The Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
You Follow Me
Exodus 33:7-11a, Psalm 23, 1 St. John 1:1-10, St. John 21:19b-25
Envy is a corrosive thing. A young Christian man who would go on to become a preacher of no little repute was dating a young woman. They were seeing more and more of each other and matters appeared to be taking a serious turn, but they were not yet engaged.
It was autumn and this fellow asked his darlin’ about her plans for the coming Saturday. She said she had accepted an invitation to a football game. It would be played in a place called College Station, site of an antediluvian educational institution called Texas A&M – yes, I went to Texas.
The Aggies have many beastly traditions. For one, members of the Corps of Cadets – known as the Twelfth Man for all the animated spirit they allegedly breathe down upon their team – stand throughout the game, as do their dates. From first whistle to last, no fanny ever touches a seat.
And another ritual– no doubt written into the university’s by-laws – is that each time the Aggies score, the members of the Corps get to kiss their dates.
Well, the future preacher took the news rather hard. Come Saturday, he tuned in the game on his radio and sat by it praying A&M’s opponent would throw a shutout. And a shutout it was – but the other way around. The Aggies claimed an agonizing 48-zip victory.
I would not of course suggest that this episode produced exactly the result the young lady intended, but our young man did propose in short order and they embarked on a long and successful marriage.
And that seems fitting to me, for anyone required to kiss an Aggie that many times should reap a rich and enduring reward.
We celebrate today the Feast Day of St. John and it is meet and right so to do. On the civil calendar, this is the final Sunday of the year, and our gospel lesson is the final few verses of John’s Jesus story and it teaches us something about limits.
There comes a time for things to end, and we must learn not to stomp the gas and blow through the red lights. Sometimes we must say, “I have gone far enough. I am content to stop here.”
Our resurrected Lord is in the company of the apostles Peter and John, and He has just recomissioned Peter. Jesus began by asking him three times, “Do you love Me?” Peter has confessed his love for Jesus three times, balancing his threefold denial of Him before the crucifixion.
Peter is now fit to receive his next assignment, and Jesus says to him: “’Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.’ This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God” (John 21:18-19a).
The reference to outstretched hands tells us Peter will join Christ in crucifixion and, indeed, he would die on a cross in Rome during the reign of the vile Emperor Nero. Legend says he was crucified upside down – at his request, for he knew himself to be deserving of a more ghastly death than his Lord endured.
And so he has his marching orders. Jesus adds simply, “Follow Me.”
For Peter, this should be the red light . . . but, impetuous as ever, he blows through it. The text reminds us that at the Last Supper, when Jesus revealed that one of the 12 would betray Him, John asked the Lord – when Peter signaled for him to do so – who the betrayer was.
This may be an indication of a special bond between these two who were in Jesus’ inner circle; Peter may be alarmed that John will suffer the same fate as he. More are inclined to believe Peter feels envy toward another apostle who could be getting off easy: Why must I die when he is allowed to live? If I must pay such a high cost for my faithfulness, what about him?
And we cannot forget that John and his brother James, the “Sons of Thunder” – or their mother speaking on their behalf – had asked Jesus for positions of rank and privilege in His eternal kingdom. They wanted to flank Him as he ruled upon His everlasting throne.
This is the way of all flesh, a desire to exalt the self and shove others down to a place of subjection.
On the other side of Pentecost much will change, but even as the apostles commune with their resurrected Lord they betray that same old grasping after glory that had characterized their three-plus years of walking with Him.
God calls each of us to serve Him in different ways . . . often dramatically different ways – such as living and dying. One serves by dying, another by living. A sobering thought.
Not long ago I received an invitation to enter a preaching competition. I won’t deny that I was tempted for a moment. The siren’s song of glory was licking at my ear. The jagged rocks lie just ahead.
Such events are not unusual in seminaries. Someone gets to call himself “Preacher of the Year.” Our seminary, Cranmer Theological House, does not stage one.
I caught myself up short. What if the worst happened . . . and I won? I lose the battle with my pride most days as it is. To be crowned King of Preachers would ensure daily defeat . . . all right, multiple defeats each day.
Shepherds should steer clear of beauty contests. There are only two possible outcomes: We can be exalted or humiliated . . . and neither is a shining example to set before the flock.
For his part, Peter is neglecting the lesson Jesus has taught them repeatedly: to live for Christ is to die with Christ. If John is to remain on this mortal coil, his brief will be to deny himself over and over “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16) and to surrender himself daily for the sake of his Lord.
As Paul will put it in Philippians, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21).
Are we, then, to demonstrate no care for one another? John Calvin answers astutely: “Not that all concern for fellow-Christians should be abandoned, but it should have some limits put on it, so that it should be concern and not curiosity that occupies our attention.”
Christ’s relationship with another believer is a sacred preserve. You have no more warrant to trespass upon your brother’s way of knowing our Lord than he has on yours. That place is holy ground. In some cases you may be invited onto it in the role of mentor or comforter.
