The year was A.D. 155, and persecution against Christians had swept across the Roman Empire and come to the city of Smyrna. The proconsul of Smyrna, caught up in this persecution, put out an order that the Bishop of Smyrna, named Polycarp, was to be found, arrested, and brought to the public arena for execution. They found Polycarp and brought him before thousands of spectators screaming for blood. But the proconsul had compassion on the man, who was almost a hundred years old. He signaled the crowd to silence.
To Polycarp he said, "Curse the Christ and live." The crowd waited for the old man to answer. In an amazingly strong voice, he said, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How dare I blaspheme the name of my king and Lord!" With that, Polycarp became a martyr.
As often as I have reread and thought of that ancient, true story, I have wondered what it is about a man in those worst of circumstances, in what could be counted as his greatest moment, that enabled him to behave in the way he did: to trust Jesus Christ. There are significant spiritual and supernatural explanations, but I think there's something of a human explanation to it as well. Polycarp had been mentored by a man who knew Jesus Christ in a most unusual way. Polycarp's mentor was the apostle John.
As you recall from the biographies of Jesus, thousands thronged around him and hundreds followed him. A dozen became his disciples. Out of the dozen, three were in the inner circle. In the inner circle was John, described as "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Their relationship was something unique. John must have passed it along to Polycarp, and to his other disciples. I think I can sum up John's attitude by saying that he trusted Jesus. Taking a look at the ways he trusted Jesus will help us understand what he taught his disciples.
For example, John trusted Jesus enough to forsake prosperity. We do not typically think of the followers of Jesus as being prosperous persons. But John was prosperous. If you read the hints of his own biography woven into the gospels, you see that he was a man who worked in a family business owned by his father, Zebedee, at a time when there wasn't much of a middle class. Zebedee's family had their business in their home in northern Galilee and a second home in Jerusalem, a most unusual thing in first century Palestine. John would stay at his house in Jerusalem. We're told that John had ready access to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest. Put that together with the statement that he had servants, and you begin to conclude that he was a man of means: a family business, two homes, access to famous and important people, and servants who worked for him.
One day John was captured by a man who spoke as no man had ever spoken before. John was drawn to Jesus. While he did not have a full-blown understanding of all that Jesus was and taught, John knew Jesus was different. He sensed the person and the power of God in this man. When Jesus said, "Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men and women," John decided that this rabbi from Nazareth was worth trusting, even if it meant giving up everything that he owned. He trusted Jesus enough to forsake prosperity.
He also trusted Jesus enough to risk his life for him. At the mount of crucifixion, other than John, only female disciples of Jesus showed up. All the men were holed up in fear that their fate would be the same as that of Jesus. John, the only man to show up, stood there at the risk of his own life. There was every probability that he would be arrested and crucified. He had followed Jesus when thousands applauded him, when the miracles were performed, and when Jesus came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the crowds waved palms and took off their coats to pave the way. But it was quite another thing to trust Jesus when he was naked and bleeding, dying and powerless. John trusted Jesus enough to risk his life.
Several years ago, five of us traveled across the Sahel of Africa. In that tedious journey, we learned a lot of stories about each other. Our tour guide for part of that trip was Judy Anderson, whose husband is the West Africa Director of the World Relief Corporation. Riding along in a Land Cruiser in Mali, Judy told me a story that made the whole trip worthwhile. Judy grew up as the daughter of Evangelical Covenant Church missionaries in Zaire. When she was a little girl, she had gone to a rally that was a daylong event celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the coming of Christian missionaries to that part of Zaire. There were long speeches and music and all of the things that made for a very full day of celebration.
She particularly remembered an event at the end of the day. An old, old man came before the crowd and insisted that he be allowed to speak. He said that he soon would die and that there was some information that he alone had. If he did not speak, it would go with him to his grave. He explained that when Christian missionaries had come a hundred years before to that part of Africa, then controlled by Belgium, his people didn't know what to think of the missionaries. His people thought the missionaries strange and their message unusual. The tribal leaders decided to test the missionaries by slowly poisoning them to death. Over a period of months and years, missionary children died one by one. Then the old man said, "It was as we watched how they died that we decided we wanted to live as Christians."
While there's power in the story itself, the amazing thing is that it was not told for a hundred years. Those who died painful, strange deaths never knew why they were dying or what the impact of their lives and deaths would be. But through it all, they didn't leave. They stayed because they, like John, trusted Jesus Christ even at the risk of their lives and even to martyrdom.
John trusted Jesus enough to forsake prosperity, risk his life, and remain anonymous. That may seem a strange item to incorporate in a list like this. But it is a fascinating thing that in John's biography of Jesus, he never mentions himself by name. He refers to himself most often as the other disciple or as the disciple whom Jesus loved. He refers to Peter, to Andrew, to James, and to Judas, but never writes his own name. In his relationship with Jesus, John concluded he could trust Jesus either to make him famous or to leave him anonymous and lost in obscurity. John did not need to promote himself. The sufficiency of Jesus Christ in his life was the expression of his trust. He trusted Jesus enough to remain anonymous.
