Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
3rd Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018
Trinity on Church UC Kitchener
Text: 1 John 3
Providentially, meteorologists warned of ‘the ice storm of the century’, and we advised people to ask ‘Should I Be Driving’, and cancelled lunch after worship. Today’s congregation totaled 9, sitting in a semicircle around a piano. Through April, we are hearing the First Letter of John, and the smaller group heard the text in less sectarian or apocalyptic terms of ‘us against them’.
“I love humanity – it’s people I can’t stand.”
“I have great family values – but really, you don’t know my sister!”
Our glib liberal universal generalizations about values are subject to exceptions. Perhaps we’ve sheltered too long under imperialism and colonialism, accepting a range of individual choice as ‘good enough’ human rights and justice. We accepted ‘pax Britannica’ when the Royal Navy ruled the waves, and slid calmly into ‘pax Americana’ after 1945 and 1989 as ‘the end of history.
Someday, this late capitalist liberal democracy and its American exceptionalism will seem less inevitable. Syrian air strikes this weekend were justified as ‘protecting innocent women and children’ – but if harm to innocent women and children ruled strategy, how widespread would the carpet bombing have to be? We speak in generalities, with many exceptions.
Last week, we began 1 John with the affirmation that we all sin. ‘If anyone says they are without sin, they lie and the truth is not in them’, and assured us that Jesus could be our advocate and ‘propitiation’ or reconciliation, to put us right with God. We are forgivable, not perfect.
‘The same’ is not always equal. We’re all eligible for capital gains relief, but those without capital can’t get the benefit. Any religious group in Canada can issue tax receipt for donations, relief from municipal taxes on realty, and ‘clergy housing deduction’ for staff - if we have all those things! Great news for us, not so plausible for other faith groups less established in Canada.
There’s so much good in the worst of us
And so much bad in the best of us
That it’s hard to know which of us
Should re-form the rest of us!
This letter was written about 100AD, or 100CE, 70 years after Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. It likely comes from a decade after the Gospel of John, and likely out in Asia Minor, Turkey, perhaps Ephesus. Things had developed a long way in a couple of generations. Paul’s letters, written mid century, were immediate, but this community was no longer missionaries in and out of prison like Paul, not yet martyrs facing the coming rounds of persecution by Roman emperors.
This John writer has opponents – them – and allies – brothers and sisters. The affirmation of love is repeated, with proposed tests of our faithfulness in love: moral, social, and intentional tests. That’s a lot of practical assessment and affirmation before any doctrinal or dogmatic tests are proposed. Let’s try to imagine the words addressing a community like ours with offers of amnesty and encouragement for a variety of folks feeling a bit uncertain or insecure.
People who talk a lot about knowing God risk appearing hypocritical in their human foibles. The hottest fires of hell are reserved for preachers – that’s why you pay me so much for such high risk work. In current vernacular, you will recognize this message of 1 John, and be able to echo it, like this:
If you must talk the talk,
You’d better walk the walk!
We should all talk less about knowing Christ, treasuring the light within, and listen more, and act more like Jesus would want. We should spend less time on nuanced distinctions between our version of a liberal protestant gospel, and more time getting over our tribal barriers to make common cause with friends to do more than we talk. The first ‘whoever’ talks, and does not do the right thing, the second doesn’t, and does, like Jesus’ parable of two brothers.
Loving particular sisters and brothers in real community is harder than the universal abstracts. Tom Harpur avers a ‘light within’, safely beyond any test, or demand, or association with a group to embarrass his spirituality without incarnation. He’s in great company of those who are our ‘alumni’ who think themselves now better than, higher or beyond petty religion, and now purely spiritual. They are SBNR: spiritual but not religious.
Loving the sisters and brothers, admitting association with church and religion,
warts and all, takes more courage than hating, blaming, and condemning. But if you have known yourself known, and known yourself loved, you can learn to offer it in turn, in specific ways. This is pastoral assurance, not dogmatic doctrinal hair-splitting.
Buddha, whose religious movement is often subject to cultural appropriation in the name of ‘mindfulness’, discouraged mystical speculation: ‘you don’t have to know the name of the archer that shot you, before we can begin to heal the wound!’ If you must talk the talk, you’d better walk the walk!
Reading this tract of the early church today, we admit it is a mouthful for us. We don’t usually call ourselves ‘children of God’, or our opponents as ‘children of the Devil’. 1 John does not divide the world into a simple us and them, of children of God who do much good and never sin, and children of the devil who do little good and routinely sin. The line runs through each person.
This is not just rhetoric, but epistemology: knowledge grows by actions, social relationships, which in turn inform and reform ideas or intentions – the hermeneutical circle What did the opponents say? They said that Jesus is not the Christ. Sure, there is a Christ, a universal principle, a ‘light within’, as Tom Harpur calls it. But the flesh and blood of a little barefooted Palestinian man who got killed is awkward for those generalizing universalists.
By the time of the gospel of John, the synagogues, who enjoyed some leniency from Rome, were kicking out the emerging movement of ‘Christians’ whom the Romans suspected of being more political and anti-Roman. By the time of this letter, generations had passed, and ‘toleration’ of paying respects to a variety of cults (they’re all basically the same thing, about goodness and niceness) grew.
These opponents made 1John’s writer and friends feel stupid, as if we were concerned with lesser messy things of doing and loving and relating and reassuring. The opponents, who had left the Christian religious community, were above it all, and past it all. Looking back and down on 1John’s folks, they said Jesus was just a guy, who was probably sleeping with Mary and probably outlived the cross and raised children living today.
I think that the opponents of 1John today would call themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious’ SBNR. I think they would say ‘you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ – it’s safer in synagogue – or better, dabbling in all Roman rites. They would get the idea and have good intentions of charity. Newly cosmopolitan, post-Temple god-fearers, any sect could play to their vanity
with gala parties, Roman circuses and Greek Olympics.
1 John is a harder line. Jesus is the Christ. Christ, Logos, Word, ideas and intentions, are inseparable and unknowable without incarnation. It’s not just the thought that counts, or good intentions, but incarnation.
So we are children of God. Beloved. We show it, and find it revealed, in practice in community. We act as if it were so, to see what is revealed, to us, in us, and through us, despite who we are, because of who we are. It makes more sense in a semicircle around a piano, than reading alone on a screen.
Our closing prayers went like this today:
We thank you God,
For at this table
You reveal the children of God
To those with eyes to see
You sustain our life together,
As the body of Christ,
To reveal to one another,
And to the world
light to the nations
glory to your people
Give us a glimpse
of our better selves,
Help us forgive
our faltering and failing
Bring us to reveal
a likeness to your child Jesus
you know we’re needed.