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Sermon for the Feast of St. John the Evangelist

“We have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you that eternal life,
which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us”

So much in a parenthesis! It is not by accident that the great Gospel of Christmas is from the Prologue of John’s Gospel and I think that it is most fitting and providential that The Feast of St. John the Evangelist is a Christmas feast. For with John we are provided with a royal feast of words that have deep spiritual meaning. His Gospel and his Epistles offer a profound insight into the theological meaning of Christmas.

He bears eloquent testimony to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” his Gospel begins, locating the Christian understanding already within an intellectual and spiritual milieu that our rather prosaic and materialistic culture finds hard to comprehend. Such wisdom, Augustine notes, for instance, is found already in the philosophical cultures of pagan antiquity and he would probably allow in the wisdom of the Hebrews. He could not know that it would also be regarded as the received wisdom of Islam. But the point of Christian emphasis lies in what is not to be found in the libri platonici, the books of the Platonists, but which lies at the heart of the Christian understanding, namely, “and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” It is the great Christmas mystery articulated so profoundly in the words of John.

John’s First Epistle bears strong testimony to that insight and truth, echoing the theme of the great Christmas Gospel. “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,” he says, that is what he declares unto us. “These things,” moreover, “write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” There is a kind of intellectual intensity to his argument, and a sense of something new and wonderful, the intensity of truth.

God who is God with God in God, the Word προς τον θεον, oriented towards or with God, is now God with us. God who is being with is with us. Such is the great mystery that occasions great joy. It signals the highest dignity that is possible for our humanity. God engages us in the intimacy of Jesus Christ. We participate now in the realities of the eternal life of God. But only because of God’s turning to us, only because of the Incarnation. John is alert and alive to the full significance of this. He is aware of how it changes the horizons of our humanity, how it dignifies and ennobles our finite and physical lives. He insists on two things that are in question in our own Church and culture. This mystery constantly has to be thought and has to be declared.

In his writings, we have the nucleus of the defining doctrine of the Christian faith, the doctrine of the Trinity which is opened out to us through the Incarnation. It is precisely what we are given to think and to live. John is very clear that this mediation, this revelation that is mediation, God mediating his truth and life to us, does not exhaust the mystery of God. Far from reducing God to us, we are being raised up to think and sing the high things of God. Even what is written hardly captures “the many other things which Jesus did,” he says, referring to Christ’s Incarnate life, so many other things “that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” A wonderfully extravagant and even a logically exaggerated statement, it nonetheless shows how the finite world is infused with infinite truth in Jesus Christ.

John, above all else, wants to defend the Incarnation against Docetism, the earliest heresy which sees the gap between matter and spirit as absolute and unbridgeable and assumes that the story of redemption is mere illusion, a seeming, an appearance, a kind of play-acting, because, and this is the key point, the physical and the material world is evil. God couldn’t really become incarnate, let alone be crucified! John knows that the Incarnation is about matter redeemed and about a deeper understanding of our humanity. Salvation is not about a flight from the world but about returning the world and our humanity to its truth in God. His great insight is that we live in that truth now through “that which was in the beginning” which “with God and was God,” through that “which we have heard,” through that “which we have seen with our eyes,” through that “which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of life.”

Hearing and seeing are the two most intellectual of the physical senses. John includes touch to affirm at every level the reality of God being with us in Jesus Christ. His insight becomes the basic meaning of the life of the Church. The life of the Church is about our being with Christ here and now as well as there and forever. Our humanity finds its highest truth and greatest dignity by being with what is greater than ourselves and yet perfects our humanity. It is the teaching which challenges how we think and deal with our world and with one another. The love of God compels our love for one another. “In this was manifested the love of God towards us,” John reminds us in what becomes one of the Christmas Day anthems, “because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him.”

The Word which is towards God and with God is the Love of God which is towards us and with us so that we might live through him. It means living for another, for God and for one another in God. Such is the divinum mysterium, the love of God which came down at Christmas.

“We have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you that eternal life,
which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us”

Fr. David Curry
Feast of St. John the Evangelist
December 27th, 2014