Homily for Christmas I, 2015
December 27, 2015
Today, in addition to continuing the celebration of Christmas, we celebrate our patron saint, John the Apostle and Evangelist, whose festival day is December 27, and often seems to get overlooked in the aftermath of Christmas.
There is much uncertainty even about who John is. Someone by the name of John is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. All the references could be about the same person, but it could also be two or more people. John was a fairly common name at that time, so there could indeed be several different New Testament figures of the same name. But in every case what comes across is someone who was there – someone who was with Jesus at the key moments of his ministry, and thus speaks with authenticity as someone who knew Jesus intimately:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us” (First Letter of John 1: 1—3). Today’s Gospel (from John 21) suggests John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved . . . the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper.”
Depending on how you read the references to John in the New Testament, he could come across as passionate and fiery, with great ambitions of attaining the highest possible heights, or possibly as a boyish, affectionate, naïve or even effeminate character – all of which could tempt people to take him lightly or not treat him seriously. From what we know of John, as a composite, he comes across as many things: sensitive, humble, loving, sophisticated, intelligent, articulate, passionate, courageous, loyal, insightful, profound, mystical.
The writings attributed to John take us on a mysterious and mystical journey. John allows us to see inside Jesus in a way that we do not in the other Gospels — we are invited behind the scenes into the nature of the relationship Jesus shared with God, including the startling insight that Jesus came to know himself as one with God, and that he was actually one with God from the beginning.
John’s Gospel speaks to us of transformation and offers the key image of being born again, from above (see John 3: 1—10).
“In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery? “The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The second said, “I don’t know, but I believe there will be more light than here. Maybe we’ll walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking? That’s impossible! And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies our nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is short for a reason. Life after delivery is logically impossible.”
The second insisted, “Well I think there is something, and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The first replied, “Nonsense! And if there is life out there somewhere, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but I believe we’ll meet Mother and she will take care of us.” The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”
The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.” Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”
Facing certain death, St Ignatius of Loyola said to his companions: “My birth is imminent. Forgive me, brothers. Do not prevent me from coming to life.” Meister Eckhart taught that God is all about birthing, and Christmas of course is the celebration of the birth into human life of the divine life, the life of God its Creator becoming manifested in a new way through the life of Jesus, the model, the embodiment, the prototype of the new humanity, bringing into being new possibilities and much greater scope to human life.
The Gospel of John, though it pays no attention to the physical birth of Jesus, nevertheless opens up a new world, one that is much larger in scope. Like the sceptical child in the womb story, we can remain in denial as much as we like, but eventually we must come into the light of that bigger picture and that new life. John’s Gospel serves to open our eyes to signs of that kingdom right in front of us, right now.
In John 3, Jesus informs Nicodemus, one of the leading teachers among the Jewish people, that in order to experience the kingdom he needs to be born again. Nicodemus doesn’t get the metaphor, and assumes Jesus is talking about physical, literal birth. He is taking what Jesus says literally rather than figuratively, a typical mistake when dealing with things Jesus taught, and also when dealing with John’s Gospel. John never seems to be merely prosaic or literal – his Gospel is an appeal to see beyond the obvious – to look through things – with the sense that nothing is exactly as it appears on the surface.
So Jesus says to Nicodemus: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand this?” Jesus was incredulous because it’s central to the whole enterprise – without it, we are at best the Rotary Club or, worse, maybe a museum. And the presumption of teaching about matters relating to God without any real sense of who and what God is, seems preposterous to Jesus – a great fraud. As the Book of Revelation (also possibly written by John) says, Christ stands at the door and knocks, waiting for us to open up to the fullness of life that is beyond the little shells and closets we choose to dwell (hide) in.
We can be grateful for the variety of insights expressed in the New Testament. For example, Matthew’s Gospel urges us to look at life such as the birds and the flowers and trees and learn from it; John invites us to look right through it.
