St John’s Day 2015
How do you find out what’s going on in the world? Well, you can watch the news. And from the correspondents worldwide, one gets second hand information generally, something has happened and the good old Beeb rush someone to the scene, who tells us what has happened – usually terrible things. Whether its Paris, Helmand or Cumbria, there is someone there (how do they get there I always wonder!), telling us, often impartially, about it. Sometimes they interview folk who were present when it happened, people flooded out, or who survived a hail of bullets. This can be emotional – traumatic for them and for us, naturally.
It’s like what a policeman, or a traffic accident investigator would do: that is, look out for witnesses. At a crime or accident, one of the first things they do is try to find someone who saw what happened. And sometimes they have to put a sign on the street asking witness to come forward. It’s a time-honoured way of acquiring truth, objectivity and perspective on events that would otherwise provoke speculation, rumour and even fiction. And where there is a serious crime, evidence has to be protected, gathered and assessed, and ultimately reports written. Because the officer at the scene of a crime has very rarely seen it him or herself – they rely on witnesses and have to make judgements about the truth of what folk are saying, and what interests or involvements they might have. Funnily enough – not everyone is honest, staggering a revelation as that may come to you.
So, into the frame steps St John, who opens his first letter with a staggering claim:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”
Here is John, not just writing a letter of encouragement to churches he knows, not describing what he has heard about, seen on telly, read in the papers or generally picked up in the pub. This is not hearsay, or even highly researched information – no – it is what he himself saw, heard and touched. This is not an account of things, but a news bulletin from the frontline, the trenches of spiritual warfare, the dugouts of faith, happening for real underneath his nose and before his own eyes. No – he is an eye, and nose and hand and ear-witness.
This is the great thing about St John, so often overlooked, forgotten or ignored. There are four gospel writers, Matthew, Luke and Mark are not generally associated with Jesus so directly, but rather as having either spawned a tradition or inherited one. No-one has ever claimed that Luke was one of the twelve disciples. When we hear his wonderful birth narratives, as we have done a lot at Christmas, we know that he is not making any claim to have been present. Indeed he admits that he has heard it from others. So, to quote from St Luke on this St John’s Day:
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
Luke is the historical policeman, trying to get the facts right, set it down and write a report for the judges. His judge was Theophilus, and by extension his reports are or us too. But John has a different line:
“Look chaps, I was there, right? I saw this with my own eyes. This bloke Jesus, he was my friend, I knew him. And not just me, but others too”.
That’s why he says ‘we’ not ‘I’. And, look – he even uses the word testify – ‘to bear witness’. And guess what the Greek word for that is – the word that John actually uses? It is martyroumen – the word from which we get the word ‘martyr’. John is a martyr to his evidence, and a martyr as we now think of it, is someone who is willing to witness to their faith, even to the point of death. Ironically, tradition has it that John was the only one of the twelve disciples to not be martyred, he is reckoned to have died of old age – a great age in fact – on the island of Patmos sometime around 90AD. So we have John testifying to the truth, connecting us to the gospel he wrote, and here, opening a letter of encouragement and teaching by stating his credentials as an eyewitness and friend of the Lord. This is why we are reminded in our gospel reading of that moment when Jesus suggests that John will not die.
And then you might wonder how Moses fits into all of this – that Old Testament reading in which we hear of the remarkable idea that Moses met and communed with God face to face. This is there to remind us that seeing God face to face is not so new, but also that the way in which John saw God in Christ is different, a new, fleshly way. But the writer of Exodus – who might have been Moses himself – tells us that ‘The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend’.
What a friend John had in Jesus! What a friend we have in Jesus!
For the meaning of all this for us, is also, in fact, the meaning of Christmas. Let’s remember another John for a moment - John Lewis and that advert – I talked about it a bit on Christmas Eve. There is a man on the moon separated from earth by a great distance. He is given a telescope, with which to bring the world nearer. You may be amused or interested to know that since that advert first aired in early December, John Lewis are reporting a 412% percent increase in telescope sales! Now you know as a well as I do, that that means for every one they sold before they have now sold four. So that’s four telescopes sold then! Statistics are all relative. But I doubt it was actually John Lewis’ intention to sell telescopes on the back of their advert.
But remember that telescopes work in two directions, and it is vital that you look through them the right way. The wrong way round they put things further away, rather than closer.
The obscure, but profound Second World war poet, Keith Douglas, who was killed in Normandy in 1943, wrote a poem entitled ‘Simplify me when I’m dead’ in which he writes:
Time’s wrong-way telescope will show
a minute man ten years hence
and by distance simplified.
This is what the reversed John Lewis telescope can do – it can focus on and increase distance and separation. But it can also give perspective on what is important and significant, helping us discern the truth behind the tinsel. Keith Douglas goes on to write:
Through that lens see if I seem
substance or nothing: of the world
deserving mention or charitable oblivion,
Distance gives perspective and perspective yields truth and honesty. But St John reminds us that in Christ God comes near, he is the same size as us, the same humanity as us, the same flesh and blood. Flesh made Word, and blood made wine. Or rather, turning the telescope the other way round, he is Word made flesh and wine made blood. We read him in Scripture, know him in our World and receive him in bread and wine. This is the perspective we need – the truth we need to be brought near to.
It is why we are here today, and it is what Christmas really means. Incarnation – the World made flesh, the Word that is light – light of the world – for God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. And if you think about what a telescope really is, it is an instrument of light. All it does is let in light, amplify and magnify it. And that is what enables us to truly see. And it is St John who reminds us that seeing is believing, and believing is seeing. He was there – he knows.
And his main message is that God is with us – we have seen him and beheld his glory. We don’t need a telescope. All those folk who have bought telescopes have wasted their money! For in John’s words about the Word made flesh, he has given us a great gift – the eyewitness account of the truth about Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour of the World, brought near, that he may dwell in us and we in him.
To him be glory and honour now and always, Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield. 27/12/2015.