Friday, January 11, 2008

ALL IN THE FAMILY

A Guest Sermon -- First Christian Church of Lompoc
© David L. Matson 2003
John 17:20-23; 2 John 7-11; 1 John 2:18-19



Boy the way Glen Miller played
Songs that made the hit parade.
Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days.

Didn’t need no welfare state.
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days.

And those were the days. Those were the days when they were indeed “all in the family.” Archie and Meathead living under the same roof. Edith and Gloria trying their dead-level best to keep peace in the family. If you were like me growing up in the Seventies, you tuned in to this very popular television show every Saturday night to watch this dysfunctional family battle it out before your very eyes. “Stifle, Edith!” we could hear a domineering and chauvinistic Archie exclaim. “Gloria!” we could hear a frustrated and an about-to-explode Michael implore. It was not always pleasant. It was not always serene. But, you have to admit, it was all in the family.

I want to introduce you to another family today. It is actually a family of churches in the first-century CE that shared a common heritage going back to the same spiritual father. That father was known simply to them as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (or the “Beloved Disciple,” for short), who was an eyewitness of many of the important events in Jesus’ earthly ministry and whose teachings and testimony came to be embodied in what we know today as the Gospel of John. In John 13, the Beloved Disciple is reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper; in John 19, he is standing at the foot of the cross receiving the care of Jesus’ earthly mother; in John 20, he is outdistancing Peter to the empty tomb; in John 21, he is the first to recognize the resurrected Lord while fishing with Simon Peter. Is it any surprise, then, that the Gospel concludes on this reassuring note: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24)?
The use of the word “we” here is striking. The “we” to which the author refers is none other than the community of the Beloved Disciple—the “school” or “family,” if you will, that he inspired and which eventually produced the Gospel and letters of John. So closely did they come to identity with their beloved teacher that they came to share his language, his insight, and his perspective as if it were their very own. I remember when I was a student at Pepperdine University. I had a teacher that I admired so much that I found myself subconsciously reflecting his thoughts and imitating his style in my own teaching. Finally one night at after a Bible Study that I taught my wife Mary kindly pointed this peculiarity out to me. I had not even realized the extent of my teacher’s influence! And that is something of the way it must have happened with the community of the Beloved Disciple. So profound was his influence that his thoughts became their thoughts; his experience their experience. Through the eyes and ears of the Beloved Disciple the entire community could affirm the opening words of 1 John: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life” (1:1).
But something happened to the Beloved Disciple that eventually happens to us all—he died. And when he died, it left a tremendous void in the lives of his followers. Gone was the living voice of their authoritative teacher. Gone was the gentle hand who could steer the ship and guide the controls. Now the community was left to carry on without their beloved figure; now the community was left to fend for itself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the “Paraclete” (14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7). So unfathomable was the thought of the Beloved Disciple’s passing—so preposterous was the idea—that a rumor had begun to spread that the Beloved Disciple would never die at all (21:23).

But die he did. And when he died, the family began to experience conflict. Some in the family liked what the Beloved Disciple had to say about Jesus’ divinity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1); “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9); “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8:58). In fact, so enamored were they with Jesus’ “high” status before God—indeed, he was God himself!—that they came to believe that his human, earthly existence was not very important at all. Some were becoming self-styled “progressives” in their theology, believing that Jesus had never really come “in the flesh” (2 Jn. 9), the catch-phrase that the another group of Christians in the Beloved Disciple’s community used to stress the importance of Jesus’ true humanity. This second group could point to aspects of the Beloved Disciple’s teaching that stressed Jesus’ full humanity: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14); “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well” (4:6); “I thirst” (Jn. 19:28). Jesus may have been fully divine, but he was almost certainly fully human as well.
For a while the community of the Beloved Disciple lived under the same roof (or, perhaps, we should say, “roofs”) as it struggled with these two very different trajectories in the Beloved Disciple’s teaching. But then things started getting nasty. The group that believed Jesus did indeed come “in the flesh” began regarding those who didn’t as “false prophets” (1 Jn. 4:1) and as “antichrists” (1 Jn. 2:18; 2 Jn. 7), a term, it seems, invented specially for them. The author of the letters of John began to disallow anyone who was sympathetic with the “other” side from donning the doors of the church and worshipping together in the same house (2 Jn. 10). His opponents no doubt were engaging in heated name-calling as well and acting just as inhospitably towards the other side (cf. 3 Jn. 9). Things were going south fast. Where was the Beloved Disciple when they needed him?! And need him they did. The community of the Beloved Disciple was in danger of being torn apart at the seams.

