In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen
Not only is today a feast of our Lord, but it is also the feast of St. John. John, half of Boanerges—the Sons of Thunder (also appropriate on this day), a man who was in Jesus’ inner circle. Think about all the cool things he saw. Wine turned into water. The Feeding of the 5,000. Jesus walking on water. The Transfiguration. The Last Supper. The Resurrection. Pentecost. John was the youngest of Jesus’ followers and the only one to die of natural causes.
St. Paul refers to him as a pillar of the Jerusalem Church, but did not remain there. He moved to Ephesus with Mary, Jesus’ mother, who was now in his care, where he set up his base of operations and founded several churches. (The Book of Revelation associates seven churches with him in Asia Minor.) During his time in Ephesus he wrote his Gospel account of Jesus’ life. This is a very different account from the other Gospels.
John wrote his gospel a couple decades after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He knew of their existence, but chose to take a different approach. He’s had roughly 60 years of reflection on the events of Jesus’ life. The approach he takes is: you now the story, but here is what it meant. John writes the best commentary of scripture for us, because he writes as an eye witness. John drives home the fact that all other religions that exist operate on the notion that we can attain God—that we can attain to the heights of God through our own efforts—but Christianity is different in that is says that the only way we can attain God is by him first coming down to us.
The thing I like most about John is his nickname—Boangeres—together with his brother James, they are the Sons of Thunder—referring to their fiery attitude. As an example of their bother attitude and zeal, when John and James saw that a village of Samaritan heathens would not receive Jesus, the brothers asked Jesus: Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” They were offended at the slight on Jesus’ authority, which they knew was great—heavenly even—but they were not so good at hearing the entire message. They were ambitious, trying to secure places of power in Jesus’ kingdom, but they lacked both subtlety and grace.
Yet Jesus called James and John to be his disciples and later to speak and act in his place after his Ascension into heaven. But prior to his departure, he gave them the grace to accomplish this mighty task. He appeared to the eleven as cowering in the corner for fear that they would be the next to be crucified, and breathed on them and gave them both the authority to speak and act in his name, and the grace to accomplish it.
Now, I’m sure that John still retained his fiery temper, in fact, I’m pretty sure this is one of the things that caused a rift in the Church that John speaks of in his letter to his community. A false teaching arose among them that claimed a false gospel—a “good” news that was opposed to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It was a gospel that did not require as much of the people as the Gospel of Christ did, so it seduced the people away. This was probably exacerbated by John’s demeanor, because who would willingly seek another gospel from the Gospel proclaimed by the man who heard it directly from Jesus and saw it with his own eyes, and was even present for Jesus’ private explanation? It must have been partly because of John’s disposition that caused others to be tempted by another gospel.
But this time, rather than seeking to call down fire upon the unbelievers, John seeks to allure them back through the love of God.
John did not mince words, just look at what he writes on Jesus’ authority to the Church in Laodicea: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you from my mouth.” How many pastors of a flock today would have the nerve to say this to their congregation, even if it did come straight from the Lord? John was straight forward. But he did so with the love of God foremost on his mind. He even continues on in the letter: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”
This is a man who knows the love of Christ and what it can accomplish. Notably, he is also the only Gospel writer to give an account of Peter’s reconciliation after the events of the night of his trial and Peter’s thrice denial. We can see in this, not only Jesus’ compassion for Peter who had to be eaten up with guilt by his denial, but also we see the redemption of the minister. This person who was so timid in the face of danger that he was even scared to tell a little girl of his association with Jesus, goes on in the Acts of the Apostles to tell whole crowds about Jesus. God took the person, with all of his frailties, and through his repentance and desire to follow, gave him the grace to accomplish the task.
The same is true with all those called by Jesus, if we are willing to follow, he gives us the grace to accomplish that to which he calls us. The story would not be as complete if it were not for John’s account of Jesus’ ministry.
It was for this witness and failure to deny it (he is a Son of Thunder) this witness of Jesus that got him exiled to Patmos, a rocky and treeless island off the western coast of modern-day Turkey used as a penal coolly at the time. At this point in his life, he was too old for his public death to be a really effective determent for the practice of Christianity. (They had tried, one tradition holds that he was first taken to Rome where they attempted to boil him in oil, but he came out unscathed. And years before this they tried to silence him by poisoning his wine, from which God delivered him.) But during his time on Patmos, he received a vision of the end of the world, which he wrote down, which we know as Revelation. Even in his old age, God had plenty of use for him.
John returned to his home in Ephesus after the Emperor who imprisoned him (probably Domitian) died. John lived there the rest of his life, where he died of natural causes. Apparently, when he died, just before he died he prayed to God, and after his prayer there appeared over him a great light at which no one could look; then he laid himself down and gave up his ghost. Immediately manna issued from his tomb and continued issuing forth.
John left us a lasting witness, one which rounds out the revelation of Christ, both in his Gospel account and in his account of the final death of sin and the beginning of the new heaven and new earth. He gives us an understanding that God gives us the ability to do that which he calls us to do, but one that does negate who we are. And he also gives us a reason to go home and drink a glass of wine. Tradition holds that on this day, in honor of God’s deliverance of John from the poisoned wine, the church blesses wine for use on special occasions and to heal the sick. Today is one of those occasions. Go forth and remember the witness of St. John, and think of how God will use you in his service.
In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.