Feast Day of St. John

December 27, 2015

Bible Text: John 1:1-18 |

Today we celebrate Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist, our patron saint. But what exactly does that mean?

Does it mean we pull out all the miraculous stories the church has developed over the centuries to commemorate him? If so, then there’s an awfully good one about his emerging unscathed from a vat of boiling oil! But I don’t really think that’s what this day is all about.

But if it isn’t about hagiography, should it be a day to insist that the five books of the New Testament credited to John were literally written by the same disciple – John – who was described in the gospels? We could do that, and it would certainly come across as a kind of fidelity to our patron saint. But, truth be told, I don’t really have a dog in that fight.

And by “that fight” I’m referring to the scholarly debate about who exactly wrote these five books. Did John himself write some or all of them? That would be very tidy; it’s certainly appealing. Or was it a community of believers who created these books? a community within the early church who represent a distinctive perspective on the life of Jesus and what it means to be his followers. If so, the logic goes, they attributed their writings to the apostle John in order to give them credibility.

But like I say, I don’t have a strong opinion on this. Because – whatever the source – we’ve received five particular books in the New Testament that clearly stand together as a kind of “canon within the canon” – a distinctive perspective into the life and ministry of Christ and what it means to follow him. It is one facet of a larger, more complex New Testament that contains several perspectives on Christ and his church.

But today we celebrate the “John tradition” – a strand of faith throughout the history of the church which has always had a particular allure.

So what I’d like to do is offer a few brief meditations on the noteworthy themes and images that John uses, with a particular eye towards how these themes may help define the nature and mission of our parish – that we would be St. John’s, not merely by name, but by Spirit.

Darkness and Light

The first theme is Darkness and Light.

When I was young, I remember lamenting the way bullies were the most influential – that one mean, loud-mouth could take over a playground, while we good kids melted into the shadows, hoping to be overlooked. As the years went by I saw in that a pattern that seemed to be universally true: a single terrorist can blow up an airplane and all its occupants, and simultaneously render an entire nation scared and hostile. An abusive parent can destroy an entire family. Cancer metastasizes. Darkness, it seemed, was more powerful than light.

Except, of course, that it isn’t. Darkness does not eclipse light. The darkest nights reveal the most stars. When you entered the church today, you might not even have noticed the Christ Candle burning, because there is too much light in the room. But if you’d been here in the night, that same candle would illuminate the whole church and you’d be drawn to it like a moth.

So claims John in the opening words of his gospel:

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).

Christ is our light and there is no amount of darkness that can overcome him. John was certain of this. In fact, the verb tenses he used were even more emphatic:

The light continually shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.

Never. It may seem in this life that darkness eclipses the light. And so the therapists maintain a lively trade because our vulnerable psyches are so easily given over to darkness and fear. But the work of the therapist is to reveal the darkness for the lie it is, and to uncover God’s light within us that has never stopped shining.

And the center of this light is Christ, whose light has always shone and shall never be extinguished. Darkness will rear its head with ferocity, but it hasn’t the strength to sustain itself. Whatever you may believe about Adam and Eve and the Fall, sin has never been stronger than truth. Love has always been stronger than hate. There is no power of evil that cannot be overcome by the more powerful force of forgiveness.

Darkness may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5), and Christ is the bright morning star (Revelation 22:16) who gives himself to us (Revelation 2:28).

St. John’s, we are called to seek this light: in our lives, in our church, and in the world around us, and to do whatever we can to disbelieve the dark lies that whisper to our souls. We are people of light, a light continually shining in the darkness, and will never be overcome by it.

Community of Being

A second theme in John’s writings is his mystical insight into the nature of relationships. We see it principally in the way Jesus describes his relationship with his heavenly Father. It starts out rather simply: In chapter 2 he makes a passing reference to “his father’s house” (John 2:16). Then in chapter 3 he tells Nicodemus that he was “sent from God, into the world” (John 3:17). By chapter 5 he’s making the audacious claim,

The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise (John 5:19).

But it doesn’t stop there. The relationship between Father and Son continues to be revealed as more and more total and elemental – without division at all. By the end of his ministry he’s describing their relationship with such depth that we can hardly envision what’s he’s saying – but we can feel the intimacy of it:

Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me (John 14:11).

They inhabit each other as one: each still distinct, yet fully given to the other. John’s writing here is the basis of all Trinitarian thought – the most sublime insight the church has developed into the nature of God’s very self: a community of being, of total oneness that remains the “many”.

And into this oneness of God, Jesus invites us, with the same beguiling language:

As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one (John 17:21-23).

Just as this world believes that darkness is stronger than light, so are we raised believing that a fractured humanity is our true humanity – each of us an island of private dreams and fears. But John reveals a truer reality, that through Christ we are made one. It may sound like so much philosophical blather, but if we allow it to be true in us, it has power to transform everything we know and believe about ourselves.

Jesus revealed the depth of this truth bit-by-bit throughout his ministry. So it is in us. Our faith begins with just a little bit of insight into who God is and who we are. But pity the person who goes through life never growing in faith beyond the elementary teachings of their youth. For we are called into deeper and deeper union with God and each other – into a union far beyond philosophy and hopeful ideals.

St. John’s, there is always more to be discovered in our relationships with God and each other – beyond what we currently know or believe. Seek this union, for in it is the true living for which we were made as the image-bearers of God.

Primacy of Love

And then there is the third theme: and that is the primacy of love.

The light shines in the darkness; the light reveals a union of being that includes both God and humanity; and at the center of that revealed union is love.

If there is one thing John insists and is known for, it is his call to love. Nothing is truer of God and truer of us.

God is love, he writes (1 John 4:8), and this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another (1 John 3:11).

God loves and we love. Love is the center and love is the boundary. Anything beyond that is not of God.

There’s an ancient story about John. I have no idea whether it’s true or not. But that hardly matters. It’s said that as a very old man he continued to preach, but that his sermons were always the same: just a single line, Children, love one another! As much as I’m sure they appreciated the brevity of the sermon, they got a little annoyed by its repetition. So they asked him why he kept repeating the same thing over and over, to which he replied, This is the command of the Lord, and if you fulfill it, it is sufficient. Children, love one another!

Love takes many faces, but inherent to them all is a willingness to forgo power and privilege in order that another may flourish: The mother who eats the scraps so that her child may be filled; the fireman who rushes into a burning house; the church that opens its doors to the homeless on freezing nights. What makes love love is a heart that truly desires another’s good, and hands committed to making it so.

Unique to John’s gospel is his version of the Last Supper. There is no bread and wine in John’s telling of that night. There is a basin and a towel. Jesus demonstrated his love for the disciples by washing their feet. It was a sacrament of servanthood, for in serving one another, the grace of God’s love is released like so many waters.

If there were any one thing I would wish for our church, it is that we would embody this spirit of loving servanthood. At the center of the window in the back of this nave is an image of the foot washing. In the darkness of night, when the light is shining in St. John’s, it is that image that our neighbors will see. And, oh may it be true, dear Lord, that the window of this church would become the window of our soul.

Christ is the light that shines in the darkness.

Christ has made us one with each other and one with God.

Christ is calling us into the sacrament of love through service.

This is John’s legacy to us. And this, I believe, is what will make us – truly – the parish of St. John.