In others, in dire circumstances, you may see a justifiable need to intervene to show your brother that he is failing to respect the sacred bond he enjoys with Christ.
Far more often, the place where his intimate association with his Lord begins is your red light. Turn and go your own way, the way your Lord has set before you.
In John, in his gospel and in his letters, it is impossible to miss one relentless drumbeat: The kingdom of God is here and it is now. The true believer does not experience salvation today to live a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll for the remainder of his days until his body expires, then to float about on a cloud strumming a celestial harp.
To be a Christian is to love God and love our neighbor in this moment – and to love is not to write sonnets and send roses. It is to seek the good of the other in emulation of our Lord Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What a shambles we will make of the kingdom if we commandeer as our concern the missions God has assigned our fellow laborers: “If only Jack would quit wasting his time in the choir – he can’t really sing a lick, anyway -- and serve in the food pantry, where we really need help; if only Jill would give up her insane dream of mission work in India and get busy teaching the pre-schoolers.”
We must be rightly related to one another to rightly represent our Lord in the world. If there is chaos in the body, what will the world think of the Head? See I Corinthians.
And if we are, each of us, fully engaged with the work God has set out for us to do, we will find no time to dally over the defects in the aims and efforts of our brothers and sisters.
We might ask, with Peter, “Why should I die while he lives?” And we might ask instead: Why should I have been born in a Christian nation? Baptized into the covenant community? Celebrate each week the enormous blessing of Holy Communion? Why should I live in a fine house that has as many bathrooms as people – and indoors to boot? Own more clothes than some families of six? Sup on fine fare in a fine restaurant on Christmas Eve? Why should I not seek more ways and better ways to serve my God and His image-bearers?
Envy. There’s an antidote for envy. It’s called grace. Fanny Crosby knew it when she saw it. And, believe me, she saw it . . . even though she was blind.
She wrote more than 8,000 gospel songs, a prodigious achievement for anyone, the more so for one struck blind in early infancy. A sympathetic pastor once told her, “I think it’s a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when He showered so many other gifts on you.”
“Do you know,” she replied “that if at birth I had been able to make one petition it would have been that I should be born blind?”
“Because when I get to heaven the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Savior!”
There is none so clear-sighted as she who will not be blind.
The Lord’s answer to Peter is both stinging and puzzling: “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”
Here’s a translation: “Mind your own business.”
But what does Jesus mean when He says John will remain in this life until the Lord’s return? That response set off a hubbub in the wider church.
Many, ignoring the context provided in such places as 1 and 2 Thessalonians, took those words in their most literal sense and convinced themselves Jesus would return before John died.
The Lord may have in mind His appearance to John on the isle of Patmos, but that’s not the point. The point is that Peter has his assignment and John’s is not his concern.
Because John did in fact live a long life – he was the last of the apostles to die in the last decade of the first century -- the speculation lingered. As has the envy.
A fable says the devil was crossing the North African desert when he happened upon a group of his disciples tempting a holy hermit. They tried to bribe him with the pleasures of the flesh, but the old man stood resolute.
Next they played upon his doubts and fears. If they could challenge his salvation, inject the tiniest suspicion that his God was not able to redeem him, surely then he would soften. He didn’t budge.
The devil stepped in. “Your methods are too crude,” he told his minions. “Permit me one moment.”
Turning to the holy man he said, “Have you heard the news? Your brother has been consecrated bishop of Alexandria?”
And the old hermit’s serene face began to darken as the malignant scowl of envy descended upon him like a shadow.
We might ask, with Peter, “Why should I die while he lives?” And we might ask instead: Why should I frazzle my nerves over the length of my years when I know my death is the threshold of my life, glorious and eternal, in the bosom of my Savior?
And what manner of ingrate would I be to gather the light my Lord bestows upon me and stuff it into a closet that I might wallow in the darkness that remains, trying to penetrate the mysteries only God may know?
Here is what I need to hear: “You follow Me.”
One final red light remains.
“And there are also many other things,” the apostle concludes, “that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
We may be sure that many of our Lord’s acts on this earth went unrecorded. But at the same time we should consider that the apostle is undoubtedly referring to more than other sermons Jesus preached and more miracles He performed.
It is this same John who begins his gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And so in the beginning, eons before He set foot upon His creation, God the Son was considering with the Father and the Spirit what sort of world they should beget and speaking it into existence.
Since His ascension, He has sustained the world He made, smiling His life-giving love down upon it in rivers of mercy despite the ongoing sin and rebellion of His creatures.
He has sat with surpassing forbearance at His Father’s right hand, interceding on your behalf and on mine, begging pardon for our transgressions.
So, yes, in His Incarnation as well He did more than John and the other evangelists could ever have recounted. But we must not ponder what He may have done and declare He has done it. For such is beyond the ken of mere mortals. We have the light He has given us . . . and that is sufficient.
It is for us to receive His mercies anew every morning and to cock an ear anew every morning and listen intently for those sweetest, most daunting of words, “You follow Me.” Amen.