Posts Tagged ‘Gospel of John’

Belief and Judgment

// March 21st, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Last Sunday’s conversation was wide-ranging, befitting a couple of scripture passages (Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21) that are rich in meaning.  Most of our dialog focused on John as it contains what is probably the most memorized verse of scripture in the Christian faith, 3.16.  As I still remember it from my childhood: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever should believe in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Unfortunately, like any text, the meaning and promise of this verse can be distorted by the lack of context that comes with memorizing it in isolation.

The Gospel of John is a very complex book.  The language loops back on itself to call into question what we think we know.  It can be read again and again with new insights.  It’s like watching a movie a second time and seeing all the foreshadowing you missed before you knew the outcome, but more.  Each time one reads the text one is transformed, so that the next reading is done from a different place than you were before.

When we read v. 3.16, we see that the difference between those who are saved and those who will perish is belief.  But in John, that does not mean what you might think it means – believing a set of propositional statements.  No, John uses a unique construction that is best translated as “believe into,” indicating an ongoing process of transformation.  In a sense, “believing” in John is becoming.  In related language, “knowing” is to open oneself to God’s ongoing revelation.  Thus, we are always progressively entering into the life of God as presented in Jesus.  If belief is merely the acceptance of a set of facts, it requires nothing more of us than to name those who disagree, to divide ourselves into believers and non-believers.

But John’s Jesus would reject this division.  Verse 17 tells us that Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it.  The condemnation from which we are saved is actually a trial (krima) that brings about judgment (krisis).  That is, all of life puts us to choices about whether we will live into light or shadow, freedom or slavery, life or death.  Division is a quality of life and our choice is which side of that division we will live into.  It contains its own judgment: if we live into death, we will die.  Jesus, the Light of the World, reveals these choices for what they are and invites all to the life-giving side of those choices, what the Gospel of John calls eternal life.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we continue to talk about suffering and calling.  This week we’ll go old school, like, Hebrew Bible old school, with the prophet Jeremiah (31.31-34) and build some connections with last week’s discussion of John by jumping forward to 12.20-33.  We hope to see you!

Grace & Peace,
Scott

John’s Church, Our Church: Oneness (Program and Sermon)

// June 24th, 2012 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

Program

Sermon

At the beginning of this series, I made an apology.  Normally, we use the inclusive text for our Scripture readings, but I chose to use the NRSV for this series.  The reasoning was that John is very careful about language and the inclusive text sometimes obscures it.  The downside is that we hear God constantly referred to in the masculine, as Father.  So this week we’re going to push back on that, try to break down the masculine framework that we assume in John.

John leverages the father-son relationship for power and authority.  Jesus has authority because he is from the Father.  Jesus has power because he is from the Father.  In 3:35, “The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands.”  In 5:19, “for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”  In 5:23, “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”  In 12:50, “What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.”  I could go on an on.  This was the way that fatherhood and sonship was understood in John’s world.  The son has the authority and power of the father and therefore merits the honor given to the father.  The father commands and the son obeys and, therefore, they can be said to be one in authority and power.

I think this is the most common way that Christians understand our relationship with God.  God is God because God has power over us.  We submit to God’s power instead of rebelling against it, and so we are saved.  I can see the attraction of this.  For those who are disempowered and marginalized, it’s good to think that, ultimately, power is on your side.  But it’s also good for those who have power because they can claim God as the source of their power.  The Southern Baptist Convention just appointed its first black president and they are touting it as a victory for racial reconciliation.  Congratulations.  In 2012, you finally accept African Americans as fully included under God’s power and authority, you finally grant one group access to your God.  How long to women have to wait?  What about my LGBTQ friends?  When do they become acceptable?  They say, “We don’t hate women, but God says that men are to be the head of the household and the head of the church.”  And, “We don’t hate gay people, but God says they are an abomination.”  God says…  God says… God says…  We are helpless in the face of God’s command.

Framing our relationship with God as one of power is a dangerous game.  It has consequences.  In the world, injustice continues as people see themselves as being ordained with God’s power.  From ordination of women to equal pay to reproductive health.  Bullying, teen suicides, marriage equality.  At one time, it was slavery and interracial marriage, but it’s all the same.  Whether it’s Loving v. Virginia or Proposition 8, Roe v. Wade or the Defense of Marriage Act, there’s always someone advocating for injustice in the name of God.

