Monday, December 30, 2013

what the eagle saw: st. john and the four living creatures

Feast Day of St. John, Evangelist and Apostle
Exodus 33:18–23 • Psalm 92 or 92:1–4, 11–14 • 1 John 1:1–9 • John 21:19b–24
(Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures)
Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here.
Sermon available as a PDF by clicking here.

The Sermon
[The Lord] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

— Isaiah 40:29–31   

Our John
Here this morning at St. John’s, we are celebrating our Patronal Feast. Now, if you are not sure what a Patronal Feast is, let me begin by saying that it has absolutely nothing to do with a Patronus Charm in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. I mean that’s the first thing I think of when I hear the word patronal, but apparently there is no connection between the two. Instead, a Patronal Feast is the occasion on which a parish honors the patron saint of the parish. So today, we are celebrating the Feast of St. John—Apostle and Evangelist—from whom this parish took its name some seven score and three years ago. (For those of you who are trying to do the math, that’s 143 years ago).
     In the Bible, there are a handful of persons who go by the name of John. There is John Mark, occasional traveling companion of Paul and Barnabas. There is the John of the book of Revelation who received a heavenly vision on the island of Patmos. There is John the Baptist, or as the Presbyterians prefer to call him, John the Baptizer. (Presbyterians don’t really want anyone in the Bible to be called a Baptist.)
Our John, however, is none of these. Our John is the son of Zebedee and the brother of James, who abandoned the security of the family fishing business to follow after the itinerate prophet, Jesus. Thus, our John was one of the Twelve disciples. Our John also belonged to Jesus’ innermost circle, a circle of three who witnessed events the other disciples didn’t. For example, Peter, James, and our John were present when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. Peter, James, and our John saw Jesus’ transfigured on the mountain, and later they witnessed Jesus’ agony in the garden on the eve of his execution. Our John dined at the Last Supper; he was the beloved disciple seated next to Jesus. Our John was at the foot of the cross, where he agreed to take responsibility for Jesus’ mother, Mary. Our John outran Simon Peter and reached the empty tomb first, and upon seeing the piled-up grave clothes, our John was the first of the male disciples to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. Along with the other disciples, our John met the resurrected Jesus and later on received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Our John outlived all of the other disciples, and presumably was the only disciple to have died of natural causes. Our John saw Jesus’ glory as well as his agony.
     In short, our beloved St. John saw a lot. Perhaps that is why he has most often been represented by an eagle, as we see on our St. John’s banner. As we know, eagles are generally regarded as having the best eyesight of any living creature; they can see farther and with greater clarity.

The Four Living Creatures of Revelation and the Four Gospels
But our John wasn’t always an eagle; sometimes he was a lion. For nearly 2,000 years now, the writers of our four gospels have been represented in Christian art and icons by four figures: a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle. This odd assortment of creatures is taken from the book of Revelation. In Revelation, another John is granted a vision of heaven. In this vision, John sees God seated on a throne in all of his glory, surrounded by various attendants. For example, in a wide circle around the throne are twenty-four smaller thrones, on which are seated twenty-four elders, clad in white robes and golden crowns. Within that circle, on each side of the throne are four living creatures, whose sole function is to preside over the liturgy and worship in heaven. They do this by giving glory, honor, and thanks to the One who is seated on the throne. “Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’” (Rev 4:8).
     The four living creatures are very strange indeed; they are hard to envision in one’s mind. They each have six wings, and they are full of eyes all around and inside. The first living creature is like a lion, and the second like an ox. The third has a human face, and the fourth is like a flying eagle. In the early church, among other things, the four living creatures were understood to represent the four Evangelists, the four writers of our New Testament gospels. However, there was not always agreement as to which living creature represented a given Evangelist. In all the proposed schemes, Luke was represented by the ox. But in some schemes, Matthew was the human figure and in others the lion. John was sometimes depicted as the lion, but most often as the eagle, while Mark could be the man, the eagle, or the lion. The scheme that eventually won out identified the man with Matthew, the lion with Mark, the ox with Luke, and the eagle with our beloved St. John.
      We have an example of this scheme from the sixth century, from Pope Gregory I—who is perhaps better known as Gregory the Great. Gregory makes a connection between the way each gospel begins and the characteristics of a given living creature. Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ human genealogy, so Gregory thinks Matthew is best represented by the man. Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist as the voice crying out in the wilderness, much like a wild lion that lives out in the wilderness. Luke’s gospel begins with the scene of Zachariah in the temple. Since oxen were used as sacrificial animals, Luke is the ox. Finally, our John is the eagle. Eagles were known for their ability to look directly at the sun, and John’s gospel begins by looking directly at Jesus’ divine nature. Here is Gregory in his own words:
The beginning of each Gospel, shows that “these four winged creatures denote the four holy Evangelists. Because he began from the generations of humankind, Matthew is justly represented by a man; because of the crying in the wilderness, Mark is rightly indicated by a lion; because he started from a sacrifice, Luke is well described as an ox; and because he begins with the divinity of the Word, John is worthily signified by an eagle, he who says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” [W]hile he stretched towards the very substance of divinity, he fixed his eye on the sun as if in the fashion of an eagle.
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Ezekiel, Daniel ; OT XIII; p. 5.

