1 JOHN iii.14.
"We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren."
The writings of S. John the Evangelist breathe forth love as a flower garden does sweetness. Here lies the secret of S. John's title, "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Love begets love, and the disciple was so near to the heart of his Master because he loved much. When the text was written he was a very old man, and Bishop of Ephesus. It was in that fair and famous city that men worshipped the goddess Diana, of the Ephesians, in a temple which was ranked among the seven wonders of the world. In the olden days there had been another temple to the goddess, which was burnt on the night when Alexander the Great was born. Two hundred and twenty years was the new temple in building, and each of its columns was the gift of a prince. All that the art of Greece could give was lavished upon the building. The hand of Praxiteles carved the altar, the magic pencil of Apelles adorned its walls with a picture of Alexander. Ephesus was also famous for its magic arts; and when the people had been turned to Christ by the preaching of S. Paul, they brought their books of conjuring and curious arts and burned them before him. Now the grass grows rank among the broken columns and few stones which mark the ruins of what was Ephesus.
It was in such a city, then in its full pride and beauty, that S. John, the aged, spent the last days of his long life. S. Jerome tells us how the old Bishop was almost too feeble to be carried into the church, where now was worshipped the true God; and how his trembling lips could only fashion the same words over and over again: "My little children, love one another." His hearers growing weary of this one text, asked S. John why he was ever repeating it, and the old man answered, "Because it is the teaching of the Lord; and if this alone be observed, it is sufficient." To be as little children, and to love one another, such is the whole duty of man. S. John had lived a long life, and had seen men and cities, and the one lesson which he had learnt above all others is that which he teaches above all others -- love. I think, brothers, we can picture the old white-haired Bishop of Ephesus, borne day after day upon a litter into his church, and ever saying the same tender words, "little children, love one another." What a retrospect there was for S. John to look back along that stretch of years! What memories must have filled the old man's heart of those days when he was a sunny-haired stripling, working with his brothers in the fishing boat, and casting net, and pulling oar over the bright waters of Gennesareth. What memories must have come of that Gracious Presence which one day appeared among the fisher folks, and opened a new world and a new life to S. John and his companions. How every word and act of Him, who spake as never man spake, and went about doing good, must have been engraved on the memory of the beloved disciple! He had doubtless heard words spoken which no other ear had heard; he who was nearest to the heart of Jesus, must have listened to mysteries which the rest could not hear. Day by day as the old Bishop lies in the dim religious light of the minster, he looks back and sees, as in a vision, the story of the vanished years. What sees he? He looks in memory upon a marriage feast, far away in Cana of Galilee. He sees the giver of the feast anxious and troubled. The wine is exhausted. He hears the Master give the answer to the Virgin Mother's request, and His command to the servants. He recalls the astonishment of all present when "the conscious water saw its God, and blushed;" and he learns from that first miracle of the Master a lesson of love. Many another loving act of mercy comes back to his memory. He seems to see once more the impotent man, lying sadly at the pool of Bethesda. Again he looks on the multitude thronging the mountain by the Lake of Galilee; and in the broken bread which feeds the crowd, S. John sees a lesson of love. Once more he looks upon the trembling, sinful, sorrowful woman, whom the Jewish rulers drag to condemnation. Once more he sees the Master's hand-writing upon the ground, and hears this gentle sentence, "Go, and sin no more." Once more he hears the wondrous lessons of the Light of the World, and the True Vine, and the Good Shepherd, which his own hand had written from the Master's mouth. Once more he seems to stand beside the grave of dead Lazarus, and as he sees the dead alive again, he learns another lesson of love, and whispers, "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren." After all that lapse of ages, the old man seems to see the sparkle of Mary's tears, and to smell the perfume of her precious gift.
