A Better Way to Tell Our Stories

notebook on bible

Herb Montgomery | May 28, 2021



Classifying our flesh, bodies, and material world or nature as, at best, unimportant or disposable and, at worst, evil or something to be saved from has yielded deeply harmful, destructive fruit throughout Christian history . . . That disregard then led to a privatized, personal, individualistic form of Christianity that was complicit in the oppression of vulnerable populations. We encounter the fruit of this today whenever Christians speak negatively of social justice and related movements for a more equitable society . . . Are there better ways to tell our stories?”


Our reading this week is from the Johannine community’s version of the Jesus story.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the reign of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mothers womb and be born?” Jesus answered, Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the reign of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, You must be born from above.The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:1-17)

In this week’s reading, Nicodemus and Jesus are both speaking for the communities they represent: Nicodemus represents Judeans identified with the community of Pharisees and Jesus represents the Johannine community.

The writer explains the differences between them by naming the flesh as bad and the spirit as good. I believe there are more wholistic, healthy, and bodily affirming ways to tell the Jesus story today in our context than this contrast. The dualistic way of classifying our material being and world as negative or disposable and the spirit as positive and of sole value evolved into a major component of later Christian gnostic beliefs. This became the foundation of the postmortem focus of Christianity over the concrete realities people faced in our present world. It also gave rise to a solely inward focus on one’s spiritual well-being, a focus and emphasis that too often produced disregard for oppressions and/or aggressions a person was experiencing in their daily material lives. That disregard then led to a privatized, personal, individualistic form of Christianity that was complicit in the oppression of vulnerable populations. We encounter the fruit of this today whenever Christians speak negatively of social justice and related movements for a more equitable society. When Karl Marx labeled religion as the “opiate of the masses,” religious disregard for people’s material suffering was why.

Today, though, we can tell the Jesus story in better ways. As Miguel De La Torre states in his recently published book, Decolonizing Christianity, “Christianity was never about what one believes or professes but what one does” (p. 112).

What we do is not related to the popular purity preaching we find in some Christian circles. Rather it’s about how we show up in the world in response to concrete injustice, both private and systemic. It’s a doing that’s not just concerned with charity but also addresses “establishing justice” in our communities and society at large (Isaiah 42:4 cf. Amos 5:15; Isaiah 9:7; 16:5; Psalms 99:4).

Classifying our flesh, bodies, and material world or nature as, at best, unimportant or disposable and, at worst, evil or something to be saved from has yielded deeply harmful, destructive fruit throughout Christian history. Whenever a movement to return to the teachings of the Jesus of the synoptics gospels has emerged in Christianity, that movement includes concern for our material world as well as the humanity of those being unjustly treated. Saint Francis of Assisi is just one example.

Given the ecological crisis, risks to our continued existence on Earth, and an increased social consciousness of systemic injustice, a more wholistic way of telling the Jesus story could be healing for our time. It could also be vital. What we need tosday is a balanced relation of the material and spiritual, not a dualistic vilification of one and the lifting up of the other.

Lastly I want to address this portion of our reading this week:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Over the last several weeks, we have repeatedly discussed the harmful results of the myths of self-sacrifice and redemptive suffering when being held up as an example for marginalized or disenfranchised communities to adopt. In this passage from John, nothing has to be interpreted as pointing to Jesus’ death as the substitutionally salvific means by which others are saved.

Let’s read this closely.

There was nothing substitutionary about the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. The serpent didn’t die for the people. It was simply raised on a pole for anyone to look at in faith that by so doing they would be healed. In the same way, I believe that in following the life-giving teachings in the Jesus story, our feet are moved from the path of death to the path of life. The teachings in the Jesus story must be lifted up for people to encounter and, if they see inherent wisdom in them, follow. We could interpret “whoever believes in him” to mean “whoever follows him,” as it does elsewhere in the Jesus story.

I also love how the passage paints God, not as condemning and in need of appeasement with the death of Jesus. Rather John’s God is already poised to save us from the path of intrinsic death that we are already on. I find it meaningful that the term “saved” in the text can just as accurately be translated as healed.

