Sermon preached at the Parish Mass on the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, December 27th 2015, St John’s Day
I remember talking to a friend of mine about the Normans once and trying to recall the name of a Norman king – ‘Ah, it would be something from the rich roll call of Norman names,’ he said, ‘Either William or Guy…’
You could almost say that about the Jews of the first century AD: every woman in the Gospels appears to be called Mary, or ‘the other Mary’ and the men are usually Simon, Judas, Joshua, or John. Which makes it quite awkward to pin down some very famous saints – especially St John. There seem to be too many of them. There is John the fisherman, the brother of James, John of Patmos, who wrote Revelation, John who wrote the Johannine epistles, and the John we celebrate today – John the Evangelist.
Are they all the same John? And what about that other shadowy John, who only turns up in St John’s gospel – the unnamed ‘beloved disciple’ who sat next to Jesus at the last Supper and to whom Jesus entrusted the care of His mother? Is he too St John?
Well for centuries all these Johns were talked of as if they were one man, and if anyone painted the saint he was always shown in the same way – beardless, to emphasise his youth at the time of the crucifixion and dressed in red, partly I suspect to zing off the blue of Our Lady. That’s how we see him at the base of our rood screen.
Supplementing St John’s appearances in the New Testament are some very early traditions about him, the most secure of which seem to be those that come St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons. In about 180 AD Irenaeus recorded that “John the disciple of the Lord… published his Gospel while staying in Ephesus in Asia.” And he added an actual sighting of John, in Asia, when he recalled that his bishop, Polycarp – who was martyred in 155 AD at the age of 86 – had in his youth lived in Asia and “talked with John and others who had seen the Lord.” I don’t know why – seeing the New Testament is so rich in first century material, but that slight reference has always delighted me. It’s so rare to get any sort of anecdotal report about the actual people who had known Jesus. Anyway, this would suggest that St John was living in Ephesus at the end of the first century.
And there the matter rested, until those great disturbers of our peace, the biblical scholars, started examining the text of St John’s Gospel and the other Johannine writings. Stylistically they decided that the book of Revelation was written by some other John, and that the Gospel of John was such a sophisticated piece of work, and had such obvious affinities with later philosophic ideas, it couldn’t be written by a fisherman (some unconscious snobbery here) and was probably written at the end of the second century anyway.
When enter my hero, Bernard Grenfell, who came across some bits of papyrus in a Cairo antique shop in 1928 and realised that one of them was a fragment of St John. It turned out to be part of Chapter 18 (the confrontation with Pilate) and fifteen years later the script was identified as having been written between 125 – 130 AD. Suddenly the papyrus scrap had become the earliest text of the New Testament in existence and, allowing at least 30 years (a modest estimate) for its contents to have even arrived in Egypt, its date of composition was put at about 90 or 100 AD. St John’s Gospel was obviously much earlier than had been supposed and some bold spirits even began to wonder whether it had been written by the Apostle after all…
Certainly both the Gospel and the Johannine letters assert that they are written by an eye witness. Here’s the opening of John’s first letter:
‘Something which has existed since the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have watched, and touched with our own hands. The Word of life, this is our theme.’ That is a staggering statement, not only because the author – lets call him John – says he’s seen, heard, and touched Jesus Christ, but because he knows as well as any human being can know, who that Jesus Christ was, ‘Something which has existed from the beginning… the Word of Life.’
That is why St John is called the Evangelist of the Incarnation. The one who unpacks the astonishing truth we celebrate at this season. That is why his great passage on the Incarnation is read at Midnight Mass – the famous opening to his Gospel – ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…’
This Christmas I’ve been accompanied by two descriptions of the Incarnation, one St John’s great prologue, and the other a carol written by Edward Caswall, ‘See Amidst the Winter’s Snow’
The carol starts off in the disarmingly simple manner of William Blake:
See, amidst the winter’s snow,
Born for us on Earth below,
See, the tender Lamb appears,
Promised from eternal years.
But as you sing it you realise that, though Caswall naturally knows and loves St Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth – the manger, the shepherds and the angels are all there – he takes his cue from St John’s description of Christ’s pre-existence, as the second person of the Trinity, the agent of creation, ‘All things were made by Him, and without him was not anything made that was made’ says St John, or as the carol says;
Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies;
He who, throned in height sublime,
Sits among the cherubim.
(That last line is a tricky one – I love it when the choir sing ‘cherubime…)
That simplicity of language is found in John’s prologue as well – but to shocking effect. His description of God, the infinite wellspring of Being, the source and end of all things, abruptly turning up on earth, with His tent, is one of the most abrupt collisions in religious literature: ‘He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world was knew Him not.’ ‘And the Word was made flesh, and pitched His tent among us’.
Pitched his tent is the literal translation, of course it means ‘And dwelt among us’, but the original Greek recalls other tents, and other moments when God was present among us – not incarnate, but alive and dangerous in the Israelite tent of meeting, the tent that housed the Commandments, the tent placed on the edge of the Jewish encampment in the Wilderness.
But here in John, God’s tent is pitched in the heart of a small family, and He Himself is a human baby, vulnerable, naked – how quickly St Luke assures us that the child was wrapped in swaddling bands – and demanding to be loved and fed.
Sacred Infant, all divine,
What a tender love was Thine,
Thus to come from highest bliss
Down to such a world as this.
And then St John himself appears, reticently, not telling us his name, but placing himself in this account to assure us that the transcendental realities of which he has been speaking, were truly incarnated, that the Holy Thing which Gabriel prophesied, was a real human being, and that he saw Him:
And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
That’s why St John’s feast is celebrated so close to Christmas Day, that’s why his Gospel is at the centre of our Christmas worship – and that’s why the church this morning is in white and gold. St John, the evangelist, St John the eye witness, St John the poet, great expositor of the Incarnation, pray for us, Amen.