After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.
(Rev. iv. 1-3)
Tradition has it that St. John the Evangelist died a very old man in the city of Ephesus. The same Tradition, dating from the Second Century A.D., tells us that he was the only Apostle not to have suffered martyrdom. Having written his Gospel of love, his Epistles of sanctifying affection, the same man endured the vision that we read of in our properly appointed Epistle for this Trinity Sunday, on the island of Patmos, not long before his death. To the old man a door was opened in heaven. Indeed, a door was opened to one who was in the spirit. But the door had been opening to him from the day that he dropped his fisherman’s net, some eighty five years prior, when as a young man, one Jesus of Nazareth said come follow me (St. Matthew iv. 19) One gets the sense, if one follows John, that he was always in the spirit following and finding Jesus. His Gospel is not merely about Jesus’ love for him and all others, but about his own discovery and knowledge of that love as he grew from young manhood into maturity. His Epistles call others into that same love, into that unbreakable knot of friendship with God the Father that the then Ascended Jesus offered through His Spirit. His Revelation or Apocalypse crowns his life with a vision of the Trinity and the life yet to come. A door was opened in heaven, John says, and I was in the Spirit. Jesus says, come follow me, and John writes, that we too may follow and find our love and affection in friendship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord and by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost.
Following Jesus, being in the Spirit, finding that a door is opened comprise the reality that John offers to all who will accept it. St. John was a uniter or unifier; John was as one who desired not only God for himself, but God for others, that all might journey with him and find friendship with God. But, perhaps more than others, he knew only too well the spiritual cost of discipleship, the demands that accompany the journey into this new kind of friendship. You will remember, no doubt, that St. John calls himself the disciple whom the Lord loved or the beloved disciple. And indeed, St. John is nothing if he is not the Apostle of love. Of course, love is the basis of any friendship. But the kind of love that St. John came to know in Jesus was as something that stirred him on in the persistent, even insistent, pursuit of his Master through the Spirit. Come follow me takes on a nature for John that then grows and develops as Divine love draws him progressively towards that door that was opened in heaven.
John was stirred on to pursue friendship with God because of the love in Jesus that drew him to it. In Jesus, he discovered and came to know one who came to do not His own will but that of the Father who sent him. In other words, in Jesus, he found one who emptied himself that he might convey to others what he had heard from and seen of the Father. Jesus was human; John had no doubt of that. But John saw something else at work in him; he saw the Divine Life reaching out through the human life of Jesus to offer to men the hope of salvation. In other words, he saw and perceived the Divine Desire of the Father, flowing through the Son by the motions of the Spirit which he had hitherto not known. What he learned, progressively, perhaps slowly, was that its reception in his own heart would require a response costing nothing less than everything. He began to realize then that he would have to die to himself, that the Divine offer of salvation and redemption might be received, treasured, and grown in his heart.
What he realized he records in the Gospel lection which we have read today. At the time, he had not entirely grasped its meaning and urgency. But looking back he remembers the words of Jesus the knowledge of which would prove essential to salvation. John remembered a conversation that Jesus had had with Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Nicodemus had been impressed by the miracles that Jesus had wrought, and under the protective covering of the night, came to Him privately to explore the meaning of His life. Jesus responded to him with these words: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (St. John iii. 3) Nicodemus became confused and asked,
How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? (St. John iii. 4) Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (St. John iii. 5-8)
Jesus makes clear that the whole of a man must be born again by being born from above. He insists that the body and soul must be baptized into new life; the body being purified by water with John the Baptist’s Baptism of Repentance, and the soul being cleansed by the inbreathing of the Divine Spirit. New birth and new life would be Jesus’ condition for all men who would follow him in pursuit of friendship with God the Father in Heaven. This St. John began to learn when he first heard these words. This St. John came to understand more deeply after the events of his Master’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
You will remember that St. John was the only disciple present at the crucifixion. No doubt, unbeknownst to him at the time, the power of the Divine Spirit’s love and desire called him to follow Jesus even to His Cross. He remained throughout the agonizing death of His master’s earthly life- his mind and heart, for certain, being carried by the love of Jesus into a death that would become his own. His pursuit of Jesus had been confirmed, we surmise, long before those horrific hours. Come follow me. John did. I was in the Spirit. John was. Following the death and burial, on the first day of the week, when news had reached him and Peter of the empty tomb, John outran his good friend. Love that pursues and follows in the Spirit always outruns that which is not yet freed of the flesh. Peter was like Nicodemus: If I have told you earthly things and believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things? (St. John iii. 12) John had been drawn by the heavenly nature of Jesus to death, into death, and now up and out of death into the Master’s new life.
Later in his Epistles, and prior to the Revelation which he endured, St. John added this to Jesus’ conditions for discipleship and salvation. Already he grasped the nature of the Trinity. There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. (1 St. John v. 7) Through Jesus Christ- by water, blood and the Spirit, God the Father had overcome the world. The Father spake his Word into the flesh and blood of Jesus, and by the Spirit had opened Heaven once again to the hopes of all men. On earth, St. John insisted, men could begin to participate in the life of the Holy Trinity. There are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. ( 1 St. John v. 8) To the water and the Spirit which Jesus said were necessary for the Baptism into new life, John adds blood. Indeed, the blood of the everlasting covenant made flesh, was poured out, effectively inviting fallen fleshly man into the new birth through death to sin, death, and Satan. John adds blood because without it there would be no death- Jesus’ death for us, and ours in Him. Without that death, there can be no new life, light, and love in the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. (St. John iii. 3) Man is born again through the waters of Baptism as the Spirit washes away our sins and in the blood of the Holy Eucharist as the Spirit nourishes and strengthens us with all heavenly virtue.
Trinity Sunday is all about the new life that is opened to all men through the essential process of being born again- through water, blood and the Spirit. But being born-again is a hard and painful process. We might ask ourselves, how can I do it? The best way is through Word and Sacrament. Through both, we shall discover man’s alienation from God and Jesus’ response to it. In Scripture we shall find the Word of Life, Jesus Christ, who intends to return us to the Father through the Spirit. The Spirit establishes the Word of the Father in our hearts efficaciously when we receive the Sacraments faithfully. What we believe and know from Scripture is brought alive by the Spirit as the love of Christ for the Father is established in our hearts by Grace. One thing is clear, it cannot be found unless we accept Jesus’ gracious invitation: Come follow me. When we do, we shall discover that true new life is found with the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit. A door shall be opened. When we do, we shall discover that true new life comes from and returns to God the Holy Trinity, whose chief desire is to stir us up with St. John onto the journey of love and whose ultimate joy is the sweet embrace of unbreakable friendship with Himself in Heaven forever.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: