Call to Worship/Psalm 138 (NRSV)
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord, for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord, for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
O God, in mystery and silence you are present in our lives, bringing new life out of destruction, hope out of despair, growth out of difficulty. We thank you that you do not leave us alone but labor to make us whole. Help us to perceive your unseen hand in the unfolding of our lives, and to attend to the gentle guidance of your Spirit, that we may know the joy you give your people. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Mark 9:33-41 (NRSV)
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
There was a moment in Christian history when only one apostle was left. The era of the apostles was coming to a close, and only one was still alive to reflect on that era. From his calling by the Sea of Galilee to witnessing the powerful resurrection of a little girl, the daughter of Jairus, there was much to reflect upon. His experiences included witnessing the feeding of the five thousand, being at the foot of the cross of the crucified Savior, seeing the resurrected Messiah, being in the tumultuous upper room on the day of Pentecost, observing a ministry of signs and wonders such as the healing of a lame man, and undergoing grief at the death of his brother, James the Greater. After the dispersion of the twelve disciples from Jerusalem, he was plunged into hot oil and exiled on the Isle of Patmos, he received a revelation from an angel, and perhaps sat on a quiet front porch in Ephesus feeling his age. Once there were twelve; now there was only one. In that moment, John sat on the threshold of a new era.
Apparently the youngest of the apostles—some scholars believe him to be only in his teens when he was called by Jesus—John was the brother of James the Greater—both fishermen by trade and the sons of Zebedee. Initially, John was a follower of John the Baptist until that same wilderness preacher pointed out Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John is traditionally recognized as “the disciple whom Jesus Loved” who is mentioned five times in the Gospel that bears his name, a term of endearment and favor that makes John stand out. This same love characterized the writing of the Gospel and letters that bear his name. While the name “John” is Greek, the Hebrew Yohanan or Yehochanon means “God has been gracious.” Among the most common names in first-century Palestine, it can also be translated as “God has given. Scholars have made the comparison to the Greco-Roman myth of the brothers Castor and Pollux, who exercised control of thunder and lightning along with their father, Zeus, hence Jesus’ nickname for John and James in Mark’s Gospel, Boanerges [boh-uh–nur-jeez], the “Sons of Thunder.”
John is named by Paul in his letter to the church at Galatia as a “pillar” of the church. John was also part of Jesus’ inner sanctum that also included Peter and John’s brother James who witnessed three special events in Jesus’ life—the Transfiguration on the mountain, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and with Jesus in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Along with Peter, John was harassed and arrested by the Sanhedrin, the religious ruling council early in the Book of Acts, and then later, he was listed with Peter, who was then serving in ministry in Samaria.
The early pictures of John we find in the gospels, however, aren’t very pretty. On two occasions—one of which we encountered this morning—the young disciple is profiled as judging others whom he interprets as hindering Jesus’ ministry. In our text this morning, we heard about John chastening a disciple outside of their group who was performing exorcisms. “Teacher,” John said, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.” That’s good, John. That’s the way you win friends and influence people. If you see good being done, don’t think about the poor soul who’s being healed, rather focus on the healer’s credentials, make sure that he’s somehow met our qualifications, gone to the right seminary, taken the right classes. Yes, let’s let the world go to hell unless the work is done by our people, according to our methods, with our group receiving most of the credit. While he had every right to get business ugly, Jesus responds to John with both strength and kindness. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
In the second event, we find James and John, the intrepid sons of Zebedee, inquiring about whether divine judgment is in order for a Samaritan village that refused to show hospitality to Jesus as he journeyed to Jerusalem. “Lord,” the brothers ask, “Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” In turn, Jesus rebukes James and John for their myopic rush to judgment and then proceeds to move on to another village. This tendency toward judgmentalism is reinforced by a third story, the time when James and John seek out a private conversation with Jesus to inquire about the privilege of sitting in judgment on the left and right hand of Jesus. The other disciples are greatly angered by their request—and rightly so. Talk about throwing folks under the bus. It’s like telling them that they are no longer your friends, but rather your competitors.
John’s historical character revealed in these episodes seem to stand in stark contrast to the tone of the Gospel and letters bearing his name, in which love and forgiveness are the key themes. Perhaps these stories remind us just how hard it is to grow past our human propensities to judge others on our own terms—that Jesus looks beyond the hard parameters we establish for others and sees the possibility of developing an inclusive community based on the ethic of grace and unconditional love—a community based on Christ himself. Given what we find in scripture, we see the young John, as with all the other disciples, maturing in Christ. We see the Holy Spirit engaging, challenging, and transforming him to live more deeply into the heart of God.
I think we begin to see this transformation as we encounter John—the only named disciple of the original twelve—present at the crucifixion. From the cross, Jesus honors John by assigning him the care of his mother. The text says that “from that hour the disciple took her into his own household.” Then on Easter morning, after the three women discover the empty tomb and encounter the risen Christ, we see John and Peter engaging in a footrace to the empty tomb. The story shares that the younger John gets there first—”stooping and looking in,” says the story, “he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but did not go in.” Thus, John becomes the first of the twelve disciples to see the empty tomb, the first sign of the resurrection. In what seems to be an act of humility, he defers to Peter who is the first to go into the tomb. The text then says that John saw and believed.
