Sunday, 3 January 2016

John the Apostle (First Sunday of Christmas)

John 21:19-25
After this Jesus said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.


I remember, as a teenager, going to a big evangelical charismatic Christian conference where there were lots of seminars and teachings taking place during the day, a huge big top for three or four thousand people to share in worship in the evening, and then entertainment went on into the night. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot as a young Christian.  But one memory that has stuck with me was sitting in a session with a speaker who was a 'Famous Christian' but who, whilst he was a great writer, wasn't actually a terribly good speaker. I remember wondering if I could do a better job, which sounds really arrogant, but, hey, I was just a teenager.  I realise of course, as I think I did then, that this was just a young man's desire to be noticed, to be important, something that, hopefully, most of us grow out of, because it is only if we can leave behind such shallow ambition that we can actually become the people that God calls us to be.  Nevertheless that is one occasion in my mind when instead of pondering what I should do with my life, I wondered about what someone else was doing and wanted to do their job.

And it seems to me that this is what's taking place in the last part of John's Gospel on this day when we focus on John the Apostle. We can see what seems to be the first step on diverging paths between the apostles John and Peter which is triggered by the question Peter asks Jesus.

The scenario appears to be this. Jesus says to Peter, 'Follow me', and the very next thing that Peter does is to look behind him at John the apostle, who most believe to be the disciple who Jesus loved. Jesus has just reinstated Peter after Peter's denial about knowing him the night he was arrested yet it's John who capture's Peter's attention.

There are several occasions in the New Testament where Peter seems to be preoccupied by other people, their opinions about him, whether they will get a better deal than he will, and what effect that will have on his future, but Jesus is quite firm with him and requires of him that he takes his eyes off others and looks at him.

The main thrust of this is Jesus saying to Peter, 'Don't look at someone else's calling; simply follow me.' The reason for this was that John and Peter had two totally different callings. Both were apostles, but Jesus wanted different things from them, as history, stories that were handed down and myth bears out.

It can be a little difficult to be sure of what took place after the events recorded in the Gospels and Acts, but we know enough to believe that they eventually went in two very different directions.  To begin with Peter and John were both based in Jerusalem, but they both gradually went further afield. Peter, despite his apparent insecurities, took up the role given to him by Christ as the leader of the apostles. He preached a massive and very public sermon on the day of Pentecost, and was instrumental in the Gospel being taken out to the Gentiles, a huge and courageous step for a Jew.  Peter eventually went to Antioch with his family and there are claims that his descendants still live there. Ultimately it seems that he arrived in Rome where he was crucified under the reign of Nero.

So despite his failings and his insecurities, Peter stuck it out to the end. Being fully aware of not having reached the heights of perfection, even in his death he chose humility, asking to be crucified upside down for he felt unworthy to die like Christ.

But John had a very different journey. 

John, it appears, was the only one of the remaining apostles not to die the death of a martyr.  When we first meet him it is as the brother of James, another apostle. Jesus called them the 'Sons of Thunder' which may have been a dig at their tempers or alternatively it may have been an encouraging comment, perhaps suggesting that they were normally quiet people, but that Jesus knew their voices would eventually be loudly heard.  They were also part of the inner circle of three disciples, the other being Peter, indicating a very strong bond with Jesus. So strong was their friendship that John was the only disciple with sufficient courage to stay at the foot of the cross with the women after the others had fled.

After the events recorded in the Gospels and Acts we have to turn to extra-biblical sources to ponder what happened next to John. It seems that he was in Jerusalem for about twelve years until persecution drove the disciples out. From there it seems likely that he found his way to the Christian community in Ephesus.  That seems to be where he settled and there is some thought that it was under the community's encouragement that he wrote his account of the life of Jesus. You might have noticed that the penultimate verse in today's reading says, 'This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.'  Who was the 'we'? Quite possibly it was his community. This lends support to the idea that all of the writings attributed to John the apostle came out of this community, and although there are differences in style, certainly there is a strong case to be made that the Gospel of John and letters of John are closely related but not from the same author.  In fact there is a body of thought that even the Gospel was written by a number of people working together out of the Ephesus community using John the Apostle as their primary source.  There are also stories that he trained Polycarp who went on to be the Bishop or Smyra and who in turn taught Iraneus, both of whom were very influential in the early church. John probably died of old age in 98AD, a year that works well with the tradition that he was the youngest of the apostles.

