Preacher Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Today we celebrate and give thanks to God for the life, witness and works of St John the Apostle and Evangelist on this his feast day, just two days after Christmas. Modern scholars have often debated John’s identity and authorship as regards references to him in the New Testament writings – raising questions as to who was the true author of texts attributed to him. Whatever the answers to these scholarly debates may be, we can be confident that there really was a close follower of Jesus called John and that he witnessed to the truth of Jesus as God in the flesh – “the Word became flesh” – as the prologue to the gospel of John so famously and eloquently puts it.
John was a Galilean fisherman and he and his brother James, the sons of Zebedee, were called from mending their nets to follow Jesus. The two brothers seemed to have had a quick-tempered side to their character and Jesus named them “sons of thunder”.
Of the twelve closest male followers of Jesus, John was clearly part of the inner core, along with Peter and James. The three of them were present both at the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, and also at Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest. Traditionally John has been associated with the “beloved disciple” who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the last supper. John clearly had a very intimate relationship with Jesus. As Jesus was dying on the cross, it was to John that he entrusted the care of his mother.
John ran with Peter to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection of Jesus and – seeing the empty tomb – believed. And in the final chapter of John’s gospel when seven of the disciples go fishing in the Sea of Tiberias, it is John who first recognises Jesus standing on the beach. The gospel earlier accredits Mary Magdalene as being the first person of all to recognise the risen Jesus on Easter morning – when they meet in the garden where Jesus’ body had been laid in a new tomb. Hence Mary Magdalene’s traditional title of “the apostle to the apostles”. It is significant that it is John’s gospel that records this encounter between the risen Jesus and Mary Magdalene, so often read in churches on Easter Day.
According to tradition John was exiled to the island of Patmos, and to have spent his last years at Ephesus, where he is thought to have died at a great age. St Jerome wrote that when St John was too old to preach he would simply say to the assembled people, “Love one another. That is the Lord’s command: and if you keep it, that by itself is enough”.
There are also some apocryphal stories attributed to John – such as that he came to Rome and emerged unharmed when thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil. Another such apocryphal story about John was that on one occasion he was handed a poisoned chalice by his own brethren – he drank from it, and again he was unharmed.
The fourth gospel, three biblical epistles and the book of Revelation traditionally bear the name of St John as their author. As I mentioned earlier, modern scholarship has seriously questioned the authorship and historical value of all these writings. Nevertheless tradition carries with it a lot of weight – and at the end of the day – having learned what we can from the scholars – from a perspective of faith, what is crucial is our own engagement with these texts. What matters is the impact of these writings upon us in terms of our living engagement with God on a day to day basis.
The fourth gospel attributed to John – probably the last to be written and certainly the last to be completed – is the most wonderful testament to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – over 2,000 years ago. The passage we had for our gospel reading today comes at the very close of the gospel book. Peter has just been re-instated and commissioned by Jesus. Having earlier made his three – fold denial of Jesus, Peter then makes a three – fold affirmation of his love for and loyalty to the risen Jesus.
But for Peter that is not enough. At times in the gospel accounts we catch glimpses of the dynamics of sibling rivalry played out amongst the disciples of Jesus, and here Peter’s curiosity about John, the beloved disciple, gets the better of him. Peter asks Jesus of John,
“Lord, what about him?”
In effect Jesus tells Peter to mind his own business. Jesus says John will remain until Jesus comes – a somewhat enigmatic saying, that gave rise to rumours that John would not die.
Yet – as the text says – Jesus did not say that John would not die. It is much more likely that Jesus meant John would live to a good age and die of natural causes. Whereas Peter’s vocation would be to become a martyr for his witness to Jesus. According to one tradition Peter suffered death by crucifixion upside down. Such a martyr’s death was not John’s vocation.
Everyone’s vocation is of course unique. And what matters is that we follow our own particular journey rather than be distracted by the path that belongs to another.
In her Christmas Television broadcast this year the Queen mentioned John’s gospel and the opening prologue in particular. She quoted that powerful verse,
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.
The Queen went on to quote an ancient Chinese proverb –
“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.
The proverb literally translated runs, “Don’t curse the darkness – light a candle”.
The proverb became well known in the West when it was used in praise of Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President Franklin Roosevelt, and First Lady of America. Eleanor Roosevelt was a prominent feminist and human rights activist. She chaired the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and was instrumental in the drawing up of the significant charter of liberties, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. In an address to the United Nations General Assembly it was said of her,
“She would rather light candles than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world”.
The themes of light overcoming darkness, of truth overturning falsehood, of life being victorious over death, are major themes in John’s gospel.
Today, as we celebrate and give thanks for St John, let us endeavour to do our best in contributing to such themes in our own lives. We live in a world much troubled by darkness and death. The global scale of darkness, poverty, hunger and death may at times make our own contributions to alleviate the sufferings of others seem very insignificant. Yet each one of us can make a difference.
As this Christmastide continues to unfold, let us continue to deepen our faith in Jesus “the Word .. made flesh”. And let us do all we can to help our fellow pilgrims in their journey through this life, and let us light a candle of hope – rather than curse the darkness. Amen.