Sermon for the Feast of St. John the Evangelist

“Even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written”

“Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh,” Ecclesiastes observes, an observation, no doubt, with which many a student would concur. John, too, at the very end of the last chapter of his Gospel reflects on the writing of books; somehow the reality and full meaning of Christ would comprise more books than what the world could contain. There is always something more and more to the meaning of Christ as Word.

The Word proclaimed “at sundry times and in diverse manners … unto the fathers by the prophets”, Hebrews reminds us, “hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.” That Word and Son is the Word made flesh, as John reminds us in his powerful Prologue read as the great Gospel of Christmas Eve. There is a focus on Word; Word proclaimed, Word made flesh, but also the Word as written “even if the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”

The Feast of John the Evangelist belongs to our Christmas observances. His Epistles and his Gospel provide the strongest testimony to the idea and reality of the Incarnation, the greatest insight into the mystery of God with us in the humanity of Jesus Christ. “That which was from the beginning,” he says, echoing at once the opening words of his Prologue but also the opening words of Genesis, “which we have heard,” he says, “which we have seen with our eyes,” he says, “which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of life,” he says, that is what “declare we unto you.” And to what end? “That ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” It is a remarkably concise and stirring theological testament to the Incarnation and the Trinity, to the deeper mystery of Christmas.

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Saint John the Evangelist

The collect for today, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, from The Book of Common Prayer (Canadian, 1962):

MERCIFUL Lord, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light upon thy Church, that it being enlightened by the doctrine of thy blessed Apostle and Evangelist Saint John may so walk in the light of thy truth, that it may at length attain to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Epistle: 1 St. John 1:1-5
The Gospel: St. John 21:19-25

Juan Ribalta, St. John the EvangelistJohn and his brother James (St. James the Greater) were Galilean fishermen and sons of Zebedee. Jesus called the two brothers Boanerges (“sons of thunder”), apparently because of their zealous character; for example, they wanted to call down fire from heaven on the inhospitable Samaritans. John and James, together with Peter, belonged to the inner group of the apostles who witnessed the Transfiguration and the agony in Gethsemane. It was John and Peter whom Jesus sent to prepare the final Passover meal.

In the lists of disciples, John always appears among the first four, but usually after his brother, which may indicate that John was the younger of the two.

According to ancient church tradition, St. John the Evangelist was the author of the New Testament documents that bear his name: the fourth gospel, the three epistles of John, and Revelation. John’s name is not mentioned in the fourth gospel (but 21:2 refers to “the sons of Zebedee”), but he is usually if not always identified as the beloved disciple. It is also generally believed that John was the “other disciple” who, with Peter, followed Jesus after his arrest. John was the only disciple at the foot of the cross and was entrusted by Christ with the care of his mother Mary.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, John, together with Peter, took a leading role in the formation and guidance of the early church. John was present when Peter healed the lame beggar, following which both apostles were arrested. After reports reached Jerusalem that Samaria was receiving the word of God, the apostles sent Peter and John to visit the new Samaritan converts. Presumably, John was at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). He is not mentioned later in the Acts of the Apostles, so he appears to have left Palestine.

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Sermon for the Feast of St. Stephen

“Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”

The words of the kneeling Stephen as he dies echo Christ’s first word on the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” It is no accident that the first of the holy days of Christmas is The Feast of St. Stephen. It signifies two things that are of the greatest importance. The first is that without the Cross there is no manger. The second is that Christ’s holy nativity inaugurates the mission of the Church. We are to follow in the steps of Christ. He is, as one of the Eastertide collects puts it, “both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life” (Easter 2). The Feast of Stephen the Martyr reveals the real depth and meaning of Christmas.

It is about sacrifice and about a new orientation to life, a living for others in the spirit of forgiveness. Stephen is the proto-martyr, the first witness of Christ in the form of the giving of his life. In a way, he marks the beginning of a significant tradition, the tradition of the saints. What is that about? Simply the living reality of Christ in the body of his Church and in the lives and actions of his members.

Christmas celebrates the mystery of God with us. Part of its radical meaning is that Christ lives in us. His Incarnation marks his being with us but for a purpose. It is redemption. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”, to be sure, but born and given for what? To suffer and to die for us. Why? To show us the true life which God seeks for us – life with God. To show us that sin is the negative feature of our humanity and not its real and radical truth which is found in our being with God. Sacrifice, meaning the giving over of ourselves to the one who has given himself fully for us, becomes the true measure and meaning of our lives. It is ‘another who lives in us’, the other who is Christ Jesus the Lord. Herein lies the importance of the Feast of Stephen.

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Saint Stephen the Martyr

The collect for today, the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, from The Book of Common Prayer (Canadian, 1962):

GRANT, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth, for the testimony of thy truth, we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, may learn to love and bless our persecutors, by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those that suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

The Lesson: Acts 7:55-60
The Gospel: St. Matthew 23:34-39

Stom, Stoning of St. StephenAll that is known of St. Stephen’s life is found in the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6 and 7. He is reckoned as the first Christian martyr–the proto-martyr. Although his name is Greek for “crown”, he was a Jew by birth; he would have been born outside Palestine and raised as a Greek-speaking Jew. The New Testament does not record the circumstances of his conversion to Christianity.

Stephen first appears as one of the seven deacons chosen in response to protests by Hellenist (Greek-speaking) Christians that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of alms. The apostles were too busy preaching the word of God to deal with this problem, so they commissioned seven men from among the Hellenists “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom”, then prayed and laid hands on them. Stephen, the first among the seven, is described as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. A few verses later, Stephen is said to be “full of grace and power [and] doing great wonders and signs among the people”.

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Sermon for Christmas Morn

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour,
who is Christ the Lord”

We meet in the contemplative wonder of Christmas morn after all the excitement of Christmas Eve. “And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son”. He is “the only-begotten of the Father full of grace and truth” as we heard last night from the heights of heaven, as it were. We come to Bethlehem. Why? What does it signify?

We contemplate the great wonder of the unity of God and Man and the whole of the created order. There are the three great masses of Christmas: first, the proclamation and celebration of the eternal Sonship of the child Christ which we heard last night; second, the story of his actual birth made known in the songs of the Angels in the gospel this morning; and, then, later, the Christmas of the Shepherds to whom this angelic news from heavenly heights is proclaimed and made known. The three masses of Christmas present to us something of the fullness of this wonder and delight. Bethlehem is paradise restored, to be sure, but Bethlehem is something more. It inaugurates a new vision and a new life, the new vision and the new life of what has been made known to us, God with us and God for us. “Unto you”, the Angels say to the Shepherds and to us, “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord”.

We are in the company of the Shepherds, it seems; only so, it seems, can we be in the company of the Angels; and even more, unless we are in the company of Angels and Shepherds, we shall not be with the holy Child who comes to us. The Angels proclaim something great and wondrous for us. Their words are strong words of proclamation that point to a wonder and mystery. They say it is for us. And for them? Only through us it seems, for in what they proclaim and make known we see the unity of the whole of creation with its Creator. The Angels, too, are part of that order. They do simply what belongs to their office and being, to their ministry, as it were. They are the messengers, the audible and visible thoughts of God made known to us.

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