Feast of St John the Evangelist 27th December 2015
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Today we celebrate the feast of John the Apostle and Evangelist. The Gospel reading we’ve just heard, appointed for this celebration, is a curious exchange between Jesus and Peter about the fate of the disciple whom Jesus loved. In fact, this scene is the final of four scenes in which Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved appear together. The relationship between these two disciples, and their relationship to Jesus, seems to be an important subtext of John’s Gospel. The so-called ‘Beloved Disciple’ could be the author of John’s Gospel, but perhaps not. We don’t really know.
But there are two things worth noticing about John the Beloved Disciple which make him interesting. The first is the very existence of an anonymous man identified simply as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In what sense does Jesus love this particular disciple in such a way as to distinguish 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 other interesting thing about this disciple is that he is always paired with Peter in John’s Gospel. It seems that we are meant to interpret the significance of these two disciples and their relationship with Jesus in light of each other. Something is being siad about what it means to follow Jesus by the way in which these two disciples are compared and contrasted.
The Beloved Disciple appears in John’s Gospel, always with Peter, at four critical points in the narrative: the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Empty Tomb, and in the post-Resurrection appearance story we’ve just heard. First, the Last Supper, after Jesus says that one of the disciples would betray him. A literal translation reads as follows: One of his disciples was lying in Jesus’ lap, the one Jesus loved; so Simon Peter nods to this one and says: “Tell, who is he talking about?” That one, falling back on Jesus’ chest says to him: “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answers: “It is the one to whom I will give this morsel when I dip it.” So when he dipped the morsel he gave it to Judas…”
We next meet this anonymous disciple at the foot of the cross with Mary, and several other women disciples. Peter is not there, having denied and abandoned Jesus along with the other male disciples. Here we are informed that Jesus, seeing his mother and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, see your son.” Then he says to the disciple, “See your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own [home].
After Jesus’ death and burial, Mary the Magdalene first discovers the empty tomb. She runs to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple. 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 had come to the tomb first, also entered and he saw and believed…”
Finally, after a series appearances, the risen Jesus appears incognito to a small group of disciples, who are fishing. Interestingly, it is the Beloved Disciple 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 conversation 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 talks of Peter’s martyrdom, concluding with the words, “Follow me.”
Turning, Peter sees the Beloved Disciple following them, who also was the one who leaned on Jesus’ chest at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is the one betraying you?” Peter, seeing this one says to Jesus, “Lord, and what of him?” Jesus says to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”. Notice how this final scene recalls the Last Supper, where we are first introduced to the disciple whom Jesus loved. John wants us to notice that we should read this scene as being related to the previous pairings of Peter and the Beloved Disciple.
So what are we to make of all this? One thing that stands out for me is that not all relationships with Jesus are the same; in fact, each is unique. And it follows from this 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.
One the one hand, there are the disciples like Peter, people who seem to be on a mission, people whose faith is active, sometimes impetuous and a bit accident-prone by virtue of their constant activity. Sometimes people like Peter are people Jesus chooses to make use of even if we wouldn’t immediately see the reason why! Sometimes people like Peter are people like you and me! The Gospels picture Jesus giving Peter some sort of authority that comes from his call by God.
But today isn’t about Peter; it’s about John. So let me spend a little more time thinking about what it means to be a disciple like the Beloved Disciple. While Peter’s authority and role seems to come from his call by God, John’s seems to come from his relationship with God. There is a real sense of intimacy between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple. He appears to have a particularly faithful, close relationship with Jesus. This is not to imply that there was a homosexual relationship, or even what today many people call a ‘bromance’, but that there is some sort of bond between Jesus and John that indicates a particular understanding between them. Most of us have had some sort of friendship like that in our lives – someone who we just understand and who understands us. It could be with our spouse or partner, often it is, but equally it can be with a life-long friend.
Part of what the story of the Beloved Disciple tells us is that there is a different sort of authority and role among the followers of Jesus that sits alongside the sort of authority that Peter gets from his call. John’s comes from relationship with Jesus, it comes from a sort of connection that exists in God’s purposes that transcends the sort of hierarchical or personality-driven styles of leadership and target-driven approaches or that we are so familiar with today. You can see it elsewhere in John’s Gospel as well: instead of almost hierarchical image of the Church as a Body, with a head and members, John gives us the image of the Vine and the Branches. Instead of ‘following the teaching of the apostles’, John gives us the image of ‘abiding in his love’. Having the presence of the Beloved Disciple in the company of Jesus invites us to understand that intimacy with Jesus, the sort of spiritual connection we might have through knowing Jesus and spending time with him, is a vital, life-giving and special gift that many of us might know or, indeed, might wish to explore.
Of course, there will always be those, like the Beloved Disciple, 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 astonishing. Consider 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. If this is chastity, give me poverty! But we should not envy people like Teresa. The story of the Beloved Disciple reminds us, such intimate experiences are not the basis for any claims of superior discipleship. Knowing God like this is gift, given to some but not to others for reasons known to God alone. In her lifetime, Teresa was rather discreet 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 Beloved Disciple could be a reminder that such an intimate experience of God will, if anything, instil in us a greater sense of humility.
As someone at the Peter end of the spectrum, I hope and am glad that there are Beloved Disciples in our Church. Your prayer, your relationship with God, your understanding of what it means to be intimate with God, is a gift the whole church needs if it is not to become endlessly active and driven. Peter is the sort of disciple who you can imagine having a Mission Action Plan; for John, such a concept would seem a distant possibility. Indeed, after a period of disruption to church life and at a time when everyone perhaps feels we need to pick up the pieces, those who can draw us away from endless activity to the source of our life in Christ together, our relationship with God through Jesus, are a real gift to us. We need our Beloved Disciples more than ever.
And to our Beloved Disciples, to those who know God intimately and love to spend time with him in simple communion, however that works out for you, I would say this. You may not be someone who pushes themselves forward; you may not be someone who believes they have gifts and talents to offer the church; but you are someone blessed with a deep, abiding relationship with God, something that accompanies you throughout your life. Some of us may be notable for the way in which Jesus loves us – with an amazing, even breathtaking 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 whether we are like Peter or like the Beloved Disciple, whether we feel more called to action or more called to intimacy and contemplation. Comparisons are invidious. As Jesus says to Peter in our Gospel reading, when he asks about the particular vocation of the Beloved Disciple: “What is that to you? Follow me!”