The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Wednesday In Holy Week      8th April 2020
Close to the heart
Jim Walters

I’m conscious that, as a result of social distancingmany of us are missing the intimacy of human contact. You may be at home with your spouse or partner or others with whom you feel intimate. But many are not and may be spending longer periods of time than usual in difficult isolation. And by intimacy, of course I don’t just mean romantic or sexual intimacy. Intimacy of some kind is a basic human needa deep connection with some element of touch, care and attention to one another. 

The Gospel of John begins with a wonderful image of the intimacy at the heart of God. We read that Jesus came to us from his state of being “close to the Father’s heart.” In the King James Version the phrase is that Jesus was “in the bosom of the Father.” That is the originary state of Jesus, how he was from the beginning, when “all things came into being through him.” And that total union of intimacy between Jesus and the Father continued as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. 

Now, in Holy Week, the story of the Word made flesh is drawing to its conclusionThe incarnate son has grown up and become a man. Disciples have been called. The sick have been healed. Crowds have gathered and listened. Friendships have been formed, friends who now gather in the upper room for their Passover meal. And through all of that, the love that Jesus, the eternal Word of God, received from the dawn of time at the heart of the Father has been shared. In teaching, in healing, in talking, in laughing, in crying, in loving, we see on the pages of the gospels the living out of the life of God with us in Jesus Christ. The spiritual union of the Trinity has been opened up into a spiritual union with humanity. 

And the culmination of this is symbolized in John’s Gospel on the night before Jesus died by the physical intimacy that Jesus shares with his disciple. “One of his disciples – the one whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to him.” Again, in the King James Version, the phrase is “leaning on Jesus’ bosom. So John’s Gospel begins with Jesus in the bosom of the Father. It culminates at the Last Supper with the humanity that Jesus loves in the bosom of the Lord. 

This disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, is often taken to be the John after whom the Gospel is named. This beloved disciple is the one to whom Jesus entrusts his own mother from the cross and he is often depicted in paintings and sculptures of the crucifixion. But the disciple is not named. We don’t actually know who he is. And some more postmodern commentators suggest that, in fact, this figure represents the reader. The beloved disciple, the one who is close to the heart of the Lord, is each one of us. 

For us, the physicality of this image of resting against Jesus’s chest, can only be a metaphor for spiritual union in prayerWe know from our own relationships that true intimacy is only built through spending time alone with someone. Of course, we get to know Jesus in Church, just like we can get to know someone at a party. But we only develop an intimate friendship, over time, as we spend time together in private. 

That’s why private prayer is essential for the fullness of Christian life. I won’t say you can’t be a Christian if you only come to Church and don’t have regular habits of prayer. But you’re preventing Jesus from getting as close to you as he desires and from forming you into as full a disciple a you might be. In contemporary language, you’re not being your best self. The eternal Word of God has more to offer you than you can receive in church on Sundays. We need to spend time with him daily and lean on his bosom. 

So you are Jesus’ beloved disciple. And this image of resting against his chest is a metaphor for spiritual union that we achieve through prayer. I’m not going to pretend, for those of you struggling with isolation at the moment, that a committed prayer life takes away our need for human intimacy. That idea has caused quite a lot of damage to people when dangerously dualist theologies have sought to dispense with the physical in favour of the spiritual. 

But at times when human intimacy is unavailable to us, the intimacy of prayer can truly make us feel connected, certainly to God in Jesus Christ, but through that, to those for whom we pray, and to the community of faith that is Christ’s body. The whole Church, therefore, is the beloved disciple, and as each of us lean on the bosom of the Lord we recline there together, as one body, even when we are praying apart. 


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