Probably we were told when we were children that it is rude to call people names. Our Lord actually had a good line in nicknames. He referred to Herod as an old fox. We know from the Gospel of St Mark that He called the two brothers James and John “Boanerges” – Aramaic for “Sons of Thunder.” And in the Gospel of St Luke, we see how James and John merited and lived up to their nickname, when the Sons of Thunder plead with Our Lord to rain down fire from Heaven to devour the inhabitants of a Samaritan town that has just refused Him hospitality. Their reasoning: how dare these sectarian bigots insult the Lord of Creation? Surely the time has come to teach the world a lesson and to show sinners what lies in store for anyone who scorns the King of Kings and Creator of the universe?
The Master rebukes His disciples. Their zeal has made them bloodthirsty and they want to see retribution. Our Lord views things very differently. Yes, the time for fire will come. Our Lord warns us of the fire that awaits Dives in Hell, and many of us will have to be saved “yet so as by fire” (1 Cor 3:15) in the purification of Purgatory. But His mission on earth is not directed towards punishment and retribution. He has not come to precipitate that final conflagration which he has promised will consume the world at the end of time. He has come rather to light a flame of divine love in our hearts so that nothing and no one can ultimately destroy us. Now is the time of mercy and salvation.
John is the youngest of the Apostles, just a teenager. But what a cauldron of intense passion simmers within that youthful heart – a passion that is ready to boil over at the first provocation into wrath.
How very different is this Son of Thunder from the picture of John that emerges later on, the John who quietly rests his head on Our Lord’s shoulder at the Last Supper and who will stand in silence at the foot of the Cross. In fact, the nickname that Our Lord gave to John would not last for long. It was to be replaced by the title ‘Apostle of Love’. The word love, or charity, appears more in John’s Gospel and in his Epistles more often than anywhere else in the whole of the Old or New Testaments together. St Jerome tells us that in his old age John’s disciples had to carry him around to preach in Ephesus because he was so frail. They tired of listening to him preach the same sermon over and over again – all he would say is “Children, love each other!” When they asked why he must be so repetitive, he just replied: “Because it is the teaching of the Lord. If this only is done, that will be enough.”
This transformation from Son of Thunder to Apostle of Love is a good example of what happens when Divine Grace is able to penetrate into the depth of a soul. There is one thing that remains constant in John – his passion and zeal. But his youthful impetuosity and aggression are of little use to Our Lord. His capacity to love is of great use.
We all come into this world with strengths and weaknesses. And God is able to use everything – our strengths and our weaknesses – to make us saints. Very often our failures are of more use to Him than our successes, if only we allow our failures to teach us poverty in spirit and make us aware of our neediness before God.
John was transformed by contact with Our Lord. And through that contact – through friendship with Christ – his weaknesses were transformed into an heroic virtue which made him one of the greatest saints that ever lived. He can inspire us today to be apostles of love. Looking around us we see so much anger, division and recrimination. The world – our society – are thirsting for the charity of which we must be apostles.
Like John, we are invited to cultivate friendship with Our Lord. Bring to Him our weaknesses and failures, confess to Him our sins and receive the healing balm of divine forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance. All friendships require communication, so we must rest in His presence with open hearts, making the channels of communication as wide and uncluttered as possible, and allowing Him to lead us to that wholeness and holiness for which we were created. During this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has encouraged us to take a friend with us when we go to Confession. Encourage our friends to come back to this sacrament, so that they too may experience the transformative touch of grace.
Fr Julian Large