Dear John Letters

Dear John Letters
Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God;
whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.
Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this
teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person.
Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to
come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete. The children of
your elect sister send you their greetings. -2 John 1:9-13
My Facebook friends already know my deep, dark secret. The letters of John? First
John, Second John, and Third John- these letters so full of love with famous quotes like: “God is
love and those who abide in love abide in God”? Well…I don‟t love them. For those of you
who persist in thinking everything is my favorite- these books are not, alas, my favorite books in
the Bible. In fact if I‟m to be perfectly honest I believe what I posted a couple of weeks ago was,
“Is it wrong to hate a book about love?” And I thank everyone who offered encouragement,
most memorable among them being Cathy Lambeth who wrote: “John John bo bon banana fana
fo fawn, mi, my mo-on, John…does that help, Ken?” (And by the way anyone who feels like
they are missing out on deep theological conversation like this, everyone is welcome to join the
Facebook party and is free to “friend” me.)
No, I‟ve actually never liked the letters of John. See, while they are full of loving
sayings, and they are- while they are full of loving saying, they are full of attitudes and
recommend behaviors that feel incredibly, well…not loving.
For instance the letter of First John divides everyone up into being either children of God
or children of the devil. That‟s it. You‟re either one or the other. And I‟m like, really? This is
it? You‟re either a child of God or the child of the devil? I mean, this just doesn‟t fit how I
experience the world. Now, I‟m not trying to be naïve here, it‟s true I have run into a few folks I
would say might be candidates for devil children…my own ranking high on that list from time to
time. But most people I know aren‟t nearly THIS bad- they‟re more like children of minor
demons, perhaps. I mean I experience people as falling into more of a range- and I try to think of
everyone I meet as a child of God down deep, no matter how rough the edges.
And then there‟s the Second letter that we heard from earlier. In the letter of Second
John the author, who refers to himself merely as The Elder, tells us that anyone who doesn‟t fall
into the right camp, anyone who doesn‟t belong into the Children of God category as we‟ve
divvied it up- well don‟t even let these people in the door. It‟s like all of a sudden we‟re playing
this weird, weird, weird game of theological duck duck goose- only it‟s like we‟re going around
saying, „Child of God, Child of God…Child of the devil.” And this, well this doesn‟t sound
loving to me- not at all.
And this is what makes these letters so hard for me. One minute they‟re all God is love
and everyone who abides in love abide in God, and the next minute they‟re telling us, yeah, but
you better make sure you‟re loving on the RIGHT people. And that, well that doesn‟t sound like
love to me- that sounds like high school on a bad day.
Now, when you feel this way about a book, there are a lot of things you can do. You do
have some options. For instance you could just skip it. You could just say you know, I just
don‟t feel like reading this today, thank you very much. I‟d say most people in most churches do
this a lot of the time- we read the parts we like and the parts we don‟t…well we just tuck those
away for a rainy day, maybe. And you can do this. You can.
Of course, if you‟re feeling more honest, and especially if you‟ve been an idiot and
decided you want to preach through the books of the Bible in order in a year, well, you don‟t
really have the option to skip books you don‟t like. Now you could, say, try to pawn it off on
another preacher, though. Of course, the reality is I was just away and next week Martha is
preaching Jude, and I like Jude even less than I like the letters of John, and I do have to preach
some of the time around here. Now honestly I wasn‟t trying to stick Martha with Jude, it just
happens I‟m headed on paternity leave next week. I promise, Martha. (It was just a happy
accident. )
And so, if there‟s no way around a book like this you don‟t like, if you can‟t go over or
underneath it, if you can‟t hand it off, then really, the only option left is to go through it. And
that means rolling up your sleeves and reading it over and over and over again, and studying it.
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And the first thing you learn when you actually sit down and study these letters and take
them seriously- the first thing you learn is what a painful time it was when they were written.
One of the first things you learn is that the Elder was grieving and he‟s writing to a community
in grief.
Now, most of the time when churches were suffering in the New Testament, the pain was
largely coming from outside them. It was the Romans or the religious leadership or some other
group that was oppressing them. But not the letters of John- in the letters of John the pain was
coming from inside. What‟s happening in the community is that it had split wide open, and the
wound that was left was gaping and seeping and not healing.
Today it‟s not entirely clear what the church was fighting over- lots of people have
theories. At the heart of things, though, it sounds like the church wasn‟t able to agree on what
was the best way to think about Jesus. And you know what happens in churches or families
when there is a split like this? All of a sudden it‟s like you can‟t think of anything else- you
can‟t see all of the other things you have in common. It‟s like this one issue is the only thing you
can think about. And pretty soon the community splits up into factions. And the groups that feel
the same way start spending more time together and sitting together and talking together- and
they stop spending time and talking with the others. And pretty soon, people in one group can‟t
even stand to see or look at the people in the other. When they seem in church they just shake
their heads and can‟t imagine how they were EVER friends in the first place. I mean, what were
they thinking? And then one day one of the groups says, “You know, why are we even coming
to this place at all with them here? Why don‟t we just all leave and make our own church?”
And they do.
And the letters of John- well they are written to the group that stayed. After this terrible
break up, far worse than most romantic break ups I‟m sure, this group was left wondering what
happened. Was it them? Was it something they did- or didn‟t do? Could they have done
something differently that might have helped things? Did it have to end like this? They‟re just
in absolute grief, and the elder who writes these letters- he‟s grieving, too.