There is most definitely so much in our world today, both personally and societally, individually and systemically, that is in need of healing. This reminds me of the words of Delores Williams in her classic Sisters in the Wilderness:

Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

Do we find teachings lifted up in the Jesus story that aid our work of healing our world’s pain today? If we do, then it is in this healing that our passage rings true.

This week, let’s be a source of healing in our world. Let’s lift up Jesus, too, as one who can deeply inform our work of setting our communities, society, and entire world right side up, making it a safe, equitable, and compassionate home for everyone.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, Dale B. Martin correctly states, “”All interpretation is subjective and interested, people’s interpretations of texts, even those about Jesus, are a product of who they are and where they live.” (p. 101)  Are there stories in the Gospels that you wish there were better ways to tell? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Spirit of Advocacy

 

dove in stained glass

Herb Montgomery | May 21, 2021


The Jesus of John calls us to not let go of life but to take hold of it, to stand up for that which is life-giving, and to stand alongside the oppressed in our fight against injustice and death in all its expressions. May the same Advocate Spirit that took the side of the oppressed, marginalized, and those pushed to the edges of society in the Jesus story be found again, poured out on us as Jesus followers again today.”


Our readings this week are from John 15 and 16:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)

“But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, Where are you going? But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:4-15)

As we mentioned last week, these two passages belong to a section of John’s gospel referred to as the farewell discourses. John 16 includes themes repeated throughout farewell addresses: departure and Jesus being on the way to the Father” (cf. John 13:33, 36-37; 14:2-4, 28), Jesus promise to send the Spirit as an advocate (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26), the work of the advocated to guide them into truth (cf. John 14:6, 16-17). It’s worth noting how clear and direct Jesus’ speech is in these passages compared to his parables and sayings in the synoptic gospels. In those versions of the Jesus story, Jesus speaks much more cryptically, in parables and metaphors. John does not include that kind of speech.

In the passage this week, Jesus uses the term advocate for the promise of the Spirit. This concept would have held a certain meaning for the original audience, the community of early Jesus followers. By the time John’s gospel was written, the rift between Christians and the Jewish people had become wide, and so John not only includes conflict between these two now-separate communities, but also an alarming amount of anti-Jewish descriptions and antisemitic characterizations of those referred to as “the Jews.” Given how Christians have treated our Jewish siblings throughout Christianity’s history, we must be extremely careful with the gospel of John, and not perpetuate stereotypes or actions that have harmed or even proven lethal to Jewish people. This caution applies to the term “advocate,” too.

Consider the following passages in John’s version of the Jesus story where being removed from the synagogue is a penalty for Jewish people who follow Jesus.

“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Anointed would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:22)

“Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 12:42)

John’s Jesus repeats the warning in John 12: “They will put you out of the synagogues.” (John 16:2)

For that first audience, “advocate” would have called to mind actual legal proceedings Jewish leaders initated against Jesus’ followers. The theme of being brought to trial appears in the early synoptic gospels as well:

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 13:11)

“When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20)

“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Luke 21:14-15)

“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

Can we reclaim this idea of advocacy in life-giving ways within our social context today?

Advocacy means to publicly support a particular community, cause or policy.

In the Hebrew scriptures, advocacy meant perceiving God’s role in our world (God as advocate of the oppressed) as well as the role God’s people were to fulfill.

“God judges in favor of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.” (Psalm 146:7, italics added.)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

“Happy are those who are concerned for the poor; the Lord will help them when they are in trouble.” (Psalms 41:1)

“Open your mouth for the voiceless, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people. They are not fair to the poor, and they rob my people of their rights. They allow people to steal from widows and to take from orphans what really belongs to them.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth . . . ” (Isaiah 42:3-4)

Too often, we as Christians have become fixated on helping people reach a post-mortem heaven or escape some mythical hell: our focus is always on tomorrow and never on today. But if we would be humble enough to learn from our Jewish siblings, remembering Jesus himself was a Jew long before the Christian religion ever existed, we would learn how to effectively engage systemic injustice in our world. The Jesus story calls Jesus’ followers to advocacy in the here and now. I so deeply appreciate the words of the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone on this point:

