Today the lectionary offers us two texts from the Johannine literature: a portion of the first letter of John, and a passage from John’s Gospel. Let me start with a little explanation – beginning with a word I just used: Johannine. It’s based on a form the name John – the name associated with the fourth Gospel, the fourth of the four books in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus’ life. There are also three epistles, three letters or documents of the early church, in the Bible that bear John’s name – First, Second, and Third John. There’s a lot of overlap in language and themes between these letters and John’s Gospel – which is itself quite distinct from the other three Gospels. Many scholars think that the primary author of the Gospel, and the writer or writers of the letters, were different people, but that they were all part of a part of a particular community within the early church – a Johannine community, with a particular understanding of Jesus and Jesus’ message and what that means for Christians living out their faith. So today’s two texts, while most likely not the same voice, have a lot in common. It’s easy to read them together.
Though this is our first sermon on it, we’ve been reading our way through 1 John for a few weeks now. We’ve heard that the world does not know us because it did not know Jesus. We’ve heard the call to love one another, for love is from God, and those who abide in love abide in God. And we heard, today, that whatever is born from God conquers the world. Even those few snippets are enough to point us towards the two central themes of this letter, woven through all five chapters: Love each other, even when it’s hard; and: Keep the world at a distance.
David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament uses the Greek word “cosmos” instead of translating it into “world.” Hart explains that he does this in the hope of helping us hear the expansiveness of what’s being named. In this letter’s original time and place, “cosmos” would have encompassed the human, natural, and supernatural worlds. And it’s clear that for the author of First John, the cosmos is dangerous – aligned against the believers. Do not be astonished if the world hates you, says chapter 3, verse 13. Further, this author believes that an evil power is at work in the world, the cosmos. “You are from God, little children… [and] the one that is in you is greater than the one that is in the cosmos.” (4:4) And right at the end of the letter – “We know that we are of God, and that the whole cosmos rests entirely upon the wicked one.” (5:19)
The looming dangers of the cosmos are precisely why it’s so important for Christians to love one another; how else could they survive and stay faithful?
Hart is probably right that we lack the cosmic sensibility of this letter’s original audience. But we can still hear the phrase “the world” in a context like this and make some sense of it. We can gesture to the surrounding culture and society, outside of the church and its worldview and commitments.
Some of you, I know, have spent part of your lives in evangelical churches – and most of us are at least passingly familiar with evangelical Christianity. One defining characteristic of that family of churches is a sense of a very clear line between church and world. Like the author of letters of John, evangelical Christians have a clear sense that there’s a way the World does things, and a way Christians do things – and that they are and must be different. That’s why there’s so much stuff that’s kind of an evangelical alternative to trends in the surrounding culture. Christian alternatives to Harry Potter; Christian raves; Christian skateboarding. Who remembers pogs? … I don’t know why this came to mind when I was working on this sermon, but Google confirmed my hunch: YES, there were Christian pogs.
And of course plenty of Christian rock and roll… which I mostly don’t know, because I was raised in the Episcopal church, and Episcopalians just let their kids listen to regular rock and roll.
Episcopal and Anglican relationships with “the world” have always been more nuanced – or maybe just messier. We are Christians who believe God is at work in the world outside the walls of the church – a mindset that probably springs from our origins as a national church. It’s in our DNA as a family of faith to believe that God’s purposes can be fulfilled and even revealed by wholly secular institutions and movements.
There are many moments and choices in Anglican history that illustrate that tendency. In the late 20th century, both the ordination of women and the full sacramental inclusion of LGBTQ+ people followed in large part from new understandings emerging in the wider society. I hasten to say that our church did not, as critics sometimes claim, simply take on whatever had become the prevailing cultural idea. These things were matters of profound discernment and struggle. Those advocating for change and those with the power to make change studied Scripture, sought direction from the Holy Spirit, and wondered together as a body, on the way to clarity.
I hasten to say that sexism and homophobia remain realities in the life of our institutional church. We have not fully lived up to our intentions. But it’s nonetheless important that those intentions have been clearly named. It gives us something to measure our failures against, something to strive to live out more truly. Right now, the fresh reckoning with racism in our wider society is spurring a renewed exploration and re-commitment to change within the Episcopal Church as well. If you’re interested in knowing more about that, let me know. Overall: Our church has often found “the world” to be a source of revelation about God’s hopes for humanity and creation.
At the same time: There is something I recognize in 1 John’s call to caution about the world. In the letter of James, which we’re reading in Compline, James says: Keep yourself uncontaminated by the world. Not 1 John’s words, but very much their sentiment. And, you know: I get it. Not everything about our surrounding society is great. In fact, a lot of it is pretty messed up. Contamination – or staining, in some translations of that verse from James – is an apt image. Consider racism. Fears and assumptions about African-American people live in my head. I didn’t choose that stuff, or seek it out; I work to fight and transform it within myself; but it has leached in from the culture. Many other examples are possible.
So: As Christians in the Episcopal way, our relationship with the world – with the cultural, social, economic and political landscape in which we live – is complicated. It’s certainly not all bad. It’s certainly not all good. Discernment is required. Thoughtfulness and prayerfulness are required.
Today’s Johannine texts offer us a couple of tools for that work.One, of course, is love. The Johannine texts are crystal clear that love is a hallmark of God’s people. To abide in love is to abide in God. This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.
It’s easy to name love as a tool for assessing what happens in the world around us, and our right response. Applying it is not always so easy.
Today, the city of Madison will evict homeless people who have been camping together, as a community, at Reindahl Park, over near the airport. Neighbors and other park users don’t like having them there, and the city would rather have them in the shelter system. It’s a complicated issue with a lot of perspectives to consider. St. Dunstan’s is far from the areas where Madison’s unhoused population is concentrated. But I’ve met and talked with a few unhoused folks over the years who were staying in this part of town, precisely BECAUSE we’re far away. I’ve heard from them about some of the reasons people choose not to enter the shelter system. The crowding and lack of privacy can be tough for some. Especially for moms with young children, or for people with PTSD or other reasons to just need their space. They may have substance abuse challenges that make it really difficult to work with the shelter’s requirements. They may just really dislike being thrown together with a lot of people whose company they didn’t choose. I think the decision to camp in a park instead of living in a shelter is especially understandable during a pandemic!
What I’ve learned from these conversations is that some people will tolerate a LOT of discomfort and inconvenience, to avoid the shelter system. I understand why the city would like to simply bring all these folks into shelter. But it seems to me as if their needs and concerns have not been truly heard and addressed. I don’t know what the right answer is. But I believe more loving solution should be possible.
The loving path, the loving choice, isn’t always obvious. It certainly isn’t always easy. But it’s always important. It’s always worth seeking.
And then there’s another tool for discernment that today’s Gospel offers us: Joy. Jesus tells his friends, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Pause and take that in. Where churches have long spoken of God’s anger and human shame, Jesus speaks of inviting us into holy joy.
What moments come to mind when you think about joy? What does joy feel like in your body? Joy is different from happiness. You can choose to do things that will probably make you happy. Joy shows up on its own. You can’t force it. J.D. Salinger wrote that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid. C. S. Lewis wrote that joy “dashes in with the agility of a hummingbird claiming its nectar from the flower, and then zips away… leaving a wake of mystery and longing behind it.”
Here are some times when I feel joy – always only sometimes: When I’m learning something new. When I’m sharing experiences with those I love best. When I’m doing my work and can feel that I’m doing it well, serving you well, serving God well.
Joy is an elusive tool for discerning where God may be at work in the cosmos around us. But I think it’s a valuable tool nonetheless. When you experience joy – well, when you experience joy, just be present to it! But later, when you recall and savor that moment, you could ask yourself: Does that joy have something to teach me? Does this joy point me towards anything? For myself? For others?
Joy and love are holy gifts to us – and holy calls upon us. With hearts and minds open to both blessing and brokenness, opportunity and challenge – may love and joy guide us, as God’s people in the world. Amen.