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Archive for the ‘St John’ Category

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

The New Testament is full of sentences that are the gospel in shorthand. I have always found this one from John (1 S John 1:5) the most striking. Not only because it directly confronts the heart of both open unbelief and Christian crankiness and fear — the suspicion that God has a sadistic and miserly side — but because this message really does run through all of Jesus’s conversation. The way of life and renovation of the heart prescribed in the gospels are amazingly difficult. And yet very often Jesus’s portrait of his happy, lavishly generous Father might make one forget the difficulty: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

When the world slanders Jesus, or remakes him after one of its own patterns, the Christian’s impulse is often to defend his elder brother, to “set the record straight.” Commendable impulse, but wrong: the “Christ’s defender” ethos is misleading. He needs no defense, unless it be the defense of our example — that we delight in listening to our Elder Brother and learning of him.

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Recently Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at Wheaton College, claimed that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” — a statement which, in the estimation of Wheaton’s administration, contradicted the college’s statement of faith. Dr. Hawkins, in defending the orthodoxy of her claim, cited Yale theology professor Miroslav Volf as authority. The Wheaton administration was unconvinced: it placed Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave.

This morning, Miroslav Volf himself waded into this controversy by publishing the following indictment of the Wheaton administrators:

There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.

And what, exactly, is the evidence for the charge? Volf’s essay gives none. For example, Volf provides no evidence that other Wheaton professors had claimed that “Mormons and Christians worship the same God” or “Jews and Christians worship the same God” without consequence. Nor does Volf provide direct evidence of actual enmity — e.g. inflammatory statements about Islam made by Wheaton administrators. Volf’s general statement that “[m]any Christians today see themselves at war . . . with Islam,” and his allusion to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s recent asinine comments about “ending” certain Muslims, do not count as evidence against Wheaton.

Which means that Volf is mind-reading the Wheaton administrators — and interpreting their minds by a hermeneutic of suspicion — unless the claim that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God is plainly flimsy and pretextual.

But is it? Let’s play a game of identify-that-character: Say Jack is married to a dark-eyed brunette named Jane, whose nature is reserved, and whose conversation is plain, precise and rationalist. Then say that one day, Jack bumps into his old friend Jim, and Jim congratulates Jack on marrying someone as lovely as Jane — commenting on Jane’s strawberry blond hair, bright blue eyes, gregarious nature, and expansive, vivid conversation, full of jests, half-meanings and double entendres. Would Jack be inclined to accept the man’s congratulations? Would he think, “how interesting that two perspectives on the same woman can be so different”? I doubt it. More likely, Jack would tell Jim, simply, “there must be some mistake.”

Now let’s play another round: Say there’s a another man named John, for whom the testimony “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only son from the Father, full of grace and truth” is the thing that moves him to wonder and worship. Say the story of Christ being slain and raised and made alive evermore, and having the keys of Death and Hades, is the story that keeps John afloat amidst all the troubles of the world. And then say John’s friend Amaar comes along and said, “we worship the same God! But all that stuff about the Trinity and Incarnation is incoherent, polytheistic and vulgar.” Why would John’s response to Amaar be any different than Jack’s response to Jim?

If the homeliness, grittiness and fleshliness of the Incarnation, Nativity, Passion and Resurrection are essential parts of the Christian story of God and the world, and if Christians adore these mysteries and hold that they reveal the essential character of God, then Christians cannot “worship the same God” as people who flatly deny that God ever did any such things.

It isn’t hateful to say so. No daggers need be drawn over it — and the Christian story supplies plenty of reasons why the Christian should leave his dagger sheathed, or at home. Dr. Volf himself states the chief reasons at the conclusion of his article: that God “justifies the ungodly” and commands us to love our enemies.

“Enmity demands exclusivity.” But does it follow — especially in a world where God commands love to enemies — that exclusivity demands enmity?

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In Socrates’s last weeks, questions of piety and impiety were not the window-dressing of life. They were, on the contrary, quite literally a matter of life and death. He had been indicted on a charge of impiety, corrupting Athenian youths by teaching novel doctrines — he was a “god-maker” and did not give the old gods their due. He would shortly be tried and convicted on that charge, and then executed.

BookOfKellsEagle

The Eagle, the symbol of St. John, as shown in the Four Gospels plate of the Book of Kells.

It is against that background that one must read the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro: Is piety loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?[1] It is easy for us to dismiss Socrates’s question as philosophical play — fitting for a boy, deserving of a whipping for a man (as Callicles put it elsewhere)[2]. But a man about to stand trial for impiety needs some idea of what piety means for a very practical reason: to defend himself. So we may suppose Socrates to have been completely in earnest. And his question is an important one. It would be a strange thing to worship a god who didn’t come into existence until after “the good,” and was subservient to “the good.” It would be terrible, however, to worship a god who could alter “good” arbitrarily — say, to make hate “good” and “love” bad.

