The Apostle's Christmas
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of St. John, December 27, 2020
“If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
A FEW YEARS AGO, they made me a bishop. That put me in a line of bishops going back 2,000 years, consecrated from hand to head, and we can track that line by a record called the Apostolic Succession. The first bishop in any line was an Apostle of Jesus, one of the eleven survivors of the day of crucifixion. The line leading to my episcopacy began with the beloved Apostle St. John. And from John to St. Polycarp, and from Polycarp to St. Irenaeus. That 2nd century saint wrote against heresies, and attributed all the books we hold as St. John’s to John: the Gospel, three Epistles, and Revelation. All of them stand apart as remarkable works of theology, a powerful testimony that Jesus, his Master, was God’s unique Son, and that love is His nature, and must be ours also.
Counted as the youngest of Jesus’ disciples, John fished with brother James, and the brothers Peter and Andrew on the lake of Galilee. They all left the fishing business behind to follow Jesus. John kept faith with his Master to the foot of His cross. He couldn’t leave Him.
John lived longer than the others, and though he may have been boiled in oil, imprisoned on the barren island of Patmos, and persecuted through the evil empires of Caligula and Nero, he was not a martyr, not killed for his faith. As the elder Apostle, at the turn of the 2nd century, John’s message was simple: “Love each other.”
His Gospel account was written with knowledge of the other Gospels, not needing to repeat Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Matthew, we’d learned of Mary’s pregnancy, and Joseph’s dream, urging him to marry her because her child was by God’s Spirit. It speaks of the birth, then the visit of the magi from Persia who saw a new star. Luke gives an account of Mary’s experiences, of Gabriel’s appearance, the night in Bethlehem, shepherds telling angelic visions in the fields. We hear of Christ’s circumcision at 8 days, and at 40 days, His Presentation in Jerusalem. John knew that Christ’s origins as a human baby was taught by these witnesses. As a deep thinker, he penetrated the wonder of the Incarnate God. His Gospel opens with the cosmic scene from heaven’s perspective:
“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by it, and without it was made nothing that was made.”
An echo of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” But here is a wonder. Here at the beginning is the Word. This is not merely a spoken word; this Word was with God and was Himself God. All things were made by Him and for Him. This was no ordinary word. This Word was a divine Person. It’s a Greek term denoting God’s creative wisdom and action in bringing everything into being by a command, the expression of God’s Mind. When we speak, our words are sounds with meaning. When God speaks, His Word is His eternal Son, ordering the cosmos and making what was mere darkness into orderly light. Besides God Himself, there is nothing that ever existed unless it was made through Him.
And that Word “was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness comprehended it not… That was the true light, who lights all that come into the world.”
All life enters our universe by Him. Life cannot be explained any other way. It’s the divine spark, the gift of the living One. Our wonderful intelligence, our ability to sit here and listen, conceive of vast realities, and see in our minds what is hidden from other eyes is light arising out of the life He gave us. Our light is our awareness, thought, understanding, spiritual senses, knowledge and wisdom. Even a baby has that wisdom. It’s God’s mark upon the human race. We are in many ways like Him, who began creation with the command, Let there be light! And light sprang forth, starting perhaps with a great explosion, and ending with you and me here, in church, this morning. From his vision of creation, John leads us to earth and follows the story in our world.
“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and yet the world knew him not. He came among his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them he gave power to be the children of God, in that they believed on his name who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor yet of the will of man, but of God.”
John jumps ahead of the story, remarking how the Logos, the divine Word, the life and light of all humans on the third planet out from the Sun, was actually here in the world He’d made, and yet no one recognized Him, even those chosen people He’d been in correspondence with, foretelling His appearance with hundreds of details to watch for. They rejected Him. But a few saw and embraced it, including the writer of this account, making them the sons and daughters of God, believing that Jesus Christ meant what He said, by the power of God’s grace. You and I are receivers of that grace also. By His Word, we have become children of God through faith in the One who came here for love of us.
“And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we saw the glory of it, as the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father, which word was full of grace and truth… And of his fullness we have all received, even grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.”
We know the story of the town with no room, a delivery in straw meant for livestock, a cry in the night, and after comforting their newborn, wrapping Him in cloth strips, they placed Him asleep in a feeding trough nearby. We know of the later visit of wise men from the East with rich gifts and words of portent, and the dream that night warning them to quickly escape the madness of a king. Now the Apostle John’s Christmas moves our focus to greater depths, to see the origins, to get his own view at the first moment of all time, and see there the One who would come among us, God with us, bringing us back to Himself through believing it, believing the Word that brings wisdom out of the void.
When the Apostles had walked with Jesus for three years, witnesses to His acts of power, countless miracles, and terrible crucifixion, they then saw, heard and touched Him, risen alive again. Not even death could stop Him. When Jesus rose out of this world, John’s heart was lightened, knowing that Jesus with the Father would never stop thinking about us and planning good for us, and even our deaths could not thwart that plan. Peter, the impetuous leader, passionate and often confused, yet was the natural head of the small band, and took John with him to represent the council Christ had called to Himself. The two went to Samaria to support Deacon Philip laying on Apostolic hands. The two entered the Temple, stopping to heal a lame man, making themselves criminals by calling on the Name of Jesus. Along with John’s brother, James, they had witnessed Christ’s intimate moments, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, and Christ’s prayers in Gethsemane. John was destined for a special mark, the one Apostle not to be killed for the faith, but to understand great mysteries, see the future of the church and the coming of new heavens and a new earth, humankind’s future home forever at the final battle won by the Word, the Lamb of God, the One John knew from that day at the lake.
What do we do with such knowledge? Read it. John’s writings are given as a balance for the rest of the New Testament. He fills in where the others have not spoken. Several chapters are devoted to Christ’s teaching at the Last Supper, promising the Holy Spirit and giving us His new commandment. The revelation to Nicodemus by night, that being born again by the water and Spirit are the start, and that God loves all people, giving up His Son for them. We hear that eating and drinking the Body and Blood promises eternal life. His Epistles further the message, that God is light, and God is love. We are all sinners, but if we confess that fully in faith, He forgives us.
All these amazing disclosures would be hard for any to believe, in fact, still make a barrier to faith for those who want proof. And proof is what John offers. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life,” his Epistle begins. He is an eyewitness, he saw Jesus, he touched Him, he heard Him tell these wonders, he saw Him raised to life after his own eyes watched Him die. He helped carry His lifeless body to the tomb, and comforted the grieved mother. And this very man, once but a young fisherman, now the most respected Apostle, is telling you these things. “These things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
John opens the sky to us and in his wonder, we are blessed. We have an eyewitness here, telling us to dig deeper into the meaning of life, of the minds we’ve been given, to think hard thoughts and seek God’s face. John laid his hands on Polycarp, a convert out of Greek Asia Minor, whose martyrdom was a wonder in an age of darkness. The faith of this Apostle who Jesus loved fuels the church still. You can’t feel that unless you read his words, and ponder them. All the world could not contain the breadth of wisdom John saw and heard from the Lord Jesus. Nothing of John’s vision of heaven may be removed or added to, if we value our salvation. The mercy of God is made known to us by the gift of God’s Son, born at this time for us, and told to us by an Apostle, the best of eyewitnesses. Love was born that night, and the Word spoken by the Father into this world was the Apostle’s Christmas. And now it’s ours.