It also affects our theology.  If our relationship with God is one of power, how can we really be one?  We talked about this last week, that friends don’t have power over one another.  How can there be mutual self-giving in a non-mutual relationship?  If it’s about power, our real relationship with God, like God’s justice, must be pushed off into the future.  Eternal life only projects forward.  Heaven – and God, for that matter – is that which is forever beyond the limits of our power.  We exert our power in this world until we run out of time.  Then we find God.  It doesn’t even make sense, if you think about it.  Eternal means “without beginning or end.”  Thinking of eternal life as that which begins after our death is a depressingly narrow view.  Eternal life must be something more.  Something infinitely more.

There are a couple of ways to attack this power-centered, androcentric structure.  The first is to question the way we divvy things up, what is masculine and what is feminine.  Not all men are aggressive; not all women are nurturing.  We can certainly make room for a messier sense of gender.  I think this is a fruitful line of questioning, but one I’d like to come back to later.  The second option is to examine how we value the things we organize by gender.  Perhaps power, logic, and aggression should not be valued above all else.  Perhaps those things we characterize as feminine – nurturing, emotion, receptivity – can also be valued.  There is good evidence that John takes just such an approach, which we see in a few of his word choices.

First, John portrays God and Jesus in nurturing relationships.  In John 1:18, John the Baptizer says of Jesus: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  Only, it doesn’t say heart; it says bosom.  The word in Greek is kolpon.  When referring to a person, it usually means bosom or breast, as a nursing child.  It could also mean embrace, as two lovers.  Early Christians, such as Augustine and Clement, translated it as womb because it often refers to a cavity of some kind, an enclosed space.  It might be the fold of a garment or a bowl of food, but for a person, there is a sense of intimacy, of safe enclosure, the embrace of the beloved.  Interestingly, the only other place it is used is in John 13:23, “One of his disciples – the one whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to him.”  Only it doesn’t say “next to him;” it says, “reclining in the bosom of Jesus.”  Whatever oneness might mean to John, it would appear to involve physical closeness, nurturing, and intimacy, even with God.

Second, John talks a lot about birth.  John uses the word “beget” eighteen times, even though there is no genealogy as we find in Matthew and Luke.  “Beget” can refer to generation through the father or it can refer to birth.  The tendency is to assume it refers to fatherhood and sonship because of the constant use of the title “Father” and probably to harmonize with Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies.  It is also fair to note that in the ancient world it was believed that only the man contributes to the child – the woman is merely a vessel – and so the father-son relationship is the critical one.  Power in the ancient world certainly rested on this.  But John frequently refers to the act of birth itself.

Starting in John 1:12-13: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”  Then there is his conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”’”  One could – and feminist scholars have – criticized this as devaluing the physical birth from the mother in favor of a spiritual birth from a masculine God.  It’s a fair critique, but it assumes that God’s masculinity is unquestioned.  Perhaps John means for God to be imagined as a woman in this case, complicating God’s fatherhood.

This is not unprecedented.  We’ve talked about feminine names for God, such as Shaddai, but there is something else so common that it gets overlooked.  It is always obscured in translation, but the Hebrew and Aramaic word for compassion is an adjectival form of the noun womb.  When Jesus says in Luke 6:36, “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate,” he is making a gender-bending pun in Aramaic.  “Be a Mother just as your Father is a Mother.”  In Jeremiah 31:20, God says of Ephraim, “Therefore my womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly compassion upon him.”  There is a long tradition of God as Mother.

Finally, when John talks of oneness, he speaks of being in one another.  In 17:21: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”  Continuing in vv. 22-23: “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”  Unless you are caught in a blizzard while riding a tauntaun on the icy planet of Hoth, there are only a couple of ways that you want to be in another being.

One possibility is sexual intimacy.  I can’t rule this out.  In my opinion, it is not a reach to think that, in the author of John’s understanding, there was physical intimacy among some of the disciples and even Jesus.  There are betrothal type-scenes with the Samaritan woman at the well and with Mary Magdalene in the garden.  No one is alarmed when Jesus strips down to a towel during dinner to wash everyone’s feet.  Peter apparently likes to fish naked with the boys.  And there is always that Beloved Disciple, resting in Jesus’ safe embrace.  The problem, of course, is with the way that we understand sexuality.  It’s tawdry, prurient.  It must be contained within strict boundaries.  In particular, gender difference must be maintained.  The active masculine acts on the passive feminine.  Women’s bodies become places for men to exert power.  We too often regard our intimates as servants rather than friends. It’s hard to see God in that.