“The Christian community, therefore, is that community that freely becomes oppressed, because they know that Jesus himself has defined humanity’s liberation in the context of what happens to the little ones. Christians join the cause of the oppressed in the fight for justice not because of some philosophical principle of “the Good” or because of a religious feeling of sympathy for people in prison. Sympathy does not change the structures of injustice. The authentic identity of Christians with the poor is found in the claim which the Jesus-encounter lays upon their own life-style, a claim that connects the word “Christian” with the liberation of the poor. Christians fight not for humanity in general but for themselves and out of their love for concrete human beings.” (James H. Cone; The God of the Oppressed, p. 135)

This weekend, we celebrate Pentecost, which memorializes the pouring out of the Spirit on the early church. What did it look like when this Advocate Spirit was poured out on Jesus? How did that Spirit characterize his life work?

The Spirit [advocate] of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lords favor [cancellation of all debt].” (Luke 4:18-19, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2)

The Jesus story calls to us to have this same Spirit mark our lives today too!

I’ll close this week with words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that still give us much to consider:

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. Youre afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or youre afraid that somebody will stab or shoot or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ; Ebenezer Baptist Church; 11/5/67; Atlanta, GA)

This is especially applicable given the recent events in Palestine. The Jesus of John calls us to not let go of life but to take hold of it, to stand up for that which is life-giving, and to stand alongside the oppressed in our fight against injustice and death in all its expressions. May the same Advocate Spirit that took the side of the oppressed, marginalized, and those pushed to the edges of society in the Jesus story be found again, poured out on us as Jesus followers again today.

This Pentecost, may this be not merely our prayer, but our choice as well.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does advocacy look like for you and how does it inform your own Jesus following? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


Hated by the Right People

lonely road

Herb Montgomery | May 14, 2021


“We should first stop and ask if we are genuinely being hated at all. And if we are, we must also realize It’s not enough to be hated. We have to ask ourselves who is it who is hating us and why. If we are hated by the same social groups that hated Jesus and for the same reasons, then we can claim Jesus’ blessing in Luke. But if we find ourselves opposed by the marginalized because we are actually standing between them and justice, obstructing their path toward a society that recognizes their full humanity, then we need to serious address why it is that our story is so fundamentally different from the Jesus story that we hold so dear.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your instructions. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the instructions you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your instruction and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your instruction is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. (John 17:6-19)

This passage ends Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s version of the story (John 14-17). This section is unique to John, and many scholars have compared it to Matthew’s sermon on the mount because of its size and centrality to John’s version of the Jesus story. To the original audience of John, the farewell discourse would have been immediately recognized as similar to a last will and testament of a father or leader of a community, like those found in Genesis 49 or in the Judean document Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Discourses like these were often deathbed instructions to children or final instructions to followers before a leader’s departure. And so they were in John.

This segment in John represents the tenets of a distinct group that emerged within the early Christian community referred to as the Johannine community. Some of what this community believed and taught would become part of the gnostic Christian community a hundred years later, and other portions would provide the foundation for the patriarchal orthodoxy established in the fourth and fifth centuries of the new Church.

Just as the sermon on the mount in Matthew contains Matthew’s version of the central teachings of Jesus, these discourses (John 14-17) contain the language and particular perspectives of the Christian Johannine community, which they attributed to Jesus.

John 17:6-19, for instance, is part of Jesus’ farewell prayer. This prayer was hugely influential in the process of defining the orthodox Christian view of the relationship between Jesus and the Father during the debates and eventual creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries. For our purposes this week, the love between the Father and Jesus is the theme of verses 1-5. The hoped-for success of Jesus followers after the crucifixion and resurrection is the theme of verses 6-10. Once we get to verse 11, the focus shifts to concern for the safety of Jesus followers in a world to which the Johannine community believed they didn’t belong (“They are not of the world any more than I am of the world”).

