I was nine years old and my family was on a camping holiday in the summer resort area of Arrowtown, but a stones-throw from the now fashionable ski resort of Queenstown in Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. Each night the campsite hosted an evangelistic group, part of the Billy Graham Crusade, who showed movies and then issued a familiar evangelical ‘altar’ call. I remember thinking that I did want to put my hand in the hand of Jesus and make him my Lord and Savior. So I heeded the call and went up.
Did I understand the meaning of my action? No, I didn’t. Yet, I was motivated by something strongly felt within. Afterward, the evangelists escorted their new convert back to his family campsite, whereupon my essentially secular-minded parents reacted with concealed horror and quickly sent them away. I don’t know if a fear of child grooming was in their minds – in those far of days of social innocence concerning child abuse, I doubt it. Yet, an anxiety had raised its head; the anxiety of their son becoming one of those nutty religious people.
My essential childhood rebellion was, in fact, to become religious. Not in the nutty evangelical way my parents feared, but in a more conventional manner. After a flirtation with the heady energy generated by Vatican II Catholicism, I became a lifelong convert to Anglicanism – admittedly of a colorful Anglocatholic variety.
It seems strange and certainly unfamiliar to place the verb convert and Anglican in the same sentence. As the old Episcopal joke goes, those who should be Episcopalian already are. But conversion is what happened to me. My 9-year-old inarticulate desire to place my hand in the hand of Jesus found its fruition when at 15 I discovered the inestimable joys and richnesses of my first Choral Evensong.
Over the past five weeks, we have been invited into an intimate engagement with God through Jesus. In John, the identities of God and Jesus are impossible to separate out. This merging of identities between Jesus and God is a principal aspect of the theology of John’s Gospel, a theology of intimacy and the primacy of love mediated only through relationship.
This year’s Lent program Meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John has welcomed us into a relationship with John’s theological priorities via short and pithy one or two liners, each a daily text upon which we have been invited to meditate and journal our thoughts and responses. I haven’t managed to journal every day, yet nevertheless, each day I have been reminded of my 9-year-old self’s desire to place my hand in the hand of Jesus. My 9-year-old self-felt the intimation of something it didn’t really understand. Today, some 54 years later, I now understand it as an early soul yearning.
Soul yearning is a painful business because the yearning seems never to be fulfilled in the manner we expect.
Where are we to find God?
We approach John with confidence in its canonical status. We notice that it’s a different kind of chronicle from the synoptic tradition represented in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, but nevertheless, we assume its ‘gospel truth’ and we normally don’t puzzle much over how different John is from the other gospels. Yet, such is the difference between John and the synoptic tradition that it’s an amazing thing that the Church ever thought of putting John on an equal footing alongside the other three.
In the gospel for Lent V we listen-in on a snatch of conversation between Philip and a group of Greeks – maybe Greeks, maybe Hellenized Jews, it’s hard to know. But the gist is they approach Philip and ask him: Sir, we want to see Jesus. The Johannine Community was formed from at least three very different groups coalescing around the teaching of the man we identify as John the Evangelist; a gradual process beginning in second half of the 1st-century A.D. and completed around A.D. 90 with the writing of the gospel.
The alchemy of this process of assimilation led to the development of a distinctive theology that emphasized a high Christology that placed Jesus and God on the equal footing of preexistence. Drawing from the imagery of the opening verses of Genesis John begins with:
in the beginning was the Word (Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John’s Jesus is no longer the earthly Son of God, but the Logos or Word of God. God is Love, and Jesus is the divine communication of Love. Jesus becomes human in order to share with the world what divine Love looks like. The model of the relationship between God and Jesus then becomes the template for the relationship with divine Love for those who come to believe in Jesus. Believing is thus the paramount human response to God for John. Jesus’ commandment to those who come to believe in him as divine communicative Love is likewise simple;
love one another! By this shall the world know that they are of God.
Another distinctive aspect of the Johannine Community and its theology was the way the Holy Spirit becomes a personalized presence in each believer. Each believer is personally guided by the Holy Spirit. This gives the Johannine community a flattened hierarchy. It lacks an Apostolic teaching authority. Neither does it seems to need sacred spaces and rituals to worship God. John’s message is that God is worshiped only in Spirit and truth among those who practice the commandment to love one another.