The other possibility, of course, is the womb.  We’ve already talked about the biblical tradition behind this, but I’d like to mention one other key word in John: become.  In the Greek, it is ginomai, which is extremely common, so common that it’s hard to make something of it.  It just means “to be.”  Think of all the times we use “be.”  Be brave.  Be calm.  I will be there.  But in John, it is frequently used in a sense of creation, as something coming into being.  In 1:3, the Word is said to have created everything: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  In 1:12, we are given the “power to become children of God.”  In 1:14, “the Word became flesh.”  Water becomes wine at the wedding and a spring in the hearts of believers.  People become well.  People become blind.  People become disciples.  And when they become disciples, they abide in God’s love and pain becomes joy.

The French feminist Luce Irigaray says that woman is place. This could be thought of as woman as place for the use of men.  That’s what leads to our distorted view of sexuality and our distorted view of God.  Woman is not space to be conquered, but place to become.  The womb is our primal source where all possibility exists, where all things become.  The mystic Hadewijch of Antwerp says it like this: “I was in a very depressed frame of mind one Christmas night, when I was taken up in the spirit. There I saw a very deep whirlpool, wide and exceedingly dark; in this abyss all beings were included, crowded together, and compressed.  The darkness illuminated and penetrated everything. The unfathomable depth of the abyss was so high that no one could reach it . . . It was the entire omnipotence of the Beloved . . .”  This abyss is terrifying for man because it can’t be conquered.  Except by an all-powerful masculine God.  Man turns away from the primal, natal source and toward a different unknown, the unknown of the future beyond death.  He erases the memory of his becoming and erases woman.  Woman is left without a place for herself to be herself, to become herself.

But Irigaray makes another move.  While woman has always been the place of becoming for man, man is not usually the place of becoming for woman.  That, in her mind, is the key to an ethics of sexual difference in which all have a horizon of becoming, a place to become.  Man must be a place for woman to become.  I think John had a similar gender-bending strategy in mind.  Beget can refer to fatherly generation or motherly birth.  The bosom can be the nurturing breast of the mother or the comforting embrace of the lover.  The Father must be the Mother.  We become because we have a place to do so.  In turn, we are the place for the other to become.  And that place is the eternal, that from which we come and that to which we will return.  The mystery of the ineffable Godhead is identical with the unfathomable natal abyss.  It is without beginning and without end.  All that we have ever been and all that we might become is contained in the One.

There is one more move to make.  If God is the place of our becoming because we are in God and if we are the place for one another to become because we are one, then what does it mean for God to be in us?  It can only mean that we are the place of becoming for God.  Hadewijch encourages the young female Beguines to whom she writes to carry their pregnancy with God to term, each month a step on the mystical journey to the birth of Love.  God is imagined as a baby girl to which they will give birth.  Irigaray is more forceful.  She imagines the coming of an ethical God, a God in which man and woman have a place to become, as a new birth, “not waiting passively for the god to come, but by conjuring him up among us, within us, as resurrection and transfiguration of blood, of flesh, through a language and an ethics that is ours.”

Closing

As Christians and as a church, we have an obligation to one another to be a place of becoming.  Nurturing.  A safe embrace.  An unfathomable abyss of love.  In that abyss of all possibility, of everything that has ever been and everything that ever could be, swims the one person you are.  This is the place to become that person, to be born again.  But it is also the place for God to become, to be conjured up among us in flesh and blood, in the language we use and the ethics we live by.  This is the place for God to be born anew.  And it’s the same place.  As we become, so does God; as God becomes, so do we.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

John’s Church, Our Church: Oneness

// June 21st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I have to admit, I’ve been nervous about this week ever since we decided to do this series.  Talking about oneness is hard.  John is very clear that being one with God and one with each other is the task of being a Christian.  Much of Paul’s writings show a similar concern.  And so it should not be surprising that there has always been a strong mystical thread in the Christian tradition.  However, mysticism is often misunderstood, so, while I’m not yet sure what I will say on Sunday, I am certain about what I won’t say.

First, one could interpret John’s talk of oneness as simple unity of purpose or direction.  I think this is too easy and not representative of what goes on in any church, especially Church in the Cliff.  We have all come here from different places and we’re not entirely sure where our journeys will end.  If love and friendship are ongoing mutual self-giving and self-revelation, it’s hard to say where that will take each of us.  While it is reasonable to assume some commonality between us, there must be something more going on.

Second, it is easy for mysticism to disintegrate into some vague kind of empathy.  We let it float into the clouds and, as a result, the meaning of being a Christian is pushed off into the indefinite future.  In heaven, we will know God.  But that defies one of John’s central concerns: that the world will know who God is.  Such a soft understanding makes no claim on us at all.  Again, there must be something more going on.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we discuss a mysticism embodied in the real world that tells us who we and God might become together.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

Community Meeting, July 1

At the last community meeting, we decided to have regular monthly meetings to help us move forward.  They will be the first Sunday of each month at 10am wherever we are meeting for services.

