Sunday, May 20, 2012

Seeing the Light

Seeing the Light
1 Jn. 5:9-13; Jn 17:11-18[1]
I still remember my first inter-faith encounter, even though it was almost 30 years ago.  I had already completed my college degree in Bible, and I was a seminary student in my second year—and I thought I knew quite a bit about spiritual things.  One evening, a friend told me he had met two Muslim men who just moved to our apartment complex in Fort Worth, and asked me to go with him to talk to them.  Well, of course I went. When we got there, we started talking with them, and the conversation quickly moved toward faith.  Assuming that their religion was completely “man-made,” I began to talk about how I experienced the presence of God in my faith.  I will never forget my feeling of shock when one of the men said, “I, too, experience God’s presence through my faith”!  I was young, and had not been prepared adequately to dialogue in a meaningful way with people of other faiths.  I had operated with the standard prejudices that the Christians I knew cherished about other faiths—that they were simply human substitutes for the “real thing,” faith in Jesus Christ! My encounter with those two men was the beginning of a fundamental shift in my outlook toward people of other faiths.
When we read our lessons from Scripture for today, it shouldn’t surprise us that so many Christians throughout the ages have tended to hold some kind of prejudice or another toward those “outside” the church.  In 1 John, the distinction seems clear enough—those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God have life, those who don’t believe don’t have life (1 Jn. 5:12).  Similarly, the reading from John 17 sounds like the Christians were under attack from the outside world.[2]  At the very least, the “world” was something from which one had to protect oneself.  While these kinds of negative statements can be found in various parts of our Scriptures, what we have to understand is that they were addressed to a very specific time and place.  
It would seem that, for the most part the Christians for whom the Scriptures bearing John’s name were intended lived in Asia Minor—modern day Turkey.  Toward the end of the First Century, we have evidence that these Christian communities were under mounting pressure—both from the outside as well as from within.  They felt their very existence was threatened.  So it’s no wonder that they looked at the outside world as something dangerous.  They even viewed former members of their communities to be a threat because they disagreed over the question of Jesus’ identity as human and divine.[3]
While we can certainly understand thoughts like these when a community that feels threatened, we have to remember that taking Scriptures that were intended to address a specific situation and lifting them out of context to apply them to our day and time can be a risky venture.  In a very real sense, it can enable the “oppressed” to become the “oppressors.”  And in fact, you don’t have to work very hard to find all kinds of examples throughout the history of the church where that was exactly what happened—Christians took Scriptures like these and used them to justify all kinds of hateful and even violent acts against those deemed “other” and “outside.” 
But the very Scriptures themselves point us to a higher road.  Some of the very books of the Bible that suggest the “world” is such a threat to the Christian communities also clearly speak of the “world” as the object of God’s redemptive love in Jesus Christ.[4]  In fact, in the same prayer that expresses concern for the Christians due to the threat of the world, Jesus also speaks of sending them out into the world just as he was sent into the world (Jn. 17:18)! 
I think that part of what we find in 1 John might help us out here as well.  The Scripture says that those who believe “have the witness in themselves” (1 Jn. 5:10).  There is some debate about what this means, but I think it means that when someone’s faith in Jesus is real you can see the life that is in them.[5]  It’s obvious by who they are and how they live.  You can’t miss it.  But I think the same can be said for a lot of people who are “outside” the church. There are a lot of people out there who have the light of God’s life within them.  All we have to do is open our eyes and see it.[6]  Whether we’re talking about Mohandas Ghandi, a Hindu, or the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, or Mother Theresa, a Catholic nun, or Pearl Buck, a Presbyterian missionary.  You can see the light of God’s life in and through their lives.  They “have the witness in themselves.”
I think this kind of approach is a much better option for us in our day and time.  Instead of looking at others with shallow prejudices and dismissing their religions, if we will open our eyes we can see many people of all faiths who shine the light of God’s love all around them.  Rather than getting them to “see the light” and come around to our way of looking at things, perhaps we should first be open to seeing the light they already have within them.  We may be surprised to find that it looks a lot like the light of God’s life in us, and that we have a lot more in common that we expected!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/20/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.a
[2] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:793; contrast the overly subtle approach of Paul Minear, Interpretation 32 (April 1978): 178-79, where he insists that the “world” is not humanity or those outside the church, but “the hidden jurisdiction of the Evil One.”
[3] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, 31–35; cf. also Stephen S. Smalley, 1,2,3 John, 291. The group that left had so emphasized Jesus as divine as to deny that he was human.
[4] In John’s Gospel, it is clear that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” and that “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved” (Jn. 3:16-17).  On this ambiguity regarding the “world” in John’s Gospel, cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 763-65.  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:73-76, where he points to a similar dynamic in Paul’s writings, and yet emphasizes that Paul says “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).
[5] Cf. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 285-86; and C. Clifton Black, “The First, Second and Third Letters of John,” New Interpreters Bible XII:440.  Cf. also G. Strecker, and H. W. Attridge, The Johannine letters, 195–196: “The Christ-event is not a thing of the past to which one may look back with an objectifying glance. … It occurs hic et nunc in the community, as a reconciling, life-giving reality. Christian life before God is life in the Son.”
[6] Cf. Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, 301, where she speaks of this in terms of recognizing “the spark of God in others.”  Cf. similarly, Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 92, where she recognizes that this is a challenge, the challenge of “escaping the small self long enough to glimpse the wholeness” in which everything that is exists.  She says, “Everything that lives, lives in this light”!

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