The Sunday Sermon: The Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 28, 2017
Scripture: John 21:20-25
A Strange Appendix: The Beloved
Part three, this morning, in our Trilogy of the “Strange Appendix.” How many of you have been here for all three sermon messages on the 21st chapter of John in the past three weeks? On May 14 we began with “Gone Fishing,” last week we looked at “Feeding Sheep,” and this morning a glimpse into “The Beloved.” Anyone been here all three weeks? May 14, 21, and today? Fantastic … Then you know well, this opening of the sermon again this morning, but it bears repeating for those who haven’t been here, or those who have and have forgotten.
Chapter twenty-one, our “Strange Appendix,” was almost certainly written by a different hand than chapters one through twenty. The vocabulary, rhetoric, and theological imagery is significantly different in the last twenty-five verses of the Gospel. Someone other than the author of the first twenty chapters of John wrote the twenty-first chapter.
Understanding this, however, should not lessen the insights and instructions we find here, those that we’ve been exploring this month as we prepare for June fourth, next week, and the “arrival of the Holy Spirit” on Pentecost Sunday.
Two weeks ago, we read the first fourteen verses of the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John. The disciples in that story had returned to their lives, fishing, for their own sanity and for their own livelihood. In the midst of their “daily lives,” they see Jesus on the shore, and go to him. We learned that, though for emotional and practical reasons we, too, have returned to our “daily lives” since Easter on April sixteenth, nothing is as it was for us now, because of the experience of the Risen Christ. God, Love incarnate, is in the world for good, because Christ is alive in us – resurrected in us.
Last week, we sat with Peter and Jesus as Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” Peter refused to put himself above the other disciples in his love for Jesus, a profoundly different reply to the question asked that fateful night in the Garden of Gethsemane. With his refusal this time, we see the first authentic Jesus community shaping up on the shores of the Sea of Tiberia, one that recognizes the worth of all its members and doesn’t consider one more important than another. We are all part of the flock and we are all to feed and tend the flock.
This morning, in this Strange Appendix, we discover how best we may “Follow” the Way of our Lord. Pray with me …
So, as we prepare to hear the Word for the is morning, it’s essential, it seems to me to begin just a half a verse back. As Jesus finishes his conversation with Peter, he says to him, Follow me. And then … Read John 20:15-19 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So, here’s our question for this morning: Who is this strange figure in our Strange Appendix, the Beloved Disciple? We’ve heard of him before, remembering him best from his presence with Peter at the empty Tomb on Easter morning, but he first appeared in John’s Gospel “reclining next to Jesus” at the last supper. There, at the bidding of Peter, he asked Jesus the identity of his traitor. This is a disciple mentioned only in the Gospel of John and he is never identified. And every time he is mentioned, by name or by inference, the Beloved Disciple appears alongside Peter.
There’s a lot of speculation and we’re certainly not the first to ask this question. The assumption that the Beloved Disciple must have been one of the Twelve led to the ancient church’s view that he was John the son of Zebedee, the author, or more likely, the source, of this Gospel. That identification is never made in the writing, however, and John’s Gospel doesn’t include any of the stories from the other Gospel accounts in which the Sons of Zebedee appear. No, the most definitive thing we can say about this mysterious figure is that he is used to establish a strong “eye-witness” to the “signs and deeds” of Jesus. I was there … so we know these things are true. But the dating of the Gospel’s writing is two or three generations after the time of the Jesus’ death. Hmm?
Here’s what I was led to this week: The Beloved Disciple is us. You and I, individually. And you and I, collectively. As I decided on that, I found the sermon message for our scripture lesson. My engagement of almost every scriptural passage we use for sermon or study, you see, is to ask first, “Who is God?” in this passage; then, “Who are we?” in it; and finally, “So what?” What are we supposed “to do,” what are we being instructed “to do” through this lesson. To begin with, that keeps us from making the bible a “rule book.” If we begin with the last question, “what are we supposed to do” (and so many traditions begin there – “Here’s what the bible says we’re supposed “to do”), we almost always wind up moralizing and lecturing, which is never good for conversation and transformation.
