Sermon for the Patronal Festival of the Society of St. John the Evangelist
John, Beloved Disciple
by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Collect: Eternal Father, whose Son Jesus drew the Beloved Disciple into deep intimacy with himself, and gave him grace to believe at once in his resurrection from the dead: Grant that we, who bear the name of John, may ever be Christ's friends and witnesses, that through us also many may come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Well, beloved, it is a blessed day to celebrate. It's hard not to know oneself beloved in the midst of a community gathered in love, enfolded by the warmth of the sun/son and the tender wind of God. The greenness all around us is evidence of the promise of resurrection to restore all creation. The greenness within us is equal evidence of connection with the source of belovedness.
We opened by praying those remarkable words about Jesus, who drew the beloved disciple into deep intimacy, giving him the grace of resurrection in his inmost being. That is also the prayer for each one here.
The mystery of the beloved disciple is his identity, and the blessing is that it's not quite fixed. The debates over whether it's John bar Zebedee, or Lazarus, or even Mary Magdalene make a place for others to enter in. As Jesus is ‘the son of the man,' the beloved disciple becomes a way we may be the human disciple, beloved of God.
If you go looking for who might be called beloved, the tradition starts very early - and it's a long list: Benjamin, Saul and Jonathan, Nehemiah, Daniel, Barnabas and Paul, Epaenetus (first convert in Asia), Ampliatus, Urbanus, Persis, Timothy; Epaphras, Tychicus, Onesimus, Luke (beloved physician), Timothy, Gaius. The young communities of Christians in Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Colossae, Thessaloniki, and those to whom the letters of Hebrews, James, Peter, John, and Jude are written are all addressed as beloved. The Song of Songs is all about the beloved, and its images are echoed in Isaiah and Jeremiah.
All of that tradition is centered on the one whom the spirit calls, "my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." Jesus and those around him hear those words at his baptism and again on the mount of transfiguration. If we are baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection, we are also most assuredly baptized into his baptism. That sacramental adoption of baptism yields the same message for each one here: you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased. Most of us find it hard to accept all of it. There are people who won't deal with the beloved part, and others who can't imagine they could ever be pleasing to God. Yet those words are manifestly true - and part of the beloved disciple's work is mirroring that beloved, pleasing image of God to those who can't yet see or believe it.
The task of following Jesus is about recognizing the truth of belovedness in him and in his followers - and even in every part of creation. Loving God and one's neighbor as oneself is all about beloved discipleship. How and where do you remember and recover that sense of belovedness?
There's an old Celtic prayer in the Carmina Gadelica that asks for the grace of the trinity in the three palms full of water used to wash each morning. The most mundane act of dailiness can be a reminder of being beloved - I am blessed by the water with which I wash my face - the image of God - as I am blessed by the washing of baptism. For the Celts, it was a way of seeing the holiness in all creation. It's akin to the multiplicity of sacraments the Orthodox talk about. For us, the mysterious connections with belovedness are equally true in deep and fundamental ways - this water bathing my face can remind me of baptism, re-member me to the body of Christ, and surely contains a few molecules that blessed Jesus' mortal flesh.
Knowing oneself beloved, or exercising the vulnerability that begins to let that reality seep in, is why we're here. We come together in community to remember - to bring to mind and to rebuild and repair. The Revelation to John speaks of the beloved city in that light. How does this community become the beloved city of God, where others may come to know their belovedness as well?
The psalm today sings of good growing things, that still bear fruit in old age, green and succulent. That's how some of you described your brother Paul Wessinger, green and succulent even in old age. Hildegard called it viriditas. It implies those deep and intimate connections with the source of belovedness, like trees planted by streams of water, flourishing like a palm tree, as the psalmist puts it. It's a branch of the true vine, well grafted to the source of life and creativity.
Intimate relationship with the source of love is where greenness or viriditas has its roots, as that old hymn puts it
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
Greenness flourishes in community, which is why this body exists - the body of the Society of St. John Evangelist, the body of Christ called the church, and each and every Christian community that comes together in deepening intimacy with the source of all belovedness.
This community's experience of resurrection depends on a primal resurrection community. Mary Magdalene goes first to the tomb, and in today's gospel she discovers it empty and returns to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who comes first to the tomb, but doesn't go in. When Peter gets there, he does go in - always brash - but he doesn't quite figure it out. It takes the three of them, together, to discover the green blade risen. The beloved disciple takes this experience of ultimate belovedness into his heart, with a little help from his friends, and then shares that resurrection reality with them. The greenness flows out from that place of death become new life, bringing belovedness and new friends into an enlarging body. The beloved disciple, the friend of God, brings others with him - or her.
The beloved city sends the beloved disciple out to awaken belovedness in each person encountered, and to continue to awaken the disciple's self-awareness as beloved. This community here in Boston has been for many, many years a well-known fountain, where belovedness may be tasted, imbibed, maybe even guzzled. The brothers here welcome each one as God's beloved - to be made more of, to be magnified in love, so that each beloved disciple may become deeper friends of the beloved son, to go out and befriend others in the world. May that work of love help to green the entire world around us - may it meet greenness, nourish greenness, rediscover and reawaken and resurrect greenness.
A last word as you enter this new chapter of work, hoping that rebuilding here will help to build the beloved city around you. May your work be greenness for all. The last part of a prayer by George MacLeod, like Patrick's, celebrates the omnipresence of the beloved one: "Christ above us, beneath us, beside us, within us, what need have we for temples made with hands?"
[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]