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Sermon: St John the Evangelist - 27 December 2015

Sunday 27th December 2015
Cathedral Eucharist
1 John 1
John 21: 19b-end
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Call the Midwife, Strictly Come Dancing, Eastenders, Doctor Who: just some of the familiar 'stories' and seasonal 'specials' which have dominated the TV schedules over the last 48 hours. The Christmas Day ratings battle was won by an ongoing saga, described by The Telegraph as a 'posh fantasy'.  Downton Abbey delivered a festive round of 'happy endings'.

A straw poll of my Facebook friends revealed that I'm not alone in not having watched a single episode.  Yet we, the detractors and the indifferent, couldn't escape the comment before, during and after this 'final special episode'.  It's been ridiculously successful example of what one friend called 'fictious nostalgic goo'.

After 6 seasons of class drama, made up of increasingly tenuous sub-plots, Lady Edith got married.

Fans may well be rejoicing at this saccharine conclusion.  But will we talk about it in the same breath as Brideshead or Barchester? Will the witty put downs of the Dowager Duchess become as well rehearsed as lines from Friends or the wisdom of The West Wing?

We'll remember the cultural phenomenon; but there'll soon be a new contender for the top slot on Sunday nights. I doubt that Lord Fellowes will say tomorrow morning: 'many other things Lady Edith did - if every one of them were dramatised, I suppose the world itself could not contain the DVD box sets that would be produced'.

That said, the curiosity and possible jealousy of Peter's 'what about him?', as he looks back at the Beloved Disciple, might be worthy of Lady Mary's rivalry. Jesus' response sounds like a stinging rebuke; a parental 'never you mind' to a fractious sibling.

The exchange between Peter and Jesus about reveals something of human capacity for comparison and resentment; but what is it saying about the nature of our calling as disciples? The text focuses on the Apostle Peter on the day we celebrate John's ministry as an Evangelist; yet by including it, perhaps we are drawn back to the one to whom they both witness. At the heart of this story is the word of life, Jesus himself.

The phrase 'follow me' is on Jesus' lips when he meets the first disciples; he repeats them when he likens himself to the good shepherd, laying down his life for the sheep.  And now, having overcome death, the risen Lord continues to invite disciples to follow him.

Yet Peter struggles to embrace his calling without first asking that honest question 'what about him?'

For each of us, response to God's call in our lives is deeply personal. It's an individual journey taking us into the intimacy of friendship and family life, equipping us to use our gifts and training in business, the public sector, creativity or voluntary service.  It's a journey that draws us to abide with God in worship and which sends us out, as we walk in God's ways in the world.

We do all this in the company of others.  The person next to you today who offers you a smile, a word encouragement or concern; the person who two, ten, twenty or sixty years ago nurtured you in the faith; the person we've yet to meet who might discern in us gifts that build up and bless others.

The risk of journeying together is that we face the temptation to compete; to want to know what someone else is doing. Sometimes we want to control or direct them; or to envy their particular talent, work or energy.

That's when we hear Jesus' words to Peter: that's not your concern, your job is simply to follow.

No one else can do what you're called to do in his name - embrace that, step by step.

Ultimately, all that is entrusted to us, from the cash in our pocket to our very breath, belongs to God.

Like Peter, we acknowledge our shortcomings and the things that distract us.  Like him,  day by day we place our trust in God's faithfulness and love.  That assurance draws us out of ourselves, into relationship to others. Our following becomes an act of witness.

In word and gesture; in the authenticity of our character; in our capacity to be a little more patient or generous, joyful or kind: the Spirit is at work in us. In the Spirit's power we make manifest the love, light and glory of God, who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

We do that individually. We do that differently. We do that together. We do that in God.

Peter was called to be a rock, a servant leader of God's people. John was called to be a theologian, a story teller in God's world. John outran Peter to the empty tomb; yet, in love, they are both called to follow. They are both called to invite others to become God's beloved.

To be beloved disciples we must abide in God, dwelling in Christ and being inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The words of John are an invitation to that pattern of life.   The founder of the L'Arche community, Jean Vanier writes in his commentary:  'In the Gospel of John, I have come to see that to pray is above all to dwell in Jesus and let Jesus dwell in me. It is not first and foremost to say prayers, but to live in the now of the present moment, in communion with Jesus'.

That deep longing for God answers our human restlessness; that communion with God fulfils our desires; that unity with God and each other becomes the wellspring of our life and love. Two thousand years after John's witness we still declare that God is with us; that we have seen his glory. It takes us beyond fictional happy endings, like Lady Edith's, into costly yet abundant life.

John's retelling of the mystery of the incarnation is intensely particular. It is about the Word which was with God being with us. It is about the identity of the one who says 'I am':  the bread of life; the true vine; the light of the world.

John's declaration of what was from the beginning is also radically inclusive, daring and abundant: we abide with God in the same intimacy of Father and Son because of the power of the Spirit.

Our epistle is an ecstatic, heartfelt and joyous outpouring of this spiritual fellowship in which we share.

This is the message: God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

This is our calling: to walk in light as he himself is the light.

Here at this Eucharist we acknowledge our shortcomings and hear afresh God's words of forgiveness. Today we hear again that call to follow and receive the assurance that we are beloved. In bread and wine, we are nourished by the word of life; and in response to the final words of our service, we become the tangible and embodied proclamation of God's love.

Jean Vanier expresses our calling in this way: 'My hope and prayer is that we, as faltering followers and friends of Jesus, will continue seeking to dwell in him - just as he seeks to dwell in us. This seeking will challenge each of us to open ourselves to the pain of humanity and to become friends with those who are weak, broken, rejected and in need. Together, I pray we may rise up in the new life promised to all where we will know God'.