On the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian Who was Especially Beloved of Christ | Also about love for God and our neighbour
Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies
Today we celebrate the feast of one of Christ’s chosen apostles, and extol him as the father of all those called by Christ’s name, and in particular as patriarch of those “which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). As Jacob produced twelve patriarchs according to the flesh, from whom the twelve tribes of Israel came into being (Gen. 35:22-26), so spiritually Jesus gave us the twelve initiates into His mystery (Matt. 10:2-4, Mark 3:14-19, Luke 6:13-16, and Acts 1:13). When one of them wretchedly fell away (Matt. 27:5, Acts 1:16-20), the great St. Paul, upon whom Christ had looked down from heaven (cf. Acts 9:3), made up the number. If we do not see the same number of tribes originating from the apostles, that is nothing at all strange, for spiritual things are divided without losing their unity. In the same way, our body apparently has five senses, but our soul’s perception is single, divided yet united. The twelve wells of water by which the Israelites, under Moses’ leadership, encamped and quenched their thirst after travelling in the desert foreshadowed these twelve men (Exod. 15:27). For by providing spiritual water they delivered the human race, which had previously been walking through the trackless wastes of atheism, from the burning heat of mad idolatry. Similarly, the twelve stones which Joshua, son of Nun, set up as a sign in Gilgal after the Israelites had miraculously crossed the Jordan on foot (Josh. 4:9), foreshadowed the twelve apostles, for they are an everlasting sign to us that the true Jesus held back the river of sin that was engulfing the world and allowed those who obeyed Him to pass along life’s path without sin, just as in earlier days He let the Israelites cross the Jordan dry-shod.
2. But characteristics such as these, and the fact of being called by none other than Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, are common to all the apostles. The one whose feast we now celebrate, however, was not just called as an apostle, but also numbered among the elect; and not simply chosen out of every nation under heaven, but selected from among those chosen ones as leader of the circle of leaders, that is to say, of the other apostles, and was of equal rank with Peter and James. Together with these two he was taken aside by the Saviour, led up Mount Tabor, heard Moses and Elijah speaking to Christ, and saw by divine providence that great and extraordinary spectacle, the radiance of the light of the Son’s divinity which flashed brighter than lightning in a way defying description. He heard the Father’s voice referring to Christ alone, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (Matt. 17:1-5). In this blessed fashion John was made a disciple not just of the Son but of the Father Himself.
3. But even this John has in common with Peter and James, Christ’s foremost disciples, just as he shares his role of evangelist with his fellow writers of the Holy Gospel, the words of eternal life, though he far surpassed them in his eloquence and sublime theology. As for those blessings which were uniquely his, what words can adequately portray them? He alone, not only of the apostles, but of all eminent men before and after him, was called “virgin” by everyone, for it seems that he alone kept both soul and body, mind and senses, virginal throughout his life. Few people practice bodily virginity, but nearly everyone knows what it is, whereas perfect virginity of the soul means keeping the mind free from all association with evil. So this name bears witness to the fact that John was almost sinless, and that is why he came to be beloved of Christ, who alone was sinless by nature, and he alone was characterized as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 17:7, 20).
4. Can you find any higher words of praise than these descriptions? Among the rest of mankind not only do we fail to find greater or more excellent epithets than these, but also to find both referring to the same man. Other, greater names, however, were his as well, for he is not just the beloved virgin, but the son of the Virgin, of the Virgin Mother and Mother of God herself. What Christ was to her by nature, John became to her by grace (John 19:26-27). If he alone was allotted the same mother as Christ, he alone of all men was His brother, kinsman to the Son of God, and like Him in all respects. Christ was the beloved Son (Matt. 3:17, 17:5, Mark 1:11, 9:7, Luke 3:22, 9:35, 2 Pet. 1:17), John was the beloved disciple. Christ was in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18), John leant on Jesus’ breast (John 13:23). Christ was a virgin, and by His grace, so was John. Christ was the Son of the Virgin, and so was John. “The Lord thundered from the heavens” (Ps. 18:13), and John was thunder, for he, more than the others, was called thunder and the son of thunder (cf. Mark 3:17), a most theological thunder which resounds to the ends of the earth declaring the divine truth that in the beginning was the Word from the Father, and the Word was with God, and was God, and in Him was life and the true light, which lights every man coming into the world, by whom in the beginning all things were made (John 1:1-5, 9).
