In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Christ is risen! [Indeed he is risen!]
Today the Church sets before us the example of a truly great saint of the Church, an apostle, St. John the Theologian. Christ nicknamed him and his brother James “Sons of Thunder.” In the gospels you have some hint as to why he named them that, because there are times when they showed a certain zeal. For example, when Christ was rejected by, I believe it was a Samaritan village, James and John asked Christ, “Shall we call down fire from heaven like Elijah did?” And Christ had to tell them, “No, you don’t know what manner of spirit you are of.”
But he came to understand what Christ taught and understand Christ’s commandment to love. And more than any other writer in the New Testament, we find in his writings this emphasis on the need for us to love and that this is really the sine qua non—which means “without which not”—this is the sine qua non of what it means to be a Christian. If you don’t have love, you’re not a Christian. He says that over and over. You find that in both the gospels and his epistles.
As we heard in the gospel reading appointed for him, Christ entrusted his mother to him. He, of all the apostles, he was the only male apostle or male disciple who was there at Christ’s crucifixion. And by God’s providence, he was the last of the apostles.
St. Peter, of course, was one of the more prominent apostles, the leader of the Twelve, and St. Paul did more than all the other apostles, we’re told in the hymns of the Church, in terms of reaching out to the Gentiles and expanding the Church, but in the rein of Nero, both of these apostles were martyred, and this happened in the 60s—67, 68 is usually the date that’s ascribed to this, when these two apostles were martyred. But St. John the Theologian continued to live on for another three decades.
If you think about it, when Ss. Peter and Paul were martyred, the Church had only been in existence for 30 years. The Church had been rapidly expanding. You had a lot of local Christian communities that were very new in the faith. So it was a great blessing to the Church to have this apostle remain for so long and be there to guide the Church so that the Church was allowed to take deep root where it had been planted and to be firm in the faith.
St. John discipled some of the greatest leaders of the early Church: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp, and St. Papias. Through their own writings and also through those that heard them, we hear many important traditions that have been passed down to this day about Christ, things that are not spelled out in Scripture.
During the time of the Apostle John, there were many heresies that arose in the Church, and it was very important that we had someone who could say, “I am one of the Twelve. I was there with Christ at the crucifixion. I was there and saw the risen Lord,” to be able to refute these people. Particularly there was a Gnostic heresy that denied that Christ had really come in the flesh, because pagan Greeks had a difficult time with the idea that that which is divine could really become material, because they thought that matter was evil, so the idea that God could become incarnate as a human being was really repugnant to their way of thinking. So throughout the gospels and throughout St. John’s epistles, you find him making points that refute this heresy. As a matter of fact, he said that anyone who denies that Christ is come in the flesh is an anti-Christ, or if they deny that Jesus is the Christ, they’re a liar and an anti-Christ.
St. John was able to guide the Church also in terms of which writings of the New Testament would be accepted, because there were heretics that wrote many things. St. John was there to authenticate which books would be accepted by the Church. And he wrote his gospel last.
We’re told by Tradition that he wrote his gospel primarily as a supplement to the other three gospels, because there were things, particularly in Christ’s early ministry, that he felt like needed to be remembered. Also, if you look at the Gospel of John, you find that Christ’s teachings are recorded in much greater detail, particularly his teachings to his apostles, outside of his public preaching, I should say. So it’s not that St. John’s gospel is somehow contradicting the synoptic gospels, as some scholars like to say; it’s that it was intentionally written as a supplement. Some recent scholars have come to greater appreciation to the fact that the Gospel of John had to be based on eyewitness testimony, because there’s so many things in the Gospel of John that would have been very difficult for someone later on to have just written if they weren’t really connected to these events.
There’s a story about St. John that I think gives us a great deal of insight into the kind of man that he was and to the oversight of the Church that he exercised during these decades. After he was released from the Isle of Patmos, Tradition tells us that he lived in Ephesus, and he traveled around Asia Minor, preaching and guiding the local churches. Asia Minor was at the crossroads of Western civilization at that time, so it was a very important place for him to be.
In one of these local churches, there was a young man that he brought to the faith, and he wanted to become a Christian. So St. John, when he left the city, he said to the local bishop, “This one I commit to you in all earnestness, in the presence of the Church and with Christ as a witness.” This bishop instructed this young man in the faith very diligently, and then eventually he baptized him, but after he was baptized, he relaxed his oversight because he thought, “Well, he’s got the seal of baptism now, so he’ll be okay.”
However, this young man came under the influence of some immoral people in the city who were about his same age. They first drew him in by enticing him with lavish entertainment, and then eventually they talked him into participating in small ways in some of their crimes, and then eventually in more active roles. And finally this man became a robber; not just any robber, but a chief of a band of robbers, because he was the kind of person who, if he was going to do something, he was going to go all the way, and that’s exactly what he did in this case: he became a brutal and even cruel bandit.
So one day St. John had some occasion to come back to the city, and when he saw the bishop, he said, “Come, O bishop, and restore to us the deposit which both I and Christ committed to you, the Church over which you preside being witness.” And at first the bishop thought that someone had falsely accused him of mishandling money and that St. John was asking him about something along those lines. St. John clarified and said, “I’m demanding from you the young man, the soul of our brother.” And the bishop groaned, and he burst into tears, and he said, “He’s dead.”
St. John asked, “How, and what kind of death?” He said, “He’s dead to God, for he turned wicked and has become a bandit.” St. John said, “What a fine guard I left for our brother’s soul! Give me a horse and let someone show me the way.” So he rode off to the place in the mountains where this band of bandits were operating, and one of the group of these bandits saw him and took him prisoner, and he made no attempt to escape or to plead that they release him. He simply said, “This is why I am here: Take me to your captain.”
As they approached this young man who was armed and was waiting to see what was coming his way, as soon as he recognized St. John, he turned away in shame, and he began to run. And St. John, who by this time was an old man, ran after him, forgetting his age. And he said, “Why, my son, do you run from me, your own father, unarmed, aged? Pity me, my son. Fear not! You still have the hope of life! I will give account to Christ to thee if need be. I will suffer and die in your place as the Lord suffered for us. For you I will give up my life. Stand, believe. Christ has sent me!”
And when the young man heard, he stopped. He looked down. He threw away his weapons. And then, trembling and bitterly weeping, he embraced St. John, and he began to make confession of his sins. We are told that he was baptized a second time by his tears. And St. John, pledging himself, assured him with an oath that he would find forgiveness with the Savior. And he led him back to the Church. And he didn’t just do that, but he stayed there for many days and prayed with this man and fasted and struggled together with him spiritually until he was fully restored. We’re told that this man returned to the faith and remained steadfast for the rest of his life.
This provides us with a good example of the possibilities that we have for repentance, no matter how far away we get from God, but what an example of the Savior’s love! What an example of what we read about in the parable of the 99 sheep that are in the flock, but the one that’s lost and the shepherd going after the lost sheep! We need to have that kind of love for one another and that kind of love for the Lord. We need to learn from the example of this great apostle, to love the Lord, to love the truth, and to love each other just as Christ has loved us. Amen.