Grief is a strange thing. A lot of us believe that you have to have something terrible
happen to you to experience grief. Like, someone close to you has to die or your house has to
burn down or it has to rain and be cold all year until JULY or something world class like that.
We think something just awful has to happen to know grief. But this just isn‟t true. This just
isn‟t true. With grief- anytime you feel loss, even a loss that seems small in the eyes of others
you can feel grief. Grief is sneaky and surprising. You can be going along just fine and then
something is taken from you, something you think in your head should just be no big deal- but
somehow it‟s like the rug is pulled out from under you. Grief doesn‟t need something big- any
kind of loss will do.
I was reading Emily Franklin‟s Too Many Cooks last week. She discovered that with
Daniel her five-year-old, something as small as eating peas can trigger grief. Daniel is one of
those children who feels everything so intensely. She writes that sometimes this can be so
pleasurable. “Example. Mommy, do you know how much I love you? More than all the skies
sewn together with outer space and all the oceans. When I grow up I want to live near you and
daddy and I‟ll have you over for dinner or for you to read to me even though I‟ll be able to read
by then. I mean I‟ll be 18 or maybe 42, but still. And sometimes it‟s less pleasurable. „You cut
my sandwich.‟ His volume increases. „I never asked you to do that.‟ And then more volume. „I
hate having my sandwiches cut and you know that.‟ And now at the top of his lung capacity
while thrashing and turning red: „This lunch is horrible. If you were trying to kill me, which I
guess you are, this sandwich is the worst way to die.‟”
So, one night they were all sitting down for dinner. Daniel, loves broccoli and was
looking forward to broccoli even though everyone else would be having peas, which he hated.
Unfortunately, he had eaten the last of the broccoli the other night. And when his mom informed
him of this, he immediately leapt into the first stage of grief, denial. “I just can‟t believe it,” he
says. “I can‟t believe you‟re going to make me eat peas. There HAS to be broccoli. I had some
last night. I am having broccoli.” “No, honey,” mom says. “You ate it all. Tonight we‟re have
peas.” And of course he then rockets into the second stage of grief, anger. Raising his voice
when the peas are put on his plate he yells, “Come on! I don‟t get this. You gave me WAY
more peas than Julia, and she likes them. This is NOT fair!” He stomps his feet and glares. And
then, when Daniel figures out that mom and dad aren‟t budging he tries the next stage:
bargaining. “Well, how about carrots. I don‟t mind carrots. I‟ll eat six,” he says, then
bargaining with himself, “no, twenty carrots. I will eat twenty carrots if I don‟t have to eat these
peas.” “Daniel,” his dad says. “You don‟t have to eat the peas.” “Really? I don‟t?” Then,
sensing a catch, he adds, “but can I have more of something else if I don‟t?” “No,” his dad says.
And this was enough to send him into the fourth stage, depression. He laid his head down on the
table forlornly, unable to enjoy even the foods he does like. The family just ate through it all,
talking about their day. Finally, after a few moments, Daniel looks up and sighs, his watery eyes
pleading his case and says, “Ok, how many do I have to eat?” “How many do you think you
have to eat?” asks his dad. “How about twenty?” “Here‟s some milk,” says mom. And Daniel
begins to eat his way into acceptance.i
You don‟t have to experience a world class tragedy to know grief- something as small as
peas can bring it on. And for John and his church, a church they themselves nicknamed the
Beloved Community, losing half of their members felt like losing a part of themselves- and it
was more than enough to bring on a whole heap of grief.
And just knowing this makes it easier for me to read and hear these letters. Because you
know how it is when you‟re grieving. You can be fragile and overly sensitive. The smallest
thing can just make you snap at someone in a way that surprises even you. In this light it‟s not
surprising that the elder says some things that aren‟t that nice, it‟s not surprising that he likens
the home wreckers that left to the children of the devil. I‟ve thought far worse of people who
have dumped me and left me high and dry, and you probably have, too.
The surprising thing isn‟t that the letters contain the flash of anger here or there, the
miracle is how little anger there actually is. One New Testament scholar writes: “The
remarkable thing about 1 John is that it does not consist of a bitter polemic against those who
departed or a sustained refutation of their claims. [The remarkable thing is that the] focus of this
writing is not on the outsiders but on those who remain…and the faithful remnant is encouraged
not to smugness but to a new alertness.”ii
These letters are for the parts of us that have been hurt and are grieving. And they allow
us to be angry and touchy- they give voice to that. But then the elder gently moves us along, not
wanting us to wallow there, to get stuck there. The elder puts the focus back on us, reminding us
we weren‟t perfect either (“if we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us”). And then he nudges
us forward into healing, into being able to trust and love again. And he does this by reminding
us our ability to love in the first place was never our own doing, but that we‟re only able to love
at all, because God first loved us.
And the good news is that if our ability to heal and to love comes from God- then no
matter how heavy the grief is that weighs upon our shoulders, if God is the author of our love
and our healing, then there is hope. There is hope enough for us to hang on until the light is able
to break and a new day lays before us as fresh and green as a serving of peas, which, it turns out,
aren‟t really that bad after all. Amen.
From Emily Franklin’s “Too Many Cooks” as read by Emily Franklin on the Splendid Table on May 8 , 2010.
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Writings of the New Testament, p. 508.