You might wonder about the selection of passion, death and resurrection texts for a marriage homily. Aside from the fact that marriage is about as important as death and resurrection, I have a different point in mind for these texts, namely, what they say about the love between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple.
Most people articulate the depths of their identity in terms of stories to which they relate. Children relate to the stories of their parents and their roles in the community. People define themselves in terms of the stories of their friends, of their neighborhood, of their livelihood, and sometimes of their historical situation. Christianity has long claimed that the most important story to relate to is that of Jesus. Among the most important things about us is that we are sinners judged by him and redeemed by his love. I remember being told as a small child that if I sat on Jesus’ lap he would love and cuddle me, along with all the other children, even if my parents were put out with me. The stories of Jesus tell us how to relate to the strong and the weak, the wise and the innocent, the hypocrites and the desperate seekers. John’s stories of Jesus in particular focus on how he would have us love one another and bear up under stress and betrayal. Although the stories of Jesus say very little about sex, the Church from early on took Jesus’ story to be that of the bridegroom of the Church itself. Christians corporately and individually are to find our deep identity by imagining ourselves to be married to Jesus, a stretched metaphor if there ever was one!
Gay men and women have been frustrated in the attempt to understand their own narrative in terms of the stories of Jesus because the Church has taught in so many times and places that same-sex desire is bad, idolatrous, unnatural, sick, or something else that deserves to be condemned as impure. Those negative teachings about same-sex desire have now been debunked biblically, philosophically, psychologically, anthropologically, medically and in every other way except in the disgust reactions of some people who have been brought up poorly. But it is time for people whose deepest identity includes same-sex desire to be able to find their story in the story of Jesus. For the Church not to offer this is for it to deny the full humanity of gay men and women, and all others whom it puts off with bigotry.
So I want to speak about the part of Jesus’ story that has to do with his boyfriend, the Beloved Disciple. Of course we know very little for sure about Jesus’ sex life, or about the sex life of most of the other characters in the New Testament, for that matter. But I bet there is not a person here who by the age of ten had not wondered about Jesus snuggling on the dinner couch with the man called the Beloved Disciple. When I was growing up, this was not talked about, and the Beloved Disciple was mentioned only as the traditional author of the Gospel of John because of the remark in the last of the texts I read that he wrote down a lot about Jesus. The tradition of authorship is no longer viable among scholars even though it lingers in the iconography that represents the author of John as young, beardless, and attractive, as in the Marsh Chapel statues, a resonance with the part of the story of the Beloved Disciple reclining on the breast of Jesus.
We don’t really know who the Beloved Disciple was. Obviously not Peter because they are often depicted together. The other major disciples such as James and John, Andrew, Philip, and Thomas are referred to in John’s gospel and likely would have been named as the Beloved Disciple if they fit because they were important in the later Church. People have speculated about Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lazarus, and the young man in Mark’s gospel who flees arrest naked, but we just do not know.
But we do know some things about the Beloved Disciple if not his name. First of all, he was accepted by the inner circle of disciples as Jesus’ special friend. They accepted his position with Jesus on the dinner couch and in fact looked to him for pillow-talk information about Jesus, as in the incident of Peter asking about the identity of the betrayer. The disciples were not homophobic. Second, the Beloved Disciple did not compete with the others for leadership in the community, as James and John, and Jesus’ brother James, did with Peter. Peter was the acknowledged head disciple and the Beloved Disciple showed no interest in a leadership role. Third, the Beloved Disciple was on good terms with Peter and they did things together; this suggests to some that the Beloved was Peter’s brother Andrew, but you would think he would be so named. Fourth, the Beloved Disciple was not a source of any special doctrine speaking for Jesus, did not ask famous leading questions like several other disciples did, and was not mentioned at great revelatory moments such as the Transfiguration (which is not recounted in John’s gospel, the only gospel that mentions the Beloved disciple), in the dialogue of the Farewell Discourse, or Thomas’ post-resurrection confession. He may have been there but was not mentioned. It seems that the only role the Beloved Disciple played in the gospel story was to be the one Jesus loved in a special way, his boyfriend.
What do we learn from our four texts? In the first, the identification of the betrayer, the most obvious lesson is the intimacy of the Beloved, reclining on Jesus’ chest, leaning forward to talk with Peter, then falling back on Jesus to ask him about the betrayer. Jesus does not answer directly but says, “Watch what I do—it’s the one I feed.” The Beloved obviously did not relay the message to Peter, or Peter would have stopped Judas from leaving. The text has another message as well. Judas the betrayer is within a hand’s reach of Jesus, surely at the next couch, when Jesus feeds him. The point is that the people close to you, perhaps closest, can be betrayers. But the Beloved is with Jesus all the way, closer than Judas, and closer than all the other disciples who will abandon Jesus when he is arrested. The point for a marriage homily is that you two should be closer to each other than to all the others in your respective public careers with their ups and downs, successes and disappointments, colleagues and betrayers. And you can talk with one another about all these hopes and despairs, jealousies and pettiness. Think of yourselves as reclining on one another, leaning forward to engage the public world, and then leaning back to take stock together.