The Four Living Creatures Here at St. John’s
So again, Matthew is the man, Mark the lion, Luke the ox, and John the eagle.
This is the same scheme represented here in our own house of worship.

Banner on South Wall
For example, look at this banner on the south wall. There we see the four evangelists. Mark as the lion in the top left corner, John as the eagle in the top right, Matthew as the man in the bottom left, and Luke as the ox in the bottom right. Where else do you see the four living creatures representing by the four gospel writers? 

Yes, they are engraved here on the pulpit. Matthew and Mark are on the left side, John and Luke on the right. If you look closely, you will notice that each of them is holding a book, which represents their gospel. Their presence on the pulpit reminds me that, as a preacher, I have been called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, to make Christ known, and to focus our attention upon him. Where else might we find the four living creatures?

Gospel Book Cover
They can also be found on the ornate cover of our Gospel Book. It is a beautiful cover. At the center is Jesus, seated on a throne. Surrounding him are the four living creatures of Revelation, with a banner designating the name of each evangelist: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John.
If you look closely, you will notice that their heads are turned, and they are focusing their gaze and attention upon Jesus. That, of course, is their primary purpose, to bear witness to the gospel, to the good news which is Jesus Christ. Why? Because they believed, they knew that Jesus held the key to life. As our beloved St. John writes near the end of his gospel, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31). 

We also find the four living creatures imprinted on the base of our chalices. Their images surround the bowl of the chalice, much as the four living creatures surround the throne in heaven. This is fitting because the chalice, which holds the blood of Christ, reminds us of the cross. And in John, the cross is presented as Christ’s throne, for it was Jesus’ crucifixion—even more than his resurrection or ascension—that was his exaltation, his enthronement as the Son of God. As Jesus says in John, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23, 32).
      So, when you come up to this table to partake of the body and blood of Jesus, to taste the salvation and life that he poured out for you, take a moment to look at the chalice. Behold the four living creatures and remember that this cup is the throne of Christ and that you are kneeling in his presence.

Now, so far as I know, there is only one more location where the four living creatures of Revelation can be found in this place. This is my favorite, perhaps because it is so subtle. They are hard to spot. I wouldn’t have ever noticed them had they not been pointed out to me during my first week here.
      You will notice that this altar, this table of the Lord, has four wooden pillars. Feet have been carved at the base of each pillar. On the left, we have the claws of an eagle. Next comes the hooves of an ox, then the feet of a man, and finally, a lion’s paws. Once again we find our four Evangelists: John, Luke, Matthew and Mark. These four pillars serve to remind us that everything we do at this table is based on, rooted in, and supported by the testimony of the four-fold gospel witness.
      These pillars could also serve as a convenient mnemonic device for remembering the foundations of the Christian faith. Again, let us listen to the words of Gregory the Great. Here he applies the four living creatures, not to the evangelists or their gospels, but to the person and work of Jesus himself.
[T]he only begotten Son of God truly became man; he deigned to die like an ox at sacrifice for our salvation; he, through the virtue of his fortitude, rose as a lion.… Furthermore, ascending to heaven after his resurrection, he was carried aloft to the heights like an eagle (ACCC. OT XIII, 5).
      In short, Jesus is “a man by being born, an ox in dying, a lion in rising again, and an eagle in ascending to the heavens.” Man, Ox, Lion, Eagle; Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus—the historical pillars of the Christian faith.

