Reflections on John's Epistles
For the 2010 Spiritual Growth Study, "For the Love of God"
We come into this world receiving no personal invitation and no option about the design! We arrive and are totally dependent upon the presence of someone else to care for us. For many the arrival is well formulated with medical intervention being at center stage for the great moment called birth.
For others the birthing moment brings struggle and gives one the aura of aloneness fighting for survival. Both extremes and the ones that occur between the extremes result in the gift of life and the immediacy of community. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am present.” Matthew 18:20. Community occurs when lives intersect, hands reach out, eyes make contact and human spirits are enriched by the presence of one another.
According to the Creation stories in Genesis, community was strategically designed by God. Both stories reveal that for God, being alone was not going to be fulfilling. Thus, people continue to be transformed through birth to being on the stage of life. For those who follow Christian beliefs, this life that we are given has some clear components presented to us by which our practice of living is defined.
In the birthing act, we begin to respond to the call to be in relationship. We are guided by others around us to grow in relationship by responding to touches and voices, and eventually learning how to imitate what is presented to us.
Periodically, we struggle when we are forced to cope with others who also want to have a special place on the stage of life. These others might be siblings, cousins, friends, classmates or just people presenting themselves to us at inopportune moments. Some define these struggles as growing pains; others define them as just being with difficult people.
Ultimately, the struggle depends upon the view and core values one has been steeped in. The Christian faith provides for us a format: Love others as you love yourself; treat others as you would want to be treated; love God by loving others. This life is all about living in community!
As United Methodist Women members, we are called to embrace the Spirit of living in community. We are also called to embrace the community as the beloved community—to conceptualize that a person is created in the image of God, and that alone transforms the person into being sacred. The task, then, becomes to discover the image of God in each person who comes into one’s presence; to see the presence of another as an opportunity to connect with the Spirit of God within another person: The Christ in me meets the Christ in you.
Years ago, I was in a class where the facilitator shared an African proverb: “First person: ‘Did you sleep well last night?’ Second person: ‘I did if you did.’” This proverb has remained as a lasting image in my mind, and it remains one which holds great layers of meaning. The intensity of my wellness, my rest, my hungering or thirsting, is totally dependent upon the condition others are experiencing in life as well. In the midst of living within this format, the concept of the beloved community blossoms to be so expansive that one’s mind can barely comprehend the size of it. The purpose of the United Methodist Women contains the phrase: “to develop a creative, supportive fellowship.”
According to the Letters of John, the community must engage itself in the knowledge of Jesus Christ and the practice of his teachings, and be fully defined as followers of Jesus Christ. What, then, will it take for us as today’s Christians—being Christ centered—to help create and sustain the beloved community? Will an earthquake continue to be needed to shake the bowels of the poorest lands of the global community for others to band together with actions of love? How many natural disasters do we need to experience to learn how to see through the lenses of the heart? How do we respond as a community of women whose purpose is to know God?
For United Methodist Women, being a beloved community requires an intentional embracing of the call to be educated and knowledgeable about the living conditions of others. John Wesley, the cleric and theologian credited with founding the Methodist movement, was quick to identify within the early beginnings of Methodism that education is critical for people to understand the living conditions others are enduring. Thus, he required the class leaders to visit those who were ailing in any way—from prison to poverty of heart and mind and soul.
Today the world is our parish; our sisters and brothers and their concerns become ours as we live in a beloved community. Members of United Methodist Women are called to be informed on such issues as economic justice. Again, Wesley made it clear that all who chose the name Methodist were to hold to the principles given in his sermon “The Use of Money,” including the use of funds to build up the community or to be a powerful, if not silent, partner in destroying inequality.
Just as Wesley used the evidence of the power of destruction in the slave trade in his day, so United Methodist Women members are called to be engaged and informed of the patterns of child slavery, sex slavery and the exploitation of the worker. The spiritual task for today’s units and circles of United Methodist Women is to be the voice for those who remain on the margins and are excluded from being part of the beloved community because of inequality and oppression. Whether it is the decisions of countries involved in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the forgiveness of loans to those countries that have no funds or concern for the people barely surviving, we are called to be the vocal conscience to create a method for all to be in the beloved community.
Today, the spiritual concept of the beloved community is continually being challenged by the political process of someone deciding who is in the community and who must be left out. The rules of the decision-making process are difficult to understand. What remains a constant is that someone through the process called immigration is being excluded—sometimes from family, the opportunity to earn a fair wage or the dreams the world has been told are true only in the U.S.
