In a popular children’s book, which some of you have read, young Bastian Balthazar Bux is chased by bullies into an old and mysterious book store. As he waits inside, hiding from those who pursue him, Bastian discovers an intriguing book: The Neverending Story. On the cover is an oval, formed by two snakes, each swallowing the tail of the other. After learning that this book is not for sale “at any price,” Bastian takes the book and runs without stopping all the way to school. Instead of going to class, he hides in the attic and begins to read the book.
At first, The Neverending Story seems normal enough. But as Bastian continues to read, he begins to notice the unusual intensity of the book: how gripping it is, and how realistic it seems. At one point, startled by an event in the story, Bastian lets out an audible cry of fear — and the characters in the story hear his cry! Gradually, Bastian begins to feel that he has somehow become a part of the story. Then comes the turning point, when Bastian finds himself reading his own story in the pages of the book, and he realizes that he has become one of the characters:
As Bastian read [the details of his own story] and listened to the deep, dark voice of the Old Man of Wandering Mountain, a roaring started up in his ears and he saw spots before his eyes.
Why, this was all about him! And it was the Neverending Story. He, Bastian, was a character in the book which until now he had thought he was reading. And heaven only knew who else might be reading it at the exact same time, also supposing himself to be just a reader.
After some initial fear and hesitation, Bastian plunges headlong into the story, and so it continues. For the remainder of the book, he is no longer reading the story but living it for himself. The Neverending Story has become the story of Bastian Balthazar Bux.
Of course, this is a fictional children’s story; a wonderful story, nothing more. But the Apostle and Evangelist, St. John, has written a real neverending story for you, which is not only historical non-fiction but the very Truth itself. It is the “story” of the Holy Triune God in human flesh and blood. For He who was, and is, and is to come, who was in the beginning with God, who is God, by whom all things are made, He has taken your life to be His own, so that you might receive His Life and partake of His divine nature by His grace through faith in His Word of the Gospel.
This is the divine Glory of the Holy Trinity, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given His only-begotten Son for you and all people; that the Son has come down from heaven, become flesh of the Virgin Mary, and humbled Himself as a Servant unto the death of His Cross; and that the Holy Spirit now reveals to you and shares with you the Love of God in Christ within His Holy Christian Church through the Holy Apostolic Ministry of preaching and the Sacraments.
It is that ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making Christ known to you and sharing Him with you that we celebrate with thanksgiving in the Feast of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist. For it is by and through the ministry of St. John and the other Apostles that the “story” of Christ Jesus has been given to you, and is told to you in such a way that you may live that story in and with Him.
St. John was well-equipped to serve in this way by his close proximity to Jesus Christ, leaning on His bosom, for example, at the Holy Supper. He is an eyewitness of Christ and His story, as he describes so eloquently in both his Gospel and Epistle. Along with his brother James and Simon Peter, St. John is one of those “inner three” who were privy to the great catch of fish, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, and the agony of Jesus in the Garden. As St. John writes concerning the incarnate Word, he heard it with his ears; he looked at it and saw it with his eyes; and he handled the very flesh and blood of God Himself.
Even prior to his Divine Call and Ordination to the Holy Office of Apostle and Evangelist, St. John was called to be a disciple of Christ Jesus. And to be such a disciple, beloved of the Lord, is the way that you also are called to learn the story of Jesus, to receive His story as your own, and to enter into that story as your new and neverending real life in Him.
Recall that St. John scarcely ever refers to himself by name: never at all in his Gospel or Epistles, and only a few times in the Apocalypse. Throughout the Holy Gospel, he describes himself simply as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” And as such, he provides a place for you to find yourself in the Gospel, that you also should be a recipient of Jesus’ love and follow after Him as a disciple.
Such words can make you wistful, though; they are so tender and seem almost too good to be true. So, for example, having heard that he would suffer and die for the glory of God, St. Peter turned to see “the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had leaned on His bosom at the Supper.” And you know already in your heart how Peter must have been feeling, and what he ached for in himself.
Do you not long for such genuine intimacy and real friendship in your own life? And does it not often seem so elusive and beyond your reach? Everyone is so afraid and guarded, so focused on the self and so wary of others, that camaraderie and companionship are rare. Too many men are locked away in the self-made prisons of their own private pursuits and a splendid isolationism which is far more selfish than splendid. And too many women have taught themselves to hide and protect their feelings, and not to entrust their hearts to anyone, lest they be hurt yet again.
But you have been created by the Holy Triune God to be loved by Him, and to love one another in His divine Image and Likeness. It never has been good for the man to be alone, nor the woman, either. Even in your selfishness and sin, you still know that, and you retain some sense of your need to live in a fellowship of love with God and with your neighbors. To love and to be loved.
Knowing your need for love is one thing. But of course, love is one thing in particular that you cannot find or manage on your own. And left to yourself, you will not find the love that you need because your sins and unbelief have separated you from the Lord your God and from each other.
