(Patronal Festival, St John the Evangelist - Sermon)
“Purity of heart is to will one thing”
This past week has seen the long planned ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro. Dame Barbara Stocking, the director of one of the world’s largest charitable organisations, Oxfam said this ahead of the summit : "This is urgent. As the people with the least struggle to survive, the consumption habits of the richest are stripping the Earth of its resources. The situation is dire. We cannot go on living beyond the Earth's boundaries. The people suffering are the poorest. These are issues that will affect us all for ever." This statement, no one in their right minds could possible have any issues with. The very future of the planet is at best on a cliff edge. There are some, and I have to say I tend to agree with them, who say we have already fallen off the edge and are accelerating rapidly towards a Very Messy endgame.
Of course, given the extreme gravity of the situation all the worlds most powerful people were there. Of course? Well actually no. President Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel were all noticeable by their absence. Where were they?? In Mexico agonizing over the economic maelstrom. It reminds me of the story of the man who is having a heart attack, but doesn’t call the ambulance because he is too busy on the phone to his bank manager. Actually I made that story up - no-one would be that stupid or that distracted would they?? Just the other day Sam was reading the story of the first Arctic Explorers and how when their ships were crushed by the ice and they had to go on foot, they took along alll their fancy furniture - or there is the story of the Indian Mutiny when the English families fled with all their possessions - and the way we are told was littered with stuffed owls and the like. We are constantly reminded if a building is on fire - Do not go back for your possessions - yet we are Captivated and distracted by what is secondary
We live in an age of distraction, of captivation by that which is of no value. One in which our attention is being continually dragged hither and thither. There are so many loud, yet thin voices clamouring for our attention that in the midst of it we have not the capacity to determine what really counts. The planet is dying but the worlds leaders are busy bean counting. Obviously we have decided that it is better to be rich on a dead planet or poor on a living one?? We may all starve but at least we’ll have our stuffed owls.
But Distraction form that which really counts - the matters of Life and death is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Our gospel reading today is prefaced by the words of Jesus to Peter - Follow me! - not just words - a Command of the one who declares “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life - How MOre significant can it be, the One who encompasses Eveything - Follow Me! - Imperative. But even Peter is distracted “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 is not even for a moment drawn in - ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ That is None of your concern - and then the renewed command - ‘Follow me!’
Today, in the depths of winter - the season of darkness, we celebrate the feast of our patron St John the Evangelist. The one who writes that the light shines in the darkness - “the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper” John of course is symbolised by the Eagle - he is the Evangelist who gives us a gospel of breathtaking scope. He soars HIgh above the perspective of the other three Evangelists. His gospel begins at the beginning of Everything, before Creation came to be. And leads us into the Life that is eternal. It is a breathtaking aerial vision, soaring as it were high not over the earth, but above everything.
But why does the Eagle soar so high? Because he enjoys the view? No - he soars as high as he possibly can in order to give us the best possible view of his subject. Like any bird of prey the eagle only has eyes for that which will feed him - he soars high that he might find food, Life. John knows that Christ Alone can feed him, And for John that food is Christ himself. ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life’. John’s Vision is utterly consumed by that which he feeds on, the very life of Christ. John the Baptist at the beginning of the gospel declares to us the purpose of the gospel “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” and anyone who knows about the Passover Lamb knows one thing - you have to eat the Lamb.
John for all his transcendent perspective is by far the most imminent, the most intimate of all the gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all to a certain extent because they see Jesus and his life in temporal context present a Jesus who we follow as if it were through thick woods - we keep losing him - he hides - ‘who do you say that I am?’ is the question they ask. Not John. Soaring High above the story he Sees Christ clearly ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ Cries the Eagle. With John we are not struggling through the woods - continually losing sight of Jesus, no - we are up close - up too close for some
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat? ‘This word is hard. Who can accept it . . . and many drew back from following him’ - ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ ‘ you shall never wash my feet’ Up close - and personal. Whoever eats me has life - whoever knows me has life. John refers to himself as ‘the disciple who had leant on the breast of Jesus’ - John is Intimate with Jesus - and of course he refers to himself as ‘the beloved disciple’. John loves Jesus. Jesus loves John.
