Preacher Revd Stuart Lee, Chaplain, Richmond Almshouses
It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning for this celebration. At the end of last year I moved from a parish in East Sheen to be chaplain to a community of almshouses which are dotted around Richmond and Twickenham. We have about 130 older residents in our community and we are very lucky to have a beautiful chapel which provides a space not only for worship but also for feasting and dancing and laughing and learning. So, thank you for inviting me to be part of your worship, your feasting and your celebrating today.
It is hard to know where to begin when asked to preach on an occasion that celebrates St John. If every woman that appears in the Gospels seems to be called Mary, at least every other man that appears in the New Testament is named John. There is John the evangelist, the writer of the Gospel, John the brother of James, a fisherman, John of Patmos who wrote the Book of the Revelation, John who wrote those letters in the New Testament and the mysterious beloved disciple, who some say is at least one of those John’s. Lengthy, scholarly, confusing and contradictory articles have been written attempting to prove that they are all the same person and that they are all different individuals. So where to begin?
Well, one thing that always strikes me about writings attributed to John is precisely when we read them publicly in church. Most of the time we work our way through the life and teaching of Jesus from Matthew, Mark or Lukes’ gospels. But at certain times of year we set them aside and we always read from John. So when we are invited to grapple with the mystery of God’s presence within and amongst us at Christmas, we turn to John. When we must face the riddle of life and death and their complicated relationship to one another during Holy Week and Easter, it is John we take as our guide.
You see I think it is mystery and complexity that John is here to help us with. Not to give us easy answers or to reassure us, but to be along side us as we try and hold seemingly impossible things together. It’s there from the very beginning of his gospel. ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’. To get the full of effect of this, it is perhaps better to think of Word as the divine essence, the very heart of God. So something like, the divine essence inhabited flesh, like yours and mine.
Now, this language of inhabiting and flesh points us to another of the themes of John’s gospel, something about intimacy. This disciple whom Jesus loved who features throughout the book, this man who rests his head on Jesus’ chest at the last supper, I think he has something to teach us about how God desires to relate to us. Jesus does appear to have an especially intimate relationship with him and he alone remains by Jesus when all the other men have run away. Jesus relies on him to take care of his mother after his death. And yet, Jesus’ special love for him does not obliterate his love or his call to anyone else. Following Jesus is not a matter of being special or worthy. It is rather a matter of trusting Jesus enough simply to follow. There will always be those who seem to have special, privileged relationships with Jesus, like John. But there are also others, like Peter, and maybe like many of us, who repeatedly mess up, don’t always feel close to Jesus and yet still occasionally hear those words, ‘follow me,’ and we do our best to respond.
When we celebrate the patron of a church community we are also celebrating the church community itself. A diverse community of people who are here for as many different reasons as there are people. Don’t assume that everybody else in this church has a wonderful, intimate relationship with God. Some do, no doubt, but many don’t. Some of you have come because you want to be close to God but maybe you have come because you like being alongside other people, maybe you are part of this community because it gives you something to do and you feel useful. Perhaps you come because you need a signature on the bottom of a school application form or because you just love to sing.
In John’s gospel we see how Jesus values and enjoys the different gifts and different relationships that people bring and that might act as a guide to the way we approach the diverse make up of the church community. People like us and people not like us. Some people will be known for their love of God, others will be known for the fact that they carry a candle, make a good cup of coffee or keep the garden weeded. Our task is not to get distracted with the business of comparison. As Jesus told Peter when he inquired about the future of the anonymous disciple, ‘It’s none of your business. Follow me!’.