A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler on the Feast of St John the Evangelist
Jesus said to Peter, "Follow me." Amen. John 21:19b.
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint John the Evangelist (who may or may not be the author of the gospel of John, and probably is not the disciple whom Jesus loved, and is almost definitely not the John of the Book of Revelation. Whatever; we will celebrate anyway!). The Gospel reading appointed for this celebration is a curious exchange between Jesus and Peter about the fate of the disciple whom Jesus loved. The relationship between these two disciples, and their relationship to Jesus, seems to be an important subtext of this Gospel.
Two things can be noted about this anonymous disciple, which make him very interesting. The first is the existence at all of a follower of Jesus identified simply as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In what sense does Jesus love this particular disciple that distinguishes Jesus’ love of him from his love for the other disciples? Have you ever thought about that? What is the significance of Jesus’ relationship with this disciple? How does it inform our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus?
The second thing about this beloved disciple is that he is always paired with Peter. It appears that we are meant to interpret the significance of these two disciples and their relationship with Jesus in light of each other. Something important is being said about what it means to follow Jesus by the way in which these two disciples are compared and contrasted.
The disciple whom Jesus loved appears in John’s Gospel, always with Peter, at four points in the narrative: the Last Supper, at the Crucifixion, at the Empty Tomb, and in a post-Resurrection appearance story, which we heard this morning. At the Last Supper, after Jesus announced that one of the disciples would betray him, the Gospel says this: So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26 Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot.
We then meet the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross with Mary and several other women. Peter is notable by his absence, having denied and abandoned Jesus along with the other male disciples. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27 Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After Jesus’ death and burial, Mary the Magdalene first discovers the empty tomb and runs to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Together, they race to the tomb, but the anonymous disciple arrives first; he peers in but refrains from entering. Peter enters the tomb and observes the burial wrappings separately folded and set aside; but no body. We are not told Peter’s reaction, but Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;
Lastly, after a series of post-Resurrection appearances, we have the story in which Jesus appears incognito to a small group of disciples, who are fishing. Interestingly, it is the disciple whom Jesus loved who recognizes Jesus first and says to Peter, “It’s the Lord.” After a miraculous catch of fish, the disciples share breakfast with Jesus on the beach. There follows a long dialogue in which Jesus questions Peter three times: “Do you love me?” Each time, Peter responds affirmatively and is commanded by Jesus, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus then makes an enigmatic prediction of Peter’s martyrdom, concluding with the words, “Follow me.”
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’. This final scene recalls the Last Supper, where we are first introduced to the disciple whom Jesus loved, indicating to us that we should read this last scene as being of a piece with the previous pairings of Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved.
What are we to make of all this? What stands out for me is that not all relationships with Jesus are the same; in fact, each is unique. And it follows then that what it means to follow Jesus will be somewhat different for each disciple. Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved exemplify this really well.
Some scholars argue, with some degree of persuasiveness, that on the basis of the Gospel text the relationship between Jesus and the disciple whom he loved can best be described as one of lovers, a relationship marked by physical intimacy (which is not the same as sexual intimacy) and singular fidelity. The text indicates, in terms quite familiar to first century readers of the Gospel, that the beloved disciple had one who loved him. This intimacy comes through at the Last Supper, where Peter seems to acknowledge it by assuming that the anonymous disciple knows the identity of Jesus’ betrayer.
It is significant that the disciple, in fact, does not know and has to ask Jesus. Against those who try to avoid this aspect of the text by seeing the anonymous disciple as having an authority rivalling Peter’s, the text emphasizes that his intimacy with Jesus does not translate into any special insider knowledge or status among the disciples. Peter is always “in charge.” The “specialness” of the disciple whom Jesus loved lies elsewhere.
The unique bond of intimacy and fidelity shared by Jesus and the anonymous disciple is reinforced by the fact that he alone among the male disciples does not abandon Jesus, but takes his place with the women at the foot of the cross. It is striking that Jesus commends his mother and the anonymous disciple to each other’s care, essentially commanding their mutual adoption. This is particularly striking, because John’s Gospel makes mention repeatedly of Jesus’ brothers, who would normally be responsible for the care of their mother after his death. Against those who would allegorize the disciple whom Jesus loved as a type of Jesus’ love for the Church, Jesus simply instructs his mother to treat him as her son-in-law.
This is all very interesting, but there needs to be come caution in reading into this text too many assumptions based on later views. Our own contemporary understanding of same-sex relationships should not be read back into the 1st century. For one thing this bold understanding of the relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple needs to be set Jewish cultural prejudices against same-sex relationships. There is no hint of a physical sexual relationships. Had there been it is unlikely that Jesus would have attracted a band of disciples as he did.
However, any reading of history shows that, before our age of permanent, faithful and acknowledged same sex relationships, there have always been intense loving relationships between people of the same sex. We might laugh them off as ‘bromances’ today, but you simply don’t have to look far to find such friendships. Even scripture has them. If we feel uncomfortable about such relationships it probably tells us more about us than the people who experience them. There is something that can be serious, intentional and holy about feeling love for a person of the same sex, whether we call ourselves heterosexual, homosexual or any part of the scrabble board of initials that define contemporary sexual and gender identities.
Whatever the truth, and I don’t think we should be afraid of either conclusion to the debate, we should not be surprised that this beloved disciple is the first to believe in the Resurrection
and to recognize Jesus when he appears. And yet, the special nature of Jesus’ love for him, and his faithfulness to that love, does not in any way privilege this disciple or preclude Jesus’ love for each and all. In spite of everything, it is Peter, the denier of Jesus, who is commissioned to care for the community of Jesus’ disciples. Following Jesus is clearly not a matter of being special or worthy. It is simply a matter of loving Jesus enough to respond to the call, of trusting in Jesus’ love to sustain us in our ministries. Jesus judges us, not according to who we are, but on the basis of who we were created to become.
There will always be those, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, who seem to have an especially intimate relationship with Jesus, who feel his loving presence in their lives in a singularly powerful way; people whose fidelity to that love strikes us as simply astonishing. Consider one example: Teresa of Avila, the great 16th Century mystic and saint who recounts the following vision.
He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire … In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by the intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.
One almost blushes at the thought of such a relationship with Jesus. But we should not envy people like Teresa. As the story of the disciple whom Jesus loved reminds us, such intimate experiences are not the basis for any claims of superior discipleship. Such experiences are a gift, given to some but not to others for reasons known to God alone. In her lifetime, Teresa was rather reticent about such experiences (I can imagine why!), and emphasized more the ordinary sense of serenity she cultivated on a daily basis. The anonymity of the disciple whom Jesus loved is itself a reminder that such intimacy should, if anything, instill in us a greater sense of humility.
And there will always be disciples, like Peter, whose authority we recognize, not because they are particularly holy or faithful, but simply because we discern that they are called by Jesus, whose presence among us in the power of the Spirit continues to raise up leaders to care for his disciples. Clearly, Jesus chooses to make use of people whom we would not choose ourselves. Sometimes those people are you and me! We should not envy such people, because they, like Peter, are often called to a very demanding practice of sacrificial love.
Some of us may be notable for the way in which Jesus loves us – with a breath-taking sense of personal intimacy. Some of us may be notable for the way in which we love Jesus – even unto death. Most of us fall somewhere in between. The point is not to get too exercised about where we fall along this spectrum, or too preoccupied with the business of comparison. As Jesus told Peter when he inquired about the anonymous disciples’ fate, “It’s none of your business. Your business is to follow me!” Amen.
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