“The Intimate Connection”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 26, 2015
University Baptist Church
Who am I? I’m the beloved disciple. What’s my name? Well that has perplexed Christians for centuries. Some say I am John-Mark. Others say I am Lazarus. Some say I am Mary Magdalene. But most people know me as John, the son of Zebedee or John the Elder or John the evangelist.
I am the one whom Jesus loved. Why do you need to know more?
I wrote the Fourth Gospel, but I never identify myself by name. I identify myself by my relationship with Jesus, or better yet, his relationship with me. I am the one whom Jesus loved.
I leaned against his chest at the last supper.
I stood near the cross, and when Jesus said, “Mother, behold your son,” he was talking about me.
I sprinted to the tomb with Peter and outran him on that first Easter Sunday.
I fished with Peter and the other disciples when the risen Christ appeared on the beach.
Some even thought that I would not die before Jesus came again.
What was the nature of our love? Well if you know Greek, it’s mostly Agape love, the kind of perfect love that comes from God. There are a couple of Phileos in there in reference to me, you know brotherly love. But I’m an Agape kind of a guy.
Was my love unrequited? Well, it was never quite enough, if that explains it.
I was there to witness all that happened. I put as much as I could in my gospel, but I ended it with these words: “There are so many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” I know what you’re thinking. No self-respecting professor would accept that on a term paper—too much of an academic cop-out. But I kept in what I thought was best (and a lot of what Matthew, Mark and Luke left out).
I write in the third person. It keeps me enigmatic.
I don’t identify myself by name, in part so that you can imagine yourself in my place. You too could be the beloved disciples. And you have an advantage over even me. You know the story. And you can write your own story, maybe influenced by mine.
Jesus had that way about him. He drew people to him. He drew me to him. I like to think that he loved me more than the others. But I don’t know. I can just live and hope. Once you are loved that way, you don’t want to go back. I hope you experience that kind of love in your life.
The writer of the fourth Gospel calls himself the beloved disciple. Or does she call herself the beloved disciple? That’s a bit self-serving, don’t you think? To call yourself the one whom Jesus loved the most? What is it about this intimate connection?
In DaVinci’s Last Supper, the beloved disciple sits next to Jesus as a mirror image. They are leaning away from each other in complementary clothing and nearly identical hairstyles. Is it an effeminate John or is it someone else? Dan Brown thought it was clearly Mary Magdalene and therefore they were married. They were the ones with the intimate connection.
But if it was an intimate connection with John, then what does that mean? Others have wondered if it showed that Jesus was explicitly welcoming and affirming, or at the very least queer—and I mean that in the best sense of the word: a radical re-imagining of roles, expanding beyond the gender-role binary.
John 11 has Mary and Martha telling Jesus that the one you love, Lazarus, has died. Was Lazarus the beloved disciple? Some have gone so far as to say that Lazarus is a pseudonym for John, the son of Zebedee after he had been risen from the dead. The references to the beloved disciple occur after Lazarus’ resurrection and his identification as the one whom Jesus loved.
Others think that John-Mark is the beloved disciple. His home was in Jerusalem, and most of John is set in Jerusalem. John Mark had friends in high places, like the beloved disciple.
The beloved disciple might not be a real person, but a symbol: the perfect Christian/disciple: close to Jesus at the last supper, the hour of death, the first to believe in the risen Christ. Rudolph Bultmann suggested that the beloved disciple represents the Hellenistic branch of the Christian church. Jesus leaves his mother (Jewish Christianity) in the care of the beloved disciple (Hellenistic Christianity). The beloved disciple (Hellenistic Christianity) is a better believer than Peter (representing the Jewish church).
Scholars have called the communities from which John and the letters of John came as the community of the beloved disciple.
The beloved disciple was a witness who was close to Jesus. But what we know most is that he shared an intimate connection with Jesus. It’s a connection that many of us long for. It’s an unswerving allegiance, a connection to power, a lifeline in a turbulent world.
St. John of the Cross was famously intimately connected with Christ. Hear some of his poetry from the 16th century describing his mystical relationship with Christ:
On a dark secret night,
Starving for love and deep in flame,
O happy lucky flight!
Unseen I slipped away,
My house at last was calm and safe.
Blackly free from light,
Disguised and down a secret way,
O happy lucky flight!