There is another side to the relationship that is quite different from that which has been described so often before. John trusted Jesus, and Jesus trusted John. Remember that the first three gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark and Luke, called the synoptic gospels, are essentially the same in content. If you read the Gospel of Mark after you have read the Gospel of Matthew, you will intuitively know what those who analyze such things have determined: you have already read 95 percent of what is in Mark, verbatim, word for word. Only 5 percent is new and different. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are similar, and written early on. It is the later Gospel of John that gives us all kinds of new information we would not otherwise have had. Apparently, Jesus wanted more of his story told. He wanted different miracles mentioned. He wanted a perspective that had not been incorporated by the earlier authors, and he had to pick someone he could trust to do that.
The final lines of John's gospel say that there are many other things that Jesus did, and the world itself could not contain the books that could be written. John had an infinite editing job. He had to edit down from enough volumes to fill all of the library shelves of the globe into just over twenty short chapters. He had to leave out far more than he included. He had to get it right. For he, in that inner circle of three, had been on the Mount of Transfiguration when most had not been. He sat next to Jesus at the Last Supper and heard the whisper about Judas. He had information that no one else could give. Jesus had to pick someone he could trust to get the story straight and to communicate what was most important. Because John was trustworthy, we have the most familiar words of all the Bible in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
Jesus trusted John. Jesus trusted John not only to write his gospel, he also trusted John with his love. It is a most extraordinary thing to be described as "the one whom Jesus loved," to be Jesus' best friend. It smacks of something inappropriate, but the fact is, that's what their relationship was. I wonder what it would be like if such a thing were done today. It says that Jesus has some whom he loves more than others and some whom he counts as better friends than others.
Theoretically, he could line us all up around the perimeter of this room and say, "This is the person I love in the middle, and this is the person in the top 25 percent. This is the one, out of all of us who are here, whom I love the most. This is my best friend."
What would happen if in 1993 someone were identified from all of Christendom as Jesus' best friend? You would all be lined up for an interview. That person would be on the cover of every magazine. What do you think it would do to that person's life? Do you think that person would write a book or cut a CD or go on the road on a best-friend-of-Jesus seminar? Wouldn't it have the high potential of ruining that person's entire life? Wouldn't there be a temptation to arrogance? Wouldn't there be the possibility of treating others in an inappropriate and disparaging way? And yet didn't Jesus have as much right to a best friend as any of us? If so, wasn't it critically important that he choose someone whom he could trust to be his best friend, with the confidence that person would never misuse their relationship?
Jesus trusted John with his gospel, with his love, and with his mother. That also seems an inappropriate addition to this list. In chapter 19 of John's gospel, we read about the last, gasping words of a man whose crucifixion allowed little breath for speaking. Jesus said things like, "Father, forgive them," "It is finished," and "Into your hands I commend my spirit." Most are not inclined to speak of the obscure little lines in which Jesus, from the cross, gasps out to his mother, "This is your son," and to John, "This is your mother."
In a sense, those were the most powerful, personal, and private words that Jesus said. For while it is true that he was and is the eternal Son of God, and while it is true that his business there was the redemption of humankind, it is also true that he was a man and a Jewish son. A Jewish son believed that when his father died, he was responsible for his mother's care. Now crucified, soon to die, his hands nailed to the cross, he couldn't touch her, he couldn't care for her, and the biggest responsibility he had been given he could not fulfill. Theologians struggle with the idea that God would ever need anything, for our very definition of God is that he is self-sufficient. Maybe this is what theologians describe as anthropomorphic communication. However we describe it, I would like to say that Jesus needed John to do what he could not do: take care of his mother. Jesus had to pick someone whom he could trust.
The record that goes beyond the New Testament into history and tradition says that all of the followers of Jesus left Jerusalem. Thomas went as far as India. Peter ended up in Rome. They spread out all over the Mediterranean basin, across the Roman Empire, to Africa and Asia. They went with the power of the Spirit of God and a marvelous new message. They built the church of Jesus Christ. Those were heady and wonderful days. Everyone went except John. For tradition says that John stayed in Jerusalem and was there until Mary died.
Those of us who are here in this room have probably been asked ten thousand times, "Do you trust Jesus?" I hope that the answer has been a resounding, "Yes! I do! I trust Jesus Christ completely. I would trust him enough to give up wealth and to risk my life. I would trust him enough that my name is in his hands." But let me ask just once: Does Jesus Christ trust you? Can he trust you to meet his needs, to fulfill his mission, to write what he wants written? In our world today, we need people who will live Christianly. Jesus Christ's greatest need today is those who will live in a way that people will say, "That's what a Christian does."
I admit I may have a skewed perception of reality, but it appears to me that Jesus has a long list of volunteers who will demonstrate what it means to be a Christian in success, but a short list of those who can reveal what it means to be a Christian in failure. We have many people who would say: "Jesus, you can count on me to represent you and show the world what a Christian looks like when a Christian is healthy and lives to be a hundred." How many want to volunteer to show the world what it is like to be a Christian who suffers from recurring cancer that eventually ends in a painful death?
Many people are quite ready to raise perfect children with 4.0 grade averages, who go to Ivy League colleges, have straight teeth, varsity letters, and carry their Bibles to school. In the day when the family is fractured and problems are everywhere, who can Jesus trust with the prodigal son or daughter? Who can Jesus trust to live as a Christian when marriage and family does not happen the way it is supposed to happen? Don't get me wrong, we need those who will demonstrate what it means to be a Christian in positions of power and wealth and success. But Jesus also needs those whom he can trust to demonstrate what it means to be a Christian in less than the best. Ten thousand times we've been asked, "Do you trust Jesus?" But today let us say, "Jesus, you can trust me."