Sermon for St John the Evangelist, 2015

St Andrew’s Leytonstone
Exodus 33.7-11
Psalm 117
1 John 1
John 21.19b-end

Christmas is finally here – after all the preparation and planning during Advent and, if you’re a church musician, even beginning before then. For many, the biggest celebrations are all done and dusted now, whether that’s singing your heart out in church, exchanging gifts with loved ones, having a big roast dinner or all of these customs. Christ is born and in the coming days and weeks we hope to catch up on sleep, enjoy the leftovers, and let life get back to ‘normal’. But it isn’t quite normal yet, so many of us are looking back over the past year and reflecting on it, and resolving that this year, we’ll do better.

I know that when I make New Year’s resolutions, they can be pretty short-lived. “Write sermons well in advance” should perhaps be top of the list! But when I do manage to make a resolution and stick to it, I often find it’s because I have had an example. I’ve observed someone I admire, and tried to copy them somehow – to incorporate an aspect of their behaviour into my own, not just on a superficial level but really untangling what it is that is so positive and compelling, and then finding a way to weave that into the pattern of my own life and habits.

Whether or not you make New Year’s resolutions yourself, it’s a useful exercise to examine some of today’s readings and find out if there is anything relevant to our own lives.

Moses is certainly well-regarded. The people of Israel, at the point in our reading from Exodus today, are on a journey together through the wilderness, and Moses is their leader, so a certain amount of respect would be in order. This is the man who led them out of slavery in Egypt, after all – though sometimes the great rejoicing after passing through the Red Sea can seem very far away, and some of the people have their doubts about all this wandering about in the desert… but despite any of that uneasiness, Moses is still given respect. When he goes to the tent of meeting people notice, and stand waiting. When the pillar of cloud descends, people bow in reverence, and then Moses has this chat with God – or, rather, the Lord speaks to Moses. The reading we heard today describes God as speaking to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Surely, if there is something to admire and respect about Moses, it is this closeness to God, this holiness that comes from listening to God. Could there be a better New Year’s resolution?

But – how to attain holiness and closeness to God, exactly? Listening to God is important, but there’s more to it than that. The epistle gives us a hint about another part of it: we need to “confess our sins”. Great – we do that every Sunday – sorted! But there’s a deeper message here. We all mess up, and confession of our mistakes – those times we have turned away from God – is not just a matter of saying some special words and going through the motions, but being totally honest with ourselves and with God about what we have done wrong and the harm that we have caused. And, the epistle tells us, if we claim we already have fellowship with God, if we say we have not sinned, then we are lying. Sobering stuff. Clearly, closeness to God is not always going to feel comfortable. It might even be pretty embarrassing. But honesty works better than fantasy for resolutions, too: if I said I was going to run the London Marathon this spring without doing any training, you’d be quite right to laugh. It’s no good pretending I’m that kind of athlete: I have to start where I am, not where wishful thinking dictates I’d like to start, even where that is uncomfortable.

The Gospel reading today doesn’t appear to offer much more comfort. This is the end of the Gospel according to St John the Evangelist, whose feast day we celebrate today, and he writes to imply that he is, in fact, the “beloved disciple” – the one who was reclining close to Jesus at the Last Supper. But that revelation isn’t the only message of this reading: instead, we have Peter, getting told off again.

A bit of context might be helpful. This is the ending of the third time that Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection. They’ve eaten fish on the beach and he has just asked Peter three times, “do you love me?” and instructed him “feed my sheep.” And with that comes a warning, of a loss of autonomy through matyrdom, and one more command: “Follow me.” No wonder Peter is asking if this other guy – John – can do it instead! I can’t say I would be too happy about being informed I’d have a martyr’s death, either. The tradition that St John himself lived to a venerable old age suggests that, thankfully, not everyone is called to martyrdom. But the point is that Jesus doesn’t want Peter looking around for someone else to do the work, someone else to follow Jesus instead. Peter is given his task and then he is told to be obedient.

There you have it: three things to think about if you’re pondering some New Year’s resolutions: holiness, honesty, and obedience. Our resolutions, whether for a day, a week or a year, should be to a life of holiness, of listening to God as Moses did. They should be resolutions that are realistic, taking into account the messiness and messed-up-ness of our lives. They should be resolutions that are obedient, where we strive to do all that Christ asks of us.

That’s all rather daunting – but it is still Christmas, after all, and another text by St John the Evangelist tell us some truly good news. We heard it just the other day on Christmas morning: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”

We don’t need to go and seek God in a tent of meeting, outside the camp: God came to meet us where we are, living with us as a real human baby, Jesus Emmanuel. We don’t need to worry that our mistakes will be held against us forever, no matter how embarrassing they are, because we have assurance that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven. We don’t need to worry about whether someone else might be more obedient or more worthy, and compete with one another to do (or not do) the tasks that Jesus calls us to do, because in Christ, we are all one body.

So, whether we are making New Year’s resolutions or just planning one breath at a time, let us pray in the words of St Richard of Chichester:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.