St Andrew, Glencairn

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January 2016

Have you ever been waiting a long time for a bus, then three come along at once. Saints’ days in December are a bit like that. Usually the 20 or so Saints’ days in the Church of Ireland Calendar are distributed fairly evenly across the months and within each month – except for December. You wait all month for one and three come together – immediately after Christmas Day we have St Stephen the Deacon’s Day, St John the Apostle’s Day and the Holy Innocents’ Day on 26th, 27th and 28th respectively.

 St Stephen was the first Christian Martyr, St John, known as the Apostle of Love, wrote the 4th Gospel and three of the letters in the New Testament, and the 3rd Day remembers the suffering of the babies and young boys in Bethlehem who were slaughtered by King Herod in his attempt to kill off quickly the baby born to be King. It is fitting that we remember martyrdom, love and innocent suffering immediately after our celebration of the Incarnation, as these are all marks of the life of the Messiah and marks of the Christian’s journey.

In this Message I want to think about St John.

 Simon (called Peter) and Andrew, James and John, two pairs of brothers, were the first disciples. They were fishermen in the Sea of Galilee and Jesus called them to a similar job but with a new twist – “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people”.

 Subsequently Peter, James and John were the “inner circle” of Jesus’ band of followers. They were the ones chosen to witness directly the healing of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8: 51), the transfiguration (Luke 9: 28), and the ones he choose to come deeper with him into the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14: 33). John was the Beloved Disciple who sat next to Jesus at the last supper.

 St John was the only one of the twelve who kept vigil near the Cross as Jesus died. He was with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and it was to the care of John that he committed his mother.

On Resurrection Day, when Mary Magdalene came running to give the disciples the very strange news, Peter and John were the first to run to the tomb. We are told that John was the faster runner, but that Peter went into the tomb first. What a remarkable experience that that visit must have been to these two men.

 After the day of Pentecost, in the early chapters of Acts Peter and John are reported extensively – preaching, teaching and healing, mostly in Jerusalem. As the years go by, Paul becomes the principal character in Acts and John drops out of the story. There is a tradition that John and Mary the mother of Jesus went to live in Ephesus. During this period John spent a period of exile on the Greek island of Patmos and there are various sites relevant to this traditional story of Mary and John that a visitor to that part of Turkey can visit.

 While on Patmos, John had the vision, which he reports in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. This book is also called the Apocalypse because it talks about the end of the world and God’s new creation.

 While here he probably wrote his three epistles and his Gospel. The 2nd and 3rd letters are short and addressed to two particular Christians, primarily to encourage them in their faith and to continue their ministry. The 1st letter is somewhat longer and emphasises many of the themes in his Gospel. When you read this and the Gospel, it is blindingly obvious why John deserves the title, the Apostle of Love. The letter is so full of exhortations to “love one another”. In the first chapter he reprises the first chapter of his Gospel, emphasising the eternal nature of Jesus both before and after his 33 years on earth. He repeats once again that he and the other apostles lived with Jesus during his earthly ministry and were witnesses to the miracles that he did. In particular they witnessed the resurrection. In verse 4 he says, “We are writing these things so that you may fully share our joy.”

 John’s Gospel is different from the other three in so many ways. For example he doesn’t give us any of the birth narrative passages, but look at what we does give us, the wonderful poetry that starts (in the KJV), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1: 1-14 is the Gospel of Christmas Day and is the 9th Reading at traditional Carol Services, introduced by the words, “St John unfolds the mystery of the Incarnation.” I must have attended 60 or so carol services in my life and this passage never fails to send a tingle down my spine.

 But John was a man, a human being like the rest of us and that makes him real, not just a “stained glass window saint”. There seems to have been rivalry between some of the disciples. In Mark 10 and Matthew 20 we read that James and John, or maybe it was their mother, came to Jesus and asked to be given special seats in heaven. Jesus, naturally, refused to do this and instead gave that most useful instruction to would be leaders, “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” John does not tell this story in his Gospel.

 But John does include another story, in the final chapter, chapter 21, of his Gospel, which sets himself in a better light that Peter. In this chapter, there is an account of the resurrection appearance of Jesus to some of the disciples, including Peter and John, on the shore of Lake Galilee. We get the story of the restoration of Peter after his failings in the courtyard of the high Priest’s house when he denied knowing Jesus three times. Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me” and three times Peter replies in the affirmative. Jesus then gave Peter a three-fold job – to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, to feed his sheep and all the time, to “follow me”.

 But Peter is curious about John, and he asks, “What about him Lord?” And Jesus is quite sharp with Peter; he effectively says that this is none of Peter’s business. He, Peter, has got his instructions, and whatever plans Jesus has for John, are between him and John. He doesn’t give any instructions there and then, but remember that Jesus had already given John a job to do – to take care of Mary. And of course there was the small matter of writing the 4th gospel and three letters, and to share with the world, the vision that he had on the Isle of Patmos.

 Tradition says that John did live to be a right old age and died in his bed and not on a scaffold.

 Sometimes we are not satisfied with the job or jobs that Jesus has given to each of us. We see what others are doing and wish we were like them, or we compare ourselves, favourably or unfavourably with others.

 Stop this! Whatever God asks you to do, he will give you grace sufficient to do it and we should remember “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” It should be our New Year resolution to give God control of our lives. All working together we shall advance Christ’s Kingdom here on Earth, and meet with our Lord in heaven when our work is done.

 Ken (5th January 2016)

  NOTE - Previous "Monthly Messages" are archived at