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St John the Evangelist

18 December 2015

Man, a brittle crazy glass


Exodus 33.7-11a; Psalm 117; 1 John 1; John 21.19b-end

Merciful Lord, cast your bright beams of light upon the Church: that, being enlightened by the teaching of your blessed apostle and evangelist Saint John, we may so walk in the light of your truth that we may at last attain to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ your incarnate Son our Lord. Amen.


MOSES’s meetings with the Lord in the tent outside the Israelite camp (Exodus 33.7-11a) offer a cryptic challenge to those gathering to celebrate the feast of John, Apostle and Evangelist, on 27 December. Why this reading? Two reasons suggest themselves.

The first and more obvious one is the typological link. Moses’s close and trusting friendship with Joshua, the only one of the Israelites to remain near the tent after Moses had rejoined the community, might stand as a mirror of the relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple, whom the tradition identifies as John.

Second, and more intriguing, is the tent itself. It was placed beyond the boundaries of the camp because God’s patience with the rebellious and grumbling people whom he had rescued from Egypt was so sorely tried that he could not trust himself not to destroy them, should he enter their midst (Exodus 33.1-5). There would have to be a new covenant before God could travel with the Israelites again and, even then, he would not reveal his glory to them (Exodus 34.10-end, 40.16-end).

Whether this tent was in the mind of the writer of the Fourth Gospel, when he chose a word to describe the Word’s way of dwelling among human beings, is beyond our reach. Nevertheless, John 1.14 famously insists that “the word became flesh and pitched his tent [eskenosen] among us,” and — more privileged than the wandering nation led by Moses — “we have seen his glory.”

The coming of Jesus provides that physical, audible, tangible presence that his close followers were later able to communicate to others, as they passed on the good news that salvation had come near.

There can be few more arresting beginnings in literature than the first verse of the First Letter of John: “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.”

In those words lies the promise of direct, unmediated access to a living reality. But this promise has to be won from what is, at best, an ambiguity and, at worst, an obstacle in the Gospel according to John. On the one hand, he is the eye-witness, whose assurances of truthful evidence are given twice (John 19.35, 21.24); on the other, he is the “one whom Jesus loved” (John 13.23, 20.2, 21.7, 21.20), and that raises the uncomfortable possibility that Jesus might have had favourites.

That suspicion is active in Peter’s mind as he responds for the second time in his life to the call to follow Jesus (John 1.40-42, 21.19). Before he steps forward, he turns back to see “the disciple whom Jesus loved” following them (John 19.20).

He cannot embrace his own future without the nagging question what Jesus has in store for his companion. Even the dark dignity of dying a death like the Lord’s is overshadowed by the sense that something even greater might await the person hard on his heels. Jesus’s response is robust: “What is that to you?” (John 19.22) His call is to Peter, and that is all that matters.

Envy and insecurity are normal human feelings and, in Christian communities, they can arise out of unhelpful comparisons. The very people whom we admire as teachers and examples of holiness can also (through no fault of their own) become blockages to any hope that we might have of growing into a deeper faith ourselves.

In these circumstances, it is hard to hold on to the knowledge that our call is to “walk in the light”, admitting our shortcomings, but always confident in God’s love and forgiveness (1 John 1.7-9).

Light is a dominant theme in John’s Gospel, and in the later Letters of John, which use similar ideas and language. But it is al- ways in combat with darkness: Judas goes out, “and it was night” (John 13.30); Peter’s love of his Lord is darkened by resentment (John 21.21); there is the problematic presence of the “beloved”.

This dramatises the difficulty and the glory of talking about Jesus with the authentic voice of personal encounter, without allowing self to spoil that encounter for others. No one has captured this as well as George Herbert, in the first stanza of “The Windows”:

Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass:
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.

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