Did it ever strike you as being odd, our infernal craving to catalog everything? There is a valid use for cataloging, of course. Telephone books, dictionaries, and those ingenious red wheeled cabinets from Sears and Roebuck, the ones with hundreds of tiny drawers for nuts and bolts: These are all quite functional — although I privately wonder whether that many kinds of nuts and bolts actually exist, or if all those drawers are for the illusion of competence.
Yes, there is a time and place for classification. I wonder, though, if we in the church have allowed the “catalog itch” to infiltrate our human relationships, and whether it has not damaged our ability to love transcendency, to be “in but not of”? How useful are all of our labels and categories in light of John 15:12? (“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”)
Judging by the headlines in the newspapers lately, the world’s catalogs are losing some of their pages. Walls are coming down, mediations being attempted, old enemies shopping in one another’s markets. The world, it seems, is attempting to reverse Babel. This shift in definitions poses the greatest challenge to we who are the church, as we face the turn of the century. Suddenly doors of ministry are flung wide. With the breakdown of old labels and walls we have unprecedented opportunities to share authentic transcendent love. In its movement toward globalization the world is seeking peace and security, liberation from the old war-mongering divisions. The world is famished for a taste of authentic, transcendent love. It is a ripened field begging for harvesters who are “in but not of.”
How many of us, though, are ready to meet the challenge? Are we already living from a position of transcendence regarding racial, gender, cultural and ecclesiastic barriers? Are the reckless, wall-pulverizing dynamics of Pentecost fueling our relationships? Or do we continue to confuse the American flag with the cross, the color of skin with the color of the heart, anatomy with authority, letter with spirit? Within the church and the privacy of our own hearts, have we grasped the truth that there is but one body, one Lord, and one baptism? We need very much to take a fresh look at our theological wheeled cabinets with their multiple compartments for human beings.
Jesus had much to say about our wheeled carts. As always, he startled his friends with what he said, how he said it, and who he said it to. Let us begin by listening to Jesus’ beloved friend, John. Then we will be ready to enter the drama, walking as silent observers while our Lord transcends every barrier we face today. Only as we listen, watch, and enter his drama will we be prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
The first step into the drama of transcendent love is to embrace this truth: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all-people” (John 1:3b-4). Christ himself is the genesis of life, of understanding, enlightenment, purpose, hope, human solidarity. This Christ, who speaks worlds into existence, has come into our world to reveal himself to all people. He sees no barriers. In Christ there is no gender gap, culture gap, or social gap. If he had a sanctuary with a flag in it, the flag would be a patchwork affair stitched from every flag from every people from all of history. A great crown and cross would stretch from edge to edge, proclaiming the God of all nations, the Lord who reverses Babel. Oswald Chambers said it well: “According to the Bible, nations as we know them are the outcome of what ought never to have been."1 The whole world, Julian of Norwich wrote, is but a hazelnut held in the palm of God’s hand.2 Have we truly seen the world in this way? Has the light of all people shone in our hearts?
In our calling to love transcendently, we must first allow ourselves to become incarnations of Christ’s life. We must take into ourselves the light of all people.
But how do we go on when we have embraced the first truth, taking his light into ourselves? What happens when we run up against the old barriers? How do we flesh out the transcendent love? Again, let us listen to John: “...but if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). John writes this passage to Christians. His purpose is to emphasize that our relationship with God and our fellowship with one another in the body are inseparable. The first testing ground of incarnate light within us is the community of believers. The quality of transcendence there, Jesus said, will tell the world whether or not God is real (John 17:23).
Our relationships with one another in the body are of paramount importance as we seek to reveal Christ to the world. In the common stuff of daily life we are to embody Christ to one another: thinking, willing, acting and loving according to the Christ-life within us. That is what is meant by “walking in the light.” We are to define ourselves and others as Christ does, seeing each other first and foremost as brothers and sisters in Christ. Even in our marriages we are to relate first as siblings in Christ and second as husbands and wives. Roles, gender, culture, and ecclesiastic structures all take a back seat to our mutuality in the body.
Transcendent love is a tall order, indeed/ for ex-worldlings such as ourselves. It is painfully humbling to give up our deluxe wheeled cabinets. How often we fall short! John assures us, though, that when we fail along the way, the moment we realize our sin and confess it, we are forgiven and restored. This commitment to see one another with Christ’s eyes, confessing when we fail, beginning again when we stumble, is the second step into the drama of transcendent love.
In light of these two steps, then, let us enter the biblical drama for awhile, walking with Jesus on a hot and dusty day (John 4:1-42). Much to our chagrin he takes the direct route. We are not sure about going through Samaria. In fact, we are afraid, but he beckons us on. We feel uneasy at the possibility of meeting halfbreed heretics. There could be trouble. What would people think? Weary from the day’s journey, we sit down to rest awhile. A woman approaches. She is from the seedy part of town, perhaps, and comes to the well when the respectable women are safely at home. We gather our robes a little tighter, noting her careless glance and heavy perfume. To our astonishment, Jesus tells her, tells her to give him a drink. “Jesus, don’t you know what she is? A shared drink is intimate.”
She is startled, but only for a moment. The wanton is answering back. What in the world could Jesus be talking to her about? They have absolutely nothing in common. But just look at him. It almost seems he has gotten his second wind. One would think he had, well, eaten lunch and had a good nap.
Now they are discussing theology, of all things! How can Jesus talk about theology with a halfbreed female religious renegade who comes to the well at noon? This is preposterous. He is talking to her the way he talks to us, his friends. Only we never heard him say things quite like he is saving to her. He is saying true worship has nothing to do with a temple or a nation. No temple? No flags or fight songs? The Sadducees had better not get wind of this. Now he is saying the Father is seeking worshippers like her: People who will love God in spirit and in truth. He just told her he is the Messiah, the one she has been waiting for. She has been waiting for the Messiah? Now she is weeping—weeping and laughing, all at the same time. They both are.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Transcendent love, “in but not of” love, Christ-love shines in the darkness of Babel. Christ’s love destroys every barrier that sin built. As recorded in John 4, in one brief hour Jesus bridged the gender barrier, the culture gap, religious walls, racial hatred, and nationalism. Walking in the light that came from the Father, full of grace and truth, Jesus showed us what it means to love the world transcendently. Now he invites us to go and do likewise.
The world looks to economic systems, political systems, and civil rights for a transcendence that can only come through Christ. Our challenge, as we face the coming century, is to be “in but not of.” Are we ready?
- Chambers, Oswald. Oswald Chambers, The Best From All His Books. Edited by Hairy Verploegh. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987.
- Julian of Norwich. Showings. Translated by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. New York: Paulist, 1978.