John: The Beloved Disciple
I John 1:1-4
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
John is an old man. It is the close of that first century. He is tired. His body is frail. His mind is not as clear as it was. But no matter how feeble he felt, he wanted to be with his friends in the church at Ephesus. So each Sunday friends would carry him from his home to the sanctuary. As he passed down the rows of seats he would lift his feeble hand and say “little children, love one another.” His presence was a benediction to the church. He was the last surviving apostle. All the others had passed from the scene. His brother James had been the first to die. John was now the last to die. There even went abroad the tradition that he was not going to die, as though eternal life was in his body as well as in his soul.
The people of the church knew that his mind was a storehouse of memories of those early days. But whenever John was led to speak, it was always the same theme. “Little children, let us love one another.” When they asked him to speak about some other theme he would say “It is the Lord’s only commandment, if we fulfill this nothing more is needed.”
The Centrality of Love
That is what the legend tells us about the apostle John. He could not get “love” off his mind. He couldn’t exclude it from his sermons. He could not imagine God without that word being superimposed over all other attributes of God. He could not think of the welfare of the church without seeing that love was the antidote to all her ills. He could not think of himself without the awareness that love had made all the difference.
When we meet John in the Gospels he was a fisherman. He may have thought fish the most important thing in life in those days. Later on he knew that love was greater.
When we meet John he is the tag along brother to James, later he found that the love of a brother paled in comparison with the love of God, and so decided to tag along after God instead.
When we first meet John he is young, vigorous, athletic. (On resurrection morning he could beat Peter in a foot race to the tomb.) In those days he may have thought that strength, energy, and health were the things to prize. Later he knew that love was the one thing above all that gave meaning to life.
Someone has said if you want theology turn to Paul. If you want ethics turn to James, but if you want to learn about love turn to John.
Years after meeting Jesus he will pick up his pen and write the fourth Gospel. The Gospel according to John. It is a very strange book in many ways. It is different than the others. Matthew, Mark & Luke are the story of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ in bringing deliverance to people. But when John writes he omits most of the stories they tell. He is only interested in the miracles when they throw a spot light on the love of God. He wants to point us to the underlying motive of God behind all that Jesus was doing.
To John, Jesus was the incarnation of the love of God. Jesus was the demonstration of the essential character of God which was love. (It is Interesting to note that Matthew and Mark use the word “love” only 5 times each. Luke uses it twelve. But John uses the word 46 times in the Gospel and 62 times in his three short letters.)
Where did he get this fixation on love? It came out of his encounter with Jesus.
The Apostle Whom Jesus Loved
The Gospel of John has many things about it that are unique. But one of those unusual features is that he never names himself in the book. He will mention the name of several of the other disciples, like Peter, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Nathaniel, Judas. But he never names himself. And yet because he such a major player in the story he cannot hide himself. So he refers to himself with some odd phrases, sometimes he calls himself “that other disciple.” But four times he will call himself “the disciple that Jesus loved.” What an odd way to speak about oneself?
Is he claiming to have been the only disciple loved by Jesus? Oh no! He knew that the love of Jesus was as wide as the entire universe.
Is he claiming to have been loved more than the other eleven; that he was Jesus’ favourite? I don’t think so.
Is he claiming that he loved Jesus more than the others? I doubt it.
But for John there is one reality about Jesus that overwhelmed him. He loved me. He chose me. It was not that I loved him. It was he who loved me. I did not seek him, he sought me out.
Tradition tells us that John was the youngest of the apostles. We do not know much about his days before that encounter but we do find him tagging along behind his brother James that Son of Thunder. Living with James might give anyone an inferiority complex. If he was the youngest son in the family, he may have lived his life feeling rather insignificant compared to the bigger guys. But there comes that magic moment when Jesus comes by and calls for followers. But he doesn’t just call James the obvious leader, he calls John too. And when the 12 are chosen to be close to Jesus and to be trained for leadership, it is obvious that James would get in, but he finds himself included in the 12. Then he finds himself included in the inner circle. And whatever feelings of low self-worth he might have held, in that act of being chosen, they begin to erode. Do you remember the childish use of a daisy? We would take the petals off one at a time saying,” she loves me, she loves me not.” I suspect if John played that game in later life he would say, “He loves me, He loves me still!”
There is a picture taken from the night of the betrayal. It is the night of the communion. John tells the story, “One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus who he was talking about. “(John 13:23) If the disciples got to choose where they sat, John chose to sit next to Jesus. This man has granted him an acceptance that he may never have felt before.
But John did not only understand himself loved by Jesus. He knew himself loved by God. The teaching of Jesus had removed all doubt in John’s mind. When he writes his Gospel, he it is that gives us the most memorized passage of scripture, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him need not perish, but might have eternal life.”
I am sure John knew the meaning of the anonymous poem, even if he had never heard the words:
“I love my God, as he loves me – Merrily.
I feel his kisses on the breeze,
And so I carve his name on trees –
Ten thousand years misunderstood
He needs my laughter in the wood – a lot!
The Apostle Who Loved Others
But John having received Love became a lover in turn.
At the trial, when all have fled, including John, we find that John has reversed his run, and is now in the house of the high priest during the trial. He cares too deeply to leave Jesus to face his fate alone. At the cross when the other apostles are invisible, John is there at the foot of the cross holding up the mother of His lord. He cares too much to leave her alone during that terrible ordeal. And it is to John that Jesus entrusts his mother for his care.
He is among the first to go to the tomb. He cares too much not to be among the mourners. John, one of the original sons of thunder, is learning to become a lover. The love of God in Jesus Christ has become contagious.
His Exhortation To Love
John knows himself loved! So he too is a lover. He knows that love is what all people need to experience and express.
In his Gospel he has told us that it is the Love of God that motivates him to send the son.
In His gospel he has told us that it was love that motivated Jesus to pay the ultimate price.
And it is in that same gospel he repeats the new commandment that he would repeat over and over and ever again throughout his long life:
“A new commandment I give to you: love one another!
As I have loved you, you also are to love each other,
for it is by this that others will know that you are my disciples.
For John, love is the identifying mark not only of God, but the identifying mark of the children of God, and he knows that the antidote, to all that ails both church and world, will be found in the experience of God’s love and practice of our love.