I say “wherever we are meeting for services” because one of the agenda items for the July 1 meeting is to discuss moving back to Kidd Springs Rec Center.  We would like to vote at this meeting because Edwin has requested 60 days notice, which would keep us committed until the beginning of September if we make a decision July 1.  If you cannot attend, please email your vote to board@churchinthecliff.org.

Sarah Kitto, Valen Chavez, and I visited the rec center on Monday and the renovations are great.  The kitchen was overhauled.  The troublesome sliding doors were replaced with a glass wall and sets of double doors, which should help with noise from the hallway.  There is also a meeting room added on that would be perfect for meetings or Sunday School, if there is interest.  It may cost extra, but not much.  Otherwise, the rent is the same as before and roughly equal to what we pay for the Kessler.  On a personal note, I have to say that walking into that sunlit room with life dancing by outside, it felt like home.  While I appreciate what Edwin and the Kessler have done for us and I’ve enjoyed our time there, I will be voting to move.

Another item to be discussed is membership.  We have not had membership at Church in the Cliff for several years.  As I understand it, the feeling was that it made church into a club with insiders and outsiders.  However, some of us wonder if we lose something by not having a way for people to claim a commitment to what we’re doing.  We’ll talk through it and see if we can come up with something that fits who we are as a church.

Finally, we will discuss our budget.  The budget that went into effect in January was based on assumptions about our income that probably are no longer valid.  Also, it was predicated on the idea that teams would be responsible for deciding how the money allocated to them would be spent.  Many of those teams did not emerge and, as a result, that money was not spent.  We need to look at our current income and at what teams are active and have financial needs.  From there, we can make a new budget.

The details of running a church are rarely fun, but I hope people will attend the monthly meetings and share their ideas.  The best way to have a church we want to be a part of is by building it together.

John’s Church, Our Church: Friends (Program and Sermon)

// June 21st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Program

Sermon

Opening

This week, Lisa and I celebrated our 19th anniversary.  Over the years, people have occasionally asked me how a marriage lasts, why ours works.  Sometimes people assume that there is some trick, like never going to bed angry or saying “I love you” at least once a day.  That may be good advice that we follow more often than not.  But tricks don’t make relationships.  Perhaps we just got lucky and found “the one” on our first try.  That may be true.  From my perspective, at least, there was some kind of magic, definitely love at first sight.  But the first sight is just the first sight.  It doesn’t last.  It can never be had again.  And if you spend your life focused on that one moment, you’ll miss a lot of new moments.  No, I think that the one thing that has held constant between Lisa and I, the one thing that keeps us together, is that we are friends.  In a world where “friend” is defined as a mutually beneficial or mutually entertaining relationship that can be had with a couple of mouse-clicks, this may not seem like much.  But friendship, according to John, is the pinnacle of life in God.  If we can be friends, we can see ourselves and see God clearly and we can become what God has for us to be.  Any relationship that we allow to do that will endure, perhaps eternally.

Discussion

How is it different?

How does it relate to love?  How does it relate to revelation?

Main points:

1. revelatory

Sandra Schneiders: “Friendship is essentially mutual knowledge, which is why one way of saying we are close to someone is that we know each other very well.  This knowledge is not primarily intellectual.  It is a kind of union by sharing of selfhood.  As Jesus shares in the very being of God and can therefore say that he knows the Father and the Father knows him (10:15), so Jesus wants his followers to know him as he knows them, to share in his very being and life.  As Jesus knows God through God’s self-revelation to him of the divine works, so Jesus’ disciples will come to know Jesus through contemplation of what he does and says.”

2. self-giving

Sandra Schneiders: “union by sharing of selfhood”

15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

3. mutual and equal

Carter Heyward: “a way of being connected with one another in such a way that both, or all, of us are empowered – that is, spiritually called forth; emotionally feel able; politically are able to be ourselves at our best, as we can be when we are not blocked by structures and acts of violence and injustice or attitudes and feelings of fear and hatred.”

15:15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

4. bears fruit

15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

5. joyful

16:20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

Closing

I promised in the weekly email I would reveal what gays and lesbians have to teach us about God.  In her book Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships – what my good friend Teri lovingly calls “the magic book” – Elizabeth Stuart takes friendship as a model for understanding our relationship to God and to each other.  Like other queer theorists, Stuart asks that we, rather than assuming the normative view, examine our faith from the margins.  Assume that those on the fringes can speak to the center.  If we take seriously the character of Jesus, this seems like a valuable strategy.  In this case, instead of assuming that marriage, particularly heterosexual couplings, defines the ideal relationship, what happens if we let same-sex couples, non-married partners, and committed singles define the ideal relationship?  What is the promise and the peril of those relationships?  She discovers that the most common way that gays and lesbians understand their relationships is as friendships.