What Did the Eagle See?
Our beloved St. John—Apostle, Evangelist, and Eagle in Flight—witnessed some truly unique and remarkable things as a companion and follower of Jesus Christ. These are the things that he shares with us in his letters and his gospel. As he writes in today’s epistle:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
      Through his faithful witness and testimony, our beloved John has given us life, so how can we best celebrate and honor him on this his feast day. First, by doing what we do every week, by worshipping the God who has revealed himself fully, finally, and decisively in Jesus of Nazareth and by celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
      But I also have another suggestion. In this church, we are blessed in that we get the opportunity to encounter so much Scripture on a weekly basis with our readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. Unfortunately, those readings come to us in relatively small packages. Rarely do we get the opportunity to read and listen to large portions of Holy Scripture. Rarely do we take the time to read a gospel or other biblical book straight through in one sitting.
      So, as a way to honor our beloved St. John, I am suggesting that we read what he wrote, that we go home this week, even today, and read the Gospel of John in one sitting. In my Bible, John covers about 27 pages, so I would estimate that it will take you about an hour to read, maybe an hour and a half, a bit longer if you decided to get together with others and read it aloud. If you need to do it in two sittings, then I suggest chapters 1–12 and then 13–20. The first twelve chapters detail the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, while the last eight chapters cover the last 24 hours of Jesus life.
      As you read, keep this question in mind: Who is this Jesus? When you are finished with your reading, jot down your thoughts in a journal or tell somebody. What did you see? What did you hear? What did you touch and taste?
      The story of Jesus that John tells is critical to our Christian faith for, as Holy Scripture, it helps us answer the four fundamental questions: 
                                                Who is God? 
                                                     Who are we? 
                                                          Why are we here? 
                                                               How then shall we live? 
John wrote so that his readers might come to know Christ and so it is important that we hear John’s story in its entirety.
      So, happy Feast of St. John’s, and happy reading.
      In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Scriptures
The Feast Day of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist 

Exodus 33:18–23
1 John 1:1–9
John 21:19b–24
Psalm 92 or 92:1–4, 11–14

The Collect
Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Exodus 33:18–23
Moses said to God, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Psalm 92 or 92:1–4, 11–14 • Bonum est confiteri                                                   BCP 720
1      It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord, *
               and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High;
2      To tell of your loving-kindness early in the morning *
               and of your faithfulness in the night season;
3      On the psaltery, and on the lyre, *
               and to the melody of the harp.
4      For you have made me glad by your acts, O Lord; *
               and I shout for joy because of the works of your hands.
5      Lord, how great are your works! *
               your thoughts are very deep.
6      The dullard does not know, nor does the fool understand, *
               that though the wicked grow like weeds, and all the workers of iniquity flourish,
7      They flourish only to be destroyed for ever; *
               but you, O Lord, are exalted for evermore.
8      For lo, your enemies, O Lord, lo, your enemies shall perish, *
               and all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered.
9      But my horn you have exalted like the horns of wild bulls; *
               I am anointed with fresh oil.
10     My eyes also gloat over my enemies, *
               and my ears rejoice to hear the doom of the wicked who rise up against me.
11     The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, *
               and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.
12     Those who are planted in the house of the Lord *
               shall flourish in the courts of our God;
13     They shall still bear fruit in old age; *
               they shall be green and succulent;
14     That they may show how upright the Lord is, *
               my Rock, in whom there is no fault.

1 John 1:1-9
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
     This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

John 21:19b-24
Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
     This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.

Delivered on Sunday, December 29th, a.d. 2013
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

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