After the resurrection, along the Sea of Galilee, the fishermen are once again out in their boats. Fixing breakfast over a small charcoal fire on the shore, the risen Jesus instructs them to put their nets on the other side of the boat, resulting in such a miraculous haul of fish that the boats begin to take on water. Later, as Peter and Jesus engage in conversation over breakfast, we find an important clue as to John’s future longevity:
Peter 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?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor 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?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.
While there have been many discussions and debates among scholars as to whether it was John the disciple who would go on to pen a Gospel, three epistles, and the Book of Revelation, or perhaps someone who had been discipled by John who wrote it in his name at a later date, suffice it to say that, due to John’s longevity in ministry, many legends and traditions have grown around him. One says that he was flung into a cauldron of burning oil, but that he emerged unharmed. Another story, and the reason why we often see portraits of John pictured holding a chalice filled with snakes, is that he was compelled to drink a cup of poison, but remained unaffected by it while two others drank from the same cup and died. There are stories found in an apocryphal book The Acts of John that he exorcised a temple of the Greek goddess Diana, causing it to immediately fall into ruin.
Prevailing tradition holds that John was banished to the Isle of Patmos during the time of emperor Domitian, and that this was the place where he had his remarkable vision that is recorded in the Book of Revelation. Later, he was liberated to Ephesus, a city in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) where he became a revered teacher and mentor for the fledgling churches in that area. In the fourth-century AD, early church father Jerome tells the story of the aged John being carried into one of the churches at Ephesus and how he would simply exhort the group to “love one another.” Jerome goes on to say that the leaders at Ephesus grew weary of this same, simple message, and began to question John’s motive for being so repetitive. To their questions, John responds, “It is the Lord’s command, and, if this alone be done, it is enough.”
This is quite a leap from the brash young disciple who said, “Shall we call down fire and destroy them?” and who, with his brother James, secretly asked for first place in the Kingdom. It’s certainly a different mood from the disciple who reported, “We found someone doing good in your name who wasn’t traveling with us, so we stopped him.” How is it that John, a “Son of Thunder,” became the apostle of love? The answer is Jesus. In Jesus, John met the very Word made flesh. John experienced love like no other in the One who came not only to share about it but personify it. In Jesus, God’s unconditional love was present among us, living and breathing, teaching and challenging, sweating and dying, rising and ascending. Perhaps there’s a bit of thunder in each of us, the propensity to lash out in judgment against others, to call down fire from heaven upon those with whom we disagree or with views we find contemptible, a temptation especially delectable in this election season that is upon us. So perhaps then John’s story of transformation from judgmentalism to acceptance, his conversion from the desire to placate his ego on the seat of power to humbling himself in the service of God is something that we ought to take to heart. Maybe, in spite of all our theological quarreling, in-fighting, and division, John, in the wisdom of his aged spirit had it right. Maybe the call to “love one another” is enough indeed.
Let us bring the needs of the church, the world, and all in need, to God’s loving care. God of heaven and earth, through Jesus Christ you promise to hear us when we pray to you in his name. Confident in your love and mercy we offer our prayer.
Empower the church throughout the world in its life and witness. Break down the barriers that divide so that, united in your truth and love, the church may confess your name, share one baptism, sit together at one table, and serve you in one common ministry. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Guide the rulers of the nations. Move them to set aside their fear, greed, and vain ambition and to bow to your sovereign rule. Inspire them to strive for peace and justice, that all your children may dwell secure, free of war and injustice. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Hear the cries of the world’s hungry and suffering. Give us, who consume most of the earth’s resources, the will to reorder our lives, that all may have their rightful share of food, medical care, and shelter, and so have the necessities of a life of dignity. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Restore among us a love of the earth you created for our home. Help us put an end to ravishing its land, air, and waters, and give us respect for all your creatures, that, living in harmony with everything you have made, your whole creation may resound in an anthem of praise. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Renew our nation in the ways of justice and peace. Guide those who make and administer our laws to build a society based on trust and respect. Erase prejudices that oppress; free us from crime and violence; guard our youth from the perils of drugs and materialism. Give all citizens a new vision of a life of harmony. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Strengthen this congregation in its work and worship. Fill our hearts with your self-giving love, that our voices may speak your praise and our lives may conform to the image of your Son. Nourish us with your Word and sacraments, that we may faithfully minister in your name and witness to your love and grace for all the world. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Look with compassion on all who suffer. Support with your love those with incurable and stigmatized illnesses, those unjustly imprisoned, those denied dignity, those who live without hope, those who are homeless or abandoned. As you have moved toward us in love, so lead us to be present with them in their suffering. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Sustain those among us who need your healing touch. Make the sick whole. Give hope to the dying. Comfort those who mourn. Uphold all who suffer in body, mind, spirit, or relationship not only those we know and love but also those known only to you, that they may know the peace and joy of your supporting care. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
O God, in your loving purpose answer our prayers and fulfill our hopes. In all things for which we pray, give us the will to seek to bring them about, for the sake of Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray as one family:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Of the many paintings portraying the apostle John over the centuries, he is often accompanied by an eagle. John’s symbol, the eagle, perhaps is an image that captures the uplifting nature of his gospel. So, as our benediction this morning, I would like to leave you with the immortal words of the prophet Isaiah who employs the image of an eagle as a way of lifting up the Judean exiles in Babylon:
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Amen.