Then, too, there comes the memory of Palm Sunday, with its glad procession, its waving branches, its joyful shouts, in which S. John, then young and vigorous, had delighted to take part. Then the beginning of sorrow, the days of wonder, and of terror, and of gloom, begin to darken round the old man's sight. The night comes back to him when the dear Hands of Jesus washed his feet, and when, at that sad and solemn parting feast, he had lain close to the loving Heart of the Master. Once more he sees Judas go forth on his dark errand; once more he sees the gloomy shadows of Gethsemane, and hears the clash of arms as the soldiers enter, Then all the confusion and horror of that dreadful night come back to him. He hears S. Peter's denial, and marks his bitter tears. Presently he seems to stand again beneath the Cross, amid the awful gloom of Calvary, and anon he is leading the Virgin Mother tenderly to his own home. She has been buried long since in that very city of Ephesus, but the old days come back to him. He is running once more, young, and lithe, and active, to the garden sepulchre, and outrunning the older S. Peter. And in all these visions of the past, S. John sees one lesson -- love, the love of Jesus teaching men to love each other. Still the beloved Apostle looks back along the ages, and thinks of that scene on the Mount, when Jesus ascended up, and appeared for the last time to nearly all eyes but his. He was to see the Master again, though in a very different place, and under widely different circumstances. Now his thoughts fly to the lonely, rock-bound isle of Patmos, whither the Roman tyrant had banished him. How often he had watched the sun rise and set in the purple sea; how often in his cavern cell he had pondered over the Master's teaching, and the lesson of love. And one day he saw a light brighter than the sun, and a door was opened in Heaven. S. John seemed to be no longer in lonely Patmos, but amid a great multitude which no man can number, with whom he was treading the shining streets of the Heavenly city. His eyes looked on the gates of pearl, and the sea of glass, he listened to the song of the elders and the angels, and he beheld the things which shall be hereafter. Once more he looked upon the Master's Face, and beheld the King in His beauty. And remembering these things, the old man murmurs to the crowd, "Little children, love one another. We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren." From death unto life! It is a strange expression! We all know of the passage from life unto death. We have all seen the loosening of the silver cord, and the breaking of the golden bowl. We have all marked the fading cheek, the shrinking limbs, the glazing eye, which mark the passage from life unto death. But that other change from death unto life cannot be seen, it is the invisible work of the Holy Spirit. Yet S. John says, we know that we have passed from death unto life. How? By our fruits. If the love of God is in our hearts, if we have passed from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness, if we are risen with Christ, if, in a word, we are truly Christian people, we shall show it by our love for our brethren. If we are selfish in our religion, trying to get all good things for ourselves, and caring nothing for others; if we pray only for ourselves, if we work only for ourselves, if we live only for ourselves, if we see others in want, yet shut up our compassion, how dwelleth the love of God in us? Away with such self-deception, my brothers, if any one of us seems to be religious, and yet stretches out no helping hand to his brother, that man's religion is vain. When we see a fellow man fallen among thieves, and lying by the wayside of life, what do we do? Do we pass by on the other side, without a thought or care, like the Priest? Or do we look on our fallen brother with curiosity, and leave him to his fate, like the Levite? Or do we give him a helping hand, pouring in the wine and oil of kind words, and gentle ministry, binding up the hurts which a cruel world has given him?
My brethren, how many Good Samaritans are there among us? Our brothers lie wounded along life's highway in crowds. There are feeble folk who were never strong enough for the hard life battle; there are brave men who have fought, and failed; there are some crushed down by hard times, others who have "fallen on evil days and evil tongues;" some who were wounded by the stoning of harsh judgment and cruel sneers. Some have lost their health, others their money; some their faith, and others their friends. Sirs, we be brethren, shall we run from our neighbour because he is in trouble, as rats run from a falling house? Shall we turn away from a brother because the world speaks hardly of him? Shall we be ashamed of a man because he is unfortunate? Oh! if you would ever rest where S. John rested, on the bosom of Jesus, learn his lessons of love. Look around you and see if there is no Lazarus laid at your gate whom you may feed; no struggling toiler in the back street whom you may help to work; no sick sufferer whose couch you may make more easy; no broken heart which you may comfort. "Dwell in the land, and be doing good."
"If time be heavy on your hands,
And you who are busy and cumbered with much serving, may find a thousand ways, in the midst of your active work, of showing your love to your brethren. Be unselfish, be gentle, be courteous, be pitiful. Never say a word which may wound another; never turn away when you can help a neighbour; never ask with the sneer of Cain, "Am I my brother's keeper?" "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren."