He Did Live; He Does Tell
Early in Christian history, after the church was freed from persecution by the State, but still grieving over the thousands who had died for the faith, Western Christianity of the 4th and 5th centuries established 3 festivals immediately following Christmas: St. Stephen, the first martyr on the 26th; The slaughter of the Bethlehem babes, the Holy Innocents, on the 28th, and today is St. John, Evangelist (Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 473). The Church wished to see the Good News of Christmas in the real world light of persecution and death because if Christmas can't stand up to these it's really not that good of news, is it?
Why'd the Church chose to remember John between Stephen and the Holy Innocents? He didn't die the death of a martyr; that's why the paraments are white not red as they are for other saints. Some reports have him living to age 94. Did the Church choose to remember him here so as not to have three days of martyrdom? Nope, I think it's because John in his writings does the most to "flesh out" the enfleshed One. John is like British explorer Robert Scott who died March 29, 1912 while exploring Antarctica for the second time. In the journal entry he made on the day of his death he wrote: "Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell" Well John did live long beyond the rest of the apostles and John does tell even to this very day.
John did live. He was the youngest of the apostles. You can easily pick him out in DaVinci's "Last Supper." He's the baby-faced one. Along with Peter and his brother James, John was one of Jesus' inner circle. Jesus took only them when He raised Jairus' daughter, was transfigured on the mount, and suffered in Gethsemane. Jesus nicknamed John and his brother "sons of thunder" when they wished to smoke Samaritan villages who rejected Jesus. Skipping ahead for a moment we come to Maundy Thursday where from the time Peter asks John to ask Jesus who would betray him, Peter and John are linked. Only these two go to the high priest's house to see Jesus on trial. They run together to the Easter tomb, and in Acts they are together at the temple and in Samaria, but Peter is always the one speaking and healing.
Church history tells more about John. When Jesus ascended into heaven about 33 AD, He left Mother Mary in the care of John. John stayed in Jerusalem till her death about 48 A.D. John moved to Ephesus sometime after. Most think it was after Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome around 63 AD. Apparently, he became the leader of the Church outside Jerusalem in their absence (Schaff, History of The Christian Church, Vol. 1, 424). Church tradition says an attempt was made to poison him but the Lord turned the poison into a snake that slithered out of the cup. John's usual symbol is a snake in a chalice for that reason. It's also said that Emperor Domitian tried to boil him in oil but he was delivered from that too (Our Christian Symbols, 30, 31). Domitian is thought to be the one who banished him to Patmos where he penned Revelation. The next emperor allowed him to come back to Ephesus where he died in about 98 AD of natural causes; the only apostle to do so.
So John did live, and John does tell, and has been telling for almost 2,000 years, but he hasn't been telling nearly all that he could. He closes his book with these words, "Jesus did many other things as well. If everyone of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."
Do you get what that means? An apostle of the Lord Jesus by inspiration says not "Had we lived, I would have had a tale to tell," but "Had I been allowed to write down all that Jesus did there would not be enough books in all the world to record it." There was more to tell than Cana and the hundreds of bottles of wine from water. There was more than the man born blind being given eyeballs. There was more than raising a 4 day dead Lazarus. We think we know the events of Maundy Thursday through Easter well since the Gospels have so much about them. But only John was there to see all of Gethsemane, all of the Jewish trials, all of Golgotha, and he was the first man to see the empty tomb.
What more could he have told us? How many more details could John have given us? He could have answered many of the questions that pop up in our minds as we read the Gospels. But he didn't. He tells us he could have written much, much more, and leaves it at that. Well, not quite. John says he doesn't tell us all that he wanted to, but he says that he does tell us all that we need. In 20: 30-31, John says, "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name." What John does tell are the two most important things to take away from Christmas, and I think that's why the Church remembers him December 27 between a martyr and a senseless act of hatred and violence aimed at Jesus.
