Sunday 7 May - Patronal Feast - Evensong - Stephen Holmes

Patronal Feast 2017 – St John

 + ‘Little children, love one another’

Today in this church of St John we are keeping the feast day of our patron saint, St John the Apostle and Evangelist. He wrote one of the four gospels and was one of Jesus’ closest friends. He leant on his chest at the Last Supper, stood by his cross and was given to his mother Mary. He is also the patron saint of boring sermons.

There are strong ancient traditions that John lived to a great age, into his 90s, and stayed in the city of Ephesus, now a great ruin on the coast of Turkey. A lot of the earliest Christian writers have stories about John and one is that as an old man he would be carried into church on a Sunday to speak to the congregation and each time he would say ‘Little children, love one another’. After some months of this the people got fed up and complained, ‘Master, why do you always say the same thing?’ It seems that moaning about the clergy is one of the earliest marks of the church. John replied, in his croaky old voice, ‘Love is the Lord's command, and if you do it… that’s all you need’. So the Beatles were simply repeating apostolic doctrine in their famous song.

All you need is love; little children, love one another. In this time of elections and political uncertainty, love is certainly important but we Christians are perhaps not very good at it – the old list of crusades, inquisition witch burnings and the rest. There is another old story about John, told by Irenaeus who was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of John – so it must be true. Cerinthus was a rival Christian teacher to John in Ephesus who taught that God did not create the world and that Jesus was not God. The story goes that John was once at the baths when he saw through the steam that Cerinthus was on the other side of the room. He leapt to his feet and ran out shouting, ‘Run, the building will fall down for Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is inside!’ If the Bishop of Edinburgh did that on seeing a Mormon in the sauna, we might not see that as evidence of his great love.

Love was, however, a central idea for John, it occurs over a hundred times in his gospel and letters; this is a quarter of their occurrence in the NT in writings that are only ten percent of the total. If love was so important for the writer we are remembering today, we can ask why – or, more precisely, what is the shape of love?

We have people in this church and choir who are preparing for marriage or who have been married this year. People say that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Marriage has changed a lot over the years, in the past it has been a property transaction where the male had ownership. Today in our society and church it is, or at least is meant to be, an equal partnership rooted in love. Today also couples live together, often for quite a while before ‘tying the knot’. This is a good thing, but if they already have the reality of commitment, love and partnership, why do they need marriage – which is a public vow, in our case with God’s blessing given through the church. This question is even more pressing with gay couples in a civil partnership, who have the legal benefits of marriage, but still want to marry, particularly marry in church. What is going on, is there anything in the shape of love that demands this? A wise man once said to me that ‘love tends towards the vow’. The passionate commitment to another makes one want to make that commitment public, exclusive and permanent. This is true of monastic vows committing yourself to God, and marriage vows committing yourself to another person. Love tends towards the vow – and vows show us the shape of love.

But not all are monks or married. Some of us have multiple attempts at these or none at all. In the section from his letter read earlier John links love with obeying commandments, as Jesus does in his gospel ‘if ye love me keep my commandments’. If you love someone you don’t kill them or steal from them, if you love your partner you don’t sleep with someone else. If you love God, you don’t worship Satan. The commandments give the shape of love, and so do the Beatitudes and Jesus’ other teaching. These can be external rules but it is clear from the gospels that for healthy living external ‘don’ts’ need to become internal virtues. A virtue is a habit of doing the right thing, what is good for your neighbour and thus also for yourself. Virtue, especially in dealing with others, shows us the shape of love.

If you love someone according to the commandments and according to virtue, you also don’t lie to them. Truth clearly is central here – just think of the phrase ‘we have no secrets’. Sometimes concealing the truth can be an act of love, as when the Gestapo ask about the Jews you are hiding in the attic, but the exceptions demonstrate that ‘truth and love’ are a wonderful couple. Perhaps that is why John was so keen on the truth about Jesus that he ran screaming out of the sauna. Love must be shaped by truth. Think of the women environmental campaigners who had relationships with the undercover police officers who had infiltrated their group, and in one case had children with the officer. One said of her partner, “gradually uncovering the truth about him felt like long, slow, painful torture – real psychological torture” Love is shaped by truth.

And finally, as we are still in the fifty days of unremitting joy of Eastertide, John shows the shape of love when he tells the story of Jesus. The Word of God who became flesh to show us the way home, the man who taught us to love, and, above all, the God-man who died in his humanity on the cross to smash down the gates of hell and destroy the power of death; to show that love is stronger than death. John was there at the cross and at the empty tomb and he bears witness to this. Jesus gives hope to humanity facing two of the great mysteries of our life: the mysteries of love and death.  

This is good news. The shape of love is shown in commitment to another, even in the midst of our many failures, in putting the other before yourself, in the transparency to the other which is truth. And above all it is shown in Jesus passing through the way of the dead to show us the path to eternal life. So vows, virtue and the victory of the cross. This is indeed good news. Perhaps our patron saint was on to something. Little children, let us love one another.