United Methodist Women members must remain true to the biblical call to live in a beloved community defined by the openness of the love Jesus practiced—to the Samaritan, the women and the men, the tax collectors, the Gentiles, the Jews and the children. The beloved community was always growing unless one from within chose to walk another way. As one looks closely at the beloved community practiced by Jesus and expounded upon in the Letters of John, and then transfers the teachings to the purpose of United Methodist Women, it is clear that members of this body are called to be participants of a beloved community that encircles the health, nutrition and safety of children, youth and displaced persons and refugees in the global community. Our work is to ensure that the beloved community can radiate the gentleness of God’s love for all.
Perhaps the beloved community might call for the units and circles of Methodist Women to reach deep within to find the light about which 1 John so eloquently speaks. How will the divine light reflect love if it is not through those who understand the beloved community? This question was answered with a profound sense of gratitude as the following conversation occurred between a local policeman and me, a professor, in Bristol, England, this past summer. I was there along with 16 accounting students to study the history of John Wesley and to apply the lessons to current global economics when we stopped to ask directions.
The policeman was delightful in his inquiry of us and in the passing of necessary information. Then, with a twist in the tone of his voice, he said, “I was born a Methodist; I remained a Methodist until the passing of my dear mother and father. Only then did I dare to hurt them and return to the Mother Church—the Church of England. But let me tell you and your students this: I will go to my grave believing John Wesley was one of the strongest men of the faith, for it was here, at the mouth of this river, where he met the boats bringing the slaves in transit to the colonies. He stood at the edge of the dock and declared the evil that was being practiced for the sake of greed. For that, my U.S. friends, the world owes him an eternal debt of gratitude.”
There are many examples of such persons through the years of Christianity who have chosen to reflect the light of love and work to draw the circle wider so all may have a sense of belonging with dignity. United Methodist Women members must continue to be those in action telling such stories of the past, but, perhaps more importantly, living and writing new stories for the tomorrows.
The Letters of John define a pattern by which we can be enlightened. It is critical to know the voice of the Holy Spirit and to know it is this voice that we discipline ourselves to hear. There are many voices quick to claim the power of the teachings of the Holy Spirit, but the author of 1 John reminds the beloved community, the followers of Jesus Christ, that it is necessary to know the true Spirit. The truth for the author of the letters is that there are many who freely and openly speak as if God has given them the authority to interpret God’s will for the people.
In order to use the Letters of John as a roadmap for spiritual growth, I encourage the reader to continuously reflect upon four questions during the study:
What do you believe about Christ?
How do you respond to the commandments of Christ?
How do you practice loving other Christians?
How do you embrace the stranger as Christ has embraced you?
Using these questions to enhance one’s spiritual growth, there is the promise of growth, yes, but there is also the promise of spiritual work!
As United Methodists we are called to follow a disciplined life living out the General Rules created by John Wesley. The simplified version of these rules speaks of doing no harm, doing good and staying in love with God. For each member of United Methodist Women and her unit, there is the ongoing call to work within the world in order to bring John’s vision of light—of hope, of peace, of love—into every aspect of living.
Thus, for a local unit, there is the task of enabling the light of Christ to shine wherever a local church, a community and a region need to have the light shine. Living by these spiritual disciplines alters the concept of any business meeting; the focus of money is removed from the altar and the image of God’s community is in its place.
When the central focus is on God’s design for community, the image will be transformed into becoming the reality. Living with the integrity of the faith is what the author of the Letters of John continues to put before the reader. Integrity requires a consistency between belief and actions, between deeds and words.
When one lives with integrity there is evidence of what is claimed to be of value in the convictions, commitments and loyalties that are embraced. For United Methodist Women members who choose to function with the integrity of the vision of light demonstrated in 1 John, the process of doing the work is a task of loving others as God has, and continuing to offer unconditional love to each person. The work of unit or circle is centered on the gift of love. As we claim that gift of love, we offer the gift to others—in our pledging, in our undesignated giving, in our praying, in our designated giving, in our working—and the circle of love continues. As the circle grows, the blessings will multiply and one’s learning will be broadened by others who are not in the circle.
A question of great consequence was offered by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Life’s most urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” Adding the context of the Letters of John, one may add to the struggle with a deeper question: “How do I love those outside of my circle of existence?” Ultimately, according to John, if we succeed in loving one another, credit belongs to God. And the love we show is a sign that God’s love is working through us. Love becomes the active life of faith. To abide in God is to have a unified relationship—God and “I” become one.
A Nigerian proverb speaks the truth to United Methodist Women members who work to create community so there is a continual reflection of God’s love in all of living upon this earth. The proverb states: “It is the heart that gives; the fingers just let go.”
By being faithful in living the Christian and United Methodist core values: the discipline of spirit and action—prayers, projects, practice, doing, being—will be strengthened. We will experience successes and failures as we journey together in the faith. However, no one needs to journey alone. We are called into community, a community of faith, the Body of Christ. We are called together to create an environment, a global community, where each can discover a life being the child of God and reflecting God’s vision of love, of hope, of faith—a beloved community.