A Johannine Inspiration

I John 4: 7-12

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John is the ‘spiritual gospel’. The gospel and the letters named for John, including our lesson read earlier, were given their shared name long ago.  So named in the second century by a person whom once we termed a ‘church father’ but term such an one such no longer, rather saying an ‘early Christian writer’, the Johannine literature has long inspired poetry.

From the doors just west of us on the Marsh Plaza emerge every spring a class of soon to be preachers, holding Bibles in their right hands and massive debt in their left.  By July 1 they are in pulpits, preaching, preaching every Sunday a Sunday sermon, ‘about God and about 20 minutes’, for forty years. Some of those sermons will come from John.

Come Saturday night they will begin to write their sermons.  They will find in the passages to be read from John various troubling, troublesome, troublous passages. It is a diachronic reading of John, one that looks at its place and time, its community of origin, its sitz im leben, or life setting, which frees, and which alone can give a measure of the promise of 8:32, ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’.  Coming down from the STH steps, Bible in one hand and massive debt in the other, our students, one hopes, will also have acquired some pious understanding of John’s history and theology.

They will have learned that the phrase ‘the Jews’ does not mean ‘the Jews’, but grew up in the year 90ad out of a painful separation of Christian Jews from Jewish Christians.  The community behind John contested with those whom they referred by this phrase, even though they, the Jews, were their own kin.  They themselves were Jews too! These passages in John are to be understood historically and theologically as a particularly dark moment in the Christian tradition of anti-semitism. Our students need to know this first, and more.

John’s Jesus makes several remarkable claims, given Philippians 2 and Matthew 5.  Are many of them historically reliable?  No.  They reflect a changed understanding of the Christ, hard won and hard earned.  The titles for Christ—Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man—come from different points it the community’s journey, history, and theology.  Our students need to know this first, and more.

John’s community has suffered trauma that has caused change.  Trauma brings change.  They have suffered the trauma of disappointment.  The end of the world which they expected did not come, disappointingly enough.  They found the courage to admit it, and change.  That is, in disappointment they discovered freedom.  They also have suffered the trauma of dislocation.  They have been thrown out of their religious home, de-synagogued if you will, and are wandering out in the street when they write.  They lost their mother tongue, mother land, mother tradition, which is huge dislocation.  They found the courage to face it, and change.  That is, in dislocation they discovered grace.  Paul, who did not write or know John, might well have said, see, I told you, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’.  And, mirable dictu, in the cross of Christ and in the loss of John, this ancient faith community uncovered a way to love. Our students need to know this first, and more.

However.  Don’t you know that life is a funny old dog?  For six years I have along side me as teaching assistant a most brilliant, funny, young mother of two, Episcopal priest.  She is a literary critic.  She practices rhetorical criticism.  She loves poetry.  Twice a term I ask her to bring her exotic medicines, the alchemic mixtures of literary criticism to bear on our text.  I like to be magnanimous, don’t you know.  I believe in the liberal balance, don’t you know.  I honor freedom of speech in the university, don’t you know.  Plus, the students love her. The students appreciate her approach—AS AN ADDITION MIND YOU TO THE MAIN WORK OF THE COURSE.  And, I must say, I too appreciate her and love her work.  Even teachers can learn.  As that great Yankee Yogi Berra said, ‘you can observe a lot just by watching’.  ‘The old owl sits in the oak tree, the more he speaks the more he hears, the more he hears, the less he speaks, why are we not like that old owl?’

 

The Rev., now Rev. Dr. Regina Walton every term shows our students three poems which grow out of the Fourth Gospel and illumine its meaning.  For today’s Father’s Day sermon, I determined to have you hear them as well.  They are light, joy, truth, power, meaning, and love.  Gospel.  They are beautiful.  They are rhetorically beautiful religious language.  What other than such beauty, epitomized by our lesson from 1 John, will drive out the demons of hateful religious rhetoric? And they can help us, here in Boston, here in Marsh Chapel, here today.

The poet George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633.  The English Civil War occurred soon after his death, leading to ‘disestablishment’. Herbert was an ‘orator’ at Cambridge, and sickly.  From a young age he knew that he was called to write devotional poetry.  He knew John Donne, who was a friend of his mother’s.  He employs both trochaic and iambic meters.  He writes, among other things, of the soul’s call to God, and of the claim the believer has on God.  That is, in his work there is a Johannine courage.  Love made me welcome, but my soul drew back…You must sit down and taste my meat…Herbert wrote of love.  Here is a poem (you beautifully sang it a moment ago) that draws directly on John 14:17, John 6:6, and John 16:22:

The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:

Such a Way, as gives us breath:

Such a Truth as ends all strife:

And such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:

Such a Light as shows a feast:

Such a Feast as mends in length:

Such a strength as makes his guest.

Come my Joy, my Love, my Heart:

Such a Joy as none can move:

Such a Love as none can part:

Such a Heart as joyes in love.

Such a heart as joyes in love.  As a pastor in this community, Marsh Chapel, I have the privilege of seeing women and men struggling to live in faith, and doing so by inspiration.   In our community we are expecting a birth or two, fairly soon, a joy in love.  In our community we have couples who are in the throes of making marriage work and work better, a joy in love.  In our community we have dads and moms whose sons and daughters are in armed service, and they are praying for their safe returns, a joy in love.  In our community we have some who struggle with the challenges, physical and personal, of aging, and are finding healing care, a joy in love.  In our community we have students who are learning to learn what they most want to learn, not someone else’s fantasy of what they might learn, a joy in love.  In our community we have women and men, the salt of the earth, who reflect and radiate Christ’s joy in love.

The poet Henry Vaughn lived from 1622 to 1695.  He fought on the Royalist side during the great war.  Vaughn is known as one of the best followers and imitators of Herbert.  In 1649, Charles I executed Oliver Cromwell.  The Church of England was disestablished and the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed.  The King was understood to be anointed by God.  Incidentally, his brother was an alchemist.  Vaughn lived during a dark time, and his poetry evokes his time.  He recalls the great Pseudo-Dionysus and the Cloud of Unknowing.  He celebrates night and the darkness of God, in way that I believe connects truly to our time as well.   It is no accident that he bases this poem on Nicodemus at night, John 3:2ff.  Here some verses from this wondrous work:

The Night

Through that pure Virgin Shrine

That sacred veil drawn o’er thy glorious noon

That men might look and live as glow-worms shine

And face the moon:

Wise Nicodemus saw such light

As made him know his God by night.

Most blest believer he!

Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes

Thy long expected healing wings could see,

When thou didst rise,

And what can nevermore be done,

Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

O who will tell me, where

He found thee at that dead and silent hour!

What hallowed solitary ground did bear

So rare a flower,

Within whose sacred leaves did like

The fullness of the Deity…

Dear night! This world’s defeat;

The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;

The day of Spirits; my soul’s calm retreat

Which none disturb!

Christ’s progress and his prayer time;

The hours to which high Heaven doth chime…

Were all my loud evil days

Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark Tent,

Whose peace but by some Angel’s wing or voice

Is seldom rent;

Then I in Heaven all the long year

Would keep, and never wander here.

But living where the sun

Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire

Themselves and others, I consent and run

To every mire,

And by this world’s guiding light,

Err more than I can do by night.

There is in God (some say)

A deep but dazzling darkness; as men here

Say it is late and dusky, because they

See not all clear;

O for that night! Where I in him

Might live invisible and dim.

Nicodemus—like the the beloved disciple, like the paraclete, like the logos, like the ‘judeans’—helps form a bridge from the community of faith to the community of life, from religion to culture, from church to world.  And back. Most blest believer he! Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes, Thy long expected healing wings could see. At Marsh Chapel we yearn for a faith amenable to culture and a culture amenable to faith.  We desire such not because it is immediately present or likely with ease in our time to arise.  It is not and it will not.  But as Vaclev Havel said, ‘I hope for the good not because it will necessarily succeed, but because it is right and true.’  When the faith you personally cherish walks by night without fear across this whole great land, and when the culture you inhabit visits the community of faith without fear, by night or day—when Jesus and Nicodemus embrace—then a bit of heaven has come to earth.   For example, when the beauty of the people and voices of the Marsh Choir, who embody salt and light, find purchase in a great hall with a culturally iconic band, not particularly otherwise known for religious observance by the way, then you have an apocalyptic moment, a place of faith amenable to culture and culture amenable to faith.

You will not be surprised, many of you, by the choice for our third poet.  The poet T.S. Eliot was born in America, yet lived most of his life in England until his death in 1965.  He was the greatest poet of his age, and one of the greatest of any age.  While our generation does not cling to him as did an earlier one, and this itself is a pity, nonetheless he touches us too.  To him we owe the rediscovery of the metaphysical poets.  Eliot found God’s presence in God’s absence.  Like Herbert’s mature claim upon God, like Vaughn’s love of night, Eliot’s presence in absence seems strikingly close to the spirit of our own age.  I dedicate this reading to my dear dad who died three years ago, an authentic lover of the word.  The following poem owes much to John 1:1 ff:

 

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent

If the unheard, unspoken

Word is unspoken, unheard;

Still is the unspoken word, the Word, unheard,

The Word without a word, the Word within

The world and for the world;

And the light shone in the darkness and

Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled

About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word

Resound?

The Word within the world and for the world. This summer, starting next week with Ms. Jessica Cheeka, you will hear voices from our strongest sister pulpits in the north, Asbury First in Rochester NY, Christ Church in NYC, Foundry Church Washington, and ours from Marsh Chapel in Boston.   Of all the seven national preacher summer series we have now offered I am most glad for this one, for many reasons, but let me mention just one.   In Methodism our pulpits historically, since Wesley, Asbury, Cartwright, Shaw, Sockman, Tittle and all, have led the way.  Now, in our time of ecclesiological fragmentation, much farther advanced than most realize, we shall need to rely not so heavily, certainly not exclusively, on the superintending voices, important as they are, but on the deeper streams of mercy still fed by the healthy communities of faith, and by their pulpits.  Wesley loved the Easter Orthodox traditions, those of the patriarchies, not of the bishops of Rome and elsewhere, not a bad memory for a Father’s Day.  The communities, in the East, led and lead—Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople.  We need to look East, in this sense, to listen first to the remaining vibrant pulpits.  In the next decade, we shall need these four arrows together in a quiver—Marsh, Christ, Foundry, Asbury—as we minister the Word within the world and for the world.  The superintending is rooted in 1 John, but the vocal leadership, the spiritual leadership, the Spirit, is rooted in John.  Have a great summer!

 

Here are three poems, three moments  of Johannine inspiration, Herbert, and Vaughn and Eliot.  One for those in need, celebrating the One who joyes in love.  One for those at night, celebrating the one who marries faith and life.  One for those troubled by absence, celebrating the coming, the return of voice and word.  Amen. Amen. Amen.

 

Beloved let us love one another!

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

 

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