our joy may be complete . . . without you, he says, it is not the same , without you, without you, without you
That Christian Joy is completed when All are gathered in, when none are lost, when every one has Eternal Life in the Communion of the Saints, that is fellowship with the Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