27 December 2015

‘Little children, love one another
… because it is enough

Saint John with the poisoned chalice, above the main gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford,

Christ Church Cathedral,

Sunday 27 December 2015,

Saint John the Evangelist,

11 a.m., Sung Eucharist

Exodus 33: 7-11a; Psalm 117; I John 1: 1-9; John 21: 19b-25.

In the name of + the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning the Feast Day of Saint John the Evangelist, or Saint John the Divine, is an alternative to marking the First Sunday of Christmas.

It seems appropriate in the days immediately after Christmas that we should be jolted out of our comforts, in case we begin to atrophy, and to be reminded of what the great German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “Cost of Discipleship.”

Following Christ is not all about Christmas shopping, feasts, decorations and falling asleep in front of the television – comforting, enjoyable and pleasant as they are, particularly in family settings.

Yesterday was the feast of Saint Stephen [26 December], often referred to as the first Christian martyr; tomorrow is the feast of the Holy Innocents [28 December], the first – albeit unwitting – martyrs according to Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

In The Ariel Poems TS Eliot puts wise words into the mouth of the Wise Men who recalls the cold coming of it experienced in the ‘Journey of the Magi’. There he makes the connection between birth and death:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Between those two commemorations of martyrdom, we find ourselves today [27 December] marking the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist.

The symbol of the serpent and the chalice, a carving by Eric Gill in the capstone at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

At first, this too may not seem to be an appropriate feastday to celebrate in the days immediately after Christmas. Even chronologically it creates difficulties for tradition says Saint John was the last of the disciples to die, making his death the one that is separated most in terms of length of time from the birth of Christ.

In art, Saint John the Evangelist is frequently represented as an Eagle, symbolising the heights to which he rises in the first chapter of his Gospel.

For Saint John, there is no annunciation, no nativity, no crib in Bethlehem, no shepherds or wise men, no little stories to allow us to be sentimental and to be amused. He is sharp, direct and gets to the point: “In the beginning …”

But the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel is one of the traditional readings on Christmas Day, so many of us immediately associate his writings with this time of the year.

Saint John the Evangelist is unnamed in the Fourth Gospel. Yet tradition identifies him with the John who is:

● one of the three at the Transfiguration,
● one of the disciples sent to prepare a place for the Last Supper,
● one of the three present in the Garden of Gethsemane,
● the only disciple present at the Crucifixion,
● the disciple to whom Christ entrusts his mother from the Cross,
● the first disciple to arrive at Christ’s tomb after the Resurrection,
● the disciple who first recognises Christ standing on the lake shore following the Resurrection.

The Beloved Disciple, alone among the Twelve, remains with Christ at the foot of the Cross with the Mother of Christ and the women and he is asked by the dying Christ to take Mary into his care (John 19: 25-27). After Mary Magdalene’s report of the Resurrection, Peter and the “other disciple” are the first to go to the grave, and the “other disciple” is the first to believe that Christ is truly risen (John 20: 2-10).

When the Risen Christ appears at the Lake of Genesareth, “that disciple whom Jesus loved” is the first of the seven disciples present who recognises Christ standing on the shore (John 21: 7).

The site of Saint John’s tomb is marked by a marble plaque and four Byzantine pillars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Paul names John as one of the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem (see Galatians 2: 9). Later, tradition says, he takes over the position of leadership Paul once had in the Church in Ephesus and is said to have lived there and to have been buried there.

According to a tradition mentioned by Saint Jerome, in the second general persecution, in the year 95, Saint John was arrested and sent to Rome, where he was thrown into a vat or cauldron of boiling oil but miraculously was preserved from death.

According to ancient tradition, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, Saint John was once given a cup of poisoned wine, but he blessed the cup and the poison rose out of the cup in the form of a serpent. Saint John then drank the wine with no ill effect. A chalice with a serpent signifying the powerless poison has become one of his symbols.

Domitian then banished Saint John to the isle of Patmos. It was there in the year 96 he had those heavenly visions recorded in the Book of Revelation. After the death of Domitian, it is said, he returned to Ephesus in the year 97, and there tradition says he wrote his gospel about the year 98. He is also identified with the author of the three Johannine letters.

The tradition of the Church says Saint John lived to old age in Ephesus. Jerome, in his commentary on Chapter 6 of the Epistle to the Galatians (Jerome, Comm. in ep. ad. Gal., 6, 10), tells the well-loved story that Saint John continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s.

He was so enfeebled with old age that the people carried him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. When he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on each occasion and to say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his deathbed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week in Ephesus, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.” If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is. “Little children, love one another.”

According to Eusebius, Saint John died in peace at Ephesus, in the third year of Trajan, that is, the year 100, when he was about 94 years old. According to Saint Epiphanius, he was buried on a mountain outside the town. The Basilica of Saint John the Theologian gave the later name of Aysoluk to the hill above the town of Selçuk, beside Ephesus.

A relief sculpture of Saint John ... one of a series in Pugin’s font in Saint Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham with the symbols of the four evangelists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I am constantly overwhelmed and in awe of the emphasis on love and light throughout the Johannine letters. That emphasis on love, which informs the story of Saint John’s last days, is brought through in the first of the Johannine letters (I John 1: 1-9) which we read this morning.

This emphasis constantly informs all aspects of my ministry.

I was once doing Sunday duty during a vacancy in a parish that has three churches. A student asked me at the time how many sermons I preached. I replied: “Three.”

“You preach three sermons every Sunday?” she asked with an air of incredulity.

I explained: “I preach three sermons all the time. The first is ‘Love God,’ the second is ‘Love one another,’, and the third, in case someone missed the first and second sermons, is ‘Love God and love one another’.”

That is the heart of the Christmas story, that is the heart of the Gospel, that is heart of the Johannine writings, and that, to put it simply, is why we celebrate Saint John in the days immediately after Christmas. “Little children, love one another.”

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Merciful Lord,
cast your bright beams of light upon the Church;
that, being enlightened by the teaching
of your blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John,
we may so walk in the light of your truth
that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life
through Jesus Christ your incarnate Son our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, we pray,
that the Word made flesh proclaimed by your apostle John
may ever abide and live within us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday 27 December 2015.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi, my name is Lisa. I would like to read for myself where the original story of John saying "Little Children Love One Another" is written down but I am having trouble figuring out where this story came from. On the internet I find lots of people telling this story in their own words, but I need to read the original story for myself. Do you know? I am not familiar with Catholic tradition. Thank you. God bless