5. This thunder also revealed to us the man sent as a witness to the coming of the true light (cf. John 1:7), made known to us the Word Himself who came down from heaven, having been made a flesh for our sake, and portrayed with the utmost clarity everything He did on earth in the flesh: His works, His passion, His resurrection after the Cross, and His subsequent return to heaven, whence He had come. All these things were written down, he says, as he saw them for us, that we might be saved (cf. John 20:31). He also sent out a persuasive epistle to the whole Christian community, calling all to fellowship in that eternal life, which was with the Father before all ages and was manifested to us (I John 1:1-3). As he was amongst the foremost apostles, was particularly dear to Christ, and was called the beloved disciple, he speaks to us of the chief virtue, namely love (cf. Gal. 5:14), saying that God Himself is love, and anyone who has love has God, and he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God dwells in him in whom love dwells (cf. I John 4:16). He shows that love’s energy within us is twofold, and divides it, without destroying its unity, into love for God and love for our neighbour, teaching that these two depend on one another for their existence, and calling anyone who thinks he has one without the other a liar (I John 4:20). The sign of our love for God, he tells us, is that we keep His word and His commandments (cf. John 8:31, I John 5:3), as the Lord Himself taught, saying, “He that loveth me will keep my commandments” (cf. John 14:15, 21). “This is my commandment”, He said, “that ye love one another” (John 15:12), and “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
6. Do you see how love for God is inseparable from love for each other? That is why the beloved disciple says, “If a many say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:20). Also, “He that saith he abideth in God”, through love, “ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked” (I John 2:6). And how did He walk? He obeyed the heavenly Father, fulfilled all righteousness, bestowed benefits on mankind, healed the sick, taught those willing to listen, reproved the disobedient, endured for the sake of the obedient being spat upon by the ungrateful, being struck, mocked, scourged and finally subjected to a shameful death. He gave His life for us, and there is no greater act of love than that (cf. John 15:13). But we also see that His beloved disciple was His follower in deeds. For he clearly went through all the Teacher’s instructions, miracles and sufferings, benefiting everyone with his words and actions, bringing people out of darkness into light, making the unworthy worthy, and himself suffering for their sake. He did not undergo just one death to bear witness to Jesus and for our good, in other words, out of love for God and men, but delivered himself to death throughout his whole life. How many times did he suffer mockery? How many times was he struck or stoned? How many times did this propagator of godliness appear before tyrants and rulers, having to give an account of himself and being condemned! He was also exiled to Patmos by Domitian, the cruellest tyrant of all, and joyfully proclaimed the teachings of the good Lord and Teacher everywhere.
7. Let us too, brethren, obey these teachings and live as far as we can in the way Christ and His beloved disciple lived, in submission to our fathers. “For the obedient son,” it says, “will live, but the disobedient is for destruction” (cf. Prov. 13:1 Lxx). Nor should our obedience be only to our fathers in the flesh, but much more to our spiritual fathers, and through them, to our heavenly Father, “From whom every family in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:15). For our love, submission and obedience to our spiritual fathers is offered to God, and anyone who disobeys them clashes with our fathers’ God, as Christ made clear by saying, “He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me” (Luke 10:16). “Obey them, brethren, that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: that they may not grieve over you: for that is unprofitable for you” (cf. Heb. 13:17), cries Paul the great preacher, and be eager to accomplish all righteousness and every good work. If something is lacking on account of our human frailty, the Lord is gracious and will make up for the deficiencies due to our weaknesses by means of His grace, accepting us as though our good works were perfect, particularly if He sees us humbled by our failures in virtue, and not conceited over our virtuous achievements.