Being hated by the world is a theme in many sectors of Christianity that has been sorely abused since then. So let’s unpack this idea a bit.

First, Jesus’ gospel of liberation for the oppressed was not initially perceived as good news for everyone. I’m reminded of the words of Peter Gomes in his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus:

Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesuspreaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.” (Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, p. 31)

An example of this is Luke’s sermon on the plain in Luke 6:20-26. Certainly the poor, the hungry, those the present system caused to weep, and those hated by the elite felt blessed by Jesus’ gospel of blessing. Yet those who were rich, well-fed, filled with the laughter of luxury, and liked within their fellow elite social class felt cursed. In the story, the characters of Herod, Pilate and Caiaphas did not perceive Jesus’ teachings as good news but as a threat. And in the synoptics, Jesus was loved among the common people but hated by many of those in power and positions of privilege, so much so that it was the people’s love that initially protected Jesus, making him difficult to arrest and silence (see Matthew 21:26, Mark 12:12, Luke 20:19).

So in the gospels, Jesus’ followers were to expect hatred from the powerful and elite for whom Jesus’ teachings threatened (Matthew 10:22; 24:9; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; John 15:18). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus goes so far as to say, “Blessed are you when people hate you.” (Luke 6:22) And this is where the teaching can be abused.

People hating you doesn’t mean you’re on the right path. You could just be a jerk! Also, too often we can conflate criticism and hate. Someone not liking something doesn’t mean they want it destroyed. And yet, if you find yourself being genuinely hated as a Jesus follower, it’s important to consider how much social location matters: ask yourself who hates you and what their social location is. If you find yourself being hated by the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged, the propertied, and those who put profit before people, then you’re in the right story.

But what if, as is so often the case within so many sectors of Christianity, we find ourselves challenged by LGBTQ folks, or by women who identify as feminists or womanists, or by people who are not White, or by those who daily struggle economically to scratch out an existence, who feel as if they will never enjoy the privileges of being a citizen of this world?

Then we need to reassess why our story looks so differently from the Jesus story. Jesus was hated, yes. But those who hated him were at the center and top of society to the exclusion and marginalization of others. Jesus was hated by many in the privileged and powerful sectors of his society. Those in the story who lived in a marginalized or disempowered social location loved him.

We should first stop and ask if we are genuinely being hated at all. And if we are, we must also realize It’s not enough to be hated. We have to ask ourselves who is it who is hating us and why. If we are hated by the same social groups that hated Jesus and for the same reasons, then we can claim Jesus’ blessing in Luke. But if we find ourselves opposed by the marginalized because we are actually standing between them and justice, obstructing their path toward a society that recognizes their full humanity, then we need to serious address why it is that our story is so fundamentally different from the Jesus story that we hold so dear.

One last word. Unique to the Johaninne community is an idea that we are in this world but not of it. Whatever this meant for the original Johannine community, it’s not a life-giving teaching today: separatist at best and exceptionalism and possibly even supremacism at worst. Today, we can tell the Jesus story in ways that, like the Jesus of the synoptics, engage this world, our families, our communities, our society, and don’t withdraw from them. We are part of this world. It’s not “the” world, it’s our world. We are not just passing through: this world is our home.

And, according to other passages in the Christian scriptures, we are to be about renewing, restoring, and transforming our world into a safe home for everyone (see Revelation 21:3-5).

So this week, let’s get to it! Let’s get to work alongside those working toward a more distributively just society, one where the full humanity of those presently othered is not only recognized, but celebrated, honored and centered.

A just, safe, equitable home for all.

Will we be hated along the way? Maybe.

But let’s make sure our gospel is good news to the same folks Jesus’ gospel was good news for, and then we will at least be able to say that those who hate us hated Jesus, too. If we do, our heads can hit the pillow each night and, whether we are hated or loved, we can know that we are making our world a better place for all.

