Sermon – St John the Apostle, 27 December 2020
1 John 1 God is Light – walk in the light; John 21 vv 19b – End – Jesus’ rebuff of Peter. John will probably outlive Peter.
- Introductory. Christmas has ended. Thankfully Christmas was not completely cancelled although it wouldn’t have been the first time. During the period of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, 1642 to 1660, the celebration of Christmas was firmly prohibited by Parliamentary decree. Looked at it in its historic context it was not surprising. During many reigns, our royal families and nobility had set an example of riotous and immoral celebrations. I said ‘Christmas has ended’ because in the popular mind Christmastide is coincident with Advent and therefore the Christmas season ends with the climax of Christmas Day. By government decree we were originally allowed 5 days for Christmas, ending today, albeit it ended up by being more like one day. I have often wondered why in the Church calendar, Catholic and Anglican, we have a slightly strange grouping of major festival days, immediately following Christmas, namely St Stephen’s Day on the 26th December, St John’s Day, as today, on the 27th December, and then on 28th of December, Holy Innocents’ Day. I suspect, albeit I can find no authority for it, that the Church in its wisdom decreed these days of obligation to ensure the masters and mistresses gave their servants a good 4-day break from work, an enjoyable holiday. Today then we celebrate the Apostle John, the brother of James, the sons of Zebedee. John, with good reason, is the traditionally accepted author of both the gospel in his name and the three epistles in his name, hence the readings today from I John and the Gospel of John. Rather than focus on a particular verse or group of verses, I am going to give a broad overview of John’s Gospel and First Epistle.
John’s Gospel. I start then with the purpose that John had in mind in writing the Gospel, stated quite explicitly in the penultimate chapter, where he writes, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20 vv 30, 31). Much, but by no means all, of John’s Gospel, is structured around selected signs or miracles of Jesus. Signs point to the way ahead, as in road signs, certainly in the days before sat navs, to guide us to our destination and perhaps to tell us from where we have come, so that we don’t go round in circles. John has selected and records six signs, which I will describe briefly:
The first miraculous sign is at a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee, where the host runs out of wine to give to his guests, and Jesus turns water into wine, one of the two physical elements of the Eucharist. John quite explicitly states, “This is the first of his miraculous signs that Jesus performed, at Cana in Galilee and his disciples put their faith in him.” (Jn 2 v 11).
The second sign is one of the many healing miracles of Jesus. Again, He is at Cana, when he is approached by a royal official, who begged him to come and heal his son who was seriously ill with a fever. The son wasn’t there in Cana but more than 15 miles away in Capernaum. I guess that the father had been at the wedding feast and knew about the water being turned into wine. Jesus doesn’t go with the father to Capernaum, but says, “You may go, your son will live.” (Jn 4 v 49). John records, “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed.” (Jn 6 v 54). Healing at a distance, and the Church says that in a Zoom service the elements cannot be consecrated remotely!
The third sign is the feeding of the 5000, in which the second element, the bread of the eucharist is the focus, as well as fish, which later became a Christian symbol. John tells us, “The People saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world.’” and there were those who intended to come and make him king by force, but he withdrew. (Jn 6 vv 14, 15). The reference to ‘The Prophet’ is almost certainly to Moses’ prophetic statement recorded in Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet, like me, from among your brothers.” (Deut 18 v 15).
Immediately following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus walks on the surface of the Sea of Galilee as he goes out to join the disciples in their boat as they crossed to the other side of the Sea. John probably reckons by now that there is no need to keep numbering the signs; his readers will have begun to get the message.
So far, we have been in the North of Palestine with an entirely sympathetic audience. The next sign occurs in the South, in Judea, when Jesus restores the sight of a man born blind by telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem (Jn 9 v 11). Having had two cataract operations this year, I am mindful of benefit of improved sight but cannot comprehend what it must have been like for a man who had been born blind, and his healing happened without all the modern medical and surgical advances. The miracle arouses opposition from Pharisees because Jesus was apparently breaking their strict interpretation of the Sabbath law (Jn 9 vv 14 – 16). There were though those who challenged the Pharisees, saying, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” (Jn 9 v 16).
The sixth sign is quite tremendous. It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Despite Jesus’ deep friendship with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, when he hears the news of Lazarus’ illness, he deliberately delays his departure from the East side of the River Jordan, for two days, knowing that he would be performing this supreme miracle as a sign pointing to, and giving veracity to, his own resurrection. This miracle resulted in a meeting of the chief priests and a group of Pharisees calling a meeting of the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees said “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
What an amazing selection of six miracles pointing to the true nature of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, who was in the beginning with God and was God, without whom nothing was made that was made, leading up to the supreme miracle of Jesus’ own resurrection and thus fulfilling John’s purpose for those who seek after truth, that “You may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may life in his name.” (Jn 20 v 31).
1 John. My overview of 1 John will be much briefer with a focus on two words, light and love. Just as with his Gospel, John states quite clearly the purpose of his first epistle. In his concluding words he states, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5 v 13). Broadly, John’s gospel brings people to faith and his epistle gives assurance to those who have come to faith. The theme of light is a continuance from the Gospel in which he has written “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (Jn 1 v 4). In our epistle reading today, John writes, “God is light;” and he invites the Christian readers to walk in that light”. In His Gospel, John records Jesus saying to his disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you.” (Jn 13 v 34). In his epistle he writes, ‘God is love. Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in him.” (1 Jn 4 v 16). In Greek there are three words that are translated as ‘love’ in English. There is ‘phileo’, typified as a brotherly or sisterly love. There is ‘eros’ from which we derive the word ‘erotic’, a more emotional love and thirdly there is ‘agape’ with the sense of a self-giving, sacrificial love. It is this third word, agape, which is used in the two quotations that I have just made. Our love for others is to be a sacrificial love after the example of our Lord Jesus.
Conclusion. We come today almost to the end of a very difficult year and the prospect of anyhow a difficult start to a New Year. If this has in some way shaken or disturbed your faith, I invite you to read John’s gospel, particularly pausing to think about the seven signs, as a means of strengthening your faith. In this difficult year people have spoken about light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps particularly with the Covid 19 vaccination becoming available. Let us as people of the light walk now in the light, being positive about life now. I finish with a quotation from Winnie the Pooh: Pooh asks Piglet, ‘What day is it?’ Piglet replies, ‘Why, it’s today’, to which Pooh responds with gusto, ‘My favourite day!”