Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist


John 21:20-25; 1 John 1:1 – 2:2; Revelation 1:1-6


In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

As special as the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas is to contemporary Christians, its celebration on December 25 is relatively novel in the history of the Christian Church. In fact, the Feast of the Epiphany, all but ignored today, was traditionally a much more significant feast and has much greater historical standing in Church history than does Christmas. This is not because the birth of Jesus is unimportant, however, but because the Early church traditionally honored and celebrated a Christian’s death as his or her birth date into eternity and the ongoing presence of Jesus.

Still, there is another reason that Christmas has historically taken a back seat to the Feast of the Epiphany and other Feasts of Christ, and that is because the important thing about Jesus’ birth is not so much His birth but rather His conception nine months earlier, and the Church already has a celebration for that, The Feast of the Annunciation on March 25. On the Annunciation the Church remembers and celebrates the Angel’s message, Mary’s faith, and the Holy Spirit’s work as the Christ was conceived in her virgin womb. This is the mystery of the Incarnation, when the Son and Word of God became incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. The Incarnation of Jesus, more than His birth, is the true meaning of Christmas, thus the appointed Gospel reading for Christmas Day is not the story of the birth of Jesus from St. Luke’s or even St. Matthew’s Gospels, but rather the Prologue from St. John’s Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The Church remembers and gives thanks for St. John, Apostle and Evangelist on this third day of Christmas. St. John was brother of the Apostle James the Elder and son of Zebedee and Salome. Like his brother and father, he was a fisherman by trade. John and James were among the first whom Christ called to be apostles. In his Gospel, John often refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” indicating a particularly close friendship between himself and His Master, a relationship evidenced by John reclining on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper. John is also the only one of the Twelve not to abandon Jesus during the time of His Passion. Together with the Mother of God, he stood vigil at the foot of the cross. It was there that Christ gave His mother into John’s keeping and gave John to her as her own son. According to Church tradition, Mary lived with St. John until her death. Later, John settled in Ephesus where he wrote his three Epistles, the Revelation, and the Gospel that bears his name. According to Early Church tradition, John was the only one of the Twelve who did not die a martyr’s death. Hence, he is the only apostle observed with white upon the altar instead of the usual red recalling the blood of witnesses of Christ. John did suffer a time of exile upon the island of Patmos for his confession of Christ. It was on Patmos in exile that John received the Revelation. John died an old man, the last of the Twelve Apostles and an authoritative imprimatur of the true doctrine of the Christian faith. John’s symbol is the eagle because his Gospel, Epistles, and the Revelation have a unique high and lofty perspective on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and provide an important and powerful witness to the eternal Word, who was before time began and who was made flesh for us, full of grace and truth, and whose hour of exaltation upon the cross draws all people to Himself.

As alluded to earlier, John uniquely emphasizes the incarnation of the Son and Word of God Jesus Christ, most notably in the Prologue of his Gospel, but throughout his Epistles and the Revelation as well. In his first Epistle, which we heard from this morning, for example, John speaks of “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” Notice the strong incarnational language: We have heard it, seen it, looked upon it, touched it, and now we proclaim it. Similarly does St. John close his Gospel with the claim of his eyewitness account saying, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that this testimony is true.”

Jesus called John, and the Holy Spirit worked through him, to witness to the universal transformative power of the Word of God made flesh. It is from John principally that we hear Jesus described as Light, Life, Bread, Water, and Truth. These earthly staples for human life find their spiritual antecedent and fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is all these things for all who will receive Him and not reject Him. To this end John provides the reason for his writing: “These [things] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

John is often referred to as the Apostle of Love because he testifies so beautifully of Jesus as the love of God incarnate. It was because John knew the love of God personally in Jesus that he referred to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved. This was not arrogance on the part of John, but rather humility, for John considered that his personal name was of no value at all, but what gave his life value and meaning was that he was a recipient of God’s perfect love in Jesus Christ.

In sublime language, John proclaims the union of the divine and human natures in the one man Jesus and also Jesus’ unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Godhead of the Holy Trinity. In the Prologue of his Gospel he proclaims, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John also proclaims that the man Jesus is the visible and approachable presence of the invisible and holy God saying, “No one has ever seen God; the only [Son], who is at the Father's side, he has made him known,” and “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” and “I and the Father are one.” St. John more than the other Evangelists, proclaims the divinity of Jesus Christ by virtue of the Incarnation.

Which brings us back to the beginning. The Early Church placed more emphasis on the Incarnation of Jesus than on His birth. Indeed, the Early Church nearly placed more emphasis on the Incarnation of Jesus than His crucifixion and death on Good Friday. Why? Because it took God to become a man, for God to be born and suffer temptation while remaining obedient, sinless, and holy, for God to suffer and die for our sins, and for God to be raised from death to life that cannot die – that’s what it took to redeem and rescue mankind from its fall into sin and death. St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, proclaims the truth of the Incarnation of the Word and Son of God in a beautiful, sublime, and powerful way. He has written these things down for us that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in His Name.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

No comments: