The Apostle John fascinates me.
…on the way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make preparations for Him. But they did not welcome Him, because He determined to journey to Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”
But He turned and rebuked them…
– Luke 9:52b-55a (CSB)
Like a gangster’s lackeys in a Depression-era movie, they ask, “Hey, Jesus? You want we should whack them?”
I wonder if Jesus paused before turning around. I wonder if His head dropped to His chest the way a father’s does when he’s exasperated with his children. I wonder if He rubbed his temples. I wonder if His words came out clipped or if they were measured. I know that He surely looked both of them in the eyes and, from the deep well of patient love within His heart, the Savior spoke, telling James and John to knock it off.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Him and said, “Teacher, we want You to do whatever we ask You.”
“What do you want Me to do for you?” He asked them.
They answered Him, “Allow us to sit at Your right and at Your left in Your glory.”
– Mark 10:35-37 (CSB)
They want the places of honor. The top spots. Of course this makes the other disciples mad. I wonder if Jesus sighed heavily. I wonder if He cast His eyes to Heaven. I wonder if He shook His head, marveling at how little they understood.
Then, Gethsemane. The betrayal. The arrest. Everyone flees. At some point, John circles back around, following the proceedings from a safe distance. He is there, at the foot of the Cross, with the women. Jesus tells him to take care of His mother (John 19:26-27; church tradition maintains that he did so for the rest of her life). Dark, quiet hours as the Light of the World lay in the tomb.
Ah, but as the song says: Bursting forth, in glorious day, up from the grave He rose again. Fifty days to wrap their minds around resurrection, salvation. His feet lifted off of the Mount of Olives. They watched, blinking at the brightness. Confusion, waiting.
Pentecost. Tongues of fire. Preaching and teaching as they’d never preached before.
About that time King Herod violently attacked some who belonged to the church, and he executed James, John’s brother, with the sword.
– Acts 12:1-2 (CSB)
No mention of how John reacted. No doubt he mourned. As the eldest is usually listed first in ancient documents, including the Bible, James was probably his big brother. If John was like other little brothers throughout the ages, he wanted to be just like James. Followed him around. Tried to act and think like James did.
Suddenly, he is left alone. The community of faith, the family of God, remains, but there’s something about losing a sibling. Your first friend. The one who knows you the best.
Something shifts in John as he grows and continues to walk with God. The narrative in Acts slides over to Paul beginning in Chapter 13, and we lose track of the man who begins, at some point, to think of himself as the Beloved Disciple. No more does he want to call down fire on people’s heads. No more does he seek a place of glory.
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.
– 1 John 4:7-10 (CSB)
Brimstone and rage, power and position…to love.
Another church tradition tells us that, toward the end of his life, John settled on one sentence to sum up the life and teachings of Jesus, a sentence that he repeated over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”
I don’t believe it’s too far a stretch to think that John would be shocked by our practices in the church today, for this Apostle was not only the preacher of love but the great enemy of Gnosticism, a philosophy that downplays the importance of the physical and elevates mystical experiences in the pursuit of secret or special knowledge. Gnostics were either ascetics, denying bodily needs, or libertines, engaging in whatever activities they liked because it didn’t matter. In essence, “thou shalt not” or “do what thou wilt.”
These competing ideas influence us greatly. For some of us, there is fear of the body, and so we come up with long lists of rules. A man must not really be friends with a woman to whom he is not married, and he definitely shouldn’t hug women, because he will of course be aroused and there’s no way he can control himself. (I am not sure if this is more insulting to women or to men). For others, there is shunning of Scriptural ethics. That passage tells me not to do this, but that can’t be what the writer actually meant; they had no concept of this and so I can ignore what’s being said and indulge because God is basically a cosmic hippie who cares only about my happiness.
Neither is healthy. Neither is loving.
In the youth ministry context in which I currently sit, I listen as teens ask, “Do you really love me? Do I really belong?” They don’t always use words, but the question is ever-present. Of course, we tell them, “Yes! Yes!” But they are smarter than we give them credit for, despite the lack of fully developed brains. They watch how we interact with each other. They see our unease, our inability to avoid the extremes. They notice our fear.
Our answers don’t line up with our actions.
When John said, “Little children, love one another,” he meant it. As in, actually love one another. Recognizing that we who have been brought from death to life by the power of Christ are really family, we don’t have to be paranoid around each other. You can give someone a hug if he looks like he needs it. You can say “I love you” to her without having to rush to the marriage altar. At the same time, we also don’t get to cast off good sense and wisdom; we don’t get to make our own rules and demand that God and Scripture submit to them. Instead, we see the goodness and kindness in what God commands, and we ask Him to reshape our hearts into those that beat to the time of obedience.
We have to love one another. Love is listening. Love is responding in grace and truth. Love is playing, eating, serving, sitting in silence. Love is squeezing hands and shoulders. Love is hugs. Love is looking others in the eye. Love is creating space for God-given differences of abilities, gifts and perspectives.
Love is relationship.
The messy, up-in-your-business, no-room-for-hiding relationship.
Not this fakeness we’re used to.
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