Today is the feast of St John the Evangelist. Over the Christmas period the words of the first chapter of his Gospel are read often, explaining the incarnation: ‘The Word became flesh’. John focuses very much on the theme of love and he calls himself ‘the disciple Jesus loved’. He shares with us in his Gospel and in his epistles this message of being loved for who we are, not for what we do or for avoiding sin, but simply because we are. Jesus loved sinners when he lived on earth and he reached out to them with his message of love, not condoning their sin but not condemning them because of it either. This is Good News for us all.
The readings for today are Psalm 117, 1 John 1, John 21:19b-end and the reflection I gave at the 10.30pm SLT service is below.
Today we remember St John the Evangelist. John called himself ‘the disciple Jesus loved’, a profound description of just how it was possible to relate to Jesus in his incarnation as a human being.
John was one of John the Baptist’s disciples. He and his brother James were the sons of Zebedee and were fishermen. It was while mending their nets in the boat with their father that the two brothers were called and told to follow Jesus. Without hesitation they did just that, leaving their father with his hired men. John became one of the three disciples who were closest to Jesus, along with Peter and James. He witnessed the transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’ daughter.
I don’t think Jesus loved John because he was perfect; this was not love that was earned by being a certain way. In fact, if we look at what we know about John, he was far from perfect. James and John were given the nickname ‘Sons of thunder’ by Jesus, perhaps because they asked Jesus’ permission to bring fire from heaven on a Samaritan village that would not give them hospitality for the night. John asked for a special place in Jesus’ kingdom and didn’t please the other disciples by doing so. On the night of Jesus’ arrest he fell asleep while Jesus prayed in anguish to God. His was not an unblemished record.
Jesus saw John just as he was, with all his selfishness and angry outbursts. He confronted him about his faults and yet John confidently claims to be loved by Jesus. It was surely in being loved despite getting things wrong that John was able to appreciate what it really means to be loved by Jesus, who is love. Having experienced that love, John is able to write about it and share with us just what it means.
We have listened to the wonderful opening of John’s Gospel during the last days of Advent and on Christmas Day. He tells us there about Jesus who is the bringer of light and life to human beings. John has actually seen, heard and touched Jesus. He knows what he is talking about and he wants us to know too even though we have not had that experience. This is what he starts his first letter with, telling us about Jesus who was alive from the beginning and who gives us eternal life.
In his Gospel John talks of Jesus as light: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’. In his epistle he says ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all’. Jesus and God used interchangeably to convey the same message. He can do that because Jesus is God. Jesus came to show us what God is like by living a human life, being seen and heard and touched. Words on a page were really not enough for us to fully understand, but the Word living helps to bring about full understanding.
There is another side to this interchangeable use of titles and that is picked up by Archbishop Michael Ramsey who once said: “God is Christlike, and in Him there is no unchristlikeness at all.” This is not just splitting hairs but a vitally important truth to understand, especially in the light of John’s comments about our sinfulness. It can be very easy to see God as a rather stern judge who is distant from us. He can seem like a headmaster who waits to catch us breaking the rules and then gives us detention or some other punishment. Knowing that God is exactly like Jesus helps to correct this view. It can completely revolutionise the way we think of God.
Jesus lived among sinful people, including John, and he loved them. He chose to spend time with those whom the religious leaders considered beyond the pale and he didn’t do this in order to heap condemnation on them but to offer them hope, light and life. He taught them, he healed them, he forgave them and he loved them. He didn’t condone their sin but nor did he reject them because of it.
It’s natural for us to want to hide our imperfections from others, including from God, but that’s foolish as God knows us completely. If we try to pretend that all is well, that we don’t sin, that sin isn’t an issue in our lives, we are building our relationship with God on a lie. We will tend to think we only have that relationship as long as we keep up the pretence and when we fall short of what we think we should do we may feel distant from God. We are not experiencing the deep love that God has for us and the security that can bring if we are basing our relationship on some kind of performance, keeping rules and covering up when we fail to do so.
John was in no doubt that he was loved by Jesus, loved by God, despite his shortcomings. He writes in order to convince us of the same thing: God accepts us as we are just as Jesus accepted people. There is no need to work to earn this love; it is given as a gift. Realising how much we are loved sets us free from worry, free to enjoy our relationship with God and free to love others with no strings attached. As Jesus said, ‘one who is forgiven little loves little.’ An awareness of our own sinfulness allows us to see just how much we have been forgiven and to love much as a result.
The angel told the shepherds that Jesus’ birth was ‘Good news of a great joy that will be for all people.’ The love of God shown to us in Jesus is Good News indeed.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor