Last Sunday we kept the feast of Saint John before the Latin Gate, which we keep as our Patronal Festival. It was only while writing this week’s sermon that I realised I had forgotten to post last week’s. Here it is, somewhat belatedly.
Most clergy are only too happy to have a church without a burial ground surrounding it. The problem is that the rules and regulations governing burial grounds are so complex. And the restrictions on what the Church of England will allow in terms of headstones, of what can be written on them, of what they may be made, and of what you may place on a grave, are very rigid. Get it wrong, and the Diocesan Registrar will come down upon you like a ton of bricks. The problem, of course, is that when a family have chosen the headstone, come up with an epitaph, and decided that they’d like a photo of their loved one on the headstone – only to be told that photos aren’t allowed, their epitaph is unsuitable, and the kind of stone that the headstone is made of isn’t allowed in the churchyard – who gets the blame? Not the Diocesan Registrar. You can be sure. It’s always the vicar’s fault. And such things do happen – we had a case recently in a church in our team which resulted in a court hearing taking place in the churchyard.
In the early church they didn’t have any such problems for they did things the opposite way round to us. They didn’t have church buildings for a start. But what they did do was worship at burial grounds. At first Christians worshipped in each others homes. But in time the Church grew, and started to face opposition from the authorities. Followers of Jesus were put to death, often quite horribly, because they wouldn’t worship the emperor. And the practise grew of worshipping at the tombs of the tombs of martyrs. The catacombs in Rome are perhaps the most famous example, and even Saint Peter’s in Rome is built upon the remains of earlier churches which were in turn built over the place where Peter’s bones lie.
But times changed. When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion at the beginning of the 4th century Christianity grew. Suddenly everyone wanted to be a Christian. After all, the emperor was, so being a Christian might well be a shrewd career move. Most people, however, became Christians because it was an attractive religion and now free from persecution. One result of the rapid growth of Christianity at this time was that previous places of worship no longer fitted the bill. There was no longer any need to worship in secret at the tombs of the martyrs. And meeting in people’s houses became impractical. They were too small. So churches started to meet in public buildings. In fact, the layout of our churches today is still basically the same as the layout of a typical Roman law-court.
You could no longer identify a church by the name of the martyr whose tomb it had worshipped at. So in time, in order to distinguish one church from another, the Christians in each church carried over the idea of hit upon the idea of choosing one of the martyrs from the early church and naming the church after them. Saint John was one of them – and yet, I hear you thinking, Saint John wasn’t a martyr, was he?
Which brings us to today’s feast. I suspect that most of you – if asked – would be hard pressed to explain what the feast of Saint John the Evangelist before the Latin Gate is all about. You will search in vain for this feast in the calendar in Common Worship. When the new calendar was prepared for our new service book all the feasts from the Book of Common Prayer calendar were included – except one – the feast of Saint John before the Latin Gate. The Roman Catholic Church dropped the feast in 1960, and it seems that General Synod felt that the story behind the feast was just too far-fetched to be believable and so followed suit. And yet, at the Reformation, the reformers of the Church of England saw fit to include it, even though they threw out many other more popular celebrations. The reason was that they included all the feasts that could be traced back to the ancient church – and the story of Saint John before the Latin Gate can be traced back to the second century.
It was told by the Early Church Father and historian, Tertullian, and the story as he tells it goes something like this. It begins with an incident that happened during the earthly lifetime of Jesus. One day Salome dragged her two sons, James and John, to Jesus – probably in that embarrassing way that mothers have. What James and John thought of all this, we don’t really know, but, Tertullian tells us – and we can read this in the gospels – how their mother asked Jesus to grant them the highest places in his kingdom. When he came into his kingdom she wanted them to sit at his right and at his left. In reply, Jesus says that is not his decision, and he spoke of the chalice which He Himself would have to drink – the chalice of suffering and death – and foretold that these two disciples would also drink of it. The elder, James, was the first to give his Master this proof of his love. The book of Acts records his martyrdom.
But John was to live a long life. And Tertullian takes the story forward to the year 95. John is now ministering in Asia Minor, what is now Western Turkey, and is spreading the good news. He is the bishop responsible for the churches in that country. By now, he is the only surviving apostle – the others have all been martyred. His efforts, however, brought him to the attention of the emperor Domition, who has him arrested in Ephesus and taken to Rome. He is tried and found guilty of spreading superstition and encouraging people in one of the Empire’s most important provinces to worship a false Jewish teacher who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate. He is considered to be a troublesome old man. He is condemned to death. Domition, however, gives him the opportunity of avoiding the death sentence – if John will reject Jesus and declare the emperor to be God, he will be spared.
John, of course, refuses, and is led to the place of execution. This was the Latin Gate, the gate that led to the Latin District in Rome. There the soldiers prepare a cauldron of boiling oil. After stripping and beating John they put him in the cauldron – but instead of dying horribly Tertullian tells us how the cauldron of boiling oil became cool and far from suffering a cruel death, John is restored to full health and fitness. The soldiers, completely flummoxed – as you would be – take John back to prison, and the emperor exiles him to the island of Patmos, just off the coast of Asia Minor. And because they had tried to kill Saint John, and though he was miraculously saved, he was thought of as important as the other martyrs because he had been prepared to die.
What are we to make of all this? What can we learn from this remarkable miracle? What lesson is there for us? Well, there might be some of you who find the story a little hard to believe! It will come as no surprise to learn that I’m with you on that. And of course, that’s why this feast was not included in the new calendar – it’s just not believable. But the early church – and the church for centuries after – did believe it. And they took great comfort from it for it showed them how God protected those who stood by him in the face of persecution. It was the belief that the reason Saint John was spared martyrdom was that he was the one who stood by the cross. Unlike the others who had run away, Saint John stood there with the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross and was prepared to be identified as one of his followers, even before the resurrection.
All the apostles were held, in the early church, in great reverence, but Saint John was particularly revered because of this. It was Saint John who was seen as having a special relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus. He was given as a son to her by Jesus on the cross, and she was given as a mother to him. And because of his faithfulness, so Christians believed, God spared him from martyrdom.
You may believe the story, you may not – I suspect the latter. After all, it has been removed from the calendar because it’s rather suspect. However, as so often the case with such stories – they may not actually be true – but there is a lesson to be learned. Saint John, when all the others had turned their backs upon Jesus, went with him to the cross and stood by him as he died. How willing are we to stand by Jesus when the chips are down. Are we prepared to stand up and be counted as his followers – to speak out the truth as we see it as Christians when it is easier to stay quiet. The story of Saint John before the Latin Gate may not actually be accurate, but it tells us a great truth – that of the faith of countless Christians down the centuries who have known that when you stand at the foot of the cross with Jesus, you can be sure that Jesus will stand with you in your hour of need.
Saint John, our patron calls us to stand at the foot of the cross with him, to give our whole life to Jesus no matter the cost. May he inspire us to live – like him – a life committed to the sharing of the good news of our crucified and risen Saviour.