And we might say - ‘The Disciple whom Jesus Loved? Well that’s not fair! - Why does Jesus have a favourite?? Our gospel reading with Peter being distracted by the presence of John following Jesus and Peter, follows immediately on from Jesus telling Peter this Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) It is perhaps no surprise that Peter looks back and asks “but what about Him” Jesus words ‘If I will that he remain until I come . . .” Might suggest to us that the disciple whom Jesus loves will get off lightly. Of course this was the way in a sense the way it was read and so John corrects it and says - “Jesus did not say that he would not die, merely If I will that he remain til I come, what is that to you”
Yet John does more - by never referring to himself by name - he leaves the door open. We may ask - How does John know that Jesus loves him . . . but of course that is it. John Knows he is loved by Jesus and thus he is always to be found with Jesus, close to Jesus - even when Jesus is in close conversation with Peter, John is following, John is at the Cross, John looks into the empty tomb and sees and believes, John reclines upon the breast of Jesus. John represents All who Know that Jesus Loves them, deep in their hearts.
Peter, on the other hand is always a step removed - Peter is bold in his assertions about Jesus, but his actions belie him. I will lay down my life for you! he says. Jesus says that that is the mark of Love - to lay down one’s life. Peter makes out that he loves Jesus, but his actions reveal his heart. It is John (and of course the women) who go to the cross with Jesus - they are shown to be the ones who love him.
John writes in his first epistle - we love because he first loved us. His love for Jesus comes from deep knowledge of Jesus love for him. John knows he is the beloved disciple. And that asks of us two questions. For Peter certainly in some sense knew. In his head he knew Jesus was the Christ. He knew in his head - but he had not yet been captured in the totality of his being by this love of God for him - it was as yet a concept. Do we know we are so loved? Is the love of Jesus for us a good doctrine, a comfortable doctrine even, one that gives us hope and strength - or do we KNOW he loves us, deep within our being. John leaves the door open - for those who come to KNOW that they are loved of Jesus, may love him well in return, may themselves recline upon the breast of Jesus.
Peter as yet has but a weak love for Jesus - lord - you know that I love you he pleads three times . . . but not yet as you love me (in the Greek we see this plainly - Jesus asks do you agape me (love me with all you have and are) twice - and twice Peter responds I phileo you (love you as a friend) - finally Jesus says ‘do you phileo me’ and that is enough - but Peter is still not there. It is enough, it is a starting point, but as yet Peter doesn’t only have eyes for Jesus - he is too easily distracted by John - what about Him?? - if he loved Jesus with all he had and all he was, then he would never have asked about John.
Jesus asks Peter, he asks us - do you agape me. Do you only have eyes for me? John the soaring eagle spies out the entire terrain, in the midst of history he spies out Jesus of NAzareth - but indeed as he surveys Everything - In the beginning was the Word - All things came into being through him - He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the End - He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. John can say in a way no other lover can - He is my everything - he is Everything. The Eagle as he swoops over all of Creation can only see Christ. He consumes his vision. Behold the Lamb of God! he cries out to us, the Lamb that was slain from before the foundation of the Earth.
Such a compelling vision of Christ - but one that is Utterly rooted in the materiality of our world. Some of the early church fathers thought of John as a Spiritual gospel. Love expressed as a sentiment - the eternal Life as something immaterial. Yet it is John who makes the very flesh of Jesus every bit as important as his words, as his message. We may listen to the institution of the eucharist in the other gospels - we may hear Jesus saying, This is my body, this is my blood - but we are required to make as it were a spiritual conceptual leap. John leaves us in no doubt - Eat my flesh - Drink my blood - the Word becomes Flesh. And this fleshly word encompasses Everything.
We cannot read the gospel of John and end up with a faith that is purely about our personal salvation, his Vision is All encompassing, and throughout the gospel John portrays Christ as both the Source and the End of All of Creation, the Alpha and the Omega. And thus to beginning today thinking about the Earth Summit was not irrelevant.
At the heart of the problem the Earth faces as set out by Barbara Stocking were these words “As the people with the least struggle to survive, the consumption habits of the richest are stripping the Earth of its resources.” the consumption habits of the richest . . . those who take and take and take from the world.
As we Love Christ as he loves us - we are hidden in him, as Moses is hidden in the Rock - we identify with Him and in Him we Become the way of Love - the way of Love, not to take and take and take, but to Give and Give and Give. The Earth Summit subtitle is ‘sustainable growth’ - yet the crying need is to contract, to become Less. The Human footprint on the earth is far beyond anything the planet can sustain - for it was created to sustain those who lived from God’s provision, not their rapacious greed. It was created to sustain those who although they had nowhere to lay their head - yet discovered the hospitality of God. It was created as a home for those who though they were poor discovered that in Christ they possessed all things. Christ reveals to us both the Living God and the True human being. He took nothing. He gave himself. That is Love. And John is Clear in his gospel and his other writings that we are to imitate Christ in the way of self giving love - as I have loved you, Love one another
And again as the evangelist writes in his first epistle We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
Behold the Lamb of God - Our Life, and the Salvation of the whole world - The one who calls us away from the distractions of the world to a life lived in, through, and for him alone.