There are many reasons for this.  Because same-sex couples have been denied the possibility of marriage, they have constructed alternatives.  And, rather than a pale imitation of “real” relationships, they find that friendships have their own value.  In a somewhat closed niche community, it is likely that those who have been intimate will remain in the same social group after intimacy ceases.  It pays to remain friends because this is a place of survival.  In a world where non-normative desires and attractions are suspect, this is the space where one can be oneself, where one can truly reveal the self – in fact, become the self.  Rather than adherence to a set of gender and sexual norms, the ideal here is one of mutual self-giving and self-revelation.  By now, this should sound familiar to you, my dear friends.

Friendship, as seen in the Gospel of John and in our lives, must be mutual, equal, and revelatory.  Friends do not use one another.  Friends do not exploit one another.  Friends do not – cannot – have power over one another.  Otherwise, it cannot be a safe space to be who you are, to reveal yourself truly to the other, to become truly who God has made you to be.  Father Richard Rohr says that marriage is learning to love just one other person and moving outward from there.  I think this is true, but the same can be said of any relationship if we first choose to be friends.

Every moment of every day, we can choose to reveal ourselves to the other, to be who we truly are.  We can choose to be the place for the other to become who he or she truly is.  When we do, we know the other and we know God.  We participate in an ongoing revelation.  This, according to John, is why Jesus came to us: to show us who God is and what life with God is like.  When we know that, when we choose to turn toward God, to walk with God, to see God and know God, we are called friends and our pain will turn to joy.

John’s Church, Our Church: Friends

// June 14th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

In a world of social networks, the word “friend” gets thrown around a little too easily.  With a simple mouse-click, we can become “friends.”  We’ve even made it into a verb, an action that only exists in virtual space.  But we weren’t the first to do this.  Many languages, including Greek, have strong semantic relationships between verbs and nouns.  Jesus and his disciples would have “friended” people a lot, especially according the John.

As we talked about last week, John uses agape and phileo to talk about love.  He uses them as equals, synonyms.  Well, the noun form of phileo, is philos, or “friend.”  You could say, as in 5:20, that “the Father friends the Son.”  Or Jesus might say in 16:27: “the Father himself friends you, because you have friended me.”  But if we really meant by this what John’s Jesus meant, Facebook would be a very different place.  And probably not quite so popular.

Love and friendship are not just semantically related.  For John, they are in fact the same thing.  So, this week, as we talk about friendship, remember what we have said about love, about giving one’s life for one another.  And remember, too, what we have said about revelation.  Friendship is the relationship in which we experience mutual self-giving and self-revelation.  Friendship is the space in which we find out who God is and who we are.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we talk about friendship, church, and what the gays might have to teach us about God.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

What’s Next?

Our next series will be on social justice issues and I’m soliciting input.  What issues matter to you?  What are churches not addressing or addressing badly?  What would you like to see a church doing to make the world better?  Ideally, these won’t just be ideas for a series, but will shape the way we think about ourselves as a church and help us use our limited resources well.  So please email ideas to sshirley999@yahoo.com.

John’s Church, Our Church: Love (Program and Sermon)

// June 12th, 2012 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

Program

Sermon

Opening

In Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, John Boswell explains the problem with translation: “Only a naïve and ill-informed optimism assumes that any word or expression in one language can be accurately rendered in another.”  This is the prelude to Boswell’s discussion of love.  He makes the profound point that it’s not just the language that is confusing.  In translation, one is trying to decipher the feelings and desires of a person who no longer exists to help navigate.  But even worse, “the feelings themselves are often jumbled, shifting, and imprecise.”

This stands in contrast to the Biblical wisdom I received as a youth.  I was told that the Greeks recognized different kinds of love and had different words for all of them.  They were clearly differentiated and clearly labeled.  Some loves were better than others.  Eros, I was told, is lust, something with which God does not concern Godself.  It is base and dirty.  Then there is affection and friendship and, finally, agape.  Agape, I was told, is the best love, the love that God has for us.  We are mostly incapable of this kind of love, so it is good that God is not.  Agape is self-giving, all-encompassing, and unconditional.  If only we could do that, have that, all the time.  If only we could treat each other that way.