St John the Evangelist lived a few centuries after Socrates, in a different part of the Mediterranean region. He was a Jew, not a Greek, though he wrote in Greek and his writings show some familiarity with Greek thought. So we should not be surprised that the prologue of John’s gospel, though its primary purpose is to place the life of Jesus of Nazareth within the life of the one God of Israel — God the Creator who spoke creation and life into being, God the Redeemer who dwelt in the Tabernacle and led the Israelites out of Egypt — also addresses the Greek world by John’s use of the word logos. The prologue’s opening phrases also happen to address (probably unintentionally) the dilemma Socrates put to Euthyphro.

The first character to appear in St John’s prologue is the “Word”that is, the divine logos. In the beginning, the logos was. While “word” is a good translation for logos in John — connecting John’s prologue with God’s act of creation by speech in Genesis 1 — it isn’t a comprehensive translation. If you hear the echoes of our word logic, and the suffix -ology, in logos, you’re not hearing things. While logos conveys the sense of word as speech-act, it also conveys rationality. And John says that, no matter how far back in time one might travel, or if it were possible to go back to before the dawn of time, the Word, the logos, would still be there. And it would not be subject to change upon the whim of any deity.

But no matter how far back in time one might travel — even if one went back to before the dawn of time — the logos would not be there alone. He would be with Someone. He would not just be sitting alongside that Someone in a passive Aristotelian kind of way, nor at war with Him in a Zeus-versus-Kronos kind of way, but facing Him, engaging with Him with a quality of attention and affection that we can hardly begin to imagine. Or, as John puts it: “And the Word was with God.”

John’s first two phrases, without more, almost solve Socrates’s dilemma. For if goodness and sound logic are comprehended within the word logos, then goodness — Socrates’s piety — has always existed, and is not subject to change. Moreover, that logos has always existed with God, neither apart from God nor in competition with Him. So one might say, without proceeding beyond John’s first two phrases, that if God and the pious logos are co-eternal, always together, fully engaged with one another and of one mind, then we have a set of conditions that cuts the horns off Socrates’s dilemma. But John isn’t done, and his third phrase resolves the dilemma beyond all doubt:

“And what God was, the Word was.”

The three statements, taken together, read like this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and what God was, the Word was.” John calls the Word eternal, eternally in relationship with the God who called himself, simply, “I am,” and eternally in full possession and enjoyment of the character, nature and identity of that God, whose nature encompasses, indeed actively embraces, the Word’s piety. John solves Socrates’s old mystery by the plain statement of the eternal Mystery.

[1] Plato, Euthyphro 10a.

[2] Plato, Gorgias 485d-e.

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Advent — always a brisk, brief season — is shorter than usual this year. Christmas Eve is following right on the heels of the fourth Sunday in Advent. Among other things, that means we skip the daily readings appointed for the days following the fourth Sunday: readings designed to prepare us for Christmastide, which is now upon us.

The effect of losing this week in the table of lessons and Psalms is curious. For while Christmas Day shall fall on December 25, as it always does, it feels like Christmas Day is coming like a thief in the night — with a kind of thrill of fear that usually attends a well-rendered judgment.

In this, the abbreviation in the liturgical calendar this year brings out something significant about Christmas. For while Christmas is profoundly comforting, it is not (in the colloquial sense) comfortable. At the Lord Jesus’s first Advent, God did nothing less momentous than judge the world:

This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

Sometimes the most effective judgment is simply to turn the lights on.  Flick the switch in the kitchen and the naughty cockroaches scurry for the dark underbelly of the refrigerator.  Publish the content of the shady backroom deal and the naughty politicians scurry to the comforting darkness of their war rooms and lawyers’ offices.  Let a six-year-old speak simple Sunday School truth to an erudite middle-aged sociologist, and the hedges magically appear like Jack’s beanstalk. Those whose eyes have adapted to see in thick darkness do not take kindly to the curtains going up in the morning.

Yet for all the rage against the arrival of the light, the light, like the little beam from the star Samwise Gamgee saw hanging over Mordor, has found its way into and – simply by being itself – judged the darkness. At that, the thrill of fear, which called us to attention and sobriety, may give way to a thrill of hope.

Happy Christmastide, friends!

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False joys say ever, “I am for th’grasping” —
Then flee, like smoke, through fingers as they close;
Faithful joys are only for the asking,
And only in th’open hand find repose.

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I find it quite astounding that I have never seen or heard any commentator point out the striking connections between the forty-third Psalm and the beginning of chapter 14 of St John’s gospel.

“O send forth thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling.”  Psalm 43:3

“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will lead you to myself, that where I am, you may be also. . . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.”  St John 14:1-3, 6

In this — one of the most controversial statements if not the most controversial statement uttered by Jesus — our Lord presents Himself, among other things, as the answer to the Psalmist’s plea that God send forth His light and His truth.  The Psalmist cried out in distress for a bright and faithful search party to take him to the dwelling of God.  And here is Christ Jesus.

