St John the Apostle and Evangelist

Sermon by Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Exodus 33.7-11a; Psalm 117; John 21.19-end

May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I hope you all enjoyed celebrating Christmas this week – in worship and at home. I hope like me you had some phone and Zoom chats with family and friends; shared some feasting and drinking, and got to see some of the ever-entertaining Christmas Specials on TV.

I love the tradition of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas. A wonderful link with Jesus being God’s gift to us. Echoing too the Gifts the wise men gave the baby which we celebrate at Epiphany. Our wise men, by the way, are currently over here – and are slowly travelling round the church in order to arrive on the 6th January at our crib.

I wonder if you were given any books this year. Catherine gave me a couple of geeky books about Artificial Intelligence and computers, which I’m looking forward to getting into.

But for a moment I want us to think about Holy Books. When it comes to the church, she received her Scriptures as a gift from God – the process of how the Bible came to be is a fascinating one. It was less a single ‘moment’ and more a process but I’ll save that for another time. The Books of the Bible have become canon: a word meaning ‘measuring stick’ – these books speak of who God is, and what he has done, and are trustworthy – so much so, all other texts are measured against the canon of Scripture, to see how helpful and true they are.

St John, whose feast we celebrate today, gave the church the gift of his Gospel. It’s a powerful and moving book of Jesus’ life: “the Word of God made flesh”. In church tradition, each of the four gospels has a creature associated with it and for John, it’s an eagle. Eagles soar, gracefully, high above the land. John’s writing is similarly graceful and poetic.

Jesus is the bread of life; the door of the sheepfold, and one metaphor John loves using throughout his biography of Jesus is contrasting light and darkness. In his opening words he says of Jesus,

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we move towards a new year 2021 – leaving 2020 behind (thank God) – let us imitate Christ by being lights in the darkness.

There’s an ancient proverb:

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.

I think that phrase would get agreement both from God Himself and St John: God’s gift of Jesus – his own son, was God’s approach to transforming the darkness of our sin, through the giving of Jesus to be the light of the world.

Although I so wish it wasn’t the case, seeing the back of 2020 doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges up ahead – for the UK, the world, and for our families and friends. But perhaps whatever next year brings, we can remember that saying: “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.

Just as birth of Jesus is the arrival of the light – Jesus told his disciples that they too were to be lights in dark places. Jesus in St Matthew’s Gospel says this:

“Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden,… let your light shine before others in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5)

This approach is countercultural, as it refuses to be cynical (all there are is shades of grey in the world) or defeatist (everything’s dark and bleak and always will be). Instead, it says, God is with us. In our world. God is here, and because he is the light, there must be light around if I look for it. What’s more, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit: the Light of Christ within us, so we too can bring light to dark places.

Sifting what we see and hear, to discern where God is at work, and what or who should be trusted, where the light is – is an important work of God and his people. It’s best done together.

I hope I’ve encouraged you to re-read John’s Gospel with its poetic and graceful language. Over the coming months of 2021 the Gospel passages we will be hearing in church will actually come mainly from Mark’s Gospel. His symbol is the winged lion – as he writes in a quick paced and punchy style, bringing out Jesus’ majesty and kingship. So if you do read John’s Gospel in the next few weeks, perhaps you can compare it to Mark’s as we journey through 2021 –

I like to imagine the four Gospels as being four mirrors, reflecting the one Son of God, Jesus Christ, but from different angles. Picking up on different events and encounters, helping to give us different insights and highlights.

St. John’s final words of his Gospel, are the words we heard earlier:

“there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

John speaks of how incredible the light was: How wonderful and exciting Jesus was while on earth. But I have another theory as to what John meant by this last line. If we really believe the Spirit of Jesus lives on through his disciples, that means Jesus continues to be at work in the saints that came before us; and in our lives; and in the lives of the disciples who we are going to introduce-and-train-up in the faith.

So literally what St John says is true: The world itself could not contain all the joyful stories which Jesus has done, is doing and will do. The light of Christ continues to shine.

That really is Good News.