St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
December 27, 2009
Text: Rev. 1:1-6; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 21:20-25
Beloved in the Lord, the world was finished with Christmas yesterday, December 26th. All the unsatisfactory gifts have been returned and exchanged, the Christmas glow has worn off, the decorations are coming down, only one more week until we all have to resolve to go on a diet, and there are now, depending on how you count it, 364 shopping days left until next Christmas. But Christmas has just begun for the Church! There really are twelve days of Christmas, the Christmas season of the Church year. The world ignored Advent as the Church prepared for the coming of her Lord. Now Christmas is over for the secular world, and I say, fine and good. Because now we can discard all the tinsel and gift-wrap and all the distractions of the season and get down to the churchly celebration of Christmas. This is only day three of the Christmas Feast! If you’re anything like me, you may feel a kind of “let down” the first day or two after Christmas. This is a symptom of our sin of trying to make Christmas what it is not: the perfect, sentimental, romantic, fun, old-fashioned family Christmas where everybody gets along, everybody gets everything they want, and all the stuff makes everybody happy. And even the things we wish for that we have no control over, like a white Christmas, or better, 70 degrees and sunny, or the Miracle on 34th Street kind of wishes, all come true, delivered with a big red bow. It doesn’t happen. And we get the blues. See, the devil and the world and our own flesh have tricked us into thinking that Christmas is over, and worse, that Christmas has failed, when in reality, none of those things are what Christmas is. Christmas is this: Jesus Christ is born. And we celebrate that all year round, but particularly now, in the Christmas season of the Church year, as we celebrate and meditate upon the incarnation of our Lord, the coming of the Son of God in the flesh of the Son of Mary. Christmas is not over. The Feast continues this morning. Let not your heart be troubled. Jesus is born in spite of the world’s inattention, your Savior, and your eternal Christmas gift.
This morning happens to be another feast as well, the feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. It is good and right that we consider the Apostle John on this First Sunday after Christmas, for as the writer, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of the Gospel according to St. John, three epistles that also bear his name, and the book of Revelation, John has unwrapped for us the Christmas gift of our Lord Jesus Christ and His salvation. It is John who wrote the divinely profound words of the traditional Gospel for Christmas Day: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14; ESV). John proclaims the truth of the incarnation in a particularly sublime way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (1 John 1:1-2). He’s talking about Jesus Christ, the Word, the Son of God in human flesh. He’s heard Him, seen Him, touched Him. John is an apostle of truth, and he is an apostle of love. He speaks the truth about Jesus Christ, and the truth that is Jesus Christ, and he speaks that truth in love. Even a cursory reading of his Gospel and his epistles finds John proclaiming the truth in the face of great heresies in the ancient world, yet expounding the great commandment of Jesus: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (4:11). “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (3:18). The incarnation, the light coming into the darkness, truth and love, major themes in the writings of John. We celebrate him because of his doctrine, because he has proclaimed to us living in this world of darkness the Light of our Savior, Jesus Christ. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
We honor John and give thanks to God for him because of his preaching. And so also, we learn and are edified from his example of faith and life. That is how we should regard the saints and celebrate them according to our Lutheran Confessions. The Augsburg Confession declares, “Our churches teach that the history of saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling.” The first thing we should observe about John’s faith and life is that he is a sinner just like us. This is what we should know about all the saints. They are not saints because they are any less sinful than us. They are saints because, just like us, they are made righteous, justified, by the blood and death of Christ alone. In this sense, all who believe in Christ and are baptized into Him are saints. John is particularly singled out for honor because of his calling, by God’s pure grace, as an apostle, one of the Twelve, and an evangelist, author of one of the four Gospels. But he was most certainly a sinner. The Gospels bear that out. John was a rough and tough fisherman along with his brother James and their father Zebedee, and their associates, Peter and Andrew. Jesus calls John and his brother James, “Boanerges,” “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), and this is probably not a compliment. These brothers tend to act before they think. They want action from Jesus. John and James want to sit on two thrones on either side of Jesus when He comes into His kingdom (Matt. 20:20-28). They want to be first among their fellow apostles. John is jealous when one who is not one of the Twelve is casting out demons in Jesus’ Name (Mark 9:38). And John receives a cutting rebuke from Jesus when he asks Jesus if he should call upon fire from heaven to come down and consume the Samaritans (Luke 9:54). Though John would accompany our Lord through much of His trial and crucifixion, he is among the disciples who are initially scattered because of fear, for Jesus says: “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Mark 14:27). So also, John is among the disciples who are behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19), and John, too, initially doubts the resurrection (Luke 24). And the point of all of this is we see ourselves in St. John, do we not? He’s a sinner, like us. If he were alive today, he, too, would probably be struggling with the after-Christmas blahs, needing to be exhorted to remember that it is still Christmas in the Church.
But just as John was a man of flesh, a sinner, so also he lived by faith in Christ. He lived in the Gospel. He was honest with himself about his sin, and he would have us be honest with ourselves: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). But so also he points us to Christ crucified alone for forgiveness and salvation. “If we confess ours sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). St. John lived and died and continues to live in the forgiveness and righteousness and salvation of Jesus Christ: “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (2:1-2). It is no wonder that John could leave his life and death so confidently in the pierced hands of his Lord Jesus, just as we should also do. In our Gospel lesson (John 21:20-25), Jesus prophesies Peter’s suffering and death for the Gospel and his Savior. Peter asks about John. Jesus does not say that John will not die a martyr’s death. John himself does not know what kind of death he will die. But he knows he will suffer. And suffer he did. John lived during a time of great persecution. Christians were tortured and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. Many of John’s beloved friends, including probably all of the apostles were martyred during John’s lifetime. Tradition says that John was not put to death for his faith. This may or may not be the case. Tradition is foggy. But even if, as tradition says, he lived to a ripe old age and died of natural causes, this does not mean John was not a martyr in the true sense of the word: a witness of Jesus Christ. And John’s witness included much suffering. Tradition, again, says that John was sentenced to be boiled alive in oil, and narrowly escaped by divine intervention. We know from the Scriptures that he was exiled to the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9). Another tradition says that John was forced to drink poison, but the poison did not harm him. These things teach us, beloved, to entrust our life and all of our days and our death into the pierced hands of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, and is risen, that we might have eternal life. These things teach us that we should at all times be ready to give an account for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15), even when such confession leads to suffering and death, because Christ is our life, and no one can take us out of His hands.
And that is especially true this Christmas. Remember, it is still Christmas. Continue to say “merry Christmas.” More importantly, continue to confess the Christ-child to your family members and friends and neighbors and the world. Do not give in to the post-Christmas blues. Rather, take a cue from St. John. Live in the Gospel, the Word incarnate, the eternal life made manifest to us in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. Live in your Baptism into Christ. Live in Him by receiving His continued Christmas gift: His Word, His forgiveness, and the supper of His body and blood. The Feast goes on this morning. After all, the best way to celebrate the coming of God into human flesh and blood is by receiving that flesh and blood in your mouths. In so doing, you not only receive the gift, you confess the Christmas truth of Jesus, and simply say “Amen.” “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:5-6). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 AC XXI:1, McCain et al., p. 44.