Feast of St. John the Divine, December 27, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Today is, according to the Prayer Book, the feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist.  This John was one of the twelve apostles, a son of Zebedee and brother to Saint James.  Our Lord gave these brothers the name ‘Boanerges’, the ‘sons of thunder’ (Mark iii.17), because of their impetuosity.  John and James, together with Saint Peter, were our Lord’s closest disciples.  This inner group of three were the only ones present for several events in our Lord’s life, such as the Transfiguration and the agony in the garden of Gethsemane.  St. John tradi­tionally is considered the author of the fourth gospel, the three epistles called by his name, and the Book of Revelation. 

In the 19th century radical German scholars began to doubt the authenticity of the gospel of Saint John, and asserted that it in fact could not have been written until late in the 2nd century, long after John’s death.  This was a fairly silly opinion, even in the 19th century, but was blown to smithereens by the publication in 1935 of a codex fragment from the gospel now in the John Rylands Library, Manchester.  This fragment is from the early 2nd century and is the earliest known surviving manuscript of any part of the New Testament.  It follows that John’s gospel had to have been written before the early 2nd century.  Which is to say, there is no good reason to doubt that it was written when the Church always thought it was written, late in the 1st century.  Archaeological and other evidence since the 1930s have confirmed that John is rooted in knowledge of 1st century Palestine and Jerusalem. 

Saint Jerome, writing much later, says that John wrote his gospel against various heretics who doubted the divinity of Christ and his existence before his conception in Saint Mary.  Saint Irenaeus names in particular the heretic Cerinthus as John’s opponent.  The 4th century Church historian, Eusebius, quotes St. Polycarp as saying that John was once in the bath house at Ephesus.  When John heard that this heretic, Cerinthus, was in the bath house as well, he ran outside, fearing that the building would fall in on such an enemy of truth. 

In the book of Acts it is apparent that John was one of the most important leaders of the early Church in Jerusalem.  In several events in the first half of the book he is closely associated with Saint Peter.  Later tradition has it that John went to Asia Minor and settled in Ephesus, where he lived to an extreme old age of almost 100.  It seems likely that the gospel as we now have it was written down on the basis of John’s eyewitness testimony late in the 1st century by John’s own followers.  Saint Irenaeus, who lived until about the year 200 and was a major figure in settling early Christian doctrine, tells us that as a boy he listened to St. Polycarp, who himself ‘was familiar with John and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord’.  There was, therefore, because of St. John’s long life, only one generation separating the eyewitnesses and disciples of Christ from Irenaeus and the Fathers of the late 2nd and early 3rd century.  Tradition also has it that John was the only one of the apostles to die a natural death.

In addition to being called a ‘son of thunder’ John refers to himself in his gospel, not by name but as the ‘beloved disciple’.  It was to St. John that our Lord from the Cross entrusted his mother, and it was to her that he entrusted John, saying, ‘Woman, behold thy son!’ and ‘Behold thy mother!’  ‘And from that hour,’ the gospel continues, ‘that disciple took her unto his own home.’ (xix.26-7)  As a follower beloved of Christ, St. John stands as a representative of all later Christians.

In Church art Saint John’s symbols are an eagle and a chalice with a serpent.  I am not sure what the chalice with a serpent means.  Of the eagle, St. Augustine writes as follows:

…the Apostle Saint John is not unfitly compared in point of spiri­tual discernment to an eagle.  For in his preaching he has taken a higher flight than the other three [gospels], and has soared aloft more sublimely….The other three Evangelists walked with the Lord as a man might walk, as on earth, for of the Godhead they told only a little.  But the Evangelist John seems to scorn to tread the earth.  Even in the very opening words of his discourse he thunders upon us, and soars not only above earth and air and sky, but above the hosts of the angels also, and all the array of the invisible Powers.  Through them all he passes to the very Maker of them all, saying:  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’

Saint John is the most theological of the gospel writers.  The divinity of Christ is plain from the outset in John.  That is why those who do not believe in our Lord’s divinity have tried so long to discredit his gospel.

Whereas the other gospel writers tell us many stories about Christ and his words and deeds, John’s goal is show us the meaning of Christ and his words and deeds.  For instance, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us about the baptism of Christ and the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  John assumes that we already know about these events.  Instead of repeating the stories, he goes deeper and tells us what they mean.  He tells us about the footwashing (ch. 13) to show us that the meaning of Eucharist is loving service.  He gives us a long discourse about the Bread of Life to show us the meaning of holy communion (ch. 6).  He shows us the meaning of baptism by a discourse with Nicodemus about being born again (iii.3, 7) and by a discourse with the Samaritan woman about the water that ‘springeth up into everlasting life’ (iv.14). 

Perhaps the central theme of both John’s gospel and his first epistle is the glory and love of God revealed to us in Christ in order to lead us into the life of God himself.  The path that leads to this everlasting life is love of our neighbor in imitation of Christ’s love for us.  This message is summed up in a story about St. John in one of Jerome’s commentaries.  Jerome writes:

The blessed Evangelist John lived at Ephesus down to such an extreme old age that he was with difficulty supported in the arms of his disciples and so was carried to the church.  And being unable to articulate many words, he was wont to utter each time to the congregation the simple words:  ‘Little children, love one another.’  At last his disciples and brethren were weary of hearing these words so often, and asked him, ‘Master, why do you always say only this?’  To which question he gave an answer worthy of John:  ‘It is the commandment of the Lord, and if this only be done, it is enough.’

Little children, love one another.  If this only be done, it is enough.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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