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A Community of Touch and Truth

April 16, 2012

“A Community of Touch and Truth” 1 John 1:1-2:2 © 4/15/12 Easter 2B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be reflecting on what it means to be the church, the community of people who belong to the Lord Jesus. “OK,” you’re probably thinking right now, “but you’re always doing that. What’s different?” Just this: we’re looking closely and consistently at our identity through the lens of one particular tradition in Scripture, called the “Johannine,” that is, “coming from or like John.” Orbiting that theological star, we might say, is the gospel of John as the prime planet. The epistles of John are smaller worlds, planetoids even.

On these worlds, there is a common language spoken, one learned from Jesus himself. There are some favorite terms and concepts in this tongue: abiding, walking in the light, being born of and parented by God, experiencing joy, and heard most frequently, loving the family of God.

We’re going to be hearing readings from the gospel of John over these weeks and so keeping contact with the home planet. But our journey of exploration will be to the planetoids, where we can find gems of wisdom to guide us as we continue on our way. We’ll discover the truth of what John Wesley said of the First Epistle of John: “How plain, how full, and how deep a compendium of genuine Christianity!”

1 John was likely written around 100 AD by an anonymous author who calls himself “the elder.” The church father Polycarp quotes 1 John in one of his works from 135 AD, so it could not have been penned any later than that. The author never identifies himself as any of the men named “John” in the New Testament. That association was made by the early church, which only accepted a book if it had been written by an apostle.

There were several congregations, maybe in what is today Turkey, maybe in today’s Syria, that were supervised or advised by the author, the Elder. So there was a kind of Johannine denomination or association, maybe something like the megachurches these days that plant satellites or use the Internet to spread their message. This was not an unusual situation. There were also groups of churches that identified with Paul or Peter or Matthew, just to name a few. Remember that John of Patmos wrote Revelation to seven churches in modern day Turkey.

All was not sweetness and light in the Johannine congregations, though, despite the author’s call for abiding in love and staying in close fellowship. There was conflict, perhaps quite strong, over the hot button issues of the day. In our time, the church and society are torn over social issues like gay marriage or privacy or contraception and abortion, the relationship of church and state or maybe how we appropriately express faith in a public, secular forum. But underneath all that really are the same issues the community of John struggled with: who was and is Jesus? what does he command us to do and be? what does it mean to be in fellowship with each other? what is the truth? what is the nature of God?

Some had left the John churches over such doctrinal disputes. The Elder calls them “those who went out from us,” “those who don’t belong with us,” “liars,” and “antichrists.” Those last two are the evidence that the conflict was pretty severe. When the parties resort to name-calling, the discussion is over, and they may as well call it a day. An “antichrist” by the way is not someone who is against Christ, but someone who sets up himself or herself in the place of Christ. The Elder is saying that his opponents wanted the honor belonging only to our Lord, about whom they denied a central doctrine.

So, far from having everything figured out, the folks in the earliest churches, like the community of First John, were struggling just like we do sometimes to sort out truth from falsehood, good from evil, and friend from foe. They had deep questions for which they were only beginning to discover answers. They were tempted by all the sparkly things that also attract our attention, the false gods that promise big but don’t deliver. And when they resisted and remained faithful to Jesus, sometimes they found out that no good deed goes unpunished, because society was threatened by their witness and therefore hated them for their love, hope, righteousness, and commitment to truth.

They were different, because they insisted that God had come among human beings as one of us. He had not remained aloof or disinterested, uninvolved or involved only to wreak havoc or seduce mortals, as in Greek myths. This was a God who shared our sorrows, our suffering, and our senses. He enjoyed laughing and singing and eating and drinking. He wept and bled and died. This is not a God without body, parts or passions, as the Westminster Confession so wrongly put it, but a God who feels the deepest longings of humankind. This is a God whom some of those in that ancient community may even have seen and touched and smelled and held. This is the God whom we know in Jesus Christ, the mystery we touch and taste and hear and see. The living, active Word of God, among us, in us.

