Sermon for the feast of St John the Evangelist 2015
1 John 1:1-5
“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known . . .: John 1:18
Jesus said this to Peter to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God . . . Over the three days following Christmas, the Church commemorates those who bear witness to Jesus. Tomorrow, we remember the Holy Innocents, those children whom Herod slew – Yesterday was the feast of Stephen, the ‘first’ martyr. Today we might think we have as it were a little pause from martyrdom – for today we celebrate our own patronal festival – that of St John the Evangelist. Yet to be a martyr in the truest sense is nothing more than bearing witness. The church of old recognised this and so made a distinction between Red martyrs, those like Stephen whose blood was shed, and White martyrdom . . . those who had persevered in faith down long years, their lives a Living witness to the Life which is the light of all people
In an age where even in the church there are many who have wandered from the Truth, who claim new messages and enlightenment, red martyrs will be few and far between, at least in times of stability . . . we are all too aware I hope of brothers and sisters who have not fallen from the truth and have born witness to Jesus through the shedding of their blood in other places . . . No here in our time, the challenge is not to a quick and brutal martyrdom, but to the long slow, day after day, month after month, year after year, witness to the Word made flesh. To the Gospel. To Jesus Christ. And our own St John goes before us showing us the way.
Of course ‘Evangelist’ is not a word that sits easily on the lips of those who have wandered from the Truth. ‘Evangelists’ are all too often the object of lies and derision . . . those who allegedly ‘ram the message down people’s throats . . .’ I must admit I’m still waiting to meet one of them. They must be out there somewhere for everyone seems to be afraid of them . . . 🙂
But what is an ‘Evangelist’? Simply one who makes the Evangel, the Good News known. One who makes Jesus known . . . and John is the Evangelist par excellence . . . and his Example is the way we might by Grace become Evangelists ourselves . . . or like St John, white martyrs. For Christians only come in two colours, Red and White. To be a Christian is to bear witness to Jesus, it is to be an Evangelist . . . but how??
Often people complain rightly about sermons of exhortation, and I’m sure I’m not entirely innocent of that charge – sermons which say ‘You must do this!’, or ‘You must do that!’ So ‘You must bear witness to Jesus!!’ And the response may well come back ‘Yes! I know! But How??!!’
St John knows and he would have us know . . . he is the one who reclined next to Jesus – but he is never named as such – he is famously ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ . . . but his name is never used in that context . . . in other words in witnessing to Jesus, he makes space for us to recline next to Jesus . . . this message of staying close to Jesus – of not drifting away runs not only through John’s gospel, but it is woven through all of Scripture. The psalmist tells us that those whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, and on his Law they meditate day and night – they are like trees, Planted by streams which yield there fruit in due season
We heard from the reading in Exodus how Moses went into the tent of meeting, to spend time with God – to talk with him as one would talk with a friend. The lectionary however does us [yet another] dis-service for it omits the last part of the narrative Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. . . Then Moses would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.
Joshua, one of only two of the Israelites who left Egypt who entered the land of promise, Joshua Knew God – for he had remained in his presence. Joshua would not leave the tent, like a tree planted by a stream . . . One of the words John uses over and over again throughout the whole gospel is ‘Remain’, or the translation I prefer ‘Abide’ When Jesus first appears in John’s gospel, some of John the Baptist’s disciples set off after him. Jesus turns and asks them, ‘What are you looking for?, they answer ‘Rabbi, Where are you staying – where are you abiding – where are you planted’ Jesus said, Come and see, and they came and saw where he was abiding and they abided with Him the rest of the day . . .
Jesus says ‘I am the Vine and you are the branches . . . Abide in me, as I abide in you . . .’
In our gospel, whilst our attention has been on Jesus and Peter, mysteriously there is John . . . following – staying close to Jesus. Peter has to be recalled to his attention – ‘What about him?’ Jesus replied, ‘If I will that he abide until I come, what is that to you? You follow me’ John is already following, where else would he be, but close to Jesus, abiding with him.
We are reminded that John had reclined next to Jesus at the supper . . . this is described using the same language that John uses when he says ‘No one has seen God. God the only Son who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known’ John reclines close to Jesus’ heart . . . it is where he abides . . . like Joshua, Like the Psalmist, he makes known the one with whom he is intimately acquainted . . .
John the Evangelist remains close to the the heart of Jesus, he makes him known. God the only son who himself is close to the Father’s heart and makes the unseen God known. How do we bear witness? How do we ‘do the work of an evangelist’ – by remaining close to Him . . . and this is possible because he has come to be with us. Why? That we might be with Him. God in Christ has made this possible – he has come to abide with us, that we might abide with Him. The one who is close to the Father’s heart, has come to us, that we might share in his Life with the Father.
He has Loved us, that we might love him, and thus make him known – after the pattern of our beloved brother and patron, St John