One of my Christmas (and Easter) traditions is to read or watch the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which portrays how the Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy) stumble through the wardrobe into a whole new world and adventures and identities. For Lewis, heaven is the real world, while this world is a realm of shadows, containing inklings, hints, possibilities, of greater things to come.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (20th Century Lutheran pastor and theologian) speaks of the disenchantment of modern life, of how modern life has tended to be devoid of mystery, imagination and faith:
“The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty. A human life is worth as much as the respect it holds for the mystery. We retain the child in us to the extent that we honor the mystery. Therefore, children have open, wide-awake eyes, because they know that they are surrounded by the mystery. They are not yet finished with this world; they still don’t know how to struggle along and avoid the mystery, as we do. We destroy the mystery because we sense that here we reach the boundary of our being, because we want to be lord over everything and have it at our disposal, and that’s just what we cannot do with the mystery…. Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world; it means passing over our own hidden qualities and those of others and the world. It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them” (from: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas).
John’s Gospel has been called the Book of Signs. With John it’s never “just water” or “just wine” or “just bread” or “just some guy” – John teaches us to see through the surface of things to their deeper significance. Things and events and people point beyond themselves – they open the door to another level of reality. John stresses Jesus’ divine and cosmic nature, and takes us beyond the historical and outward events and into the realm of God’s eternal purposes as they are expressed through this one amazing life. There’s enough detail that you know John is telling the same story as the other Gospel writers, but he’s telling it from another level – another depth. John wants us to know what was going on in what was going on. He wants to tell the inner story, the hidden story, and to allow the Christ dimension to emerge – in The Gospel According to John, Jesus is deeply conscious of his higher nature and identity.
In John, the Gospel becomes cosmic in scope, deeply insightful about the deeper meaning not only in Christ but in the universe itself, and introduces us to the sacramental principle of learning to perceive the divine significance that is under the surface – beyond the superficial – beyond appearances – to see through the wardrobe and into another dimension of life.
For example, I have always felt that the feeding miracles are meant to teach us something about the way we should approach and understand the Eucharist, and John’s Gospel makes this connection clear to us. He very directly connects the feeding of the multitude with the Eucharist, and so John portrays Jesus saying “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me” (John 6:53—57).
Taken literally, it makes no sense, or comes across as offensive and appalling. But again, in John’s Gospel, we learn that it’s not “just bread” – so Jesus urges his followers to see the spiritual significance in the offer and the sharing of the bread (John 6:27).
John articulates a theology of the Eucharist that first of all tells us that this is absolutely consistent with the identity and person of Jesus, and that it is also a way of experiencing the real presence of Jesus on an ongoing basis. John shows us in various ways that Jesus’ presence is transformative, that it changes things – as in his telling of the wedding feast in John 2, where in Jesus’ presence, water becomes wine – as in the raising of Lazarus, where a corpse comes to life.
Another person named after John, Johannes Eckhart, said: “We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity…. We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace, if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us.” (Johannes (Meister) Eckhart, 1260-1328, German Dominican monk)
What effect should a patron saint have upon the life of a parish? How might that characterization shape life here at St John’s? I think we are fortunate as a parish to be named after St John, whose distinctive Gospel proclaims Jesus as the source of abundant life. Now there’s something we could run with! John also identifies Jesus as “the Resurrection and the Life;” as one who washed the disciples’ feet; as the way, the truth and the life; as the “I am,” the manifestation and presence of God in our midst – God with us. There is much in John’s writings that we could take up to infuse our life here with deeper significance and energy. A parish named after St John should above all never be shallow or superficial!
A parish in which people are encouraged, urged, to be like John – that is, courageous, passionate, articulate, intelligent, sophisticated, loving, humble, insightful, mystical and sensitive – sounds like it should be a very meaningful and exciting place to be.
Let us allow St John’s be the kind of place that it is being called to be – let us be willing to be born again and again through the mystery of the Word made flesh — like children of God let us step out of the womb we have known and embrace the new world that God is constantly revealing to us – that people who come through our doors may be transformed in a sacramental way in our midst, and when they go back through those doors into everyday life, find that life is no longer ordinary and mundane, but full of signs of God’s presence and purpose and power.
I John 1: 1—9 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
John 21: 20—25 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’ This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But 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.