Reflection: John’s Love Letter: Part 1 June 24, 2018
1 John 1:1-4; John 1:14-16
A colleague of mine posted a meme on Facebook the other day that said, “The religious person will always do what they are told, no matter what is right; the spiritual person will always do what is right, no matter what they are told.” I beg to differ! This idea that spirituality on its own is somehow purer or more mindful than religion makes me mad. That shouldn’t surprise you, because, after all, I’ve given my life to sharing the Christian religion. The sentiment is common enough, but in my view, it’s dead wrong. What that meme is referring to is not religion, but a particular kind of authoritarian religion or cult. Only cults demand unquestioning obedience; legitimate religion makes space for a variety of opinions and thoughts. I have also met many a “spiritual but not religious” person who has used the rejection of religion to embrace spirituality that is purely self-centred, that focuses completely on self-fulfillment at the expense of compassion and care for others. Non-religious spirituality can potentially orient one towards others, but it can also potentially become utterly narcissistic and navel-gazing. One thing the world’s great religions have in common is the call to not only turn inward to the soul but also to turn outward toward the other and seek their well-being.
You have heard many times how the call to love our neighbour is at the very heart of the Bible’s greatest teachings. This is the tradition we are sharing, when we come into church on Sunday mornings. We are sharing a tradition that includes ethical teaching, moral laws, obligations to our neighbours, commitment to be together in community, guidelines for worship, challenges to injustice, and personal spiritual reflections. All of this comes together in the one “package”, so to speak. Yes, some of it is out-dated and needs to be left behind, but much of it is as applicable today as it was when it was first written down to be passed on from generation to generation. This “package” is what the writer from 1 John is sharing with those who are hearing his words, PLUS his lived experience of the new life that is to found with Jesus. He finds such joy in that life that he wants to pass it on.
Christian Fellowship – what I mean by that is gathering and developing relationship with others who know Jesus – Christian Fellowship is a central theme of John’s letters. In fact, he’s quite concerned about those who believe they have received a superior revelation and have therefore separated themselves from the community to go their own way. He is earnest in his desire to reassure his listeners that anything they need to grow and mature spiritually can be found in what was passed to him, and what he is now passing on to them.
In an online conversation a friend shared the story of the husband of a dedicated Christian who genuinely tried coming to church, to be supportive of his wife. He didn’t want to reject something out of hand when he hadn’t ever experienced it. I don’t know what denomination it was, but he said he enjoyed the fellowship, the singing (to his surprise), and the chance to work side by side with others on meaningful projects. He also enjoyed conversations with the pastor and other leaders in the congregation, who were quite willing to talk with him about his questions and doubts. After a year and a half, he stopped going. Why? He felt that worship involved “finger wagging” – too many shoulds and oughts; he felt there wasn’t room there for his doubts. He said that despite the willingness to welcome him and to converse with him, he felt there was an undercurrent of conversion behind it all. He said it was like someone taking you to a football game and telling you how much you ought to love it without ever explaining the rules or why they found it so enjoyable!
That gave me pause for thought. The thing is, if we are sincere in our Christianity, we really do want to share it with people – because we think it’s a life-giving, life-transforming way. That’s why John writes his letters – because he’s convinced that what he can share can change people’s lives! It is true though, that it’s hard to explain in a 15 minute sermon once a week all the underpinnings of Christian faith, all the teachings and traditions and practices that have been passed through 2000 years and that can be utterly bewildering for folk who really don’t know what to make of it all. The primary function of worship, though, is not to instruct. It is to offer God praise, and to experience God’s presence among us as a community. The place for instruction is in study groups, confirmation classes, Sunday School, Messy Church, small group sessions, workshops and weekly programs. That’s where we go deep in our faith, and it’s also where we build the ties of Christian fellowship that help sustain that faith day by day throughout our lives.
I wish we COULD go deeper in worship. A friend of mine belongs to a church where after the minister speaks, the congregation asks questions and engages in discussion for 20 minutes. I would be totally up for that! In my experience though, most people aren’t comfortable speaking in front of a large group, especially about things that are deeply important to them. So instead, while I might talk about the terrible history of our First Peoples’ treatment by settlers, or the travesty of children being taken from their parents both then and now, or the challenges of discussing-end-of -life decisions, or any other difficult topic, the opportunity for us to address them TOGETHER from a faith perspective is outside of this worship service – unless you’d like to have a discussion every week, which as I said, I would be delighted to do! Just be prepared to wait a little longer for coffee time and bathroom breaks.
Sadly, Sunday worship cannot meet every need; but it was never intended to do that. Christians worshipped because they wanted to offer praise to Jesus the Christ for his intervention in their lives. They wanted to thank God for the teachings of Jesus – the teachings that enrich and challenge us still. They wanted to thank God for the on-going presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit – and they were told that the Spirit would be present wherever they gathered. They wanted to seek the Scriptures for guidance on how to live Christian values in a world that didn’t always support them. They wanted help figuring out right from wrong, and they wanted the support of others who shared their faith to help them in their walk of faith.
There is a joy to being together with those who share your commitments and who have also been touched by Jesus. Being together with them – with us! – is also being together with Jesus, because these people around us are the Body of Christ: his hands, his feet, his voice, his heart. That’s the fellowship John wants people to embrace. In being together, we find that joy can fill us up and run over in generosity and blessing.
If you remember the quotation with which I began today, it said the religious person will do what they’re told, whether it’s right or not. That is false religion. True religion, true Christianity, is a source of joy and a motivation to reach out toward others to share the joy, share the hope, and draw others into fellowship.
There is a tug-of-war going on in our world between religious forces that would preach hate, protectionism, and allegiance to false Messiahs, and religious forces that would preach love, generosity and inclusivity. I’ll talk about that a bit more in the coming weeks – and hopefully we’ll talk about it together! – but let me say to you now that if your religion leads you to accept the unacceptable, then I desperately hope you will find a different path. If you find the rise of this kind of absolutism frightening and it is causing you despair, friends, then let the fellowship of those who love Jesus and who love his people, and especially those treasured little ones, give you strength and fill up the cup of joy that is being drained dry by the difficult news we face each day.
As Christians in fellowship together, there will be much we can disagree on, and still remain in community with one another. As John will tell us over the coming weeks, love in action is not a negotiable for a Christian person. It is the heart of our Christian witness, and it is our map as we walk the way. We pray the Spirit will live in us, so that we do not lose the way. Amen.