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O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.[1]

Lent is nearly upon us once again.  And the Church’s last signpost before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, tells us plainly the motive and end of our Lenten fast: love.  We fast that we may better love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  If we fast with anything else as our motive, to attain a different goal, our fasting is worthless.

The morning Old Testament lesson for the last Sunday before Lent, from Deuteronomy 10, is a command to the Israelites to love the LORD, their covenant God, and serve Him with all their heart and soul.  The evening Old Testament, from Leviticus 19, tells of our high duty to our neighbors: to love them as ourselves.  And the morning and evening New Testament – from 1 St John 2 and 4, respectively – reiterate the same commandments, in light of the fact that they have now been perfectly embodied and brought to completion in Jesus Christ.

As we prepare to step into Lent, then, it’s worth taking a little time looking through 1 St John. Along with the famous thirteenth chapter of St Paul’s first letter to Corinth, John’s first epistle is perhaps the best place to go to answer to the question, “what is love?”

I.             Love, warm as a beam from the rising sun

It takes John a little while to get to that question. He starts his letter where he starts his Gospel: On “the word of life,” which was with the Father and then “made manifest.”  Then he writes of fellowship, joy, light versus darkness (righteousness versus sin, truth versus falsehood, openness versus shadiness), his purpose for writing, Christ’s dying as a propitiation for the sins of the world, knowing God in Christ, keeping the commandments.  Only at the end of a sentence about keeping the commandments does John first drop the word “love” on us: “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”

John’s delay in getting here says nothing about the importance of love in his letter. After he drops the word once, he keeps dropping it all over the heart of his letter (chapters 2-4), stressing over and over love’s paramount importance.  But John’s decision to cover several other things in his letter before first using the word “love” does tell us that the kind of love about which he is speaking isn’t an isolated virtue, and cannot be removed from the context of a peculiar community, a particular calling, and a specific story. The commandment to love is at once old (given by Moses) and new (given and brought to completion by Jesus[2]). It is manifestly true in Jesus, and – as “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” – it is becoming true in his letter’s readers, as they learn to follow the Christ who loved them to the utmost.[3]

In short, the love of which John speaks is warm, reliably warm as the rays of the rising sun.

II.            Love, keen as a well-whetted blade

The constancy of John’s directions to pursue this kind of love makes all the more arresting his admonition “do not love the world.”  This, from the apostle who elsewhere tells us that God loved the world, and that Christ is the propitiation, not only for our sins, but also those of the whole world.  What gives?

Here we must be sharp about John’s meaning: what exactly is the “world” we ought not love? John tells us by describing its contents. These are not the earth and the men and women who live in it. Rather, they are the inordinate desires of the flesh and eyes,[4] and pride in possessions. Spend fifteen minutes watching ads and you’ll get a pretty clear picture of what John means by the world. The world holds up certain things and says we need them, like yesterday. It tells us to pursue these things with all our might, at the expense of whomever or whatever might stand in our way. And if we succeed in attaining the things the world says we should want, it tells us we ought to be proud of that.

The trouble, John tells us, is that if a man loves the world and chases its sundry vanities and fashions, the “love of the Father is not in him.” Our love to God and our neighbor must be as keen, as vigilantly jealous, as it is warm. If it isn’t, then it isn’t the genuine article, and it will wither and die.

III.           The end of Lenten fasting

This brings us back, at last, to Lent.  Among the riches St John has bequeathed to us in his first epistle, he has given the Church a fantastic Lenten prologue, setting before her the glorious end of love for which she fasts.  If we are to train our eyes to look ever to God and our neighbors in love, as John tells us we must, there is nothing for us but to wean ourselves off the love of the world. We put out the fires that burn in our flesh, and put right the various distortions that affect our eyes. We do this because we know how fickle our love to our neighbors will be if we are covetous, gluttonous, lascivious, despotic, and grasping – as we are, far too often.  And because we know that to the extent that we hold our possessions proudly – as we do, far too often – so that we cannot give them away even to meet someone else’s legitimate need, God’s love cannot abide in us.[5]

For that, we fast.


[1] The Collect for the Sunday next before Lent, called Quinquagesima.

[2] Cf. St John 13:34-35.

[3] St John 13:1

[4] The translations don’t usually attach the adjective inordinate to “desire” in 1 St John 2:16, but “inordinate desire” is a better translation of the Greek word here (epithumia) than “desire.” Even without knowledge of the Greek, the whole context of the letter should tell us that John isn’t condemning desire per se. He appeals to his readers’ legitimate desires often enough, and is so insistent about the paramount importance of Jesus’s incarnation, to tip us off that he doesn’t think “flesh” is evil per se, and that he’s not pressing us to seek some kind of otherworldly, incorporeal nirvana.

[5] 1 St John 3:17.

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