What we have seen and heard / we proclaim now to you, / so that you too may have fellowship with us; / for our fellowship is with the Father / and with his Son Jesus Christ. / We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.1 John 1: 3-4
Yesterday I heard an interview with the scholar of religion David Bentley Hart who has just published a new translation of the Christian Scriptures. He spoke of how he deliberately chose to translate as literally as he could because he believed that much of how we understand the scriptures is based on translations that were often more translations of the current catechesis than of the actual words of the writings. In the course of the conversation he mentioned that in his view the United States would be an almost impossible place to preach and to teach actual Christianity, so far from the actual teaching of the gospels is the current state of Christian teaching and practice.
The words of Hart came back to mind this morning in reading the passage from the First Letter of John. On Christmas Day a second migrant child died while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Security personnel. A politically manufactured crisis has now become a real one. The plight of refugees, largely from fearful and chaotic situations in which U.S. policy has played no small part, has been successfully portrayed, at least to many of us, as a threat. And so, there is no sense, among the citizenry of what considers itself a Christian nation, of our “fellowship” with each other.
If at this Christmastime we succeed in detaching ourselves adequately from the nostalgia and sentimentality of the cultural aspects of the celebration, we are drawn into the truth of the Incarnation, that we human beings live in “fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” And that fellowship with God is a fellowship with all. So, how, in fact, would a truly Christian nation respond to those who seek asylum within its borders? It would, as the scriptures enjoin us, hospitably make a space for them. It would trust that when the food, the space, the workforce is blessed, broken, and shared, there is plenty for all. When the disciples tell Jesus to send the crowd away because “there is not enough for us and for them,” Jesus tells them to give the crowd something themselves. It is in this generous way of being toward others and in the world that the miracle of multiplication happens.
It may perhaps seem terribly naive to think that in a world where there is increasing scarcity that the answer lies in giving more away. Yet, that naivety is the very core of our belief. It would, in fact, be fair to say that the scarcity is directly a result of our failure to live out the truth of Jesus’ teaching. It is the greed of the few that has caused the distress and famine of the many. It is the obscene extravagance and waste of those who have that creates the impoverishment of the have nots. There is, as the life and miracles of Jesus teach us, more than enough for all. “All” that is required, however, is that we rediscover our universal fellowship with God and each other.
Having said this, it is also true that the truth of our fellowship and the joy that living it brings does not come easily to us. As Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and countless others know, it is easy and profitable to manipulate and prey on the fearfulness of others. It is not difficult to contort the very life and teachings of Jesus in such a way as to support a life based not in love but in fear, not in fellowship but in xenophobia and resentment. The First Letter of John reminds us that “being Christian” is not merely a matter of espousing teachings, morals, and doctrines that, as any thoughts and opinions, come and go in us. What we can proclaim as our values are very malleable if they are not the result of our actual lived experience.
As the author of 1 John puts it: “What was from the beginning, / what we have heard, / what we have seen with our eyes, / what we looked upon / and touched with our hands / concerns the word of life . . . what we have seen and heard / we proclaim now to you, / so that you too may have fellowship with us . . . .” In proclaiming to others what we ourselves have known, seen, and heard, we come to experience our fellowship. This passage became real to me as an undergraduate student. In my early twenties I had, as do many of us, a time of cognitive awakening that brought with it a refusal to assent to all that I had been taught to believe. I rightfully understood the poverty of my thoughts and beliefs about God, although I interpreted that as God’s problem rather than mine. I found myself in the strange situation of being a member of a religious community and doubting, what I considered, my faith in God.
At some point, however, I began to experience significant shifts in my life and experience. That shift was a movement from living and interpreting my life out of my thoughts, opinions and understandings to the grasping of reality of life in the way of which only our hearts are capable. Simply put, I began to experience loving and being loved. In this I began to experience an expansion of my heart and my life, a realization of gratitude and awe for the gift of my being in the world and of the lives of others around me. And with this realization came a powerful sense of gratitude. To experience being loved is to know, for certain, that such love is a gift, a gift from one who is in, but beyond, the persons who mediate that love to us. And even though not immediately the case, in time one comes to know, from the heart, that this love that is a free gift to myself is “a love common to all.”
At this moment in my life, I knew the truth of the experience of the author of this letter of John. In love, we see with our eyes and feel with our touch the Life of the world made visible to us. In proclaiming that love we find it taking deeper root in us, and as it takes root within and among us, we experience the depth of a joy that intimates the eternal. The greatest joy available to us as human beings is experienced as we speak and work in love on behalf of others. We can do this because the love in which we work and speak is a love within us, but also within the other and somehow always between us. As we “work together” we see with our eyes and feel with our touch the “eternal life” made visible.
We are not Christians because we know a truth that is hidden from lesser souls. We are certainly not Christians because we are morally superior to others. And we definitely are not Christians because that gives us a position of power and wealth over others. We are Christians when we know in our hearts and in the very fiber of our being the experience described in 1 John. We can only know it, however, when we have the courage and so the vulnerability to love and be loved in such a way that the love transforms us. We don’t welcome the refugees ad migrants, the marginalized of our own communities and neighborhoods, because we are especially virtuous. We welcome them because we need them if we are to know the joy that comes only from proclaiming to them and living out with them by receiving from them the truth of our shared love. We welcome the stranger not only because of his or her need, but also because of ours.
Until I experienced a love for me that I felt I did not deserve and to which I had no right, I could not know God. In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled “The Uncommon Power of Grace”, Peter Wehner quotes Philip Yancey’s description of a conference on comparative religion in which the question is posed about the unique contribution to world religion of Christianity. According to the story, during the conversation C. S. Lewis enters the room and answers: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” The “mystery of grace” is the mystery of being loved for no good reason, but as a free gift. To have “seen” and “touched” this in our lives leaves us forever changed. Although in day to day life we may often forget, we shall henceforth always know that life is the love we have received, but a love not only for ourselves. It is the “love common to all” that creates a universal fellowship. It is our proclamation and participation in that community, that fellowship that is our only true and ultimate joy. It is in living in and serving this fellowship that we know grace, truth, light, and joy.
Let Your love play upon my voice and rest on my silence.
Let it pass through my heart into all my movements
Let your love, like stars, shine in the darkness of my sleep and dawn in my awakening.
Let it burn in the flame of my desires and flow in all currents of my own love.
Let me carry Your love in my life as a harp does its music, and give it back to You at last with my life.The Heart of God: Prayers of Rabindranath Tagore