Exodus 33.7-11a; 1 John 1; John 21.19b-end
MARK VERNON’s book After Atheism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) is just the sort of thing you might want to read after Christmas. If you have had a surfeit of sugar-coated piety, and feel that your devotional life is in need of a theological equivalent to Andrews Liver Salts by way of an antidote, then here it is.
It is not that Vernon sets out to be devotional. Most liturgical worship plunges him into instant intellectual conflict. But, essentially, this guy is on our side. His book is about the value of the struggle to believe. Cheap assent, whether to Christianity, or to atheism, is what he invites us to challenge relentlessly.
As we look back on our celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, we might do well to ask what the challenges are that it holds for us. Buried somewhere in the folk memory of what a Christmas carol service is like, we find the phrase: “St John unfolds the mystery of the incarnation.” What follows is a reading of the prologue to the Gospel that bears John’s name, starting with the familiar words: “In the beginning was the Word. . .”. Does this unfolding explain the mystery, or does it present the story we know so well from Luke’s Gospel in yet more mysterious terms?
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly who John is. Although one Gospel, three epistles, and the enigmatic book of Revelation all bear his name, it is far from certain that one and the same person wrote them all. On the other hand, there are striking similarities in style and outlook that encourage us to describe this literature as Johanine.
In the West, we tend to find John portrayed as a young, beardless figure. In the East, he is shown as a venerable figure with a long white beard. Let’s stay with our Western identity, and enquire further into the youthfulness of this Evangelist. It is a convention built on today’s Gospel.
The belief that John would remain until the Lord returned in glory was clearly an element of the early Christian tradition that expected the imminent return of Jesus: “So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die.”
But John did die, and so a corrective is added at this point: “Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die. . .”. Tradition has it that he died peacefully in Ephesus, having written his Gospel as an old man in his 90s. This is a detail that seems to be attested by the early-second-century Christian writer Papias.
The conclusion of today’s Gospel passage reminds the Christians in a Church where John was greatly venerated that their saint is indeed still witnessing to Jesus Christ. He is doing so through the words of the Gospel he wrote. The emphasis is clear. John’s witness is a present, ongoing witness: “This is the disciple who is testifying.”
He is present as he elicits faith from all those who subsequently listen to the words of his Gospel, the words that he “has written”, which took shape at a specific time in the past.
In contrast with other apostles, whose legends are about how they died a martyr’s death, legends about John are about how he survived martyrdom. The symbol of John holding a chalice out of which comes a snake or dragon relates to the attempt to poison him using the eucharistic chalice. But it was the assassin who died. There is also a story that John was boiled in oil, but he emerged unscathed, rather like the three young men in the book of Daniel (Daniel 3), and, in John’s case, looking younger than ever.
These are not necessarily the stories with which to cajole a committed atheist into Christian faith. But for the Christian they belong to an inheritance that seeks to assert that the mysterious nature of God is always more mysterious. These stories are just that. They are not the propositions of our faith: they are part of the temporal veiling that we know we draw to one side in order to see the invisible reality beyond. This is the struggle of faith, the unfolding of the mystery of God, in which we learn what we do not and cannot know.
Here is the struggle that Mark Vernon understands and values. It is a struggle that John’s writing, with all its enigmatic poetry and imagination, also encourages us to undertake. John’s interest appears to be essentially materialistic: it is about “what we have looked at and touched with our hands”. Yet it remains elusive: “We declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father” (1 John 1.1,2). How do you touch that?
This is the whole point about Christmas. The intangible has touched us, and we can never be the same again. We burn, we tingle, we question: what was that? Perhaps it is poetry that we need at this point:
Sacred image of the face
Yet grows on human jaws
Speaks of the commands of grace
And yet gives human laws.
Tells of all that art’s about
The moral and the theme
O sacred image inside out
Reality made dream.
Sebastian Barker from Damnatio Memoriae (Enitharmon, 2005)
Canon Warner is Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Bishop- designate of Whitby.
7Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tents. 11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
1 John 1
1We 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 – 2this 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 – 3we 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. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
19After this Jesus said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’
20Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ 23So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’
24This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.