How could it be otherwise if God wanted truly to restore our complete humanity? He had to become a sensing and sensual being, subject to all that we encounter, open to the experiences we have. Think of the power of just one sense, namely, touch. Doesn’t touching something make it more real for us? We might read about the Alamo or the “Enola Gay” or the first edition of a famous novel. We could even watch a video about any of those. But touching the brick of the fort in San Antonio or putting your hand on the aluminum skin of the B-29 or holding the book in your hands and turning the pages makes it truly come to life. Or maybe you saw a cute puppy from your car window walking with her human companion or you knew about goats or bunnies from reading a book. But if you stopped your car and asked to hold the dog or went to a petting zoo and touched the animals, you would have an experience of them that can’t come from reading or seeing. Maybe someone is lonely, isolated, languishing in their homes day after day watching game shows and reality TV and eating microwave dinners. You or I call, and that’s nice. But what if we go by, and we hug that lonely person and hold their hand and give them a reassuring pat on the shoulder? We are made for contact, for touch, for sensory experience. God is all the more real when he is not off somewhere, but gets down to earth, when, as Joan Osborne so famously put it, he becomes “one of us, just a slob like one of us, a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.” Or more elegantly, contemporary composer Brian Wren, offers this, in a hymn we sang last week: “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time. Not throned afar, remotely high, untouched, unmoved by human pains, but daily. in the midst of life, our Savior in the Godhead reigns.”

The meaning we find in our faith in Christ comes from concrete experiences in which God is present. That’s a key emphasis of 1 John. Marilynne Robinson, author of the novel Gilead, writes: “All poetry and all fiction have as their deepest question the kind and degree of meaning that we, brilliant and limited creatures that we are, can take from the world, from what we hear, see and touch with our hands. Behind this lies the deeper if unacknowledged question of the beginning of things, how being came to be. The epistle tells us that existence is made out of meaning, is saturated with it. It is something we see with our eyes and touch with our hands.

“We participate in this truest reality not by attaining to esoteric knowledge, but by giving love its natural expression as love for one another. So if a writer were to proceed by the light of the epistle, how would meaning be found in experience? It would be found everywhere, in the endless variety in which reality offers itself to us” (see note 1).

Brian Doyle’s poem “A Shimmer of Something” (see note 2) reminds us of the power and mystery of touch, its ability to heal and take us beyond ourselves into what he calls “something beyond vast”:

Well, the aged mother of the woman who married me died,
And there are so many stories both sad and hilarious to tell,
But let me tell you just one, because it is little and not little.
At her Mass, after the miracle, but before the electric bread
Went into every soul, as people are shuffling slowly toward
The altar, everyone in the line on the left side, as they came
To the front pew, touched my wife. Some bent down to hug
Her. Some touched her hair gently. Some just placed a hand
On her shoulder. One woman reached down and cupped her
Face in her hands for an instant. Sure I wept. We touch each
Other when we have no other way to speak. We speak many
Languages without words. We are so much wilder and wiser
Than we know. There are so very many of us without words,
Speaking the most amazing and eloquent languages; we sing
With our hands. I have seen it happen. You have seen it, too.
It’s a little thing, but there’s a shimmer of something beyond
Vast. See, I am trying to say an epic thing in this small poem,
And here we are at the end of the poem, where I stop talking.

The people shuffling toward the altar were there for the Eucharist. And on their way there, they themselves embodied Christ in their touch. Perhaps nowhere more than at the Table do we both touch Christ and commit ourselves to be his hands and feet and eyes and ears in mission. Shirley Erena Murray put it this way in her 1987 hymn “Now to Your Table Spread”: “Hands of the world stretch out your mystery to touch in longing to believe a truth beyond our reach, to sing in joy, to cry in grief, to know your meaning for our life.” The Table is where “we touch and handle things unseen, [and] grasp with firmer hand eternal grace” (Horatius Bonar, “Here, O Our Lord, We See you Face to Face”). And in touching and handling, we ourselves are touched at the point of our deepest need. As Samuel Longfellow put it, “at God’s touch our burdens fall.”

We touch truth in the Eucharist, and we are called in such moments to go out into the world God loves and live the truth. Someone has said we are summoned to an “activated integrity” (C. Clifton Black). Truth for the Elder is not a proposition to prove or a doctrine to believe or a scientific fact to be tested in a lab. It’s not some abstract notion or concept or philosophy. Truth is something we do. We’re honest with and about ourselves. We live out in the open, so to speak, or as the text says, we “walk in the light.” And in so doing, we find forgiveness, cleansing, and fellowship. We become part of that vast mystery which has been from the beginning and which countless souls through the ages have touched in Christ. We are nothing less than the children of God our Father, siblings of his Son.

In a world so empty of truth, indeed, starved for it; in a culture where so many want a gracious, comforting, reassuring touch, we who have touched the mystery of Jesus cannot fail to fulfill our calling to be a community of both touch and truth.

_______________________________________________________________________

Note 1 http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-03/sunday-april-15-2012

Note 2 http://www.christiancentury.org/artsculture/poems/shimmer-something

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