HeartGroup Application

1.  Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How does considering the social location of both marginalized and privileged communities in our society impact how we read and follow the Jesus story? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

The Inherent Relationship of Love and Justice

 

clouds in the sky

by Herb Montgomery | May 7, 2021


“There is a way to teach God’s love that is complicit in oppression and is harmful to marginalized communities. There is another way to teach love that can be foundational to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone . . . Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having . . . We can explore ways that understanding Universal love that lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in that love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Fathers commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-17)

The intended audience for this passage is the developing community of Jesus followers, and the central theme of the passage is love. Out of all the canonical gospels, John’s expresses the highest form of Christology since the writing of the gospel of Mark. Since then, the community developed its ideas about the relationship between Jesus and Jesus’ Father (see John 1:1-3). In our passage this week, this relationship and Jesus’ relationship with his followers are models for Jesus followers to emulate in their relationships with one another. Love is one of the central themes in John, more so than in Matthew, Mark, Luke and even the book of Acts where the word love does not appear even once.

Consider, by contrast, how often love is the focus of John’s version of the Jesus story:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, italics added.)

“The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:35,italics added.)

“For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.” (John 5:20, italics added.)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34,35, italics added.)

“No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27, italics added.)

“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23, italics added.)

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26, italics added.)

See also John 10:17; 14:15, 21-23, 31; 17:24; and 21:15-17.

Each of the synoptic gospels addresses love, but none of them repeats the theme to the degree we see in John’s gospel.

There is a way to teach God’s love that is nothing more than guilt management for the privileged, propertied, and powerful, that does nothing more than help them to silence the background noise of their troubled conscience. I’ve also found over the years that many Christians who live in an empowered or privileged social location also name John’s gospel as their favorite out of the four. I wonder if there is a connection.

There’s also another way to teach God’s love that could be foundational to our work to transform our world into a just, compassionate, safe home for all those who are vulnerable to harm in the present system. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Emilie M. Townes:

“When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isnt very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes; Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

In 2010, Dr. Cornel West firmly grounded distributive, societal justice work in the soil of universal love when he said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also relied on his deep belief in a universal love and social justice for the objects of that love:

“When days grow dark [sic] and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through lifes dark [sic] valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, in A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, p. 9)

Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having. If a belief in universal love is only serves to achieve privatized, individual, internal well-being and doesn’t also move us to work publicly for justice within our communities, then we should abandon that belief and kind of love immediately. I agree with James Baldwin who wrote, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (James Baldwin; The Fire Next Time, p. 47)

The late Thomas Merton went so far as to equate a theology of love with a theology of resistance and revolution:

“A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental. It cannot afford to preach edifying generalities about charity, while identifying peace’ with mere established power and legalized violence against the oppressed. A theology of love cannot be allowed merely to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, justifying their wars, their violence and their bombs, while exhorting the poor and underprivileged to practice patience, meekness, longsuffering, and to solve their problems, if at all, nonviolently. A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to homicidal desperation.” (Thomas Merton; Toward a Theology of Resistance found in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, p.121)

I want to offer one word of caution in relation to our passage this week. As I’ve repeatedly said over the past few weeks, John’s gospel speaks to the myth of redemptive suffering more so than any of the other canonical gospels:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

I’ve also written repeatedly about the harm the myth of redemptive suffering does to vulnerable communities so I will not unpack the whole discussion again here. Instead I will offer Dr. Katie Cannon’s words in the foreword to the 20th Anniversary edition of Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness:

“[Williams] contends that theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.” (Kindle location 133)

As I wrote in Imagery of a Good Shepherd, there is a difference between empowered people sacrificing and them teaching disempowered people to sacrifice themselves. (Also see Brown and Parker’s For God So Loved The World?) The early church was largely comprised of those who, as Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas often says, didn’t have a wall to even have their back up against. While the giving of some people in privileged social locations can hardly be called sacrifice (see Mark 12:41-44), teaching disempowered people the myth of redemptive suffering can be destructive or even lethal.

I’ll close with Thomas Merton’s timely words:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of nonviolence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.” (Ibid.)

This week, let’s explore ways that understanding God loves everyone can lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in God’s love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.

HeartGroup Application

1.  Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Contrast some of the ways a message of love can be used to impede our justice work along with ways a message of love can be foundational.  Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week