Sermon - 11th March 2018
The Beloved Disciple
Scripture - John 13:21-26; 19:26-27; 20:1-4; 21:4-7; 21:20-21,24
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Since the start of the year, on some weeks, we have been looking at Biblical texts which have a greater relevance to us as LGBT people: both the infamous texts which are frequently used as weapons against us, and those accounts which offer us hope and comfort.
Philip looked at the relationships between two women – Ruth and Naomi, and between three men – David, Jonathan and Saul. While we cannot directly compare our 21st century concepts of relationships with those of ancient Israel, and while there are many valid scholarly interpretations, we cannot escape the fact that these accounts stick out and find in us a welcoming ear, thirsty for affirmation, when we read of the love between those two women; and, in David’s words, lamenting over Jonathan’s death: “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.”
In earlier sermons, I looked at the tragic events at Sodom and how gay men in particular - and lesbians, bisexuals and transgender by association - have suffered persecution and rejection because of the misinterpretation and taking out of context, something which we also looked at a couple of weeks ago in respect of those verses in Leviticus, Romans and 1 Corinthians. [If you have missed any of these sermons, they are all available to read and listen to on our congregation’s website.]
If you have a good memory from early January, you may recall us looking at Lot’s daughters, who in their extreme desperation, seduced and had sons by their own father, who were said to become the ancestors of the Moabites and the Ammonites.
Have you ever read the family histories of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, or did you just skip over that bit? If you did, you missed something. When we look at the ancestry of Jesus, we see: Ruth, a Moabite, is an ancestor of Jesus; and Obed, the child which Ruth and Naomi brought up together was the grandfather of King David!
You see: it is all connected! The relationships which stick out from the heteronormative can be found in the family tree of Jesus Himself!
And it is to Jesus we are looking today: in particular, one relationship with one disciple: someone who is only mentioned in the Gospel of John, and is mentioned six times. This Disciple is never named by the Gospel writer. The phrase used in most modern English translations is: “the disciple Jesus loved”, also known as “The Beloved Disciple”.
This relationship has fascinated and troubled scholars for centuries, and has also been an inspiration to many. The first mention is at the Last Supper, where Jesus predicts His betrayal.
<1st reading: John 13:21-26>
English is a very rich language; however, when it comes to words for love, it is lacking. Ancient Greek had four words for love: “agape” (divine, unconditional love), “philia” (friendship), “storge” (familiarity, respect) and “eros” (erotic, sexual love). So, are you asking yourselves, which Greek word is used to describe “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? The answer is “agape” (well, actually, a derivative of it: “egapa”).
In the six mentions of The Beloved Disciple, five of them use the same Greek word “egapa”; one uses “ephilia” (friendship love). So let us be clear from the out-set, the Gospel writer is not implying an erotic relationship.
The context of the reading is a Passover Meal, a traditional part of Jewish life, an annual festival. In context, the Gospel writer describes two intimate acts: firstly, when Jesus washes all the Disciples’ feet; and secondly, the Beloved Disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (mentioned twice). When Peter asks a question about the identity of Jesus’ betrayer, he asks the question through The Beloved Disciple, who – the Bible text says – was physically leaning against Jesus. It is worth mentioning that many English translations – particularly those coming from either evangelical or Roman Catholic church traditions – weaken the translation with “next to” or “at Jesus’ side”, despite the Greek clearly saying “in the bosom of Jesus”.
Dining customs have changed over the centuries: while now we sit at tables or on the sofa in front of the TV to eat, it is not particularly easy to eat with someone leaning on your chest; and despite the prediction of imminent betrayal, the Passover meal was still on-going, as Jesus mentions the dipping and passing of food to Judas. [For Messianic Jews, that is Jews who are Christians because they believe Jesus is the Messiah, the food that Jesus passed to Judas was not bread but the “maror” (bitter herbs) into the “charoset” (paste of fruit and nuts). The Greek says “morsel”, not “bread”.]
So having dug a bit deeper into the language of the text, we see there is a very deep bond between Jesus and The Beloved Disciple, one which is recognised by Peter’s question going through The Beloved Disciple. Also, we need to think beyond our Britishness and the bubble of personal space with which we surround ourselves: other cultures, past and present, are far more tactile than we British are. Moreover, let us consider what has just been said: a powder-keg of emotion has just exploded concerning Jesus’ imminent betrayal. At times of extreme emotion, even our stiff-upper-lipped Britishness can fail and we crave physical reassurance, particularly from those closest to us: a partner, a best-friend, a family member.
