The Fourth Gospel addresses itself to the challenges posed by Judaism and others outside Johannine circles who have rejected the community’s vision of Jesus as preexistent Son, sent by the Father. The epistles (First, Second, and Third John) “describe the fracturing of the Johannine community itself.”
-The New Jerome Biblical Commentary
It helps to know some context around this scripture, which is the Epistle in The Daily Office, scriptures set forth for every day of the liturgical year. John is a great preacher, but like every other preacher in the WORLD, his church has certain…… issues. Everything they fought about went to blows, so basically this scripture is a tactful, serene way of saying “shut the fuck up and behave.” Does that IN ANY WAY sound familiar to those of you in the church today? For instance, how many of you have walked into a Church of Christ thinking it was a United Church of Christ or vice versa?
The funniest time I ever saw it play out in front of me, I was on the floor with laughter. Picture it. Our church is a bunch of ragtag social do-gooders intent on saving the world one protest march at a time. The minister is a lesbian. During the worship service, we celebrated a much-beloved lesbian couple’s decision to marry. During all of this, a black family dressed to the nines (big damn hat on the mother, cornrows and a white frilly dress for the little girl, dark suit and polished shoes for the father) walked in and sat in one of the transepts. They sat there for a grand total of five minutes before they got up and walked out. It was then that I realized there was a huge conservative black church across the street, and they’d simply walked into the wrong one. What’s the matter? They’re both UCC!
They were not fishes out of water because of their race; we were excited in an “oh man we might have a new kid” sort of way, and she was gorgeous in her Sunday best.
No, they were out of place because their church didn’t believe the same as our church and hilarity ensued. Afterward, we all laughed about what a shock it must have been for them to see a lesbian couple in front of the congregation getting a blessing… just as it would have been odd for me to go to their church and listen to the fire and brimstone that tells me I’m just not right with God.
I am often not right with God, but not about that.
Anyway, the clashes in John’s ministry were exactly this type. One group had one set of customs where another group believed the exact opposite…. and they were trying to build a unified church. John reprimands them in this first letter: “whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” He is not talking about non-believers. He is talking about those who choose infighting OVER love.
Today is the day that we celebrate the birth of Christ in all his eight pound glory… but the best part of the story is where we go from here. We’ve seen it. Now we’ve got to WALK IT. John addresses it here: “so we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” He has no use for church members that choose to violently argue at the expense of tearing apart The Church (universal) altogether.
The Greek word used to describe the type of love he envisions is agape. Agape is not the type of love that you have for your partner. It’s the type of love that you ascribe to give to everyone, and hope that they ascribe to give it back. Agape is the unconditional acceptance of who someone is, and loving them despite their flaws. Churches do not function without it, because Edna ALWAYS BRINGS THE COOKIES and because RUTH had the AUDACITY to bring cookies as well, they both get butt-hurt because of course only one church member can receive compliments at a time.
Or how about HUGE donors that create an unbending power structure in a church so that new members don’t have a chance to “plug in?” No one else ever gets to be important, because the Smiths and the Walters paid good money for that elevator.
We don’t even have to get that personal. The Religious Right hates The Religious Left on principle, and there is no love lost on The Left, either. At this very moment, the state of American Christianity would give John a nervous breakdown. Because of John, I see things differently now than I did when I woke up this morning.
The job that neither side is doing is trying to resolve the conflict in the catholic church indivisible. We are all guilty of thinking things about “the other side” that aren’t even close to the unity that John envisioned.
So, how do we get past it?
People have flaws, and they drive you crazy. Love them anyway.
People fight without gloves on, and they say things in anger. Love them anyway.
People do not own their behavior, and make up excuses as to why it’s not “their fault.” Love them anyway.
People run to get away from their mistakes. Love them anyway.
With agape, a lot of it is empathy toward one another’s humanness. To see beyond anger, and ask the questions sliding toward resolution.
That’s because most of the time, anger is actually fear. People are all notorious for covering anxiety with rage, because then they think that people can’t find out what they’re scared of in the first place. My greatest fear has always been someone finding out my greatest fear. I think a lot of people share that sentiment. It’s not the secret that matters, it’s that someone knows what it is.
If you cannot have empathy for fears like that, perhaps it’s a good place to start. John would agree. He says, “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” Some people choose to focus on the sacrificial atonement piece of this paragraph, that Jesus was sent to redeem the sins of the world.
But that’s not where we are in the story, yet. Jesus was just born this morning. We are in the infant stages of learning how to bring Christ’s love into the world based on HOW HE LIVED. Jesus defined agape wherever he went, because even though he occasionally gets angry, he is able to forgive himself for it and it gets him in touch with his inner jackass. We all have one. We all accidentally (or not) let him/her out in fits of inappropriate rage.
It will never matter if you get angry, because EVERYONE DOES. It matters if you stay there. One grudge becomes another until you can’t remember what the original fight was about and you’re happy to stay mad, anyway.
But I’m not just talking about you. I’m also talking about your church, your government, your world.
So, if this happens to everyone all the time, what is the answer? How do we regain agape from what has been torn? If you figure it out, could you let me know?
I can only share the answer that works for me. I breathe deeply. I write about my feelings and walk away from them so that I can come back and see whether I still feel that way or not. I am very conscious and deliberate about the words I use and what they mean to me. I cannot prepare for the reaction to them, but I can for damn sure be responsible for what I put out into the world.
So. Can. You.
If John is the pastor telling you that God is love and to live in it, then part of love is breathing before you speak. It doesn’t come naturally to me all that often. I have to disconnect my emotions so that I don’t flood out and I can see emotions for what they are. I am vulnerable to a fault because I believe that I cannot be a preacher or pastor without being willing to be up front about the fact that you are not getting a perfect person. You are getting a perfect IDEA through me.
And that idea is to just love the baby as much as you can, and let that baby love you.
In all your flaws.
In all your weaknesses.
In all your beautiful splendor.
Praying on the spaces………………………..