I love mysteries. I like to read them. I like to listen to them. I like to watch them. I think it all started when I discovered my Aunt Jo’s copy of Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase on Grandma Williams’ bookshelf. Do you remember that girl detective series, originated by Toledo’s own Mildred Benson? Millie began writing Nancy Drew stories in 1930 under the pen name of Carolyn Keene. More than five hundred Nancy Drew books have been published since then, written by different people but all under the name of Carolyn Keene. Millie wrote 23 of the first ones and established Nancy as an icon for American girls. I’m sure I read all or at least most of the ones Benson wrote. Santa Claus never forgot to bring me a new Nancy Drew book at Christmas, and I would spend Christmas Day helping Nancy solve her latest case.
The Gospel of John includes a mystery, too. Millie Benson might have titled it The Mystery of the Unnamed Disciple. In our reading today, this unnamed disciple, who has been present since the beginning of John’s gospel, emerges from the background with something to teach us about discipleship.
We’ve returned to the shore along the Sea of Galilee, the site of the miraculous catch of fish. Jesus has prepared and served breakfast for his disciples in what will be his final post-resurrection appearance in John. He and Peter have had that eye-opening conversation about what discipleship requires—a willingness to sacrifice one’s very life for the glory of God, revealed in Jesus. Peter has accepted the challenge and said “yes” to Jesus’ invitation: “Follow Me.”
If you spent any time pondering last week’s reading, you may have wondered about the value of your own discipleship. It’s unlikely that any of us will ever face the terrible choice to lay down our life for Jesus. But, if that’s the measure of discipleship, how do we stack up? How meaningful is our claim to be willing, when it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be put to the test? Does our discipleship fall short? The story of the unnamed disciple—the one that Jesus loved—helps to answer that question.
If you’re like I was before I started to investigate this mysterious character, you have a kind of vague awareness of the person we call “the Beloved Disciple,” but you’d be hard-pressed to say where he shows up in Scripture. That is entirely understandable. Of the seven or eight passages where he appears in John’s Gospel (and he only appears in John’s Gospel), only one is in the Sunday lectionary readings. And, that’s in John’s Easter story, where he definitely takes a back seat to Peter and Mary, and Jesus, of course.
But the Beloved Disciple is present at all the most significant points of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how two of John’s disciples trailed after Jesus, after John identified him as the Lamb of God? One of the two was Andrew, Peter’s brother. The other isn’t named. Some scholars believe that the unnamed disciple is the one who will come to be the one whom Jesus loved. When we see where the Beloved Disciple shows up later, and when we remember how the author of John continually links back to earlier parts of the story, it’s completely plausible to me that this is where we first meet the Beloved Disciple.
If you accept this theory, as I do, this is a man who followed Jesus from the very start. He hadn’t yet seen any miracles. He hadn’t witnessed any unexplainable healings. He followed Jesus on the strength of John’s witness alone.
The next place we find him is in the upper room, on the night when Jesus is betrayed. And, he’s not just sitting at the table with Jesus. He is literally laying against Jesus’ chest—practically in his arms. This gets watered down in most Bible versions. They all say something along the lines of “he was sitting beside Jesus.” The Message gets closer. It says, “One of the disciples, the one Jesus loved dearly, was reclining against him, his head on his shoulder.” And this is one place where the King James Version gets it right: “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.”
Maybe most Bible translators are uncomfortable with two men being that close, so they place some culturally more palatable distance between them. But, John’s Greek is pretty clear. Jesus and the Beloved Disciple were sitting in a way that was physically very intimate, and this seems to reflect their close relationship. After Jesus announced that one of his companions would betray him, the disciples were at a loss. They all looked at each other, John tells us, uncertain of whom Jesus was speaking. Peter, the guy who never stops to think before he acts, does not speak up. Instead, he motions to the Beloved Disciple. The Beloved leans forward to hear what Peter has to say. Then, he leans back into Jesus and asks him who the betrayer will be.
What a friendship they must have had—one that the other disciples recognized. Even Peter, the acknowledged leader of the group, knew that there was a closeness there that was different from the friendship the rest of them had with Jesus. The way Jesus and the Beloved Disciple were sitting indicates a friendship with a high degree of trust, where asking hard questions is permissible. Of course, Jesus loved all his disciples. But, John’s description of their posture gives us an idea of just how close Jesus and the Beloved were. If we water it down because physical closeness between two men makes us squirm, then we’ll likely treat Jesus the same way—keeping him at a respectable distance. We are better off if we appreciate that closeness and desire such an intimacy with Jesus for ourselves.
