September 12

Johannine Inspiration

By Marsh Chapel

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1 John 4: 7-12

Beloved let us love one another.

Was there ever a time, a season, a year, week or month more hungry than ours now for this inspiration? Was there ever a more timely word?

Beloved let us love one another. For love is of God and one who loves is born of God and knows God.

This is the Johannine inspiration that comes from the Gospel and Letters of John, including our reading from 1 John today. In a strange way, the same spirit emanates from the center of the Gospel of Luke, in chapter 15. We hear today of the loss and return of a coin and a sheep, and on another day of the loss and return of a prodigal son. These beautiful parables, like the Johannine inspiration, come shorn of overwrought doctrine or tradition. They place us in the moment of loss and return, of coming home.

Beloved let us love one another for love is of God and one who loves is born of God and knows God. One who does not love does not know God. For God is love.

Words sublime. The high peak of Johannine inspiration. We crave the hearing and trusting of such words today, amid the cacophony of so much language, religious language included, that is less inspiring.

In this is love that God sent the Son that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us.

And yet. Those who have read through the letters of John and the Gospel itself, will have a question or two. Across the river at Harvard three autumns ago, after an evening presentation, a wise and kind man clearly said: “I have trouble reading the Johannine literature. I really have a hard time reading John”.

We can surmise what he probably meant. Our lovely lesson read earlier comes after, and as a by product of, a long, pained history of religious conflict. The community of John had good reason to state: one who does love does not know God. One feels that they had been on several sides of that locution over many years. It takes one to know one. We are not the first generation to know the scalding of religious conflict. The question is whether we can emerge from it with inspiration.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God. But we love one another God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us.

These words of light were born in darkness.

For in John and John 1 we find various troubling, troublesome, troublous passages. We read repeatedly the phrase, ‘the Jews’, for example. We come upon Jesus saying harsh things, fore and aft. We turn the page to find ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ bluntly assaulting his countrymen, his fellows in religiosity, his co-inheritors of law, prophets, writings, of Moses, Amos, and Job, with the following exercise in humility: ‘all who came before me are thieves and robbers’. We find that far more than the already heated anti-semitism of Mark has been baked into the account of the crucifixion.

An historical, a diachronic reading of John it is, one that looks at its place and time, its community of origin, or life setting, which frees, and which alone can give a measure of the promise of 8:31, ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’. We know about overheated religious rhetoric. We know of this from the current wrongheaded, heated, unfortunate rhetoric with reference to our Muslim sisters and brothers. We also find it here in our own Bible, in the Johannine literature. It is not be understood literally or literarily. It is to be understood historically and theologically as a particularly dark moment in the shameful Christian tradition of anti-semitism. We 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? Some are, but many are not. 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. We 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, motherland, 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’. We need to know this first, and more.

We come here to the stunning heart, the surprising marrow of inspiration, Johannine inspiration. Out of the forged iron, as from a refiner’s fire, of all this deep disappointment and dark dislocation, there emerged a document (perhaps best printed in poetic form), which has been the height of inspiration for almost 2,000 years. John has been the spiritual and sublime gospel, the poets’ gospel. Out of all this hurt there somewhere emerged our morning’s ‘epistle’ lesson.

For four years I have along side me as teaching assistant in the Gospel of John a most brilliant, funny, young mother, Episcopal priest. She is a literary critic. She practices rhetorical criticism. She loves poetry. Twice a term I ask her to bring her potent medicines, the alchemic mixtures of literary criticism to bear on our text.

The Rev. Ms. Regina Walton every term shows our students three poems which grow out of the Johannine literature and illumine its meaning. For today’s 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?

More: could it be that years from now, in some way unforeseen and unforeseeable, as if forged in a refiner’s fire, the deep disappointments and dark dislocations of our current religious culture might drive us up, out and back to holy beauty, as happened over millennia with John? Listen in our time for the poets emerging to recall us to our rightful minds.

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 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.

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, portions of which we now hear:

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!

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.

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.

You will not be surprised, many of you, by the choice for our third 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 colleague and deceased friend Sam Davis. 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? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and
Deny the voice

Here are three poems, three moments of Johannine inspiration. One for those in need. One for those at night. One for those troubled by absence. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Words sublime. Is there a time that more needed the power of their beauty?

The poets have something, and have something in common. We leave you with their Johannine inspiration today. In fact, we address and challenge you with that inspiration today.

The poets have a sense of something. They have a premonition, an awareness of a looming Presence. Their words, and the words of Scripture, point us toward this premonition, this awareness, this inspiration.

A looming Presence, in way and truth and life. A looming Presence in night and dark and light. A looming Presence in word and speech and silence.

In a reality beyond our inescapable reality, they tell us, we are ever in the presence of One brooding over the fracas of history, brooding over the chaos of nature, brooding over the conflicts in religion, and brooding over our struggles in faith and life. A looming Presence whose nature and name is love.

– The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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