Saturday, December 26, 2009

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Sermon on John 21:20-24
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
December 27, 2009 (St. John, Apostle and Evangelist)

Here we are, two days after Christmas. The presents have been opened, the toys played with, the food eaten (in some cases including my own way too much food was eaten), and all of the other things that go along with Christmas in our culture have pretty much taken place. Some of you who have widely scattered families might still have some Christmas celebrations yet, but by and large Christmas is over for most people, and we as a society are turning our attention to New Year’s Day and the various parties and other events that take place on that day. But here in the Church, Christmas has just started. To the world, the Christmas season is the Christmas shopping season, which runs from mid-November up until Christmas. But in the Church, the Christmas season starts on Christmas and runs until Epiphany. I’m sure all of you are familiar with the song, the Twelve Days of Christmas. There actually are twelve days of Christmas, from December 25 until January 5, with January 6 being the Epiphany of our Lord. That makes today the third day of Christmas. Back during medieval times in Europe, when a much greater portion of the population were members of one Church and even the secular and business worlds were more in tune with the Church’s calendar, these twelve days of Christmas were one big celebration, with Church services every day for twelve days in a row.

Each of these twelve days, however, had its own emphasis. Yesterday, the second day of Christmas, was devoted to commemorating St. Stephen, who was the first Christian to be stoned for his faithful confession that Jesus Christ, the baby born in Bethlehem, the man crucified and risen for us, is indeed the Son of God. Tomorrow, the fourth day of Christmas, is the commemoration of the Holy Innocents, those baby boys up to the age of two in and around Bethlehem who were killed by Herod’s soldiers when Herod had found out that a king had been born in that city. Today, the third day of Christmas, commemorates the apostle and Gospel writer St. John, whose teaching about the union between God and Man in the person of Jesus Christ gives us a new appreciation for the mystery and the wonder of what took place in that stable in Bethlehem.

The Gospel lesson for today took place after Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus had come to His disciples while they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and had given them a meal of bread and fish, which are the same foods He used for the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 earlier in John’s Gospel. After the meal, Jesus has a conversation with Peter in which he asks Peter to be a faithful shepherd, a faithful pastor, to Christ’s church, even though it will mean that he, Peter, will eventually be put to death for his confession of faith. Jesus did this because Peter had fallen away from Christ by denying Him during the trial on Good Friday, and without Holy Absolution Peter’s guilt would cripple his ability to forgive others of their sin and guilt. After that conversation, we read today’s text, in which Peter and Jesus discuss St. John, who was Jesus’ closest friend among the disciples.

Since Jesus had just told Peter that he himself would face martyrdom for his faithful confession of the truth, Peter is naturally curious about John. What about him? Will he also be put to death? Jesus tells Peter not to worry about John, but rather to focus upon the work that Jesus was giving Peter himself to do. God will take care of John through the course of his life, just as He will take care of Peter through the course of his life. We know from some of the ancient historians in the Church that John was the only apostle who died of natural causes in old age, even though ironically John’s older brother James was the first of the twelve to be put to death. The other apostles were killed either by the Jews or by the Romans for their faithful confession of the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This led to the rumor that John was not going to die at all until Jesus came again. This is why John writes what he does at the end, in an attempt to put that rumor to rest. John lived long enough to write five books of the Bible: the Gospel that bears his name, the three epistles or letters that also bear his name, and the Revelation to St. John. This was what God kept him alive to do, was to testify to the Truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and so to enrich God’s Word with his own uniquely simple and profound style of writing.

It may have been tempting for the other apostles to be jealous of John when they were imprisoned and put to death for their faithful confession of the truth. It’s not fair, it might seem, that even though all of them testify to the same truth, not all are given the same treatment. Most are killed, but one is not. That’s not fair! For us as well, it’s tempting to think that it’s not fair when it seems like it is those who have fallen away from the faith or are notorious sinners that seem to be doing the best in this life, while the nice guys, the good people, seem to finish last, at least from the perspective of this world.

But in the midst of thoughts like these Jesus’ words to Peter regarding St. John speak to us as well. “What is that to you?” Why should you care how someone else is doing? Look after yourself. Focus your eyes on what God has given you to do, the life He has given you to live. Look at others around you not as targets of jealousy, but as those given us as opportunities to show God’s love. Remember that no matter how bad you think you might have it, as a sinner you deserve worse. Remember that no matter how good you think others have it, they have problems and troubles of their own, and these problems and troubles are opportunities for Christ to love them through us. Remember especially that because of Christ’s suffering and death our own sufferings and deaths are merely temporary. We will be raised up with Christ on the last day to live before God in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Let God worry about how others are doing. Your vocation is simply to confess Him whose suffering removes your suffering and theirs, through your confession of faith to them in word and deed.

Consider also our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He is the Lord and Creator of heaven and earth, ruling every cubic inch of this creation personally by His infinite power and wisdom. And yet, when He became man he had to become a lowly, helpless infant, who relied upon His mother for everything. He was born of a completely unknown family, in a stable of all places, because nobody would make room for Mary, Joseph, and Himself. Even though He is the eternal Son of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by Whom all things were made—even though He is all of that, He was born and lived as an ordinary man. And worst of all, He never boasted or bragged about being the Son of God, but He was put to death for claiming to be what He really was. If you think life is unfair to you, you have nothing on Jesus Christ!

But all of this, everything He endured, was for you. Everything that happened on Christmas, leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Ascension Day, and Pentecost, was for you. He gives you the blessings He earned by His suffering through Word and Sacrament even today. Just like John, we are to rely solely on Him, to be so close to Him as to lean on His breast when we suffer, so that we may receive comfort from Him through His Word and His body and blood, even as John did on Maundy Thursday. Receiving these blessings strengthens you to go and live the life God has given you to live, to serve your family and neighbors and those for whom you work in your daily jobs with the strength that Christ gives you to perform your duties faithfully and well. Living your life in thanksgiving to God this way, you won’t have the need to be constantly looking around at others who seem to be doing better than you are. You will be following Christ, even as both St. Peter and St. John did, each in his own way. And ultimately by God’s grace the destination will be the same as well: you will be reborn into eternal life just as Christ was born into our lives in Bethlehem to set us free. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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