Homily for St. John, Apostle and Evangelist Day

Text: John 21:19-24

Date: St. John / Third Day of Christmas + 12/27/06

      On the third day of Christmas my True Love gave to me Three French Hens. According to the explanation that this song is a 16th-century hidden catechism, this is a reference to the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. We recall that St. Paul listed these and then added the comment, “but the greatest of these is love.” How appropriate the coincidence, then, that the third day of Christmas should also happen to be the commemoration of Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, as he is remembered, above all the others, as the Apostle of Love. That’s the way he always referred to himself in his Gospel, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” His famous “Gospel in a nutshell” tells what it is in God that made Him redeem and save his fallen creation: “God so loved the world.” He is the only Apostle who remained steadfast at the scene of the crucifixion where he alone was entrusted by Jesus in His dying woes to care for the blessed Mother of our Lord for her remaining days. Not only his Gospel but especially his three catholic Epistles repeat the theme of love. Symbolized by an eagle we remember the height and depth of the vision given him on the Island of Patmos in the final book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse or Revelation.

      Our text is from the last chapter of his Gospel. And it is interesting how it immediately follows our Lord’s triple absolution and reinstatement of the Apostle Peter with the question, “Do you love me?” Still so repentant over his three-fold denial of the Lord before His crucifixion, Peter could not bring himself to use the highest Greek word for love, agape, but only the lesser, more humble word, phileo. Is this why Peter’s next question, then, is concerning John as the example of the love Peter himself was so reluctant to claim? “Lord, what about this man?” It’s almost as if he was asking that, if the Lord has forgiven me for my weak love, what would be the destiny of the Apostle who is known for love?

      Even more interesting is that for this last time in his Gospel that John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” he adds the detail that he was the one “who also had leaned on [Jesus’] breast at the [Last] supper, and said, ‘Lord, who is the one who betrays You?’” Maybe (do you think it possible?) this was intended as a little more encouragement for Peter, reminding him that his betrayal of the Lord was not as devastating as for Judas Iscariot who did not seek forgiveness at all!

      And then, what to make of the mysterious statement of our Lord that started the rumor that He meant that John was not to die? “Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?’”

      When we commemorate the saints, the Apostles and Evangelists, we do so to remember them as examples of faith for us to imitate. Their faith was in the Lord Jesus—most to a death of martyrdom, but this one, John, to a death only in old age. John’s faith, therefore, speaks of the endurance of faith over the long-haul. We all know to some extent the temptations and pressures to give up on Christian faith. The longer we wend our way through the valley of the shadow of death that is the struggle of faith, the more the temptations to fall away.

      I am reminded of a man…oh, I won’t say, but he was a Lutheran organist and musician of some international fame who happened to be the organist in my first home church. He wrote and published many hymn-preludes and taught many students the art of the organ, especially the music of J. S. Bach. Years later word was that he had given up on the Lutheran Church and joined the Unitarians. I happened to run in to him and asked how this could be. I’ll never forget his devastating answer. He said, “I just can’t believe all that ‘Jesus Christ’ stuff anymore.”

      This serves as a reminder than saving faith, though it is the gift and working of God Himself through the Word of the Gospel, can grow weak and even die. Faith relies on being fed all our days, fed by and on the Word of the Gospel, hearing it preached, receiving it by a constant remembrance of our Holy Baptism, by the continual feeding on our Lord’s body and blood in the sacrament of the altar for the strengthening of our faith. Jesus said, “If you continue in my Word you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

            Because of our Lord’s one, perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the whole world, because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, says “to all who [will] receive him, who believe in his name,” you are now the disciple whom Jesus loves. Such love creates faith and the endurance of faith amid and against all temptation. Such love sustains faith, gives the certain hope of eternal life, and makes you to be a disciple of love. Faith, hope and love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love. In faith and hope we pray, “O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells” [Psalm 26:8 (ESV)].