Tag Archives: blood

19 August – Conquering the world

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Pentecost 13

1 John 5:1-12
Psalm 34
John 6:51-58

In a sentence:
Love conquers the world by
winning it over

We sometimes get the sense that theological specialists get a little het up from time to time on matters of precision and correctness in faith. I’m probably not immune to such a charge myself. Why bother with the language of the Creeds, with doctrinal precision, with correct liturgical structure?

As a way towards answering this, let’s consider the theological intensity in the middle of our reading this morning from 1 John: ‘[Jesus Christ] is the one who came by water and blood…not with the water only but with the water and the blood.’

If nothing else, this is dense theology. It is neither immediately clear what it means nor why it matters. At the same time, John insists on it, rabidly, foaming at the mouth: this really does matter. There was obviously some controversy in John’s community about ‘the blood’, and whether or not belief in ‘the blood’ had to be added to belief in the ‘the water’. Perhaps the most likely scenario is something like this: there was an argument about whether or not the redeemer – the Son of God – was present in the baptism of Jesus only (the water, or the waters of birth [cf. John 3]), or whether he has also present in the death of Jesus (the blood).[1] What seems to be at stake is the relationship between ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Son of God’.

That is, John defends here what we now call the doctrine of the Incarnation – the meeting of God and the world in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, if this makes sense of the statement, we must then wonder about the next thing: why does the Incarnation matter?

As far as John is concerned, the doctrine matters not for its own sake but for its crucial pastoral implication: it is those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God (that is, who believe Jesus came ‘in the water and the blood’) who ‘conquer the world’.

‘Conquering the world’ is perhaps not the best way of putting it for modern ears anxious about histories of colonisation and so on, but we get the point if we invert John’s way of putting it: it is those who believe in the meeting of Jesus and the Son – in the ‘water and the blood’ – who are not conquered by the world. ‘The world’ is here anything which might constitute a threat to us – the fears in our love, as we considered them last week. To believe that Jesus was the Son is to get a grip on the world, rather than be gripped by it.

This is so because the world ceases to be a place which comes between us and God – and so between us and our true selves; the world becomes the place where God is met and embraces us. In the person of Jesus God meets with the real world, as lived by a real person in time and space, with all its joys and sorrows.

We declare this each week in our recitation of the Creeds: Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’… residing in, coinciding with, ‘was born…suffered…was buried.’ This is not mere doctrine; it is a way of saying that true God and true world can meet. The Creed declares that such a meeting has happened, and it is the hope of all who say the Creed that this will happen again.

And so the Jesus of the gospel is not a solitary individual, a tool in the hand of God, a means to some divine end. He is a real person engaged with other persons. His death is not mere mortality or tragedy, and it is – again (see July 29 sermon!) – not something God demands. The cross is a failure of the world to bear God – a rejection of such a presence of God to the world.

A sad philosopher once observed that ‘hell is other people’. It would have to be said that this was the experience of the crucified Jesus, because it was only by other people that he found himself on the cross; the physical suffering of the cross represented the suffering of the conflict endured throughout his ministry.

But the point of his ministry, and the point of John’s preaching through this dense and circular little letter, was to declare just the opposite: that heaven, also, is other people. This is why – as we saw last week – the love of whatever in the world it is appropriate to love can be the love of God – our love of God and God’s love of us. Our presence to God and God’s presence to us ‘looks like’ loving one another.

We do not believe ‘in the Incarnation’ as a thing which happened. The thing which happened, we believe, is the defining instance of God’s en‑fleshing of himself in our very lives, and this matters for the continuing shape of our lives. To believe that Jesus was the divine Son is not so much to ‘conquer’ the world with right doctrine as it is to declare what the world truly is: a vessel – even ourselves – which God has created to fill with himself.

To believe that Jesus – even ‘in the blood’ of the cross – is ‘true God of true God’ in the world is to believe that there is nowhere in the world which is alien to God, nothing which cannot be raised from the dead.

This is why we are to love not only the lovely but also those who it seems even love would do little good. Such love always seems wasteful, always appears as a throwing of good after bad. But this is not to say that such love is then an expression of kindness or compassion. As a throwing of good after bad, in the manner of God’s own work, our love of the unlovely is an experiment in resurrection. Is there really a passion stronger than death, as Solomon puts it in the Song of Songs (Songs 8.6)? A ‘Yes’ to this question is what marks the Christian.

The world, then, in its constant turn towards deathly things, is not conquered for the sake of the conqueror – whether us or God. It is conquered for its own sake. For the weapon in this struggle is love, and love conquers as much for the beloved as for the lover. God, then, does not conquer the world so much as reach out to gather it to himself; for the closer the world is to God, the more it is what God intended it to be.

This is the promise of the gospel.

And we ‘prove’ the promise – in the double proving of testing and demonstrating – in the love we show to those in need of it.

Once again, then, let us love one another. For nothing else will help.

[1] This occurs elsewhere in John; cf. John 3, where a contrast is drawn between being born of ‘water and the (s)Spirit’. There is also the reference in John 19.34f: ‘one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)’ That is it necessary to emphasise the truth of this indicates that the matter was very important in the understanding (and debates) in Johannine community.