In the limited amount of translation I have done, I can assure you that Boswell is right: it’s never that simple.  It may even be impossible.  And I’m sure that in the living you have done, you have discovered that Boswell is also right about love.  It’s messy.  It’s confusing.  It may even be impossible.  One might argue that this is the problem of life, constantly negotiating the gap between one person and another.

So, when we talk about a church built on love, and John’s church in particular, we have to admit that it lacks specificity.  As we mentioned last week, John does not tell us what to do about divorce or wealth or prisons.  This would seem to vacate the ethical ground.  One can easily ask, when asked to love, “But what do I do?”  While John does not lay this out in detail, there is one very clear statement to guide us.  In John 15:13, Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

First, the nerdy part.  John uses two words for love: agape and phileo.  Agape is unconditional, divine love and phileo is human friendship. Much has been made of chapter 21, wherein Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him. The first two times, he uses the word agape, but the third, the time Jesus seems satisfied to let Peter off the hook, he uses phileo.  As I heard it growing up, this meant that Peter was unable to love the way God loves, so Jesus settles for friendship, a very human kind of love.  But John does not make such distinctions: “No one has greater agape than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s philon.”  The greatest love is to be a friend.  In John 5:20, Jesus describes God’s love for him, the love that is the model for all love, as phileo.  Jesus also uses phileo to describe God’s love for us, Jesus’ love for Lazarus, and the disciples’ love for Jesus.  Agape is used in a similarly broad and complex fashion.  John collapses agape and phileo, making them equal.  When Jesus shifts vocabulary in talking to Peter, he is not settling for a lesser love, but acknowledging that they are the same.  He raises up friendship into the realm of the divine and brings the divine love of agape down into the world in which we live. The physical and the spiritual are inextricably bound.  The life of humanity and the life of God are the same.  Love requires our whole being.

The second implication of the “greater love” is that, whatever love is, it requires risk.  You give something up.  You take responsibility for the other – ultimate responsibility.  As the existentialists have taught us, we are beings for whom our own being matters.  Generally speaking, we care if we exist.  Individually, I care if I die and you care if you die.  My own existence matters to me.  Ultimately.  There’s probably nothing I care about more.  But living in love requires me to be concerned about you and your existence.  Your existence must matter to me.  Ultimately.  And not just your existence, your life.  All those things of which your life consists, whatever they may be: house, car, job, money, family, church, ego.  Love asks us to lay those down, to put them on the line, for one another.

More importantly, love asks what those things are to us.  What does my job give me and what does it take away?  How are my friendships constructed around money?  How does church form me?  How is my identity constructed around these things?  And where is love in that?  In asking these questions, love reveals who we are to ourselves and to one another.  In losing our lives, in laying them down for one another, in deconstructing the identity and ego we have built around possessions and institutions, we find ourselves and have true life. Love is the necessary condition of revelation, of knowing God and knowing ourselves.

Discussion

In making ethical decisions, what are you risking of yourself?  What are you giving up?

As a church, what are we risking?  What are we willing to risk?

Closing

John is not alone in extolling the value of love.  In Matthew, when Jesus is asked: “What is the greatest commandment?”  He responds: “Love God; love your neighbor.  On these hang all the law and the prophets.”  Everything his culture knew about God and what it meant to live life with God was put to the test: “Is it loving?”  Some read this and presume that whatever they take God to be about, whatever they take the law to be about, it must be loving.  But it’s the reverse.  If it is loving, it is what God is about.  If it isn’t loving, it is not from God and it is not the law.  In John, Jesus only needs one commandment – love one another – because without that, you have nothing.

Love is the ground of Christian ethics.  Love says to systems of power, to oppression, to rules, to morality: “Where am I?  Have you forgotten my name?”  Love tears down walls and builds up people.  When I hear Robert Jeffress and others condemn queers, I ask, Where is the love?  They of course claim that they are preventing people from going to hell and nothing could be more loving.  But that’s not what John’s Jesus tells us.  John’s Jesus tells us that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life, to risk something, to risk ourselves.  So, when Robert Jeffress says with a smile that “gay is not okay,” when he says hateful things to a church that pays him handsomely to do so, what is he risking?  When he attempts to destroy whatever peace and love a person has managed to find in the world, what is he putting on the line?  Nothing.  He risks nothing and he loses nothing.  And so he finds nothing and has nothing to give.  Love tears down that hatred.