Now we come to the cross. Near it are Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister, and Mary Magdalene. Standing next to Jesus’ grieving mother was the disciple whom Jesus loved. Knowing that his earthly life is coming to an end, Jesus says to Mary about the Beloved Disciple, “Here is your son,” and to the Beloved, “Here is your mother.” Mary doesn’t need a man to take care of her; she has other sons. But Jesus gives his beloved friend and his mother to each other, perhaps knowing that the two of them will have a deep, deep grief in common and will offer each other the support they’ll need, in a way no one else will be able to do.
On Easter morning, John tells us, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. When she sees that the stone has been removed and the body gone, she runs to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved what she had seen. The men set off for the tomb, both running, but the Beloved Disciple ran faster and reached the tomb first. What propelled his legs and feet that day? Fear, hope, anxiety, joy? He reaches the tomb and looks in, but he allows Peter, in his capacity as leader, to go in first. Then the Beloved entered, and saw, and believed. His dear friend, the friend whom he loved and who loved him, was also the Risen Savior.
Finally, we find the Beloved in the group of seven disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, getting ready to go fishing. John names five of them: Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John (the sons of Zebedee), and two others. Today’s passage suggests that one of the two others was the Beloved.
Some scholars think that the Beloved Disciple was John, the son of Zebedee. This was the Church’s tradition for hundreds of years. But, if that were the case, why wouldn’t the gospel writer continue to Identify him by name? I agree with those who say that the Beloved Disciple was on of the two unnamed others.
In any event, the seven get into the boat, hear the instructions from the unidentified man on the shore, and begin pulling in their 153 fish. It’s the disciple whom Jesus loved who recognized Jesus. “It is the Lord!” he says to Peter. Did he make the connection between the abundant fish and all the other signs of abundance he had witnessed? Or was it the recognition of someone who could pick a loved one out of a crowd no matter how big it was or from a distance, no matter how far away, as though their love for each other was a signal flare?
They all have breakfast together. I wonder what the seating arrangement was at that meals? Did the Beloved sit as close as possible to his Risen Lord, the Messiah, his dearest friend? Later, did he offer his quiet support to Jesus as Jesus and Peter talked together? Did he offer that same support to Peter?
Nearly every time we encounter the Beloved, Peter is also present. There seems to be a mutual respect between the two men, and the gospel writer reflects that by placing them side by side. There’s no apparent competition between them. Peter relies on the intimacy between Jesus and the Beloved, going to the Beloved when a difficult question must be asked. The Beloved respects Peter’s role, waiting for him at the tomb and allowing him to take the lead. The Beloved doesn’t keep Jesus’ identity a secret when he sees him on the beach; he shares the news with Peter, and Peter trusts him enough to jump out of the boat and swim to shore. We see in their entwined stories two disciples of Jesus who know how to cooperate and honor each other’s roles.
It seems that this also includes care for one another. As Jesus walks away, with Peter following, Peter turns and sees the disciple whom Jesus loved following them. John reminds us again of just how close the Beloved One was to Jesus: he is the one who lay against Jesus’ chest and asked him would betray him. Peter said to Jesus, “What about him?”
In our hyper-competitive, individualistic society, it would be easy to read this as Peter’s hope that a rival will be eliminated—that he hopes Jesus will dismiss the man who’s trailing behind. But, Peter was asking out of concern for the Beloved. Peter had been given a specific commission. Where would that leave the Beloved? Indeed, where does it leave any of the other disciples, including us? What will our discipleship look like?
Jesus answers, “Even if I want him to remain—to stay—until I return, whether that’s to stay here where he is, or to stay the way he is, or even to stay alive until I return—that’s not your concern. I’ll take care of him. Your concern is how you follow me.” Our translation makes Jesus sound kind of flippant—dismissive even. But his words aren’t as careless as they sound. Jesus is giving Peter both a reminder and an assurance. Peter should focus on his own relationship with Jesus and the commission Jesus has given him. The disciple whom Jesus loves will have his own contribution to make, and Jesus will take care of him.
This is where the story part of the passage ends. We’re left with thet mystery of this unnamed disciple who meant so much to Jesus, and who has so much to tell and show us about the life of a disciple. Just as Peter shows us one aspect of discipleship, the Beloved shows us others.
