St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
The First Sunday of Christmastide
“This Word Went Out Among the Brothers”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
St. John 21.20-25
27 December 2020
+ In the Name of Jesus +
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (Jn. 21.21-22; ESV)
This Word went out among the brothers. John would not die. But the Apostle is quick to point out Jesus did not say that, but that Jesus said, “Mind your own business Peter, what is that to you if I desire John to be alive until I come again?”
This third day of Christmas the Church celebrates John, the son of Zebedee, brother of James, one of the Lord’s first disciples, a fisherman. He has the nickname “Son of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) – perhaps a commentary on his father’s personality. He is one of the most prominent disciples, being in the inner circle of “Peter, James, and John.” He calls himself in his Gospel, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – a common thing ancient authors would do, finding a way not to self-identify by name if in the story.
He is the author of the Gospel of John, the first, second, and third letters of John, and the Revelation to St. John. One of the original twelve, among those who received the Spirit in the upper room on Easter, and who was sent to make disciples by baptizing and teaching, he is called Apostle. Author of one of the Gospels, he is called Evangelist. Once upon a time, a statue of St. John graced one of the pedestals of our altar reredos.
His Gospel is easier Greek to read and translate, and so it is a favorite for pastors and seminarians cutting their teeth on Biblical Greek. His Gospel tells long, detailed stories the other Gospels don’t include, like the resurrection of Lazarus, the changing of water into wine at Cana, and the coming of Nicodemus by night – “God so loved the world…” Meanwhile he skips the birth of our Lord and begins His Gospel with all theology – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God is the Word.” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” John’s Gospel is memorable if only for those precious verses from heaven’s wisdom. But there’s so much more.
He ends his Gospel with the reading for today – the post resurrection fishing story about Peter looking back and seeing him. And then the Lord’s enigmatic words about John’s remaining until He returns. John writes this to make sure we know that doesn’t mean that he will not die – because that Word had gone out among the brothers. Allow John to correct the record, and he does.
The Apostle John did not apparently die a martyr’s death. The Church fathers say he lived to old age, and died in Ephesus around 100 AD. But he did suffer. According to the early church fathers, he survived two attempts on his life. The emperor Domitian settled for banning John to the island of Patmos for a year – and then it turns out the emperor is the one who died during that year. On Patmos meanwhile, John received the vision of God that is the Book of Revelation, the apocalyptic vision of Christ acting for His Church as encouragement for those suffering persecution.
The Word went out among the brothers. John the disciple, apostle and evangelist, bears witness to the Word going out in the world, and we know that his testimony – his willingness to witness even to the point of shedding his blood – is true. No one is willing to die for something false or fake. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was no fake, no fable. The Lord is risen. John tells you all about it. And remember too that John was also made responsible to care for Mary, the mother of our Lord at the foot of our Lord’s cross. How many times over the years do you think John had Mary recount the events of Christmas night? Would you not ask for that story to be retold if you had the chance? But of course, you do have the story retold, as often as you’ll hear it and take it to heart every Christmas-tide and whenever you might crack open your Bible at home.
But it’s all for a purpose, John and his brothers getting the Word out. It’s not just neat-o history or trivia to win Jeopardy with. There are many things Jesus did – the whole universe itself, John says, would need to make room for all the books to be written on what Jesus has done. Jesus alone could exhaust every show of Jeopardy.
But it’s more than just history, just trivia. Certainly it’s no fairy tale, and also it is much more than fable or moral tale to teach you to behave yourself better – as some preach and teach today.
No, this Word – the Word made flesh – needs to go out among the brothers. God is at work. Let’s allow John’s epistle this morning to tell us what the Apostles and Evangelists, the brothers, are doing in getting the Word out about the Word made flesh:
The One who was continually “in the beginning” – the One we have heard, the One we have seen with our own eyes, the One we envisioned, and the hands of ours touched, who is rightly called the Word of Life: that one is the Life which has been made known, that one we have seen and we are giving blood martyr witness to and are proclaiming to you – the Life eternal, who was with the Father and was epiphanied [revealed] to us. The One we have seen and heard – we are evangelizing and preaching therefore to you, so that you also might have communion with Him, that is indeed to have communion with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we are writing, so that our joy might be fulfilled. (1 Jn 1.1-4; my translation)
A few years ago, an eight year old boy in New Jersey was asked by his public school teacher to draw a picture of what Christmas means to him. The boy had visited a Christmas display at a local Roman Catholic shrine near his home, which included at the climax of the presentation a very prominent crucifix. So what did the boy draw? He drew that crucifix, a crude cross with a stick figure Jesus hanging on it. He had made the connection. The cradle of our Lord in Bethlehem’s stable is the first step on the journey to Calvary to be our Savior and Lord, our source of atoning blood and water that flows from His sacred pierced side. The faith of eight year olds is a precious thing.
The teacher didn’t have that faith. They reported the boy for drawing a violent scene, and they even tried to cart the boy away for a psychological exam. The cross of Christ is a threat to some. For others, it is the joy that fulfills Christmas, and it is the joy that fulfilled the hearts of the Apostles and Evangelists like John, who desired that all of us have child-like eight year old faith, which is to have communion with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for His name’s sake.” (1 Jn. 2.12)
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are.” (1 Jn. 3.1)
That boy in New Jersey is a disciple whom Jesus loves. He is called a child of God through His baptism into His Lord. He has heard of the saving acts of Jesus, testified to by the blood witness and persecution of the Apostles and Evangelists and many countless Christians over many years who suffer and die for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ. The boy even joined them in their witness, suffering for his confession of faith made in a stick-figure crucifix.
But it proves the Apostle’s point: The Word concerning Jesus and His atoning work on our behalf, His glorious birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension in our flesh: that Word cannot be contained in all the world, even if you tried, yes, it even knocks down the very gates of hell, for it overcomes our reservations and doubts and hang-ups and gathers each little lamb into the hands of the Good Shepherd – another memorable title for our Lord in John’s Gospel.
That Word of life in Christ has gone out and still goes out among the brothers – through every trial, every test, every hard circumstance, every societal upheaval across the world and throughout time, every pandemic ever, nothing in all creation, not even an over-zealous woke teacher in New Jersey nor any government or Caesar can stop it. Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem whom we adore this Christmas-tide, the Word made flesh who came to dwell among us, is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours alone, but also for the whole universe. (1 Jn. 2.2) That Word of life preached and heard and believed leads to communion with Him, the forgiveness of sins given and received.
The Word goes out among the brothers and gathers His own unto eternal life. Our joy is fulfilled in every way. Merry Christmas.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +