s090e98, Somerton Park 27/12/98 St John the Evangelist
"We proclaim what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us." 1 John 1.3 (Another translation has "have union with us")
Of the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, it is perhaps St John who is the most conscious of what he is doing, in writing the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and why he is doing it.
He says of himself, the unnamed running companion of Simon Peter on that first Easter morning, on entering the empty tomb, that "he saw and believed". This was of first importance to him, his own belief, something that changed his whole life, in a quite dramatic and demonstrable way.
It was not that he had been a carefree hedonist and suddenly became a person who spent most of his life on his knees in church, like a good Anglican ??
No, we first meet John the author as a fisherman - mending his nets. Then he became a follower of Jesus. Later we find he has some influence in the household of the high priest, so that he but not Peter were initially admitted after the arrest of Jesus. Later again he becomes the Apostle, with Peter, going down to Samaria, to lay hands on those who had previously been baptised, in order that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Finally he became the writer extraordinaire; traditionally the gospel, 3 letters and the book of the Revelation are ascribed to him.
So his following of Jesus, and then his belief in him, had profound implications in his own life, taking him much further afield than a simple fisherman could ever have expected.
So he consciously writes not just as a simple historian, detailing out the facts as he saw them and also not just wanting to impart the fact of his own belief to his readers. John wrote for a specific purpose. He says at the end of chapter 20 of the gospel these words: "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name." So it is purposeful writing. His own purposeful belief had taken his life into much wider fields than he could have ever imagined, and he realised that this was real life, unfettered by restrictions, human or divine. If faith did that for him, faith would do that for others. So his writing down the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, would hopefully bring to his readers his same following and the same belief, and bring with them, life in his name.
But, worthy as all this is, it is not the complete picture, for as the text for this sermon says: "We are telling you, so that you too may have fellowship with us."
A historian who witnessed the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, might conceivably write them down, simply for posterity, to have his name as the author of a work of literature. This was not St John - the works are anonymous except for "Revelation".
Another might write down what he saw and heard of Jesus, in order to set up a distinction between the faithful and the unconverted; the sort of "I'm better than you, look what my faiths done for me" attitude. Again this was not St John.
St John speaks of wanting to be in fellowship with all. His faith which had done so much in his life, had its ultimate conclusion in wanting to be at one with others. The prestige of being well travelled, and writing, of mixing with important people, even of being called "the Divine", really was of much less importance than being at one with his brothers and sisters. Only the union between God and Jesus could compare with that union between people which he believes is his faith's eternal goal.
I said first that St John is the particular gospel writer who is conscious of what he is doing in writing, and why he was doing it. I have quoted from the gospel after the resurrection of Jesus, but there is another significant quote which I want to draw your attention to. In chapter 19 (:35) he says: "He who saw it has born witness - his witness is true, and he knows that he tells the truth - that you also may believe." This, rather more solemn statement, testifies not to Jesus' resurrection, but to his death. John, in his gospel, goes to these lengths to ensure that there was absolutely no doubt that there could be no confusion in the minds of anyone: it was precisely the same person who died, was buried in a particular tomb by stated, named and trustworthy people. He reassures us that there was no confusion over graves, but that precisely the same one was indeed empty, a day and a half later. Jesus was dead, witnessed by he himself seeing the soldiers piercing his side with a spear, the same one who was now raised to life, witnessed by he himself seeing the empty tomb.
This assurance, he alone could give, for we know of no others who went to the tomb to check the report.
But he writes not to force people into believing that Jesus was raised to life, for he appeared to Mary Magdalene, later to all the disciples except Thomas, and a week later to all including Thomas. There was no lack of evidence that Jesus was raised to life. The necessity was to bind the experience of the risen Jesus that many people had experienced, to what the same Jesus had said and done during his earthly ministry. Jesus in his ministry prior to the Cross went about visiting people and accepting their hospitality. That activity is continued in the risen Jesus as people experience acceptance and love.
Today experiences of the risen Jesus still abound, for none of us here today would be here, without Jesus having called us, and having called us, shown us that he lives. That call might have been almost unrecognisable in its gentleness, or earth-shattering in its force, no matter. For Jesus comes to us primarily still, to accept our hospitality, not to change or criticise us.
St John had realised that in the sending of Jesus he personally mattered to God, and he says this to his readers. The call of God to each of his readers shows that his readers mattered to God. He reassures them that they matter to him too.
The same thing is as important now as it was then. We could go hiving off into all sorts of strange directions without this link, this continuity with the same Jesus who said and did certain particular things - things like saying "Love one another" and doing things like washing the disciples' feet. St John's faith lead him to life, a life which he wished to share with all, and he wrote, not to convince us of the unbelievable, not to parade his faith to his readers, but to bring that faith and life to others, which comes from the fellowship we enjoy, one with another. And it was this fellowship with his readers that means his "own joy" would be "complete".
The aim of all this is not to get others to believe in the same terms as St John himself did, but that we might have fellowship, one with another. Nothing, absolutely nothing, should come in the way of this primary aim and purpose, even differences of faith. If we dismiss someone else because they are not "Christian" or not "Anglican", we haven't begun to appreciate the force of these words.
To fight with someone else in the name of "Christianity" is to show that we have no idea of what Jesus was on about, or what we are bidden to believe in anyway.
And finally I want to point out that in everything I have said, no mention has been made of sin or repentance, on behalf of St John, or of being required of anyone else. If we conceive of another's sins getting in the way of them and God or getting in the way of fellowship with us, then it is our perception which needs to be corrected, not the other person's perceived errors to be confessed, forgiven and atoned for ... Anything that anyone else has done, whether we perceive that it has been repented of or not; has all been atoned for. Nothing stands between anyone and God, and therefore nothing stands between anyone and fellowship with us.
St John's words show me his perception of Jesus' primary ministry - which was not to point out people's sins, get them to repent, or to institute a more just and equitable society, but simply to have fellowship with others, whoever they are and whatever they believe or not believe. May we follow Jesus and John - and do likewise.
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