Love Engages 04/22/2018
Sojourn Sermon – 1 John 3:14-24 – April 22nd 2018
This book we now call 1 John presents a number of difficulties to a modern reader. It’s confusing for one thing. Nearly every commentary and article attempting to deal with 1 John begins by acknowledging that is has no real discernable structure. Efforts to explain the text’s arrangement vary widely and are often unconvincing.
1 John presents another problem. Despite the fact the overall argument seems almost incoherent, the rhetorical techniques are quite clear. The author, often thought either to be John son of Zebedee or someone emerging from his theological tradition, employs a dialectic, offering a series of theses and antitheses in binary opposition to one another. Notice how the author begins the discussion in Chapter 1.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light, as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin.”
The thesis in this early section of 1 John is that “God is light.” The antithesis is that “evil is darkness.” There are those that walk in the light, and they are of God. There are those that walk in darkness, and they are not of God. You can see how these positions are in opposition to one another. There is a tensions between the two, and these two positions are mutually exclusive. You cannot be in the light while also in the darkness and vice versa.
This dialectical technique recurs again and again throughout the text. John speaks about those who know they sin, who confess, and are forgiven. And about those who say they do not sin, who lie, and do not have the truth in them. We find this same technique being employed in the section of text we just read. There are those who love and they are of God, and there are who hate and are not of God.
John is basically describing two groups of people: an in group and an out group. Those who live consistently with the message that was handed down to them, which originated with Jesus, and those who do not. But this theology of in and out is problematic, especially for those of us living in the postmodern world because we know how the binaries break down. Many of us have probably come to see Jesus as someone who cross boundaries rather than erect them.
Many commentators agree that the historical setting of this letter was that it was written in response to a major split in the community of John. The letter mentions a group that had “gone out,” or left. We get the sense that this letter was penned by a leader, trying to galvanize his or her community, and to reassure them that they, indeed, are on the right side. So this dialectical technique that we can discern in the letter is an attempt for John to define this community.
So John offers this word of comfort, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” We know, the author says, that we have experienced a kind of new life because of the great love we have for each other. If I can put it another way, if our community can be characterized by the Christ like love that we have for each other, a love that emulates the kind of self-offering we see in Jesus, then we can be sure that our Gospel is true.
If our gospel is defined by those we hate, those whom we believe to be other than us and perhaps are unwelcome, then we are as good as murders, the text says, and we abide in death.
I’m tempted, this evening, to draw similar boundaries. I could, at the drop of a hate, list those leaders, those communities who, from my perspective, define themselves by those they hate. I could give theological and philosophical critiques of their positions that show how their message has deviated from the message they received from Jesus Christ, and I submit, that my critiques would be pretty darn good. But there’s a danger here. The danger is that we might form what I am going to call an “easy other.”
In using this this term “easy other,” I am referring to a group whose beliefs and systems of thought seem to differ so greatly from our community that it is inconceivable that they may be a part of our community. It is easy to designate them as other. Just like most things in life, there are certain degrees to this formation of an other. It can happen at interpersonal levels, communal levels, and even national and cultural levels. Perhaps the most famous example of the formation of an easy other can be found in how the Greeks viewed peoples who didn’t speak Greek. Anyone who did not speak Greek was simply referred to as a Barbarian because, to the Greeks, these other languages sounded like “bar bar bar bar.”
John began his text by drawing on images of light and darkness, and in many ways I think that these images are metonymic or a kind of catchall phrase that can be used to characterize all the different dichotomies the author presents. It can be said without much contention, I think, that, according to John, those who love walk in the light and those who hate walk in darkness.
These images of light and darkness are important biblical images and they have figured prominently in the ways the people of God have understood themselves. A good example of how these images have been used can be found in Isaiah 42. In this section of Isaiah, Chapters 40-55, we find what has often been called “the servant songs,” where the prophet speaks about God’s idyllic servant, who, at long last, will fulfill God’s purposes on earth.
In Chapter 42, the prophet, speaking from the perspective of God, has this to say about God’s chosen servant:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
As with everything in the Bible, debate rages about the identity of the servant in this passage. Some suggest the servant is Israel, and the promise here is that God will restore Israel to her place as God’s chosen people and she will finally fulfill her calling, which was promised to Abraham: that his descendants will be a blessing to the nations. Others suggest that the servant here is Cyrus the Persian, who conquered Babylon in the late sixth century BCE and allowed the captive Israelites to return to their homeland. Still others interpret this as a promise of a Messianic ruler, like Jesus, who will execute God’s justice in the world. I would suggest to that all three are probably equally true because it’s rare for scripture, or any text for that matter, to have just one meaning.
I bring this Isaiah text into our consideration tonight because it adds an important perspective as to what it means for the people of God to be in the light. It is not enough to simply be in the light. Those who are in the light must also spread the light in order that God’s righteousness might stretch to the ends of the earth. Throughout the history of the church, this project of has been called evangelism. Spreading the gospel. The call of Isaiah 42 is passed to the church in Matthew 25 in what is often called the “Great commission,” “Go,” Jesus says before he ascends into heaven, “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, the son, and holy spirit.” This is of course an important part of what it means to be the people of God, that those of us who are in the light must share the light with others. This is the point of John’s dichotomy. That those who walk in darkness need the light.
