Homily for January 1, 2017 – The. Rev. Stephanie Shepard
1 John 1:1-9
January 1, 2017
St. John the Apostle
“The Apostolic Community”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? A few years ago, I was sitting on a wharf on Gambier Island with my spouse. It was a still summer evening, cloudless, and the stars shimmered in the midnight sky. The ocean was so calm that I couldn’t hear the waves lapping against the piers. When I dropped a stone down into the water, there was a faint phosphorescence that rippled outward in rings. In the silence there was a sudden sound far down the bay- a cracking like a gunshot, followed by a great crashing cascade and a deeper thud that we felt as much as heard. Somewhere along the shoreline, amongst the cedars and hemlocks and maples, an elder giant had fallen. The next morning, we asked at the camp whether anyone else had heard the noise. The two of us were the only ones to bear witness and try and convince others of the event.
Today we celebrate the patron saint of this parish community: Saint John, who is known as apostle and evangelist in the first generation of the Christian Church. John is a common name, and there are many Johns in the Bible. There are also many church buildings named after a John: six in this diocese alone. A constellation of stories centre around the disciple who is named in the gospels as “the beloved”, an eye-witness to the events of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Traditionally, the fourth gospel is attributed to this John. His name is appended to three short pastoral letters as well. Scholars know that what we hold as the “gospel of John” was written later than the letters of Paul and the other three “synoptic” gospels. John the disciple would have been in his 80s or 90s before the first manuscript appeared. We also recognize that the polished New Testament Greek and the phrasings of the verses don’t sound much like the rural fisherman described in the other accounts. So how can the Church acclaim him as proclaimer and writer of the Good News?
An apostle does not work by himself or herself- that defeats the purpose of passing on the Word of Life. The early disciples gathered other followers as they preached and shared the stories of Jesus. Communities of faith formed around their witness. Jerusalem first, with the events of Pentecost. Then word of mouth and early writings began to spread around the Mediterranean. Traditions and collections of sayings and sermons circulated. Each house church or faith community was influenced by the particular apostles who dwelt among them, their memories and understandings of Jesus the Christ. It is very likely that the words preserved by the community that gathered around John shaped their theological worldview, and gave voice to the text of the fourth gospel.
The good news of Jesus Christ is a communal proclamation, not a personal memoir. In what we reconstruct as the “Johannine community”, we glimpse the experience of Christians in the context of the beginning of the 2nd century. The words and story of Jesus are expressed through the lens of people who are meeting ignorance and resistance from the wider society and hostility from local synagogues. It is a world where the light of wisdom is trying to shine into the darkness of sinfulness both within themselves and in the world. The gospel of John and the letters attributed to this Johannine tradition use the language of light versus dark consistently to draw attention to the boundaries between those who are faithful to Christ and those who fail to see the divine in Him.
Why would this be important to us, two thousand years later? The Church needs a reminder that it takes a community to be apostolic. No one person can define and enforce who God is and what God demands of us. The Holy Spirit works through the gathered people to prayerfully and reflectively seek where God is calling. The Church is a light-seeking organism. And as the author of 1 John 1:7 puts it: “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin”. Our imitation of Christ is what ties us together not just one to another in this place, but across time. In the Anglican Church we refer to the “communion of saints”. There is a recognition that our family tree includes pastors and teachers and elders through the generations. For over one hundred years in this parish alone seekers and mature practitioners have contributed to this particular community’s understanding of the good news.
The task before St. John Port Moody in this new year is to testify to that Word of Life within you by word and action. You have an apostolic ministry to be light in the world. And to do so, it will take courage and humility to shine a light on strengths and growing edges here. There may be some dark places, as 1 John reminds us: “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves”. But with what you have inherited from the saints of your past, you will continue to construct meaning for the future to share with others. As for me, my role as your interim is to serve you in this task. I will walk beside you; not to be your apostle, for that is not my place, but to have apostolic ministry with you. I desire, with your permission, to offer love and pastoral care, wonder, and the occasional uncomfortable question, with the goal of helping discover how God is inviting you to declare the Word of Life.
Today we start again at the beginning. A new year. A new phase in the life of St. John’s. A new look at community. Let us, like the beloved disciple, enter in, that we may believe in the identity of the risen Christ, and go tell others of the new life within us. Amen.