Love looks at the stranger, the alien, the queer and says, “You have a home here.”  Not if you become less strange, less alien, less queer, but precisely because you are those things.  Because love requires the other.  Love is not a mirror, a glass into which we see ourselves darkly, but an encounter, face to face.  Only in love can we go out to the other and return to ourselves, whole but transformed.  Love is fecund, it’s creative, it’s generative.  It is a vast abyss in which we all swim and from which all things rise.  It is the possibility of all things, the strength and support of all things.  If we live in love, we live in God, in that confusing, tumultuous abyss of not knowing, but creating love.  Figuring out.  Having things revealed.  Risking the uncertain for what might be.  That is church.

John’s Church, Our Church: Love

// June 9th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

We began this series by looking at John’s overall purpose of revelation.  By reading the Gospel of John, and considering the character of Jesus within, we can know God.  Over the next three weeks, we will look at the Farewell Discourse in chapters 14-17 to see what John’s Jesus has to say about what it means to be church.  Specifically, we will consider John’s understanding of love, friendship, and oneness.  This week, love.

Love, like the Gospel of John, can seem abstract.  It’s a deep well of emotions in which we swim and, at times, feel as though we might drown.  There is responsibility and duty and desire.  Precise definition slips away like the feelings of a sixth-grader at summer camp.

Though hard to define, love is where we live.  We look for it in all the wrong places.  We hunger for it.  It’s thicker than water and it’s a burning thing.  It has something to do with cats and muskrats.  Love will humble us, shake us, and turn us around.  It will conquer all and it will tear us apart.  Whatever love is, it is lived on the ground, between the gravel and the limbs.

This problem of definition is not new.  One might say that it is the central subject of the New Testament, of the whole Bible, perhaps even the primary task of humanity: to know what love is.

Please join us Sunday, 11am at the Kessler, as we discuss John’s proposal for the meaning of love and what that has to do with being a church.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

John’s Church, Our Church (Program and Sermon)

// June 6th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Program

When I initially planned this series, I did not realize it would start on Trinity Sunday.  Probably no one else did, either.  I’m sure many don’t know there is a Trinity Sunday.  I’m certain that many don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity.  I certainly don’t and I’ve taken half a dozen classes on it.  It’s all tied up with philosophical abstractions, like “essence” and “substance,” “person” and “perichoresis.”  And, in the end, as it often does, the Church punts and calls it a mystery.  God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all one, but somehow distinct.  We don’t know how, but we know it must be true.  And even though they call it a mystery, that doesn’t stop people from continuing to ask the questions.  In some sense, it is at the root of the current controversy between the American nuns and the Vatican.  Men who ask those questions are okay, but women who do so are not.  So I won’t try to explain the doctrine today.  As my professor, Dr. Theo Walker says: “If we’ve been asking the same question for 2000 years, maybe it’s the wrong question.”

Instead of talking about three persons and one substance, I’d rather talk about life in God.  At its root, this is what the Trinity is about.  African theologian Okechukwu Ogbonnaya suggests that, because some of the earliest Christian theologians were African, their understanding of the Trinity was influenced by African concepts of community.  John Mbiti says it this way: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”  This is could be thought of as just the nature of reality; we are all who we are because of the web of relationships in which we participate.  But for John, there is more than just the tribal and familial relationships, the social constructs into which we are born.  John is concerned with the relationships we choose,  [fix this]

John is typically thought of as the “spiritual Gospel” or the “theological Gospel.”  It holds the clearest statements about the oneness of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit of all the Gospels.  It is relied on heavily in “proving” the doctrine of the Trinity.  But some things curiously get left out.  As Jesus is the son of God, we are given the power to become children of God.  So whatever it means for Jesus to be one with God by virtue of being God’s son, we also have that opportunity.  When Jesus gives the Spirit of God, he is giving himself, his Spirit, to us, so that we may become like Jesus, children of God.  It’s not about metaphysics and it’s not about the magic number three; it’s about participating in the life of God.  Because we are Christians, we call participating in the life of God “being a Christian.”  We might even call it “Church.”

The Gospel of John is not typically looked at as a guide to the Christian life.  Matthew is very concerned with righteousness and has a lot to say about what to do and what not to do.  John does not.  John is the way to get people in the door – just believe! – but that’s about it.  Once you’re in, look elsewhere.  There are no beatitudes, no parables, no exhortations to care for the poor or heal the sick or release the captives.  If you want to know what to do about divorce or wealth or an eye that causes you to stumble, John is not your book.  In John, the commands are simple.  In fact, there is only one: “Love one another.”  That’s it.  Of course, it’s simple to say, but very hard to do.

