Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 disciples and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. Oddly, as important as the disciples were, there are few churchgoers today who know their names. Thus far, we have heard the story of Andrew, Jesus’ first disciple, as well as his more well-known brother, Simon-Peter. We have meditated on two of the most overlooked apostles, Philip and James the Less, and arguably, the most misunderstood, Thomas the Twin. Last Sunday, we heard the story of an apostle known simply by his last name Bartholomew. And today, we turn to the younger of another set of brothers and fishermen, the only one who died of natural causes in old age, St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist.
In 1996, Linda Ellis wrote a poem called The Dash Poem. It speaks of the brevity and meaning of life. You may have heard it read at a funeral, although it is certainly about the choices of life.
I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning to the end.
He noted first came the date of the birth and spoke the following date with tears.
But he said what mattered most of all was the dash between the years.
For that dash represents all the time that they spent life on Earth.
And now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not how much we own, the cars, the house, the cash.
What matters is how we live and love, and how we spend our dash.
The Apostle John understood the meaning of life’s dash. He is often referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or “John the Beloved,” as well as the apostle of love. In the three epistles and gospel attributed to him, the word love occurs more than 80 times. Over and over, we hear the words echoing, “For God so loved the world. You shall love one another. If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” But John himself was not always such a loveable character. As the sons of Zebedee, John and his older brother, James were given a nickname by Jesus, “Sons of Thunder.” They were fiery, strong personalities who needed harnessing. Although, artistic renderings of the apostle John often portray him as a beardless, frail youth, he was strong and aggressive. He was certainly the youngest of the disciples, perhaps 10 years younger than Jesus, but he was like other fishermen of his time: rough cut, hardworking, brash, and short on social graces. Still Jesus could see the loving potential dash within him, and that is what I would like to explore today.
John was born in Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee in 11 AD to Zebedee and Salome. We often picture Jesus’ disciples as poor peasants, fishermen and carpenters who are barely able to rub two nickels together. That was not the world that John and James knew. They grew up in a privileged home. When Jesus saw them preparing their nets and called them to follow him, John and James simply got up and left their work to the hired men. Their father Zebedee, himself must have owned a successful fishing fleet and been an influential benefactor of the Temple in Jerusalem. His family was also well known in political circles. In St. John’s gospel, we read that on the night in which Jesus was betrayed, John, who was known by the High Priest, was allowed into the High Priest’s Courtyard, while Peter had to wait outside. Joh, however, had enough influence over even the high priest’s servants, that he persuaded them to let Peter in as well.
As for their other, Salome, it is often thought that she was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. That would mean that James and John, the sons of Zebedee and Salome, were the cousins of Jesus. She certainly was a follower. On Easter morning, we read in St. Mark’s gospel, “And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. In St. John’s gospel, we read that she was there on Good Friday as well, “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved, standing by, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” Such a statement from Jesus isn’t so startling when you consider that James and John and Jesus could have all been cousins.
Still, even among family, we can have relatives with sharp and prickly edges, who would merit the title, “Sons and daughter of Thunder.” On one occasion, when the people in a village of Samaria rejected the message of Jesus, James and John pleaded with him to call down fire from heaven and destroy them. We are simply told that Jesus “turned and rebuked” them. The look itself may have been a more devastating than his words. On another occasion, the two brothers were overheard asking Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Not exactly, the most humble behavior of two of Jesus’ closest disciples.
People do change and so did the disciples. By the end of Jesus’ earthly 3-year ministry, John was becoming known for something other than his ambitious, fiery temperament. He would be remembered for his loyalty and commitment. He was, after all the only disciple who did not flee the scene of the crucifixion. There was something more. After Jesus’ resurrection, when Mary Magdalene told John and Peter about the empty tomb, they ran together. John who was younger, reached the tomb first. But instead of rushing in, he waited outside for Peter. Only then did he follow him into the tomb to see the empty place where Jesus had been laid.
Surprisingly, neither did the beloved John boast of his unique relationship to Jesus. Being seen at the right hand of Jesus wasn’t his goal anymore. Love had changed him. True, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, John was active in establishing the church in Jerusalem. St. Paul considered him to be a pillar of the church, but he allowed others especially Peter, to bask in the limelight and to take the central role. In the Book of Acts, we read that together, Peter and John taught in the Temple and healed a lame man at the Bright Gate. They were arrested, set in prison and spoke with boldness before the Council. But Peter was always the one who drew the most attention. There is not much more written about John’s life in life in Judea. It is assumed that, together with the other Apostles, he remained there some 12 years until the persecution of King Herod Agrippa led to their scattering through the various provinces of the Roman Empire. Curiously, he was still in Jerusalem when the Council of Jerusalem was called in 50 AD to decide on what should be required of Gentile converts.
The legends of John’s life, and his own writings, do offer a glimpse into the apostle’s work in his later years. Tradition states that he was the primary apostle to Ephesus after Paul’s initial missionary tour. It is a natural Protestant perspective to imagine that he remained in Judaea and journey to Ephesus after the death of the Virgin Mary when he was released from his sacred trust to Jesus. Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, however, say that the Virgin Mary accompanied the John when he sought refuge in Ephesus, and there both eventually died. There is still a house in Ephesus where pilgrims worship today known as Mary’s house. This would have taken place after the great fire in Rome in 65 AD leading to the execution of Peter and Paul and before the Roman Army destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. Once in Ephesus, John began travelling around Asia Minor establishing the churches which would be known as the seven churches of Revelation.
John was not spared persecution. Tradition says that during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, John was given a cup of poisoned wine. As he blessed the wine, the poison rose out of the cup in the form of a serpent. He then drank the wine with no ill effect. Later, the apostle was taken to Rome, where he was placed into a boiling cauldron of oil. He miraculously survived unharmed. Displeased by this turn of events, the emperor had John exiled to the island of Patmos off the coast of modern-day Turkey where he was placed into forced labor in the mines and where he received the revelation that would inspire the final book of the Bible. After Domitian was assassinated by his own Praetorian guard, John was released and returned to Ephesus where he finally began his writing of all that he had experienced and knew to be true, and by sudden inspiration, he penned the wonderful opening to his gospel, “In the beginning was the word.”
John lived a long, rich life – a dash, from 11 AD to 99 AD. Regrettably, there is neither a relic nor a stone to mark his final resting spot in the ruins of the Basilica of St. John in Ephesus. Traditions states when he felt his death approaching, he gave orders for the construction of his own sepulcher, and when it was finished, he calmly laid himself down in it and died. After his interment there were strange movements in the earth that covered him. When the tomb was subsequently opened it was found empty.
So what can we learn the from the life of John, the apostle and evangelist? Certainly, he was transformed by Jesus’ love for him. He was humble and loyal and self-effacing. In scripture we can also observe that whenever John leaves his own name out of his writings and describes himself simply as the disciple whom Jesus loved, he is actually revealing what transformed him from a son of thunder to a son of love. Jesus. John’s life also reminds us that even the most loved disciples can experience long stretches of life, dashes if you will, where nothing seems worth writing about- yet it is still vitally important. And, finally, John teaches us that even the most beloved disciples can feel persecuted and alone. John, however remained unwavering in his patience and confidence in God’s purpose for his life. Through his own divine revelation, he trusted that there was always something more waiting for those who placed their trust in God. My friends, may that be the unwritten confidence and hope behind the dash in your life.
For it matters not how much we own, the cars, the house, the cash.
What matters is how we live and love, and how we spend our dash. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.