So far, we are no closer to the identity of The Beloved Disciple. Our next reading is from the account of Jesus on the Cross.
<2nd reading: John 19:26-27>
The American theologian James Tabor [University of North Carolina] among others say that this shows the identity of The Beloved Disciple to be James, the brother of Jesus, as alluded to in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Other scholars consider this to be overly literal, and many see it as Jesus’ entrusting The Beloved Disciple and His mother, Mary, into each other’s care. It is quite common, and even many of us have the experience of someone who is not a blood relation becoming part of our family.
It is also worth mentioning that while the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke do not mention any of Jesus’ Disciples present at the Crucifixion, in the Gospel of John, The Beloved Disciple is there. Given the bond between the two men – how could The Beloved Disciple not be there at Jesus’ hour of greatest need of support!
And just as he was there at Jesus’ death, the Gospel of John records The Beloved Disciple being there on Easter morning!
<3rd reading: John 20:1-4>
Just like Peter instinctively knew to ask the question about Jesus’ betrayer through The Beloved Disciple, Mary Magdalene – on discovering the open tomb – instinctively sought out those closest to Jesus: The Beloved Disciple and Peter. Now, there can have been many reasons for Peter coming second in the race to the tomb, but consider this: the Gospel writer by making The Beloved Disciple first at the tomb emphasises the bond between the two men and the first place in his life than Jesus has.
We see this again in the final chapter of the Gospel of John, where Jesus meets them on the shore of Lake Galilee.
<4th reading: John 21:4-7>
Again, we have the combination of The Beloved Disciple and Peter, whom Jesus will commission to be the “Rock” on which to build His Church; and again, it is The Beloved Disciple who pips Peter to the post – not winning a race this time - but in recognising Jesus, the Risen Christ, standing on the shore.
You may have had the experience at an airport or railway station of meeting a friend or family member you have not seen in a long time: there, where you are searching through the faces in the crowd, not quite sure what they might look like now, desperate that you might miss them. And then, suddenly, you spot them… that moment on the shore of Lake Galilee might have been something like that for The Beloved Disciple.
So, who was The Beloved Disciple? The closing verses of the Gospel of John brings us a little closer to the answer.
<5th reading: John 21:20-21, 24>
The Gospel writer brings us full circle, reminding us of where we first met The Beloved Disciple: reclining on Jesus’ breast at the Passover meal. We are also told that the Gospel writer and The Beloved Disciple are one in the same. There is nothing in the Gospel text which positively identifies the writer, nor The Beloved Disciple, as John. It is Christian tradition that attributes John the Disciple, son of Zebedee, as its author.
Just as one theologian speculated that The Beloved Disciple might have been James, Jesus’ brother, other theologians (who have read the so-called Gnostic gospels of Mary and Philip) have suggested Mary Magdalene, although that raises immediate inconsistencies with the Crucifixion and Resurrection accounts we heard. Two other American theologians, Ben Witherington and Frederick Baltz, suggest Lazarus – the one whom Jesus raised from the dead. But the fact remains that we will never know.
The relationship between Jesus and The Beloved Disciple has inspired many through the centuries:
Saint Aelred of Rievaulx [12th century], citing the relationship of Jesus and The Beloved Disciple, said this of the joy of being in love with another man: “where the sweetness of the spirit flows between you, where you so join yourself and cleave to him that the soul mingles with soul and two become one.”
Across Central Europe in the 14th century, small statues and sculptures called “Johannesminne” [MHG: “John’s love”] appeared in abbeys, monasteries and churches, depicting The Beloved Disciple on Jesus’ chest.
Saint John of the Cross [16th century Spanish monk], also inspired by Jesus and The Beloved Disciple wrote this in his poem “The Dark Night”: “Upon my flowering breast, / which I kept wholly for him alone, / there he lay sleeping, / and I caressing him / there in a breeze…”
The first king of the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Scotland – James I [early 17th century] – was gay. Writing about his relationship with George Villiers, the First Duke of Buckingham: “I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George.”
Let me finish with one final thought, the interpretation which most appeals to me. Martin L Smith was born in the North-West of England [in 1947] and is a theologian in the Society of St John the Evangelist:
“Perhaps the disciple is never named, never individualized, so that we can more easily accept that he bears witness to an intimacy that is meant for each one of us. The closeness that he enjoyed is a sign of the closeness that is mine and yours because we are in Christ and Christ is in us.”
For The Beloved Disciple, Jesus came first: Jesus was his “first love”.