This festival has something of a split personality. We celebrate John the Apostle, son of Zebedee and brother of James, whose mother tried to ensure a good position for her boys in the coming kingdom. And we celebrate John the Evangelist, who probably wasn’t the same person, but was the disciple whom Jesus loved, a young man who lived in or around Jerusalem and didn’t get to travel with Jesus on his teaching and healing tours, but to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his mother. And thirdly, there is John the Divine, author of the Book of Revelation. All of them are celebrated on this day, whether they were considered to be one person, two or three people.
The Church has generally assumed that John the Apostle was John the Evangelist, as the wording of the collect makes clear, but recent scholarship (e.g. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which won this year’s Michael Ramsey prize) makes a distinction between them. Bauckham argues that John the Evangelist was John the Elder, the Beloved Disciple, also known as John of Ephesus, who wrote the Gospel with his name and the three epistles.
It seems that church tradition has conflated two Johns, and possibly three. I wonder if this confusion of Johns in some way mirrors the position the church finds itself in.
There is the old John, the Apostle, Son of Zebedee. He was one of the small group which had the vision on the mountain top of Jesus in conversation with the old heroes, Moses and Elijah. This was a vision that made connections with the past. And yet John, with the rest of the twelve, singularly failed to understand Jesus. They walked with him along the way, they heard him, they saw the miracles that he did, but they just didn’t get the kingdom of God or the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death.
I know churches like that. They had a vision once. They have a powerful connection to the past. They have walked along the way, but they haven’t quite got Jesus.
Then there is the younger John, a disciple, but not one of the original twelve. This is John the Elder, John of Ephesus, possibly also known as John the Apostle later in his life. This John understands the spiritual significance of Jesus’ ministry. He can see what God is doing. His vision is of God’s present activity. He offers the key theological insight that God is Love and longs for us to respond to him in love.
I love this John. He excites and inspires me. Churches in this mode are working to identify God’s work in their communities here and now. They look for ways to live the Gospel of God’s love, even when they don’t always get it right.
And we can also include the (possibly) third John, John of Patmos, John the Divine, who wrote the Book of Revelation. This John has a great vision of the future, when at the last, God will dwell his people in the New Jerusalem.
Churches can live this future-church model in different ways. There are those churches which wait for God to sort everything out in the sweet by-and-by without really engaging with the issues and challenges. And there are churches which are looking prophetically at our world in an attempt to understand where God is taking us, and which are willing to face the murderous and killing beasts that threaten the bond between God and humankind.
This is beginning to sound like a version of the three ghosts of Dicken’s Christmas Carol.
In the Communion of Saints, St John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, St John the Evangelist and St John the Divine have a kind of heavenly job-share. Personally, I am happy to think of them as having an active role today, sifting our prayers and praying for us, guiding us and prompting us. My prayer is that they can help the Church to grow into a Body of Christ that better reflects the God who is Love with wisdom and insight and courage.
Meg Gilley is a parish priest working in former pit villages in County Durham.