He shows us that we have a Savior who wants to be close to us—not just spiritually close, or emotionally close, but physically close. That’s the point of the incarnation: God became flesh and lived among us, in order to share our lives in all ways, including our physical bodies. Can you imagine feeling so close to Jesus that you could just lean against his knees when you were tired? Let him wrap his arms around you when you were sad? Let you rest against his chest when you were contented?
Of course, we can’t literally have that physical connection with Jesus now. But, Jesus left us with an alternative. From the cross, Jesus commended his mother and his beloved disciple to each other. He wanted them to have the comfort and support of someone else who knew and loved him. He has done the same for us. He has given us each other. We can be for each other the shoulder he would offer when we need to cry. We can be for each other the strong arms he would wrap around us when we feel weak or alone or afraid. We can be for each other a body to lean against, just for the pleasure of contact with another human being. We can offer to each other the support, the comfort, the strength, and the love he wants us to have. He made the Beloved and Mary family to each other, and he makes us family, too.
The Beloved Disciple could recognize Jesus where others didn’t. In our world today, it may be hard to see Jesus—hard to see where he is present, hard to see where he is working. But disciples like the one Jesus loved can see him in the most unlikely places: in a war zone, with a group of immigrants crossing a border, alongside those protesting injustice. The disciples whom Jesus loves can find him anywhere, and they pint him out to the world: “It is the Lord!”
We see in the relationship between the Beloved Disciple and Peter a model for ministry. Peter has a particular way of serving. But so does the disciple whom Jesus loved. His ministry is witness. He knows the power witness has to lead others to J. He heard John’s witness to who Jesus was and followed Jesus with nothing more to go on. Then, having found Jesus through the witness of John the Baptist, he offered his own witness so that others might believe through him—a witness written down in the gospel.
Do you remember Jesus’ words to Thomas? “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That blessing comes through disciples like the beloved, who offer their witness to the Lord they love, so that others may come to believe and, through believing, have life in Jesus’s name.
Discipleship can take many forms, as we each bring our own unique gifts to bear. We share the demand to offer our lives to Jesus, but that offering may look different in different situations. No one form of ministry is superior to or more faithful than any other, if it is offered in the same spirit of self-sacrifice as Peter’s and with the intent that it will stand as a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, as was the Beloved’s. Like Peter and the Beloved, we can respect and honor different expressions of our love for Jesus.
The gospel nears its end with the author of the gospel affirming the truth of the Beloved Disciple’s testimony, just as he had earlier affirmed the truth of the Beloved’s report about how blood and water flowed from Jesus’ side when it was pierced by a soldier’s sword. The Beloved is not the gospel’s author, but his is the witness that is recorded by the author—a testimony, the author says, that the congregation, whose story this is, knows is true.
If Nancy Drew had taken on the case of the unnamed disciple, her investigation might have unearthed evidence that could provide a name for him. The disciple whom Jesus loved wasn’t a nameless face. He was a member of John’s congregation. They knew him, and they knew his name. He was one of the disciples, and they knew his name. Any of them could have identified the Beloved Disciple by name.
But, as much as we may be curious about his name, I’m glad that Nancy didn’t get her hands on tis mystery. We are the richer for the author’s decision not to disclose the Beloved’s identity. When the gospel writer wrote down the testimony of the disciple whom Jesus loved, he left a blank space where a name should go. Perhaps he left it out on purpose, so that we could supply the name ourselves. Maybe he left it out on purpose so that we could more easily see ourselves as the disciples whom Jesus loves. In that space for a name, we can fill in our own.
Imagine Jesus calling you his Beloved. Imagine being enclosed in his embrace. Imagine Jesus loving you so much that he includes you as a member of his family. Imagine being so beloved by Jesus that you can share your deepest contentment, your wildest joy, your most painful sorrows, and your hardest questions with him, without fear of rejection. Imagine telling others what it’s like being a disciple whom Jesus loves.
You don’t need to imagine it. Jesus came to this world so that you could have that relationship with him. He died to let you know that he would suffer any evil for you—even death on a cross. He rose again so that even death can’t keep him from you. He gave his Spirit, so that each and every one of his disciples can live as his beloved, each and every day. The disciple whom John left unnamed left behind his witness and his testimony so that others would come to believe this truth. He left his witness so that you would know that the disciple whom Jesus loves is you. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young