John says he wrote what he did not so you might get every question you ever have about Jesus' life answered but so "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ." Jesus is the fulfillment of all that God promised in the Old Testament. He is the Seed promised to Adam and Eve who would do what they couldn't do: crush the serpent's head. The mythical Hercules is said to have strangled two snakes, one in each hand, that his jealous stepmother, Hera, had let loose in his crib. The factual Jesus really did it.
Jesus did this not by might but by being the Christ, the Messiah, the fulfiller of two other Old Testament types. He was the true scapegoat of which the Day of Atonement scapegoat was only shadow. The high priest confessed the sins of the church while laying his hands on a goat; the goat was then set free carrying away the sins. Jesus confessed He had the sins of the world by accepting a sinner's baptism. All the sins of the world were placed on Him, and He carried them away from us and out of God's sight.
But there's more. Jesus is not only the true Scapegoat. He is the true Passover Lamb. God sacrificed Him on the cross to cover the sins of the world. If the blood of an ordinary lamb painted on doorposts could cause the Angel of Destruction to pass over your house, how much more does the blood of God the Son, painted on you in Baptism, applied to you in Absolution, or drank by you in Communion, do for you?
Do you see how Jesus strangles the snake that slithered into Paradise and coiled around our lives? Not by brute strength, but by taking away our sins, by covering them, by paying their price. Satan can't call for our suffering, death, or damnation based on our sins because he no longer has anything to point to. It's like in those movies where a crooked district attorney finds all the evidence for his rock-solid case has vanished.
I said there were two important things John wants you to take away from His Gospel. One is Jesus is the Christ promised in the Old Testament. The second is that Jesus is the Son of God, and I think in light of the stoning of Stephen and the slaughtering of babies, this might be the more important of the two to keep in mind. That Jesus is the Son of God is a dominant theme throughout John's Gospel. Since we think we know this basic theology, we don't pay attention. But it is the way of John to write about profound things in simple words.
Jesus being the Son of God means we are look to Jesus, and to Him only, to find out what God thinks, means, says, or is doing. Especially in the tragedies of life like when a man of faith dies so brutally or children die so senselessly, we aren't to look into our heart or worse attempt to look into the heart of Almighty God far away in heaven. No we are to look to the Person and Work of Jesus.
This as I said is a persistent theme of John's. In 1:18 he writes, "No one has seen God at any time, but the only begotten Son in the bosom of the Father has explained Him." 5:19 & 20 say, "Whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does.The Father shows Him all things that He Himself is doing." In 5:30 Jesus says, "I can do nothing on My own initiative." In 8:29 Jesus says, "I always do the things that are pleasing to Him," and in 8:38 He says, "I speak the things which I have seen with My Father." Finally in John 16:15 and 17:10 Jesus says, "All things that the Father has are Mineand all things that are Mine are the Fathers."
Rather than believe the pain in your heart or the fear in your soul; rather than listen to the Devil's take on what is going on or what the world thinks, you are to go by what Jesus says and does. John who had revealed to him such dizzyingly high and such unfathomingly deep things points us to Jesus as the full and final revelation of the invisible, unknowable God.
When tragedy or sickness floods our souls with questions and doubts we are to look to Jesus in our Baptism and know that's where the true God speaks. What Jesus says in Baptism, "I rebirth you; I regenerate you; I save you for eternity," is the voice of God, not the question marks that spring from a sadness or a wickedness we can't understand.
While deaths, be they at a ripe old age or at an age no one thinks proper, do speak to us, they don't speak for God. Only God does that, and He doesn't speak from on high or from the brilliance of His majesty. He speaks personally and definitively in His Son. See Him weeping at Lazarus tomb; hear Him saying the believer never dies, and hear Him in absolution sending the guilt away from you that death always leaves behind.
You want to know what God thinks? Don't look to what He is doing or not doing in the world. He's not trying to tell you anything there. Look to what His Son does and says at this altar. There's where God wants to be known, approached, and listened to.
The last thing the explorer told was a plea "that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for." The last thing John tells is that more than you can imagine could be written about what Jesus did, but he has written the things that give life, not death, peace not doubts, answers not questions, hopes not fears, in Jesus' name. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. John, Evangelist (20091227); John 21: 24,25