The second text is the crucifixion scene. The Beloved Disciple is at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother and aunt and with Mary Magdalene. No other male disciple is around. Jesus sees him and, most remarkably, tells the Beloved Disciple to take Jesus’ mother as his own, and tells his mother to take his Beloved as her son; she moves in with the Beloved Disciple from that day on. What is remarkable is that Jesus had plenty of brothers, and also sisters, and at least one aunt, who could take care of his mother, all as part of the natural extension of his family. But he creates a new, non-kinship, family for his mother and Beloved. It’s as if Jesus and the Beloved were married and, with Jesus’ death, the Beloved takes over the responsibility for the mother-in-law. Jesus was the first son, and so care-taking responsibility for the parental generation falls on his spousal family; the Beloved Disciple takes up that role when Jesus gives it to him. The first century was a long time before Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage. But if there were an analogue for a same-sex marriage in Jesus’ time, one major test of its solidity would be acceptance of responsibility for in-laws. The point here for a marriage homily is that you two are adopting each other’s respective families into your own new and fragile one. The other side of this point is that the in-laws accept your family by coming into it. The point is unremarkable for heterosexual marriages, a commonplace even though it is difficult to live up to even there; you know the jokes about in-laws. The public validity of same-sex marriages finds its strength in intergenerational acceptance and support.
The third text is about the Beloved Disciple and Peter running to the tomb after Mary Magdalene had told them it was empty. The Beloved races ahead, doubtless frantic with worry and confusion, but he cannot bring himself to look for his lover’s bloodied body. Take-charge Peter goes right in and says the body is not there and everything is cleaned up so the Beloved can finally go in. This gives some clue as to what the Beloved Disciple must have been feeling, watching his lover be arrested, tried, whipped, and crucified, writhing against the nails and dying finally by suffocation. Grief, rage, hurt, panic, helplessness, helplessness, helplessness. I pray that neither of you will ever have to watch the other suffer grievously. But if you do, know that it’s ok to feel grief, rage, hurt, panic, helplessness, and not have to be in charge. That’s how Jesus’ Beloved felt about him and if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you. You do not have to be strong, only unfailing in the love that clings to the breast. Another marriage homily point.
The final text is from the resurrection story of the Last Breakfast. The Beloved Disciple is offshore with the others on the fishing boat when he recognizes Jesus as the man who had been giving them instructions about casting their net. After fixing them breakfast, Jesus goes off with Simon Peter to reinforce his love and to give him instructions about leading Jesus’ community. The Beloved Disciple is walking behind, just out of earshot. The text specifically reminds us that the Beloved Disciple is the one who ate reclining on Jesus whom Peter asked about the betrayer. Peter asks Jesus, “What about him?” Jesus answers three things. First, that it is Jesus’ will that the Beloved remain until Jesus comes again. Second, that this matter is no business of Peter’s. And third that Peter should follow Jesus and attend to his own public ministry. When this was reported later on, some people in the community thought that Jesus would guarantee that the Beloved Disciple not die until he returned, but obviously he did. Jesus only said that it was his will that the Beloved Disciple not die, meaning presumably that he wanted to continue their special relation upon his return. Surely that is what Jesus would be expected to hope for his Beloved, but who knows what will happen? The point here for a marriage homily is that your marriage in the last analysis is a private matter and at some point you might have to tell others to back off. Of course a marriage is also a public legal arrangement, witness this ceremony. We invoke a community to support your marriage. It extends out into a much larger set of families. You two will function as a couple in many contexts relevant to your careers. The line between the public and private in a marriage is ambiguous and sometimes tense to draw. But in this final scene of Jesus’ story, when he charges Peter to invent the Church to feed all those people hungry for love and God, Jesus’ last words were to remind Peter that what Jesus and the Beloved Disciple had going between them was their own affair. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words were about his special Beloved, whom we may call his spouse. This is my last homiletical point about marriage.
In matters of sex, love, and marriage, let me affirm as a priest of the Church that you can find your story, the story of your heart’s desires, the story of your union together, in the story of Jesus. All those who would deny you his story, let them be anathema! May Jesus’ love of his Beloved be a song in your hearts all your days! Amen
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville