Religious Affections

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John 3:14-21

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Scripture

Our newspaper reported this week about a man who built an igloo out of the snow mountain on his front lawn.   The mounds of snow, several feet high and deep and wide, offered him an architectural opportunity.  Remembering his growing up years, he built igloo.  (He grew up, the paper said, in upstate New York.)  His igloo included four rooms.  His wife decorated the rooms with art-work and the window sills, open to the elements, with candles.  He was photographed and looked happy with his work.  It may have been that he recalled in the excavation some part of his growing up years, the habits he had acquired at an early age.

“It is no small matter whether one habit or the other is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference.” (repeat).

This is the voice of Jonathan Edwards, with whom we converse, to some measure, in these Lenten sermons.   Real religion involves religious affections, or so Edwards taught.  Give some consideration this morning to your own religious affections.  Your experience.  Your dispositions, inclinations, predilections, and affections.

Just before our gospel reading, Nicodemus, thrice mentioned in John, has departed.   You remember his interview with Jesus.  He asks about being born again.  He asks about resurrection life.  He asks about spirit.  In the nighttime interview, Jesus answers him:  You must be born anew.  Your religion, your religious affection, counts on this.  Our gospel today takes the same theme further.

God is love.  (Or Love is God.) Eternal life is trust in God who is love.  The doorway to eternal life is trust.  We learn this in our experience.  This trust is a gift, God’s gift.  With open hands we receive the gift of God.   We do not achieve or earn or create this trust.  It is given to us.  The gift comes wrapped, belief and trust and faith and knowledge come gift wrapped in meaning, belonging, empowerment—in the beloved community.

To make sure the hearer and reader of his gospel get the full measure of his point, the author of John uses a great old word, Judgment.  KRISIS in Greek.  You hear our own word, CRISIS, there.  Until John, more or less, Judgment was reserved for the end of time, the eschaton, the apocalypse.  John, as is resonantly clear here, says something different.  Judgment is not at the end of time.  Judgment is now.  Judgment does not await the arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven, or the millennial reign, or wars and rumors of wars, or signs of the times.  No.  The critical moment is now.  John has replaced speculation with spirit.  John has replaced eschaton with eternal life.  John has replaced Armageddon with the artistry of every day.  John has courageously left behind that to which most of the rest of the New Testament still clings.  John has replaced then with now.  What courage!  The upshot of this change, as recorded in our Scripture today, is the near apotheosis of experience.  And as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience, Who He is (Schweitzer).

In other words, the ancient near eastern apocalyptic, of heaven and end of time judgment, still present in various religious traditions, as we have tragic and sorrowful occasion to see in our own time and struggles with violence, is replaced.  In your experience.  This is the judgment.  The light has come into the world.

As my grandmother used to ask, ‘Are you walking in the light?’

Likewise, we notice that the letter to the Ephesians, written by a student of Paul, makes a complementary affirmation.  By grace you are saved through faith (he writes this twice, or an editor has added a second rendering).  The phrase, both in its repetition and in its cadence, seems clearly to be a prized inheritance for the Ephesians.  God is loving you into love and freeing you into freedom.  God first loved us.  You are not made whole by your doing.  You are God’s beloved, and so are made whole, made healthy, made well, ‘perfected’.   Both in our successes and in our failures, we truly depend upon a daily, weekly hearing of this promise and warning.  In our experience, we are given to trust God.  Our response in actions will then forever be overshadowed by real love, by God’s love.

Doctrine

The Marsh pulpit in this decade has conversed come Lent with Calvinism, a sibling tradition, different in emphasis from our own, but one deeply embedded in the long history of New England.  My joy in learning more this winter about Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758, a contemporary of John Wesley, I have shared only to encourage you to know something about him, too.  If in Northampton MA, you could visit his old haunts.  If reading about our American history, you could appreciate him through the critical and criticized masterpiece of Perry Miller.  If meditating you could re-focus in faith by recalling his emphasis on beauty, on excellence, on grace.  A University pulpit, like any, strives weekly to preach the gospel, as Augustine noted, ‘to teach, to delight, and to persuade’.   In slight measure, our duty here may accentuate, at least come Lent, and its seasonal discipline of disciplines, the first, to teach.

Today, as a doctrinal consequence upon our Holy Scripture, we shall simply, or singularly, approach Edward’s consideration of experience, what he called the ‘religious affections’.   He made his most careful study in this area, after the Great Awakening of 1740.  The evangelistic success of his preaching in Northampton, which brought George Whitefield to the farm country of western Massachusetts, strangely caused him consternation.   He had occasion to question his own success.  That is, he wondered just how truly religious some of the newly acquired affections were, in North Hampton and beyond.  I find that in itself a remarkable, even heroic, spiritual move—to find in your success an occasion for self-criticism.

Edwards, good Puritan he, made two lists of twelve signs each, one a list of false signs of religious affection, and one a list of true.

In an earlier version of the sermon I had these ready to give to you.  You may be relieved to know that what follows is a summary instead.

Edwards distrusts appearances, when it comes to religion, with good Protestant and Biblical warrant, as you recognize.  He distrusts, you may be surprised to hear, given his fatherhood of the Great Awakening:  emotion, eagerness, excitement, biblical literacy, volubility, comfort, religious effort, self-confidence, verbosity, elocution, and impact on others.  This list he offered after, not before, the great religious upswing, known the world over, of 1740.  The fullness of love can actually be counterfeited, he judged (or maybe, he saw with his own eyes).

