In God's eyes, people count

The Revd Canon Dr Alvyn Pettersen

10.30am

Choral Eucharist

1 John 1.1-10              John 21.19b-25

Only two days after celebrating Christmas we find ourselves celebrating the feast of St John, Apostle and Evangelist. We could be forgiven for thinking that the Church of England holds that we got our Christmas tee-shirts on Friday, and that already it is time to ‘move on’. Such certainly would fit with the practice of putting up Christmas lights and trees and baubles extraordinarily early, with seeing Christmas day as, not the beginning, but the end of the Christmas season, and, in this anything but normal year, with fore-shortening the Christmas season to one day, to fit Covid’s version of Procrustes’ bed.

Certain nuances in this morning’s gospel however prompt me to suggest that keeping the feast of St John today should not occasion our “moving on” from Christmas’ theme. Peter, Jesus’ disciple’s, does dominate the first half of today’s gospel reading. But that, I suggest, should not “move us on”. Today’s Collect focuses upon “the teaching of … [the] blessed apostle and evangelist St John.” But nor should that, I would argue, “move us on.” For however we may choose to understand the saint whose feast day we observe today, this “John” seems to be less concerned about himself and more concerned with Jesus to whom he bore witness.[1]  Like a Jonathan Dove who, on being praised one Christmas for one of his Christmas compositions, reflected that “at this time of year” only one person is worthy of praise; and it is not I,” so this “John” would seem to wish to turn attention from himself to Jesus, and here especially to Jesus’ concern for “John’s” fellow disciple, Peter.

This morning’s gospel reading, you will recall, began with “John” referring to Jesus’ words to Peter, “follow me.”[2] These two words, you may recall, came fast on the heels of Jesus’ having previously said to Peter, not once, but three times over, that Peter should tend, should feed Jesus’ sheep, words which, to all intents and purposes, amounted to “follow me”. Yet, on hearing those two words, “follow me”, Peter, the very one who, so recently, had insisted, indeed had insisted three times over, that he loved Jesus, was distracted. His eye was caught by the sight of the disciple whom Jesus loved following behind; and he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”[3] Jesus’ reply is noteworthy. “If it is my will,” Jesus answered, “that he remains until I come, what is that to you?”[4] And then, and in a much more explicit manner than before, Jesus continued, “But you, follow me.” The pointedness of Jesus’ statement, not that obvious in the English translation, was effected through the introduction of the personal pronoun, “you”. It sharpened Jesus’ reply. “Whatever may happen to the disciple behind us, you, Peter, you are to follow me”. Many of the English translations of this second “follow me” end the remark with an exclamation mark. And so they tempt the reader to understand the words as a “calling to heel”, almost as an exasperated comment, the result perhaps of a growing dominical impatience at Peter’s repeated inattention. Perhaps, however, Jesus’ “follow me” is not so much a judgement as an exhortation, a kindly encouragement. Certainly the focus is on Peter. But maybe the focus is even more upon the one who focuses on Peter, upon Jesus, indeed, I suggest, upon a Jesus who focuses on Peter out of concern and mercy. Read so, Jesus’ “follow me” has the sense of “come on, Peter, don’t let yourself be distracted. Concentrate. Concentrate on following me. Remember. When previously I asked you if you loved me, you replied, ‘yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’[5] Don’t now betray that three times affirmed love. Don’t now allow yourself to be distracted, not even by the beloved disciple, walking behind us. Concentrate on loving me, on following me.” “Follow me”, so read, is then not so much a command, nor a sharp rebuke, as an invitation, a personal invitation, specially addressed by Jesus to Peter.

If such a reading of this morning’s gospel is permissible, it says something very Christmassy, even today, even on this feast of St John. For it says something about God’s concern in and through Jesus for the particular and the conditional. It says something about human experience, in its entirety and in its individual variety, being the “theatre of God’s saving work.”[6] For God treats Peter as an individual, and not as a cipher. It says something about bodily life and personal histories, Peter’s, and, by extension, yours and mine, being histories that God never will shun, and ever would bring to a graced maturity. And it says something about the patience and mercy of God. In short, it says, in God’s eyes, people count. Even you and I count.

Not that that should surprise us, especially as only two days ago we marked Christmas, a central theme of which is God’s merciful presence in this world, a signal that to God individual human beings matter. On Friday, it was an infant who mattered, a tiny scrap of humanity; and today, it is Peter, upon whom that infant, now an adult, having looked, would love into following him.

If our placing, not Peter, nor the apostle John but God as the still, quiet centre of this morning’s gospel reading is permissible, if our recognising in Jesus’ words to Peter God’s gift of his merciful self to a particular individual is acceptable, our celebrating today the feast of St John is not a “moving on” from Christmas, but a re-affirming Christmas. If you wish, Christmas, writ once in an infant, was then writ twice in Peter, and now is writ yet again in us today.

Today’s celebration is then as Christocentric as it was on Friday. For both Friday and today, despite Covid, slippery in its variegation and all too often deadly, despite enervating physical distancing, despite talk of a “cancelled” Christmas, speak of God’s unconquerable love, of illimitable mercy, and of unfailing compassion for each and every individual. From this perspective, there is not one day of Christmas, nor but twelve, but innumerable days. Or, to paraphrase a well-known Christmas saying, God’s compassion is for life, and not just for Christmas.

On this our second day of Tier 4, we can then either look back and be distracted by Covid-19, or be attracted by the One who says, “follow me; entrust ourselves to me; know my compassion; and don’t forget to show my mercy to others”. The choice is ours; but the wise choice is to follow the Mercy. Thanks be to God for such love, mercy and compassion.                                                                                          Amen.

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[1] See John 21:24

[2] Joh 21.19b

[3] John 21:21

[4] John 21,.22a

[5] John 21:15-17

[6] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge (1979), 23.