Reflections on St. John the Apostle: whoever he was

Today is the feast day of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. It is fascinating to realize how little we really know about John. He was one of two brothers who were probably fishermen, partners with Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. They could very well have been disciples of John the Baptist before they began to follow Jesus. Jesus named them the Bullroarers. Why were they called this? Were they fighters? Quick to anger? Loud and opinionated?

One story the Gospels record is how they came to Jesus, possibly with their mother, to ask to be seated at a place of honor right next to him when Jesus came into his kingdom. Jesus told them they didn’t know what they were asking. The other disciples were quite indignant, and the incident spurred Jesus to talk about servant leadership.

We know John was often part of a smaller group of disciples who accompanied Jesus on special occasions: up the mountain to witness Jesus’ Transfiguration, to the healing of Jairus’ daughter, to the Garden of Gethsemane to witness Jesus agony on the night before the crucifixion. With this small group John was given the power to cast out demons and to heal all manner of infirmities.

The Gospel of John doesn’t mention him often at all. Instead it talks about a nameless disciple “whom Jesus loved”. Was this the same man as the John of the synoptic Gospels? Was he in fact the author, either directly or through dictation, of the fourth Gospel and of the letters of John? We do not know. Did he write the Book of Revelation? Probably not, but again we do not really know.

All these bits of information are so very tantalizing. I have always been frustrated by them, yearning to learn more. I have wanted to understand John, this fellow who was so intimately a follower of the God who “tented among us”. I have wanted to see into his heart. I have wanted to know more about where he came from and what he was like. Out of what life experiences did the beautiful poetry of the prologue of John’s Gospel spring, and was it the same life in which there was a moment of standing beneath a cross and being asked to care for a dying man’s mother? When the beloved disciple leaned against Jesus’ breast, what did he hear? What did he experience? Did John go to Ephesus with Mary? Was Mary of Magdala with them?

But the writings of the New Testament are not meant to be the biographies of the followers of Jesus. They tell us almost nothing about the particulars of those lives, not even the particulars of the life of Jesus himself. They are testimonies instead of something different. They all talk about the transforming moments of relationship between Christ and humanity, one person at a time. They are not so much about history as they are about an ongoing, ever-available affiliation, here and now, in this moment.

So the honoring of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist might most appropriately be expressed as a remembering not of that man, that person, but of the fact of God alive in our midst, a God who forms relationships with each one of us, not just with his first disciples. John the man is a witness to the always present possibility of relationship with Jesus Christ. This witness is more important to him – and also, ultimately, to us – than the circumstances of John’s life, more important than his own wisdom or teaching or anything else.

Our own exquisite, personal relationship with the living God is what is being pointed toward. It is a story alive in the present moment, not a story of the past. The writer of the fourth gospel, the beloved disciple, the man about whom fragments are written in the other three gospels – whether they are the same man or not – all point beyond themselves to the story that never ends, never dies. It is our story. Most particularly it is our story, one person at a time.

God of life and love, incarnate and available to all of us, we welcome you and celebrate you with St. John and all the apostles, today and always. Amen.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries. With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado

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