27 December 2009
John, Apostle & Evangelist
Woodchurch 8.00 and 10.30 am
Readings: 1 John 1 & John 21:19b-25
May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Well, I hope that you all had a wonderful day on Friday, however you choose to spend Christmas.
Today we celebrate the feast of St John, apostle and evangelist. We do not know for certain whether the apostle John, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ and the writer of the Gospel of John who proclaims Jesus as ‘the Word made flesh’ are the same but they are celebrated together in church tradition. The Gospel narratives speak of John as one of the three who was present at the transfiguration of Jesus on the Holy Mountain; he was with Jesus in his agony in the garden; he was there with Jesus and his mother standing at the foot of the cross; he was there with Jesus as a witness of his resurrection and ‘he saw and believed.’ According to tradition the same John who took part in these events wrote the Gospel and letters we find in the bible in his name and he died in Ephesus at a ripe old age. When he got older he used to be carried out of his house to preach to the crowds and his sermons often consisted of the single phrase: “Brothers and Sisters, love one another.”
The sad thing is that although that is probably the most profound thing one can say in this world, and although it was preached by a beloved friend of Jesus and a saint, if a member of the clergy tried that for too long now there would be complaints to the bishop.
Today. the celebration of Saint John, comes sandwiched between two somewhat more sobering events in the life of the church. Firstly it comes immediately after the Feast of St Stephen, which commemorates the martyrdom of one of the first deacons in the church. We will have an opportunity to think about St Stephen in a little more detail this time next year as Christmas Day falls on a Saturday which means that the first Sunday of Christmas will also be Boxing Day.
And it immediately precedes the day known as Holy Innocents which commemorates all the innocent children under the age of 2 killed by Herod in his attempt to stop a new King of the Jews arising who might challenge his dynasty. Both the martyrdom of Stephen and the slaughter of the holy innocents remind us that the church did not simply grow from the crib without being fiercely resisted by the vested interests in the world, both religious and secular. As the Gospel of John said to us on Christmas Day the light has come into the world in the Word of God made flesh and whilst the darkness cannot overcome that light it is also true that the world did not know or accept the light and it is absolutely true that those who prefer to keep their deeds hidden in darkness would like nothing better than to snuff out the glimmerings of light at every opportunity.
That was the case at the time following the first Christmas, it was the case when the early church began to arise following the events of the first
Easter, it was the case when John the Evangelist wrote his epistle which we will look at in a moment, and of course it remains the case today. In many parts of the world the church is outlawed and persecuted by the state, and in our Western world it seems that the world seeks constantly to snuff out the light of the church not by overt state persecution or martyrdom but by ridicule and placing in the compartment marked ‘irrelevant to real life’.
But there is another way in which the light of the church is attacked by the darkness and that is by the attacks we launch upon ourselves constantly from within the church. And it seems that that is as true today as it was when St John was writing.
The first epistle of John , part of which we had read to us this morning, was written at a time when the early church was beginning to grow in numerous places around the Mediterranean but before the bible had been finalised. We take the bible so much for granted in our worship that it is easy to forget that for several hundred years there was no single agreed collection of Christian writings and many communities may have only had access to oral traditions about Jesus, perhaps one of the gospels and maybe one or two of the early letters of St Paul. In those circumstances it is perhaps unsurprising if isolated church communities without much access either to other churches or to written guidance began to go astray and to develop ideas and doctrines that were a significant departure from the mainstream. When St John wrote the letter we saw this morning he did not sit down and think to himself, “…Today I am going to write the First Chapter of the First Epistle of Saint John that will hopefully be published in the bible one day” instead he wrote to a particular straying church to help keep them in line. Now of course under the inspiration
and guidance of the Holy Spirit his letter speaks to us in our need just as clearly today but I think it is helpful to remember that these letters were not written in the abstract but to address a concrete situation.
In a sense we have to guess what the situation was because we only have Saint John’s response, but it seems likely that he was addressing a doctrinal challenge by a group that we would now call the Gnostics who, amongst other things, denied that there was such a thing as Sin. Sin is equally a problematic concept today and the church often seems embarrassed to mention the word because it suspects, perhaps rightly, that people do not like to be told that there is anything in their lives separating them from God and, in the post-modern marketplace of competing religions and new age beliefs, there are plenty of other people out there – modern Gnostics – who will seek to make people feel superficially good about themselves by denying that sin exists.
And yet, unless we are totally self-deluded. each of us knows in our heart of hearts that many of the choices we make in life in both small and large decisions are sinful in the sense that they lead us away rather than towards being the people that God made us to be. It may make us feel good to tell ourselves that we are perfect as we are but it is much more realistic to recognise that we are all a “work in progress” and that the gap between who we are now and who we ought to be could be called sin. Saint John certainly knew that and that is why he wrote:
“If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned we make him a liar and his word is not in us.”
Yes, in many ways the language of sin does feel unfashionable and sometimes a tad embarrassing depending how it is used but the fact is that we do not proclaim sin in order to make people feel bad about themselves, the fact is that we talk about sin to recognise the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves as struggling human beings and to bring us closer to God by cleansing of our sins and by constant striving to do better. If we take sin out of the equation then all we succeed in doing is removing the possibility of redemption. We don’t come to church because we are good people, we come to church or we ought to, because we recognise that we need to be better people.
As Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist would have said: Brothers and Sisters, love one another.