Trying to look back through twenty centuries of history means it is perilously difficult to be sure about much of this, but when we look at the writings attributed either to John or his community, what we find are works of profound depth, with layers of meaning there to be discovered for those willing to delve into the text.

Let me give you a couple of examples of what we can find in his legacy. We've heard John 1 read twice over Christmas yet there are hidden depths to it, hidden in the use of language for the discerning eye. The first one of those we famously translate as 'In the beginning was the Word.' But that's not what it actually says in the Greek. In the Greek there appears to be a 'mistake'. The word 'the' is missing.  An error? Possibly, but I think not. What makes this profound is that there is a genuine known error in the early Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. Guess what you find when you look at the first verse of Genesis? There is a mistake in the translation from Hebrew. We may well translate it into English as 'In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, but in the Greek it says, 'In beginning.' The word 'the' is missing.  By simply copying that error in his Gospel John was able to say, 'That beginning that you know of, that entire creation story as told in Genesis 1; that all took place through the Word of God who became born to us as Jesus, Son of Mary.

And then later on in the same chapter there is another one. 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it'. But it also means, 'the darkness has not comprehended, or understood it.' Which did John really mean? I suggest he probably meant both. And there are other examples like these scattered throughout his Gospel, illustrating the depths and challenges that study reveals.

So what we see are two men who go in different directions. Peter was never going to be an academic. He himself says, in one of his letters, that Paul writes many difficult things in his letters. Peter is recognising himself as not being a profound writer. That was never meant to be his calling. He was called to speak out and to lead.  In contrast it appears that John developed into a man who recognised that there were depths of mystery to be found in God; who was unafraid to write about the divinity of Christ in explicit detail. Through John's writings we have a legacy of knowledge and understanding, of wisdom and ever-more questions that lead us to seek more deeply the nature of Christ.

But what if they had tried to do each other's jobs, to fulfil each other's callings? Can you imagine if Peter had tried to write a Gospel like John's without having his grasp of mystery and language? Would we have had such a profound work as John's? I suspect not because in-depth writing was not Peter's calling.

And John, a man with an ability with understanding and written communication, would he have been able to fulfil Peter's calling? Would he have had the brashness needed to stand up in front of a large crowd of people on Pentecost and preach a sermon that pulled no punches? I don't believe so. It was Peter's very brashness and ability to open his mouth that made him ideal for that role.

John's role was, instead, to instruct, to pass on his knowledge to others, and to write for future generations. His voice continues to thunder twenty centuries later. Neither could do the job of the other.

And that brings the spotlight back on to us. To what work are each of us called? A church becomes stronger when people can play to their own strengths. That should come with an encouragement to look at what those strengths might be, and to ask each other, our trusted friends, to help us see things in ourselves that we might have missed.

For example, some are better than others at being at the front. Others are very good at giving encouragement to those who are low or struggling. I've been the recipient of that in the past so I know how important a ministry it is. Yet others are wonderful at showing hospitality.  Some are good conversationalists, or good contributors in discussion groups, or good at baking, cleaning, making sure that which is needed is there when it's required, chairing meetings, listening, singing, reading, leading prayers, helping children and young people, and so on.

When we are at our best the church is most able to function as what it is, the Body of Christ on earth. And right at the heart of that is what Jesus said to Peter when he caught him looking at John. Don't worry about the ministry other people have because we are all different. All we have to do is to be obedient to Christ, to follow him, and he will lead us to where we are supposed to be.

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