St Bride's: Sermons

St John the Apostle and Evangelist

St John the Apostle and Evangelist

The church in Edgbaston where I was vicar for nine wonderful years (and I am not saying that purely because one of my former churchwardens happens to be present with us here this morning), was blessed with some unusually fine Victorian wood carvings. And particularly noteworthy amongst them were four very striking images, one at each end of the choir stalls.

They depicted four rather bizarre winged creatures, each of them bearing a scroll: a lion with wings; an angelic figure; an ox; and an eagle. And interestingly enough, as our church architect has kindly pointed out to me, on either side of the wooden 'screen' at the back of St Bride's you can see carvings of those very same images.

So what is the significance of this rather odd selection of creatures? Those of you who know your church symbolism will know that in Christian tradition they designate the four evangelists (or gospel writers): the lion representing St Mark; the angelic figure, St Matthew; the ox, St Luke; and the eagle, St John.  

But why these symbols in particular? To find the answer to that question, we must start with the Old Testament, and the opening chapter of the book of Ezekiel. There the prophet recounts a mystical vision of God, whose retinue included four living creatures, each having the face of, respectively, a lion, a man, an ox, and an eagle. And over time Christian tradition came to associate these four figures with the four gospels - observing that each of these images could be said to embody a distinctive quality of the gospel with which it is associated. 

St Mark's gospel is represented by a lion, because there is something rather harsh and almost ruthless about Mark's gospel, which is brief, and challenging, and which makes absolutely no concessions to the reader. As a gospel it frighteningly direct, and rather awesome. You can perhaps see why it came to be associated with the symbolism of the lion.

St Matthew, on the other hand, shows us Jesus the teacher - hence Matthew's gospel is sometimes regarded as the gospel with the human face - that of the angelic figure; it is in St Matthew's gospel that we find, for example, the full version of what we now know as the 'Sermon on the Mount': a highly polished, and brilliantly presented example of the teachings of Jesus.

St Luke's gospel is associated with the symbol of the ox is because the Jesus whom Luke presents to us is a Jesus who bears our burdens, a Jesus who is solidly on the side of the poor and the oppressed and the marginalised - rather like a beast of burden.

And then, finally, we have the eagle, symbolising St John. It has long be recognised that, whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke share a great deal in common, John's gospel is rather different from them all, in both feel and content. Most notably, John is far more explicit about the divine nature and divine origins of Christ from the very outset. Unlike Matthew and Luke, he does not bother telling us about the physical birth of Jesus - we find none of that stuff about shepherds and stables and wise men - because the sweep of John's gospel reaches back far beyond that event to the very dawn of time - to the origin of Creation itself: which is why on Christmas night we hear those magnificent and haunting words with which John's gospel opens: 'In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' 

John's gospel soars like an eagle above the story of Christ's incarnation, his ministry, death and resurrection, and from the outset John leaves us in absolutely no doubt about who and what Christ is - a Christ whose divinity is clear from the start. The Jesus whom John shows us is a Jesus who is all-knowing, and in full control of his destiny - a Jesus who, at the moment of his death, does not utter a cry of despair and dereliction, as in Mark and Matthew - nor words of forgiveness and reconciliation, as in Luke - but words that confirm that the task he came to do is now complete: 'It is finished'. Job done.

When I was at secondary school we had an RE teacher, who was very gentle and sweet, but rather worthy - and I'm afraid that we ran rings round him, vile teenagers that we were. And we discovered that the most effective ways of disrupting his classes was by asking him a barrage of questions - because he was so lovely that he would always try to answer them, rather than telling us to shut up and get on with the lesson. 'Sir, sir - my hamster has died - can you raise it from the dead? But sir, why not? Is it because you don't have enough faith, sir?'

Anyway, on one particular occasion I can remember him being asked a question that made my ears prick up: 'Sir, if somebody who didn't know anything about Christianity wanted to know about God, what would you tell them to do?' And I can remember him saying, he would probably tell them to go and read St John's Gospel.  

I would sooner have died than let my teenage friends know this, because it was so monumentally uncool, but, under cover of darkness, with a torch under the blankets, I went and did precisely that - because even then I was feeling the need to sort out what this God stuff was really all about. But I must admit that when I did so, I found St John's gospel baffling: I could see that it was mysterious; I could see that it was mystical; but a lot of it seemed to be in riddles: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God; the same was in the beginning with God, all things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made ...' - what on earth was that all about - and that was just the opening sentence? In general, I have always found St Mark's gospel, with its grit, and realism, and hard edges, and failure to provide easy answers, speaks to me far more directly.

But then one day I heard someone use an image in relation to John's Gospel which for me suddenly made sense. And it was this: imagine for a moment that you had never before experienced stained glass windows, and you have been told to go and visit a church that was famous for them. If you were to walk round the outside of the church in daylight, looking at those windows, all you would see would be dark murky glass. And if that was all you did, you would remain both baffled and disappointed, and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Because to see wonderful stained glass windows in their full splendour, to understand their glory; to appreciate what they are really about, you have to commit to enter the building so that you can see them from the inside. Do that, and something that from the outside looked opaque and meaningless, suddenly springs into life.

And for me, when I tried inhabiting John's gospel, and somehow simply let it wash over me, rather than trying to work out what it all meant, line by line - when I tried to experience it rather than understand it, suddenly it began to come alive for me. I had to learn to do it from the inside, rather than walk round the outside feeling that it was closed to me. And at last I understood.

We owe so much to St John for the vision and sweep of the gospel that bears his name; our understanding of the message of the New Testament - our understanding of the meaning and significance of Christ - would be woefully incomplete without it. I still do not always find it an easy gospel; but sometimes, simply to immerse myself in its extraordinary language and powerful imagery; to allow myself to get caught up in the mystery and the mysticism of it all; is enough. Because that in itself brings me, and countless others, closer to God, and closer to the Christ to whom John the Apostle and Evangelist dedicated his life.

And thanks be to God for that.   Amen.


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