In darkness I escaped,
My house at last was calm and safe.
On that happy night-in
secret; no one saw me in the dark-
and I saw nothing then,
no other light to mark,
the way but fire pounding my heart.
That flaming guided me
More firmly than the noonday sun,
And waiting there was he
I knew so well—who shone
Where nobody appeared to come.
O night, my guide!
O night more friendly than the dawn!
O tender night that tied
Lover and the loved one,
Loved on in the lover fused as one!
On my flowering breasts
Which I had saved for him alone,
He slept and I caressed
And fondled him with love,
And cedars fanned the air above.
Wind from the castle wall
While my fingers played in his hair:
Its hand serenely fell
Wounding my neck, and there
My senses vanished in the air.
I lay. Forgot my being,
And on my love I leaned my face.
All ceased. I left my being,
Leaving my cares to fade
Among the lilies far away.
This poetry gives Song of Songs a run for its money as the most erotic. Those monks know something about intimacy.
Intimacy. It’s a taboo word. And when abused is a dangerous thing. But what can be more intimate than your spirit? We want to be intimately connected with our best self. Isn’t that a good description for the living Christ, that ultimate force for good that clamors within the very best parts of our soul? We want to be intimately connected to a God who will restore us to sanity, who will save our weary soul, who will wake us up and tell us it’s okay, we will not have to face this struggle alone.
How do you make friends with your soul?
James Nelson wrote a great book about 30 years ago entitled “The Intimate Connection.” The connection that he looked at was the connection between male sexuality and masculine spirituality—from a feminist perspective. In a world that separates, we must connect and not settle for the binary of body and spirit. Feminist men need to embrace the intimate connection between their bodies and their spirits and do so for the good of all of us. Nelson also wrote “Embodiment” in order to help people to understand that our bodies are gifts from God and that we cannot know God simply in our minds, but that our lives are lived in our bodies, for good or ill. Too much of theology had been body-denying. There is an intimate connection between our bodies and the life of the Spirit.
Those who watched the Diane Sawyer interview with Bruce Jenner on Friday night saw how the intimate connection between our bodies and our spirits need to be honored. If they are not, then there is a part of us that is off. We’re not whole. Bruce was saying is gold-medal body has been disconnected from his feminine Spirit. His journey is to reconnect both. I didn’t watch much of it—too many commercials—but my transgender friends said it was honest, compassionate and wise.
Yesterday, I participated in a 5k race with my brother, Mike. Mike has never been very athletic. He spends a lot of time at a piano keyboard and in front of a computer screen. As a kid he had bad asthma. 28 years ago, he survived a bout with cancer. And he just turned 50, so what does he do? He decides to run a marathon, just like his big brother. Now, mind you, he has never run much. But he heard a presentation from a Christian organization that builds wells in Africa and he thought this would be a good way to raise some money for a good cause and get him off the couch, or piano bench. Of course he asked me for advice and I told him about shoes, and the time commitment and the discipline it takes. I told him he could finish a marathon, but he didn’t have to run the whole thing. So he signed up and he ran his first ever race yesterday. The race was in our neighborhood and it was to raise money for a soccer coach who has come down with ALS. He inspired lots of people. As I ran, I remembered my brother’s bout with cancer and how he inspired me and the rest of us. I remembered how sometimes our bodies don’t cooperate, but they teach us a bit about who we are and what we long to be. I told him that some of my best praying happens on a long run, just as some of his best praying happens at the keyboard. And I gave thanks that we could get through the run together. As we tried to make our aging bodies match what is on our spirits and in thanks for all that we had been through, we raised our held hands in triumph at the finish line.
The Beloved Disciple and Jesus were intimately connected.
How intimately are we connected with Jesus? I know that can seem like a creepy question. But try not to think of it in physical terms. Think of it in your subconscious, your reason for being, your commitments, your go-to-attitudes. How intimately are you connected with Jesus or with the Gospel plan of justice, peace, mercy, compassion and love? I think what marked a good disciple then and now is that intimate connection.
So give thanks for your body, your spirit. Remember that we are connected to others, too. And the loving God who was alive in Jesus wants us to be intimately connected with the project that Jesus started. It’s up to us to carry it on, like a baton. For it’s our turn to run the race. For we are the beloved disciples, intimately connected with the God who redeems and sustains us.