8. Each of you should benefit your neighbour in all sorts of ways, by means of what you have. Are you unable to heal the sick with a miraculous word? You can still heal them with a word of encouragement. If you personally minister to someone’s needs, you yourself (how amazing!) will have the Lord to serve you in the age to come, in accordance with His words. For “He shall gird himself”, it says, “and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37). If, however, you share with him by giving him some of your own necessities, you will have a share in divine riches and Christ’s kingdom, and will be fed on ambrosia and clothed in the royal garment of immortality, as if you had given clothing, drink and nourishment to Christ Himself (cf. Matt. 25:34-40). Perhaps you do not have words to teach and exhort people to be virtuous, the power to rebuke, to turn men away from evil and towards virtue? Become a teacher by your actions, doing good for yourself and your neighbour. This is also a means of rebuking transgressors. Let them say of you, “The very sight of him is an affliction to us, because his ways are different from ours” (cf. Wisd. 2:15). If they find you intolerable and direct insults at you, fabricate lying accusations and contrive terrible plots against you, stand firm. Do not turn aside or weaken and change your course, but be kind to yourself and to them, looking to the example of Christ and His beloved disciple. Taking them as your guide for walking the Lord’s straight path, travel along it without turning back. “If they have persecuted me”, said Christ, “they will persecute you” (John 15:20). If you act like this and endure these things, it will be clear to everyone that you have embraced divine love.
9. If you long to know the signs of this love within you, I will show you them, only go on tirelessly in order to find them. When you lift your mind up to God and nothing earthly attracts it, but forgetting everything, without force and free from thoughts, you joyfully delight in the remembrance of God and prayers to Him, then be aware that you have clearly apprehended love for God and share in it for as long as this converse, or rather union with God continues. Again, when you pray to the Lord with contrition and sweet pain in your heart equally for yourself and for every man, known to you or unknown, friend or foe, whether or not he has grieved you, then know that you love your neighbour from your soul. But these dispositions will not become yours unless you possess the visible works of love. For if you do not accustom yourself to giving up your own will and do your neighbour’s, how can you endure the things that he brings upon you? If you do not courageously and patiently bear the difficulties caused by men, how will you progress to praying for your enemies? If instead of obeying the one who says, “Give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41), you withhold them, keep them in your possession, and do not use them to meet your neighbour’s need, how will you shed tears for them? “Anyone who has love”, said one of God’s friends, “has dispersed his money. The man who says he possesses both love and money is deluded. He is either bereft of money, or bereft of love, that is to say, of God”. God is love, and He declares to us, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24), using the word “mammon” to mean everything we have to excess: gold, or silver, or anything else. He shows us that it is impossible for anyone who keeps money to pray, “for where”, He says, “your treasure is, there will your mind be also” (cf. Matt. 6:21), but not in prayer. The Lord also says of such men, “This people honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me” (Matt. 15:8-9). For that reason God’s beloved thunder proclaims, “Whoso hath this world’s goods, and does not give to his brethren what they need, the love of God is not in him” (cf. I John 3:17). Nor can love for the world and love for God dwell in one and the same person, for love of the world is enmity towards God (Rom. 8:7, cf. Jas. 4:4). So John also says, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world” (I John 2:15). What are these worldly things other than means of gaining money which do not benefit the soul, carnal desires, arrogant thoughts and a will set on the earth. All these things do not come from God, but separate those who possess them from Him, deaden the soul of anyone they conquer, and bury it in gold and silver earth, which is far worse than the earth with which we usually cover our human dust, in that when ordinary earth is put on top of our dead bodies, it shuts in the stench of them and makes it impossible for it to come out anywhere, but the more gold and silver dust is heaped on the mind of their owner, the worse they make him smell, until his stench reaches up to heaven and there turns back God’s mercies and stops God watching over him.
10. The beloved disciple was sent by our Saviour Jesus Christ, who loved him, to teach us the whole truth (cf. John 16:13), raise us up from these dead works, and urge us towards works of light. He made perfectly clear that love for God and our neighbour was the culmination of these works, and capable of bringing salvation. How can we fail to love and honour him as the one who disclosed to us the truth in its entirety? So let us not, brethren, do the opposite of what he has told us. And let us not show love and faith in our speech and gestures, while disobeying him in our actions, as John himself forbade, saying, “Brethren, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (I John 3:18).
11. If we too love and honour him who was loved by God above all, let us show our love for him in deed and in truth, becoming not just hearers of his words but also doers. Thus we shall attain to the eternal life and the kingdom that he promised, in Christ Himself, the King of the ages, to whom belong eternal glory in heaven and on earth, together with His Father without beginning and the co-eternal Spirit, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.