Today we might say:  religion is not a good thing, or not necessarily a good thing.  Religion is like the weather, and theology in that way like meteorology.  It can be good.  But.  If it causes the brother to stumble…If the Sabbath is not made for man…If the inside of the cup is not cleansed…If all that glitters is not gold…If, with Cervantes and the Quixote, appearance threatens reality, then religion is not good.  Many great troubles today are religious, from Ferguson to Tikrit to Gaza to our own home and our own town.

Rather, this quintessential Yankee Puritan Calvinist trusts reality, not appearance:  the divine source, the nature (insert Love) of God, holiness and beauty, intellectual understanding, humility, self-criticism, gentleness, tenderness, harmony—in short, whatever is Christ-like.  He lived through the aftermath of two cycles of religious fervor, out in Northampton, and came out with a balance of wisdom like that of a serpent as well as innocence like that of a dove.

Today we might say:  when you go to pray, enter your closet, and shut the door, and if you fast, wash your face and smile, and be not a saint abroad but a devil at home.   Prefer a tithing Christian to a born again Christian every time.

Edwards, then, puts a major daily question before us about religious affections, and about religious experience: what here is appearance and what here is reality?

Application

Moving, in good Puritan form, from Scripture, through Doctrine, to Application:  how shall we apply this to our own life today?

On one hand, we might look at the modes of representation, of appearance, that intend or pretend to connect us in reality.

For all our vaunted IT, are we any closer to IThou?  IT or IThou?  Not only for our soon to return undergraduates, but seriously for them, as well as for all of us, the question of this relationship looms.  Daily.  How much do the newer technologies aid us in the timeless challenge of becoming fully human?

The Buddhist says:  Wherever you are, be there.

Are we?  Are we ever truly anywhere anymore?  Are we ever unplugged to sufficient measure that we can relate to one another, to self, to world, to God?

Are we ever fully free, heart and spirit, to see and be and be awed by the sunrise, to look at and be entranced by the night sky, to love and be in love with the beloved, to swim in the fresh water of freedom, grace and love?  Do we live to work or work to live?  Is there still a way through the snow pile to an igloo?

The world does not revolve around my inbox, or yours.

This is good news—wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave.  And it is good sense.  And even good business.  One writer noted: ‘Every business person, regardless of national origin, is more likely to transact business with a colleague or counterpart he has worked and socialized with.’  Real commerce happens in real time, among real people, who really know and like and want to work with each other.

Does e-mail and its cousins help make and keep human life fully human? Consider the mode:  No voice or face, nor body, nor personhood, nor privacy, nor life?  Who—really—beyond 15 minutes a day—wants to communicate, or live, this way?  To say nothing of the practice of ministry.  How do we approach I/Thou in the reign of I/T?

How do we  conjure and remember the  wisdom of Martin Buber?

“Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its ” content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou…

The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being…

On the other hand, we might look at our more intimate relationships.  Five times this year we have spoken from this pulpit about safety on campus for women.  We shall continue to do so, so that Marsh Chapel, with partners near and far, will continue to be a sacred space that is a safe place.  The bifurcation of appearance and reality endemic to cyber culture—think Yik Yak—has consequences in many directions, one of which is the peril of losing the muscle and habit of interpersonal conversation, discourse, and—affection.  It takes practice to learn to listen well and deeply.  It takes time to develop the vocabulary and tongue to speak from the heart.  It takes live experience, living engagement to see and hear others as multi-dimensional not one dimensional beings, real people not appearances.  All of us, older and younger, continue to learn and grow, and over time, a new and healthier national and collegiate culture will emerge.

A recent review of the documentary, The Hunting Grounds, by Ty Burr, raises the same point, in its conclusion:  Emotional intimacy can be found everywhere online while vanishing from the physical world.  The (movie) does a fine and fierce job of portraying campus sexual assault as a national disease.  It never dares to suggest that it’s a symptom. (BG G6 3/13/15).

Nietzsche famously argued that if God is dead everything is allowed.  With a wisp of John 2, and faith and trust and belief still in the air, like a harbinger of a spring not quite here, we might put it otherwise, and in a positive mode.  If the language of worship, of divine love and a responsive human love, can be learned and lifted and shared, then there is a capacity, a cultural capacity, a cultural syntax and grammar and spelling that gradually can offer an alternative to our current malaise.  Affection, real emotional intimacy in word and deed, might find its wellsprings in Religious Affections, real emotional intimacy in word and deed:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Then…

Because God made the stars to shine.  Because God made the ivy twine.  Because God made the ocean blue.  Because God made you, that’s why I love you.

With joy, right here, in these years, we have seen young life become new life, as we have in some beautiful weddings this winter.  This happens in college. One of the sources of healing on campus is worship.   Against all odds, in the Hunting Grounds, it may just be the one thing needful.  One who knows in experience the love of God has then the heart with which to love another.  And the language.  And the sensitivity.  And the humanity.  And the capacity.  The capacity to defeat rapacity.

Hear the Gospel!  Scripture:  Your experience counts.  Doctrine: Reality not appearance is at the core of religious affections.  Application:  Balance IT and IThou, and let your affections be formed and informed by your religious affections.

“It is no small matter whether one habit or the other is inculcated in us from early childhood; on the contrary, it makes a considerable difference, or, rather, all the difference.”

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

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