Some of you are probably uneasy about the term evangelism. If you’re background is similar to mine, you might be having flash backs of going door to door trying to get people saved. Perhaps your uneasiness is well founded because this term has given rise to some disastrous things.
As I was contemplating John’s dichotomy between light and darkness and all the implied dialectical terms these words encompass, I found myself contemplating what is probably the most studied book in the western canon outside the bible, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. If you’ve never read the book, maybe don’t. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian literary critic, says that its racist and xenophobic themes make it unacceptable as a work of great art. That’s probably true. If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now, who basically know the story.
The book characterizes Africa as the opposite of Europe, its people, the book makes no distinction between the plethora of people there, lack civilization and are presented as violent and superstitious. Heart of Darkness offers a wonderful example of the late Victorian “easy other.” The colonial subject, someone whose customs differ so greatly from those who colonized him that he cannot be conceived as part of the colonizers group.
The colonial project, although it was political and imperial, was condoned and encouraged by an evangelical theology. It was made palatable by drawing binaries between and in group and an out group, those in the light and those in the darkness, and by the impetus to spread the light into the Heart of Darkness. It was driven by the idea that European Christians were called to be a light to the nations. It is no wonder why we are so uneasy about the word evangelism, and why we find the concept of binary opposition so problematic.
This weekend I was lucky enough to be at the Mountain States Faith and Life Forum in La Junta listening to a man named John Sharp. Some of you might know the story of his son, Michael, or MJ as he was known to his friends and family. MJ was an American UN investigator, a Mennonite, who was killed while on assignment in the Congo. There is some international debate about who killed MJ and his colleague Zaida, but the American mission to the UN and the FBI are fairly certain it was the Congolese government who killed them because they had been reporting on human rights violations carried out by the government.
MJ, according to his father, was a man dedicated to the peace process in Congo, he spent years in the Congo with Mennonite Central Committee or MCC. He had been sent to Congo once before as UN investigator.
MJ had been involved with a program called peace and reconciliation where he went to meet personally with militia leaders in order to negotiate the demilitarization of their group. MJ’s colleagues told his family that he helped 1600 fighters lay down their weapons, and 23,000 family members return to their homes with the demilitarized militia.
According to his father, when asked, “What do you say those leaders of armed militias.” MJ shrugged and responded, “You can always listen.”
I want to tread very carefully here, because I realized that I have wandered into a neocolonial minefield. Many of you are probably familiar with the concept of a “white savior.” The stereotype is of a white westerner who believe he or she can go to place of the world where really complicated problems persist and that, on the basis or our advanced capacity for civilizing, this white westerner will be able to solve those problems. Of course that’s colonialism all over again.
What I what to suggest to you instead is that MJ’s story invites us to transform our ways of thinking that give rise to the easy other. I want to suggest to you that MJ’s story teaches us that those whose beliefs and systems of thought are so radically different from our own may not, in fact, present us with opportunities to by right or to prove ourselves, but to transform what we previously thought possible through active engagement.
This is a difficult path. The easy path would be to disengage. The easy path would be that we separate ourselves from those whose beliefs and systems of thought differ greatly from our own, to name ourselves as those who are in the light, and try convince everyone that we are correct, we’re the one who’ve got it right.
But then who are we? If I’m not mistaken, we’ve just aligned ourselves, not with John and his community, but those who had gone out. Who left.
I found this text to be particularly helpful this week. Psalm 139:12, speaking of God, “Even the darkness is as light to you. The night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” The reality of course is there is wrong belief in the world. There are those systems of thought that are violent and dehumanizing. But part of the radical nature of the Gospel is that such beliefs and systems of thought are not justification to disengage, to dichotomize, and exclude. The message of the gospel is not that we dig in and hold fast to our feeling of authority. The message of the Gospel is that we seek avenues of mutual transformation and that through the grace of God such mutual transformation is possible.
Like it or not, believe it or not, this is an evangelical faith. To seek these avenues of mutual transformation is to conceive of such a possibility as a light to the nations. It is to name those beliefs and systems of thought that divide and dichotomize as darkness, and, in some paradoxical way, to view this dichotomy as deeply unsatisfying and itself in need of active engagement and transformation. Welcome to the unsteady and dangerous walk that is the path of Jesus.
John’s word to his community is instructive for us today, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us and we should lay down our lives for one another.”
To build an easy other is to disengage. It is to deny those differ from us the complexity that goes along with human experience. This is not love. This is self-preservation. It is an attempt to turn those with whom we disagree and from whom we differ into someone who is not worth giving our life for, and that is a deviation from the message we’ve received in Jesus.
We can form easy others in our families, our work places, and in our neighborhoods. They can occur at national and cultural levels. Those whom we designate as other can differ from us politically and culturally. What is common to all these characterizations is that we refuse to engage meaningfully in ways that can lead to mutual transformation. When we resist this tendency and engage, I suggest to you that this is really what it means to be a light to the nations. This is evangelism proper.
As I said in the beginning, 1 John is confusing, but I think it invites us into a transformative space that causes us to ask really hard questions about how we relate to those who are different from us. Imagine a church who listens more.