Saint John the Evangelist’s Day


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December 27th 

Merciful Lord, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light…
1 John 1:1-10
John 21:19-25

Many scholars doubt that one person wrote the five works attributed to “John”: The Gospel of St. John; The Letters of John 1-3; and the Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine. The doubts are based on grammar, style and lexicography but could one man have laid down his nets at the Sea of Galilee, be well connected with the priestly class in Jerusalem, stand at the foot of the Cross, write Revelation at the turn of the First Century and die in Ephesus c105 AD? Such speculations do not affect the validity of John’s propositions which the Collect, somewhat sententiously, refers to as “doctrine”; the Bible is an indivisible corpus regardless of questions of authorship.

The choice of texts indicates a Tudor age belief in Johannine authorial coherence: the Collect describes John as an “Apostle and Evangelist”, thus accepting his extended life span; 1 John uses phrases such as “Which we have seen with our eyes”, “Which was manifested unto us” and “That which we have seen and heard”; and John’s Gospel recounts a scene from the Last Supper played out after the Resurrection and underscored with a specific witness statement which some might think too pointed to be plausible.

The Collect prays that the light of God may shine upon the Church, perhaps implicitly referring to the turmoil in the Churches of the Book of Revelation and the Letters, yet 1 John is serenity itself. What immediately strikes home is the sharp contrast between the serenity of the Letters and the Gospel on the one hand and the near hysteria of Revelation on the other.

There is something rather uncomfortable in the conversation between Jesus, Peter and John, an element of something akin to competitiveness. There was a time when this might have been over-emphasised, when the Western Church asserted the Biblical primacy of the Pontificate and, later, when that primacy was contested; but it is generally agreed now that it would never have occurred to the John of Revelation, writing to the Seven Churches, that there was a centralising authority in Rome in succession to Peter.

John’s most telling metaphor (cf Christmas Day) is the antithesis between light and darkness which was much stronger before the age of artificial light than it is now. A person living alone might drop a candle and be cast into complete darkness or set his flimsy house on fire. Light was not only a massively powerful metaphor for the good and the glorious but it also contained elements of risk, as do all vital regenerative forces. Loving God without risk seems inconceivable. Echoing Psalm 119:105, the antithesis of the metaphor is driven home in the Letter: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” which is contrasted with the conclusion: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.” What might be said about our post industrialisation view of light might equally be said about our post ‘Enlightenment’ view of sin. It is important for us in the depth of winter to imagine a world without light and a world which was much more deeply conscious of sin as a barrier to salvation.

All this having been said, the central point of our remembrance is John the Evangelist, the writer of the fourth Gospel which Burridge (John) sums up as “Sui generis”. Biblical criticism today tends to make a less sharp divide between this and the Synoptics but the ‘high’ Christology which it contains is both intense and uniquely imaginative. What he says about the trinity, the link between earth and heaven wrought by the incarnation and the Grace of God are, it may be argued, beyond doctrine because they are sharply concerned with what Jesus said and did rather than with what it might mean and how the sacred mysteries are effective; it is out of such controversies that this Book was born.

Some have likened John 21 to the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Little Gidding, but there are now many who say that this Chapter was an Epilogue written much later than the end of the First Century. Whatever the case, it is certainly much less elegant than all that precedes it; but what we need to carry with us is the joy, noted in the Letter, within which we look to God as we seek to live in the light made sharper by the shadow of the Cross at whose foot John stood. If, in the words of the Letter: “We walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his son cleanseth us.” The origins of the testimony of John may now appear to be somewhat problematic but the nascent theology could not be clearer. What we must value above all is the metaphysical dimension which John provides as an enriching counterpoint to the narrative of the life and sayings of our saviour. While it might just be possible for sceptics to reduce Our Lord to a holy man who went about saying wise things and doing good, John, from the opening of his Gospel (cf Christmas Day) until he lays down his pen in today’s Gospel is equal to St. Paul as one of our founding theologians.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How much does it matter that one person may not have written the works attributed to ‘John’? How much does it matter that Chapter 21 of John was written much later than the rest of the Gospel?
  2. What are the key differences and similarities between the Synoptics on the one hand and John on the other?
  3. How would the Church be different without the Gospel of John?
  4. Is the conversation between Jesus, John and Peter significant or trivial?
  5. From what he says of himself, what kind of person was John of the Gospel?

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