St Andrew’s Day
November 30 2017
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
“Barbara Trapido’s first novel, published in 1982, was called Brother of the More Famous Jack, a book that redefined the coming-of-age novel.”
This is how I began my sermon for St Andrew’s Day two years ago. I promised you then a sermon on Andrew as the brother of the more famous Peter. Tonight, with our reading from the fourth Gospel, it’s time to keep that promise.
But let me start, as our reading does, with John the Baptist.
The fourth Gospel is very clear about who and what John is not. He is not the Messiah, he is not Elijah, he is not the prophet. But if not these, what then?
He is a voice crying in the wilderness, “thunder in the desert” preparing the way of the Lord. He is not the light. He has come to witness to the light.
In Matthias Grünewald’s great painting in the Isenheim altarpiece, John stands beside the cross, pointing with an enormously elongated finger. It’s sheer anachronism, of course: by the time Christ is crucified, John is long dead. But it highlights the role of John, pointing away from himself and toward Jesus.
And that is also Andrew’s role in our Gospel. John points him to Jesus. Jesus asks what he is looking for, what he is seeking, and Andrew realizes that he has found it. He hangs out with Jesus for a while but then finds his brother Simon, tells him they have found the Messiah, and brings Simon to Jesus – only to find himself upstaged when Jesus renames his more famous brother Cephas, or Peter, or in plain English, Mr Rock.
But that’s Andrew’s role: not to blow his own trumpet, but to point to Christ; like John the Baptist, to witness to the light.
As with Andrew, so with us.
In 1972 – if I may look back to my own coming of age – I moved to Scotland from Ireland.
In Edinburgh, true-born Scots would regularly ask me, “Where are you staying?” It took me a while to figure out that what they meant was, “Where do you live?”
There is no evidence that Andrew ever made it to Scotland. But in our Gospel, obviously, he is already practising to be a true-born Scot. “Where are you staying?” he asks Jesus.
The word for staying in the fourth Gospel can mean “to live” or “to lodge”; at a deeper level, it can mean “to remain”, “to indwell”, or “to abide”.
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus instructs his disciples in John 15. It is part of his final exhortation to them at the last supper. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. … Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15.4f)
Likewise, in the First Letter of John, we read: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4.16b)
This is not some cosy mysticism, where we can bask in the warmth of divine affection. To stay or to abide in Christ or in the Father is eminently practical. It is intimately associated with keeping the commandments in a spirit of love, with the struggle against a fallen world, and with bearing fruit. It is the essential principle constituting our whole Christian life.
“Let us love,” says First John, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3.18) This is how we abide in God, and this is how we witness to the light.
“Lighten our darkness, we beseech you, O Lord; and by your great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.”
In the 1980s, as an assistant minister in Greenbank Church in Edinburgh, I was introduced to this collect from the Book of Common Prayer. It was a favourite prayer of our youth fellowship.
Today, in this land, in this region, in this world, the perils and dangers are 24/7. Whether we reflect on the fun and games in Balfour Street or the Knesset, or the way in which since the turn of the millennium one country after another in the Middle East has been brought to its knees, we live in a time of deep darkness. And let’s not even think about the White House.
In this time of darkness, where are we to turn for light?
The answer is as it ever has been been. We are not to put our trust in princes. We are to turn to God. Like Andrew and Peter, we are to turn to Christ. The Lord and his Messiah are our light, and this light alone the darkness can neither understand nor overcome.
The Revelation of John ends with the vision of a New Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that has no need of sun or moon, “for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.”
We are far from that today, here or anywhere in our world.
But fear not! We are brothers and sisters of the more famous Christ. We are not the light; but like John the Baptist, and Simon Peter, and Andrew, we are called to witness to the light that God is, and the light that Christ is, and in so doing to help in our modest way to lead the world out of its present darkness.
Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John, I-XII (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
Geoffrey Preston, Hallowing the Time: Meditations on the Cycle of the Christian Liturgy (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1980)
Tom Wright, John for Everyone, part 1 (London: SPCK, 2002)