John’s community is known as the beloved community. In his Gospel, everyone is simply a disciple following the inspired personal direction of the Spirit. The beloved community traces its identity through a collective memory not to Peter and the other Apostles, but to the disciple Jesus loved – the disciple known as John, the one who placed his head on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper.
The end result of the absence of structure and hierarchical order, with everyone a free agent under the personal tutelage of the Holy Spirit, rendered the Johannine Community vulnerable to splits. In the early decades of the 2nd-century, we find in the 1st Epistle of John, written not by the same author as the gospel, the outlines of a condemnation of a secessionist movement within the beloved community.
John’s beloved community splits asunder in the second decade of the 2nd-century A.D. The split is essentially over what it means to yearn for intimacy with God – or as I have put it – to place one’s hand in the hand of Jesus. The secessionists, perhaps the larger part of the Johannine Community, played down the earthy importance of the incarnate Jesus, believing that they enjoyed a direct intimacy with God through the Holy Spirit. For them Jesus became redundant. Consequently, they no longer felt bound by the commandment to love one another as the principal hallmark of membership in the beloved community.
The remnant of the beloved community in response now draws closer to the Apostolic Christians who receive them in, eventually embracing their high Christology as a defense against the threat from the secessionist gnostic heresies of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The Apostolic Church gradually accepted the writing of John the Evangelist as a gospel, and by the end of the 2nd century has placed it in the canon alongside that of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
What kind of God do we desire?
The renowned Catholic scholar on John, Raymond Brown summarizes the importance of placing John’s Gospel alongside Mark’s, Matthew’s, and Luke’s. The Apostolic Church:
Chose not a Jesus who is either God or man but both; it has chosen not a Jesus who is either virginally conceived as God’s son or preexistent as God’s son but both; not either a Spirit who is given to an authoritative teaching magisterium or the Paraclete-teacher who is given to each Christian but both; not a Peter or a Beloved Disciple but both. (Raymond Brown. The Community of the Beloved Disciple)
The Old Testament lesson on Lent V comes from the 31st chapter of the Prophecies of Jeremiah. In it Jeremiah looks toward a new dawn when God will make a new beginning with Israel:
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts … No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…
Jeremiah’s proclamation witnesses to an older and enduring human desire to place our hands in the hand of God and to know God not as other, but as intimate self. Both Jeremiah and John the Evangelist emphasize that this self-giving of God is to us as a people and not a personal gift to us as isolated individuals.
I think I was a lonely 9-year-old. Perhaps I felt no less lonely at 15, yet what I discovered then was that God found me in and through my encounter with a community.
My conversion was an experience not of finding, but of being found within a community at worship.
Since then, the continued pain and frustration of my futile search for God is because I keep forgetting that God finds me only in the presence of others, and not on my own.
Somehow this feels less of a gift to me than my expectation of being found personally, and uniquely.
In the face of my individual yearning to capture God and hold him to myself, God remains elusive.
We can so easily cast ourselves in the role of the seeker, diligently searching for God. Why is this? I think it’s because when we are the seeker, God hides. God hides, not from our soul’s desire, but from our searching-seeking-ego driven selves. In all our searching we fail to remember that God’s promise to us, a promise that echoes across transgenerational time from Jeremiah to John the Evangelist, is that God has first and foremost found us. We are not those who need to seek God, we are those who need to realize what it means to be already found by God.
The tension that destroyed the beloved community lay between those who believed that they could find God in an individual, personal, and privately special experience and those who believed God had already found them through their participation in the beloved community. It was these Johannine Christians who rejoined the church of the Apostles, which also believed that we are found by God in community, as a people.
As Anglican Christians, Episcopalians belong to this ancient Apostolic Tradition. We place community worship and solidarity of social action at the heart of any experience of being found by God. By being faithfully present in worship we commit ourselves to social solidarity with others, not in order to seek God, but because, together we hold to the promise from God that we have already been found
As we enter into the season of our Lord’s Passion; as we walk with him the way of the cross, we do not make this journey privately or individually, but in the company of others. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. I invite you to be present this Easter not just on Good Friday or Easter Sunday, but throughout the unfolding of the liturgical journey throughout Holy Week leading into the Great Three Days of Easter. Be present with us as members of a community walking with Jesus to the foot of the cross – and from there, to journey on into the experience of new life on Easter morn.