Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Robert Tobin,
Vicar of St Mary and St John the Divine, Balham
on Friday 27th December 2019 (John the Evangelist)
Exodus 33.7–11a; Psalm 117; 1 John 1; John 21.19b–end
When I was a boy growing up in Boston in Massachusetts, every summer my parents would take me and my brothers and my sisters camping, either in the mountains of Vermont or New Hampshire or along the rocky coastline of Maine. And I remember so well the excitement of waking up early as we set off on our trip, the ensuing restlessness we children felt during the long journey, and of course, the delight of finally arriving at our destination. And likewise, just as vivid in my memory is the large canvas tent that my father and my brothers would then put up for us at our campsite. It was in fact quite a big tent, but even so, fitting all seven of us into that space could make for some rather cosy sleeping conditions. Still, as crowded as it may have been, I also recall the deep sense of peace and well-being that came with being huddled together inside that tent as we fell asleep to the sound of the animals in the forest and the crackling of the dying campfire. At such moments there was absolutely nothing to do, but rather simply to savour a moment, a moment of being alive together, alive and resting under the stars, together in God’s great world.
As we’re assembled here today on this feast of John, Apostle and Evangelist, we’re invited not so much to celebrate a particular individual as the beautiful vision of God that he inspired and continues to inspire within our Christian faith. For despite their evident differences, the writings that we traditionally attribute to John – the Gospel, the Epistles, the Revelation – what these share in common is a powerful sense of God’s eternal, creative presence made tangible in our midst. In this, the Incarnation of Jesus doesn’t mark the beginning of God’s being in the world, but rather the start of an opportunity for us to know God’s eternal presence in the terms of our own humanity. And it is indeed the being of God, rather than the doing of God, that John invites us to recognize first and foremost: so we’re reminded in the great prologue of his Gospel that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (1.14). Or, to translate the Greek more precisely, the ‘The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us’. And pitched his tent among us: just as God once made himself known to Moses in the tent of meeting, where, we’re told he spoke to him ‘as one speaks to a friend’, so by entering the world as a person of flesh and blood, God made himself known to all of us by simply by being among us. So in Jesus, he nestled among us, just as I did with my parents and siblings in that big tent all those years ago, human bodies warming each other, human bodies reassuring each other, affirming each other, through the basic fact of being alive together in that moment in time.
Of course, Jesus would indeed go on to do much more than simply dwell among us: he would also teach and preach, he would nourish and heal, and not least, he would question and challenge in ways that ultimately led to his suffering and death upon the cross. And, as today’s reading from the Gospel reminds us, he continued to be active among his followers, even after the stone had been rolled away on Easter morning. Here we find him reconciled to Peter and having given him the great responsibility to lead and to guide the community that is to flourish in Jesus’ name. But there also remains the question of what will become of John, the Beloved Disciple, always present and available, yet whose words and deeds are so rarely recorded. If Peter is to become the bearer of Jesus’ authority, it is John who will continue simply, profoundly to embody his love. And he will do this, by taking Mother Mary into his own home and becoming her own son; he will do this, not by dying a martyr’s death but instead, by living out his days as a witness to what it is to have felt the very breath of God upon his face, to have spoken with him as one speaks to a friend.
Just over four months ago, my wife and I welcomed a baby daughter into the world. And it’s certainly no exaggeration to say that she has, in the process, completely transformed (not to say taken over!) our existence. Night feeds, nappy changes, and all the other practical necessities of parenthood now dominate our consciousness. But for all the ways in which her daily needs now dictate the rhythm of our lives, there’s something that our baby’s been teaching us that I, at least, badly needed to be reminded of. And that is the basic business of simply being. Even amidst the laundry and the shopping and the health visits, there she is, completely present in the moment, with no past to speak of and no future to fear. All the busyness, then, in which her mother and I are constantly engaged on her behalf can have no greater purpose, other than that of ensuring that she may continue to be who she already is, and that more and more each day. This, I think, is something of a clue to what lies at the heart of John’s great vision: the vision of a God ready to do nothing more than simply to be with us, as one of us, as we are, in this moment. And by being with us, to remind us just how little or much our own efforts can finally matter, if they do not affirm the basic care and compassion, which is after all the Father’s will for his creation.
In receiving this vision from John – the vision of a God who makes his home among mortals (Rev. 21.3) – it’s also not long before we also realise that the vision also comes with some difficult questions. Yet they’re questions, that if we’re prepared to answer honestly, contain within them the promise of new life. For in receiving the one who’s come and pitched his tent among us, we’re called to ask ourselves: just how serious are we about welcoming a God who insists upon reflecting back to us our own vulnerability and helplessness? How willing are we to let this God know us, and not just from a distance but right up-close, probing into the loneliness and anger and fear that we so often carry around inside us? And finally, how open are we, in accepting the gift of Jesus’ being in our midst, to also accepting ourselves and other people as God has in fact made each of us to be? For here, at St John’s Church on St John’s Day, that is all and everything we are called to do: simply to accept the peace of being alive here together; blessed by the company of those around us; and together saved by the loving company of God.