The Gospel of John is also seldom seen as being concerned about the Church.  Matthew is called “the Church’s Gospel” because of the appointment of Peter in 16:18-19: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  John tells a different story where Mary Magdalene alone is given the Easter message and, in 20:18, announces – that is, preaches – to the disciples that she has seen the risen Christ.  She is the apostle for John.  For a Church concerned with apostolic authority and excluding women from that authority, John is not helpful.  However, John is written and edited continuously within a community over a long period of time.  Much of its material may come from someone who knew Jesus, but the final chapter was added possibly as late as the early 2nd century.  Though this community did not feel it necessary to talk a lot about being a church, they lived together as Christians for a very long time.  Through being cast out of their families and synagogues, through tension with other churches, they lived together as Christians.

Maybe the life of the Christian and the way of being church isn’t a list of dos and don’ts.  Maybe life in God is more complicated and more difficult than that.  Maybe it can’t be precisely set out in advance.  In 3:8, John’s Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Life in God, like life in any relationship, is a little unpredictable.  Relationships are unique from moment to moment.  When we truly open ourselves to the other, we are changed.  And vice versa.  So we are all, all the time, changing in relationship to one another.  Whenever we know a person, we know that there is always something more to know, something new to see.  And that’s why we do it.  Relationship is a process of revelation, an ongoing mutual self-revelation and self-giving.  This is life in God and life in the Spirit.

And this is the point of the Gospel of John.  John uses a lot of “knowledge” words: know, understand, see, believe.  Jesus is the light of the world that shines in the darkness.  Whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life.  The book of John was written that we might believe.  But when John talks of “knowing,” he most often means knowing like one knows a friend.  It’s not intellectual or informational, but relational.  All of these knowledge words have to be kept in the context of that ongoing revelation.  God reveals Godself to us and we reveal ourselves to God.  For example, when we see in John the phrase “believe in” it would be more accurately translated as “believe into.”  It’s a phrase that the author of John invented to invite us into the progressive revelation of the life of God.  You don’t simply accept a statement of fact and go on with your life.  You commit yourself to a new way of being, a way of being in the Spirit of God.  Being a Christian, and being church, is a posture of openness to the ongoing revelation of God.

When Jesus breathes on the disciples and asks them to receive the Holy Spirit, it is only the further revelation of God.  That is, it’s not something new; it is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, come to be with us forever.  God is revealed in the person of Jesus, but Jesus is a human being, bound by all the limitations that bind all humans.  He is a male of a particular class in a particular time and place and he died.  But the Spirit, the one Jesus calls the Advocate or the Helper, is with us forever.  The Advocate will teach us – reveal to us – everything.  If we want to know anything, such as how to be a church or how to be a Christian or what to do about divorce or wealth, the Spirit is here to teach us, to reveal to us the life of God.

John’s Gospel tells us all of these things.  There are no simple directives: “do this” or “don’t do that.”  The life of God is openness to the revelation of the other and the willingness to reveal ourselves, to be ourselves as God made us to be.  Church is (should be) the space where that is possible.  We accept each other as children of God.  We participate in the life of God together.  Church is the place where we share the same Spirit.  Church is the place where we love one another, as Jesus commanded.

(Discussion)

Closing

For the next three weeks, we’ll be looking at the character of the life of God in more detail.  Jesus gives some long speeches in John’s Gospel.  One of those long speeches is called the Farewell Discourse, in chapters 14-17.  This is where he tells the disciples that he will be leaving and that the Spirit will come in his place.  There is where he tells them how to be Christians, how to be church.  We’ll look at three things that, I think, characterize Church in the Cliff: friendship, love, and oneness.  My hope is that this will reveal to us who we are together as a church and that we see that as a part something eternal and beautiful.  What has always been will always be, and we are in the middle of it.

John’s Church, Our Church

// June 1st, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

When we read the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – it is clear that one of these is not like the others; one of these does not belong.  And, hopefully, if you went to four churches, including Church in the Cliff, you would think the same thing.  I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Maybe it is the influence of our good friend, Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, but I have always felt that our church and John’s church were of a kind.

The bulk of the Western church tradition is rooted in the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Matthew, in particular, is singled out as “the Church’s Gospel.”  In these Gospels, we find ideas of service, sacrifice, and righteousness.  However, too often those traditions turn into abuse, powerlessness, and judgment.  And there is considerable warrant for such things in the Synoptics if read through a particular lens.  John offers a different vision of the Church and the Christian life.

We’ll spend the next four weeks exploring John’s vision of the Church as friendship, love and oneness.  We’ll start this week with an introduction to John, particularly focusing on John’s alternative story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in John 20:19-23.  Through this story, we will come to understand John’s idea of the Christian life as one of ongoing mutual self-revelation and self-giving in community.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at the Kessler.

Grace and Peace,
Scott