And so this family of churches, sharing the same Lord, the same Gospel tradition, and the same spiritual parentage, did something that many marriages unfortunately do when trouble escalates and conflict sharpens beyond the point of no return: they got a divorce. By the time the letter of 1 John was written (2 John, in my view, reflects an earlier stage in the conflict), we learn that some had already “moved out”: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us” (2:19). These sad and tragic words, as one scholar has noted, represent “the first known instance of disagreement among Christians leading to formal separation—the beginnings of a long and weary path in Christian history” (Houlden, 3). No longer were they the one church for which Jesus prayed in his high-priestly prayer of John 17: “I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one” (v. 23); no longer were they “all in the family.” It was now “we” versus “they”; “us” versus “them.” The divorce was as messy and as ugly as a National Enquirer headline. It was a good thing that the Beloved Disciple was not alive to see this sad and acrimonious parting of the ways; he surely would be turning over in his grave.

I tell you this sad story today—historically reconstructed as it is—to draw some interesting parallels to our own history and our own experience as heirs to the Stone-Campbell Movement. Our Movement began in the nineteenth-century on the American frontier as a unity movement within the wider church, calling Christians to put aside their denominational differences and return to that “simple” form of Christianity embodied in the New Testament (although we know now that it was not so simple). These early followers of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell called themselves “Christians” or “Disciples” (using universal and biblical names) and had unity as their “polar star.” During that first generation when Campbell was still alive, the Movement flourished and grew, but after his death the second generation began to experience turmoil and conflict, disagreeing over matters of theology and what was to be considered “essential” to the restoration of “New Testament Christianity.” Two groups would eventually emerge, each claiming to represent the truest and best thought of the Movement. Unfortunately, the kind of Christian tolerance that Stone and Campbell were able to extend to one another (despite the fact that they disagreed on such “minor” matters as the Trinity and the substitutionary death of Christ!) was replaced over time with more dogmatic attitudes and theological rigidity, exacerbated, unfortunately, by the aftermath of the Civil War. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the divorce papers were final, and there were now two laying claim to the same theological heritage: the Disciples of Christ, and the Churches of Christ.

But, as the commercial says, “But wait! There’s more! The early decades of the twentieth century saw the rise of Darwinism and the influx of European higher biblical criticism in Disciples’ universities and seminaries, and the third-generation heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement found themselves divided once again, this time between “liberals” (called “infidels” by conservatives), who made their peace with progress and scientific discovery, and “conservatives” (called “fundamentalists” by liberals), who militantly defended what they considered to be “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Campbell, the beloved disciple, was long since dead, but both groups could cite him as a source to justify their respective positions. The two groups lived very uneasily with each other for the next forty years or so, eating and meeting together from time to time but not enjoying it very much. The divorce finally became official in the 1960s when both groups decided to go their separate ways. This separation produced yet a third division, and now there were three groups laying claim to the same theological heritage.
As this brief look at our history reveals, we were, at one time, “all in the family.” Like the original community of the Beloved Disciple, we believed in a common Lord, we read from a common book, we shared a common meal, we even looked to our own “Beloved Disciple” for direction and guidance. But we got a divorce. In fact, we got more than one. I stand before you today as one who hates divorce. I stand before you today as one who wants to put the marriage back together again. It will never happen so long as we insist that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. It will never happen so long as there is the temptation to move out of the house when we disagree. It can only happen when we agree to disagree in love. As the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple declares, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35). Only then can those other words of Jesus in the Beloved Disciple’s Gospel stand a chance of ever coming true: “I in them, and you in me, that they may be completely one” (Jn. 17:23). Ah, those were the days.
Preached at:
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. David L. Matson
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Hope International University
Epiphany Sunday
January 6, 2008

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