A talk by the Canon Chancellor, the Reverend Canon Dr Mark Hocknull, first given in Lincoln Cathedral on Sunday 9 April 2017.
John 21: 15-25
We in the west live in a world that places enormous stress on the individual. As a former Prime Minister once famously said ‘there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and there are families.’ Life according to this set of values is primarily about how to equip individuals to compete against others in the market place, with the family as the last bastion of friendship and cooperation and intimate belonging in a heartless world. Often the church has actively colluded with this view, reducing faith to the domestic sphere. But the gospel of John is saying something quite different. It is saying that my value as a person derives not from how well I compete with other individuals, nor how well my family equips me to compete in the world, but from receiving God’s love made available to me through Jesus. I am not primarily an isolated individual, like an atom bouncing around off other atoms, but a person loved by God and invited to share in a love relationship with God, with Jesus and through him with my fellow human beings. This is the way of living that the church is called to bear witness to and invite others to join in with. This says the writer of the fourth gospel is eternal life.
In this Gospel, the anonymous beloved disciple, the disciple who Jesus loved exemplifies what this being in a loving relationship with Jesus means. The Gospel of John is one might say the gospel of love. The writer tells us that it is love that motivates the Father to send the Son, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he has loved them and to remain in his love by following his commandments. Jesus calls his disciples friends, a relationship of love and freedom, not one of obligation and duty. Love in the fourth gospel is the ultimate motivation for it is the reason that Jesus gives up his life on the cross. This is love then. It is a mutual commitment between people where each is committed to seek the good of the other.
But there is another dimension to this that is particularly relevant for Lent. For if Lent is about the remembrance of God’s costly love for us, made known in Jesus, it is also about learning to bear witness to that love in our personal lives and in our communities. So our disciple in the fourth Gospel has a special role as love’s witness. The beloved disciple’s witness has a special characteristic in the Gospel. He is more than merely an eyewitness who can recount events. At the last supper he is close to Jesus and Peter has to signal to him to ask Jesus who it is that will betray him The beloved disciple alone receives the answer and he alone it is who understands Jesus’ remark to Judas to go and do what he has to do. Thus the beloved disciple is a unique witness to a crucial part of the passion of Jesus. The same is true of another important part of Jesus’ story in John, the piercing of his side so that blood and water flows out. He is able to categorically affirm that Jesus dies and therefore completes the work of love his Father has set him to accomplish.
After the Resurrection the beloved disciple reaches the empty tomb first and gazing in understands the significance of what he sees and believes. From the boat with Peter and the others, it is the beloved disciple who recognises and names Jesus on the shore. Just as at the last supper, it is the beloved disciple who has to inform Peter of something to do with Jesus. Peter has no direct communication with Jesus. The point is not I think to make Peter inferior. The point being made is more positive. It is that the beloved disciple is a perceptive witness with insight and understanding of the meaning of the Gospel story. The beloved disciple is more than a witness- nearly every character in the story, including Peter is that- no the beloved disciple is a witness of particular insight. By implication his witness is authoritative and reliable. He is reliable not simply as a witness but also as an interpreter of what he sees.
The obvious question then is what makes the beloved disciple the supremely reliable witness? The answer I think flows from the relationship of love between the disciple and Jesus. It is not just that the disciple is there at the crucial events, important though that may be. The gospel invites us to consider that the insight, perceptiveness and sensitivity of the disciple arise out of the love he has for and receives from Jesus. He is more clearly in tune with the meaning of the events in Jesus’ life and passion and more sensitive to the presence of Jesus in the period after the passion because he is in that trusting and abiding relationship of love with the one who is Love incarnate. The lesson for the reader of the gospel is that love for Jesus gives one the insight to detect his presence. The beloved disciple is the ideal follower of Jesus who sets an example for all others who would follow.
Throughout the Gospel the beloved disciple is consistently paired with Peter. Peter too, like all the other disciples has a relationship of love with Jesus. Why then does Peter lack the perceptiveness and insight of the beloved disciple? I wonder if the answer lies in the distinct calling of Peter. As Peter’s own relationship of love with Jesus is restored three times, to overcome the three-fold denial, he is given his own distinct call. Peter is called to take over Jesus’ own role as shepherd of the sheep, as the Good Shepherd, once Jesus has departed. If this is Peter’s role, that of the beloved disciple who is paired with him is the careful, faithful and perceptive handing on of the tradition that is no less important than Peter’s role. Without the inspired and trustworthy guidance of the perceptive and faithful interpreter, Peter’s leadership and the work of those he leads will degenerate into shallow activism. Without Peter’s leadership, there will be no continuing community to practise the truth of the tradition mediated by the beloved disciple. The Church, the community of faith, needs both forms of witness and ministry if it is to be the faithful community bearing true witness to the gospel of Jesus’ love.
So at the end of these Lent meditations we have arrived at the point where we can recognise two forms of witness to the Gospel. There is the active, decision-making result driven witness of Peter which thrives on overcoming opposition and hardship. And there is the way of intuition, receptivity and imagination of the beloved disciple which is altogether more unobtrusive and long-suffering. Both of these are valid ways of responding, this and every, Lent to the passion of Christ. Indeed, Lent may be a time when we come to recognize that we have been too much of the one and not enough of the other.
So Jesus asks ‘Do you love me?’
A simple and direct question. How should we respond but with acts of love to those for whom he gave his life? But such acts will be shallow or misdirected unless they are guided and nurtured by being in a relationship of love with Jesus. We can respond properly to Jesus’ invitation when we come to see that we are loved already. So let me leave you with another question to hold in your minds as we pass through this Holy Week. Do you know that you are loved already?
Evensong on a Sunday begins at 3.45pm and is held in the Choir of Lincoln Cathedral.