22 April – No anaemic God

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Easter 4

1 John 1:5-2:2
Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

Next week, of course, we mark once more the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli and, by extension, the war service of hundreds of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders, and others. Familiar stories are retold and new ones are uncovered, expounding the courage and feats of people in extreme circumstances.

Not far from the heart of these accounts is the language of sacrifice as a way of characterising what soldiers and others do in giving up their lives or wellbeing for comrades or for the community on whose behalf they fought – for us. Such extraordinary self-sacrifice is rightly marked with gratitude by those who have benefitted from it – even us today, after so long, whatever we make of the wars which have gone before, however much we agree or not with the fact that they were fought.

Now, the reason for raising all of this is not quite that ANZAC Day is coming, but that the theme of sacrifice appears twice in the passage we have heard (again) today:

‘…he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (2.2); ‘the blood of Jesus [the] Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1.7)

This is uncomfortable language for many in our modern and enlightened times, not least in the church. This discomfort arises because Scriptural sacrifice is foreign to us, despite its familiarity after so long and despite our willingness to borrow the language for something like war service. John – whether he was a Jew or a Gentile (allowing that he may not have been the apostle John, as many scholars hold) – would have imbibed with mother’s milk an understanding of ritual sacrifice which held great sense and conviction for him. He wrote of such sacrifice because he knew about it, saw it, had participated in it. We, however, really only speak of such sacrifice because the likes of John wrote about it. We no longer do or see done what they did and saw. We echo what they say when we speak of sacrifice and, because it is only an echo, it can sound hollow or simply come out wrong. Sacrifice is, simply, not how we understand the world to work and so we struggle to use such language with conviction.

But we cannot leave the matter there. At dawn services around the country on Wednesday the words of Jesus will be quoted: ‘No greater love has anyone than to lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13). I suspect that it appeals to us that Jesus gives up his life for his friends, even us. Or, at least it makes sense to us that Jesus might do this, as we imagine our soldiers do.

Yet, if Jesus’ self-sacrifice is for his friends, from what does he save them? The intention of the self-sacrifice of the soldier is clear; her death saves the comrade-in-arms, or weakens the enemy. In the case of Jesus, however, what is the threat from which his friends are to be saved? The horrifying thing – especially for the likes of us – is that the threat can only be God; Jesus dies to protect the disciples from God.

And here we strike the fundamental objection to sacrificial language: that God is said to have stipulated sacrifice for such protection – the blood of lambs, bulls and doves, and ultimately the blood of Jesus himself. The problem is whether God might just be a bloody God. This does not sell well.

Our hesitation here ought not to surprise us, because it is not only a theological hesitation; it is not a problem for only the church with its cross. We – society and church together – hesitate in the same way when it comes to speaking of the sacrifice of those wounded or killed in war. It seems obvious that we could borrow the words of Jesus to characterise the casualties of war, yet we are mistaken if we do so. Scriptural notions of sacrifice have nothing to do with self-sacrifice. The sacrificial victim is a third party in an exchange between the principle actors – the priest who sacrifices and the God who is appeased. If we were to speak properly (and honestly) of sacrifice in relation to war we would have to say that is not the soldiers who make the sacrifice but the community or nation which offers them up. This is surely the meaning of conscription, on the one hand, and white feathers on the other. Nations and kings go to war, not their soldiers. The lives of combatants are the sacrifice we are prepared to make – we, who cannot qualify as the sacrifice by virtue of being too young, too old, too rich or too important.

But we do not speak this way when we commemorate war service. It is very hard to admit that it is better for us that one die for the people than that the whole nation should be lost. And so we generally can’t admit it. And because we can’t, it is difficult to admit that God’s purported stipulation of sacrifice might be just. Surely God is not like us, only open where we are covert?

In fact, even if we are bloody, God is not. Sacrificial blood does not buy forgiveness; God cannot be bought. But if God is not bloody – does not demand blood – neither is God anaemic. John’s insistence on the cross goes with his insistence that Jesus is the Son, is at the heart of God (cf. John 1.18). This death – this blood – is squarely in the middle of the God-humankind relationship.

But, unlike all other human sacrifice – whether the soldier on the field, the neglected spouse, the molested child or the ignored refugee – this death is not finally mere tragedy. God is light (1.5), we considered last week, and the cross of the Risen One is that light. This is the truly difficult thing at the heart of Christian confession: that a tragic failure might become a healing word, that the justice of God (1.9) might meet this failure with forgiveness.

John, with most of the New Testament, borrows the language and logic of sacrifice but it is only passingly useful if we insist on being biblical literalists, speaking Scriptural language with too thick an accent. If God is free – unbound by anything outside of God – then God is not bound by a sacrificial economy of exchange, such that Jesus ‘had’ to die on the cross. Ritual sacrifice in the Old Testament only ever served as a kind of cloak covering the truly important thing, a Tabernacle housing the incomprehensible glory which cannot be gazed upon directly. That glory is God’s freedom to love and heal those who imagine that death is the way to life, even God’s own death.

The miracle of Easter is not that a blood debt is paid. It is that the blood we spill does not stain but washes clean.

And we are those who are washed.