The remedy and the solution, and the Love that you need, are found only in Christ Jesus, in being “the disciple whom He loves.” But what does that even mean? And how does that happen?
To begin with, understand that you are already loved by Jesus! Not because of who you are, nor because of anything that you have done, but entirely because of who He is and all that He has done for you. You are called to be His disciple, not to earn His love, but because He loves you; for His desire is that you should be with Him where He is, living with Him in the bosom of His Father.
The Christian author, C. S. Lewis, in his wonderful little book on the different kinds of love, suggests that you are not able to love, nor do you even know how to love, until you have learned to receive and rely upon the Love that God has for you in Christ Jesus. As St. John the Apostle has also written, so simply and so well, “We love because He first loved us.” For God is Love.
That very Love which defines the Holy Trinity — the divine, eternal Love between the Father and His Son in the Holy Spirit — has been lived and written for you, as the most perfect Love Story of all, in the flesh-and-blood story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh and suffered death for you and your salvation. It is written for you in His Flesh and with His Blood: In His Incarnation and Holy Nativity, upon His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead. It is written for you in the Holy Scriptures, as by St. John and the other Apostles and Evangelists. And it is written for you in the ministry and preaching of the Holy Gospel, in the means of grace, as you are baptized into Christ, absolved in His Name, and given to eat His Body and to drink His Blood.
To be loved by the Lord in this way is how and why you love Him in return; and you learn from Him, as a beloved disciple, to live and love as He does; to love your neighbor as Jesus loves you.
To be a disciple is far more than learning rules and regulations; and it is far more than memorizing facts and information. To be a disciple is a way of life, a way of living in the world as a child of God in Christ; so that, whoever you are, whatever you do, you live as Jesus for your neighbor.
As C. S. Lewis goes on to say: “Our imitation of God [and His Love] in this life . . . must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.”
You live and love as a disciple within your own particular place in life. It is not the same for Peter as it is for John. One will suffer and die for the glory of God, the other will live to be an old man to the glory of God. Likewise, it is not the same for you as it is for your neighbor. But, oh, how hard it is to live content and happy with what you have been given and what you are called to do.
To say “the grass is always greener,” is simply to admit that you make a habit of coveting your neighbor’s life, his house, spouse, and reputation. Instead of giving thanks to God for all that He has given you and called you to be and do, you crave and you resent what He has given to others.
Although it is so commonplace, and you cannot deny that it is always lurking in the depths of your heart and the back of your mind, such envy and jealousy and covetous desire is idolatrous and the root of all temptation and sin. It is the polar opposite of love for God and for your neighbor! And it goes to show how impossible it is for you to live and to love as a disciple of Jesus by your own effort. You cannot live in faith and love, except that He comes to love you with His forgiveness and to give you Life in His own flesh and blood. For He is the Image of God in whom you live.
It is for this reason, and to this purpose, that St. John was called to his own office and station in life as an Apostle and Evangelist. He was called, ordained, and sent to be a minister of Christ and a pastor of His Church. Not of a single congregation, but of the whole Church on earth, as part of the foundation of Prophets and Apostles in Christ, especially through his recorded Word of the New Testament Scriptures — the Holy Gospel, three Epistles, and the Book of the Revelation.
It is by this Word of the Lord, which St. John and his fellows have written, that pastors to this day, and even to the close of the age, preach one and the same Lord Jesus Christ to His Church. It is by this Word of the Lord that we pastors follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, baptizing and teaching the disciples of Christ Jesus, handing over His Body and pouring out His Blood for them to eat and to drink. And St. John the Apostle has identified the lofty purpose and potential of this Word that he has written: “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ; and that, believing, you may have life in His Name; that you may have fellowship with the Father and His Son.”
This great gift of Life with the Lord your God is what your true Love gives to you on this Third Day of Christmas. For it is by this Word of the Word-made-Flesh that His story is your story.
And this telling of His story — the preaching of His Gospel and the celebration of His Supper — these are the many other things which Jesus is still doing, here and now, and all over the world.
As for you, beloved disciple of Jesus, it is your single most important calling that you should hear His Word, receive His gifts, rely upon His Gospel, and thus abide in Him throughout your life on earth, unto the Resurrection of your body and the life everlasting of your body and soul in Him. You embrace Him, and you rest yourself in Him, and you cling to Him as your beloved Lord, by receiving and trusting and giving thanks for the Love that He lavishes upon you in His preaching of forgiveness, in the giving of His Body and His Blood for your life and your salvation.
Thus are you tenderly invited to recline here on the bosom of your dear Lord Jesus, here at His Holy Supper. Here by the Atonement of His Cross and the Righteousness of His Resurrection from the dead, there are no doubts, denials, or questions of betrayal, but only the most precious Gifts of His divine and holy love, which are given and poured out for you and for the many. So it is that, living and believing in Him, you shall never die. For even though your body dies and is buried, yet shall you be raised to live with Christ Jesus in body and soul, evermore and evermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.