So, “God” in this pericope is Jesus. An easy one, here. But “we” may be a number of characters in this narrative. Most often we find ourselves in the character of Peter. As we did last week, we place ourselves in Peter’s shoes, responding to Jesus and seeking to follow as he did. We naturally find ourselves in the “character” of Peter in this week’s reading, too. Peter answered Jesus’ questions about his love for him and internalized his call to feed, and tend, and follow last week. And this week, we absolutely identify with him when, in verse twenty-seven, he turns to the “Beloved Disciple” and asks Jesus, “What about him?”
Oh, my goodness, how many times have we asked that question, out loud or in our heads, since we were old enough to speak. A question to our parents about a brother or sister, What about her? A question to our teachers about a fellow student, What about him? A question to our bosses about a colleague, What about Steve? No way you have to dig too deep to find yourself in the character of Peter – here or almost anywhere in any of the gospel stories that include him.
But … I’ve found our role this week in the “him” that Peter refers to. Peter you see, as closely as he resembles us – with his confessions and profession through the gospel stories, with his doubts and denials, with his passion and his commitment, and with his question of Jesus this morning – doesn’t resemble us at all in the way he lived his life from this point on, ultimately dying a martyr’s death (crucified head down) for his profession that “Jesus is Lord.” No, I think from this point on, most of us, and most Christians around the world, are more like this “Beloved Disciple” that witnesses, writes down, lives out, and dies a “normal” death in the Lord.
Ultimately, I think that’s what this final passage of our Strange Appendix is about. As tempting as “What about him?” is, our message for this morning, this year, comes from the Beloved. There’s actually some explaining going on in these last verses of John. Verse twenty-two makes it pretty clear that the community for whom this Gospel was written assumed that our “Beloved Disciple” would be alive at Jesus’ second coming. In verse twenty-three, that saying is labeled a rumor, or a misinterpretation. Jesus didn’t say the Beloved Disciple wouldn’t die before he came again, he said, “If it is my will that he remain until I come …” Apparently, you see, the Beloved Disciple has died. In verse twenty-four the writer of our Strange Appendix makes sure that his community, and we readers and disciples two thousand years later, recognize that even though he didn’t die a martyr’s death (like Peter), the Beloved nonetheless bears witness to Jesus, and his testimony “is true.” That’s where we come in. We are the Beloved Disciple, the Beloved Disciples.
We shouldn’t minimize or soften Jesus’ call to “lay down our life in love,” making that command only a figure of speech or an ideal far removed from the day-to-day life of faith we lead. The ancient church is full of people who did just that, beginning with Peter and other first generation apostles. The contemporary church includes those whose life shared a “love that knows no limits,” including the limit of one’s own life. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bishop Oscar Romero come quickly to mind. But that list would include nameless nuns and priest in Central America and war-torn Eastern Europe; doctors and nurses in hospitals in impoverished can embattled countries; and we may even include the twenty-nine Coptic Christians who were killed by armed men who attacked them on their way to a monastery in Egypt. We must never minimize Jesus’ call to lay down our lives for a Love that knows no limits.
On the other hand, we must not minimize the forms of discipleship that don’t’ involve martyrdom and death. The words about the Beloved Disciple in verses twenty to twenty-four insist that his love for Jesus was not to be devalued because his witness took the form of reporting and writing, sharing through testifying to the truth he experiences in the life, love, death, and resurrection – the Way – of Jesus the Christ.
That, after all is said and done, is who we are: reporters, writers some of us, testifiers and witnesses to Christ. How many of you here this morning expect to die a martyr’s death for your faith? (That’s a more powerful question on this weekend when we remember all those who died a hero’s death for their country. But …) How many expect to be martyrs? Not many, I would guess. Not any … including me. But …
Our Strange Appendix, this final chapter of John that has engaged us for the last weeks of Eastertide, explains that discipleship will, and does, take varied forms. There are those who give up their lives in love and there are those who endeavor daily in what may seem the smallest places to bear witness to that love in the way they live their lives and in the words they share about Jesus of Nazareth. Both are faithful disciples. If we don’t find ourselves in the former set of disciples, we must find ourselves in the latter. We are the Beloved Disciples who testify to these things … and we know that our testimony is true.
“God so loves the world” that God sends the Beloved – you and me. And so now we can comfortably say that the Gospel of John has reached … The End. So that we may begin … to bear witness to God’s Love that knows no limits.
May it be so. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / May 28, 2017