AC 2018: Saturday Bible study - 'An Embraceable Variant'

Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

June 16, 2018

Annual Conference guest preacher the Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill led Bible study on Saturday, June 16, 2018 on John 17:3. Here is an excerpt from that study:

You love all the Gospels. One there is though that from antiquity has been known as the sublime, the spiritual gospel. We shall ascend today to the craggy paths and rarified air of the Fourth Gospel.

High above the rest of John, above the seven signs to begin and above the passion and resurrection to end, there lies the strangest moonscape in the Scripture, and so in all literature, and so in life. I mean chapters 13-17. We are about to place our homiletical flag on the very summit, the highest of high peaks, the textual Matterhorn, Everest, Mount Washington, Pike’s Peak: John 17:3

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

We affirm, with the ancient Gospel according to St. John the Divine 17:3, that we find freedom in disappointment, we grasp grace in dislocation, and we learn love in departure. Look back at all your experience to date. What is your greatest disappointment? It is a clue to freedom. What is your hardest dislocation? It is a signpost for grace. What is your most grievous departure? It is the way of love.
Read the complete text of the study

Listen to an excerpt from the Friday, June 15, Bible study on Galatians 3:28
The community of the beloved disciple knew about disappointment. After three generations, and some, the community had awaited the primitive hope of the church to be realized. They awaited the return of Christ. The resurrection of the dead from their graves. The end of time. The apocalypse of God. It did not come. He did not come, at least not in the way once hoped. I find it the most remarkable feature of the New Testament that John, rather than being lost in a sea of disheartening failure, in the very eye of his most stormy theological hurricane, found freedom. In theological disappointment he found freedom.

But how does this happen? Freedom, grace and love come through variance, in John, difference, in John, the courage to act differently, think differently, in John. Let me see if an analogy will help.

We are four siblings in my family of origin. The older three have brown hair. The youngest is a redhead, whose name is John. John’s bright red locks are unlike, quite unlike, the less remarkable curls of Bob, Cathy and Cynthia. He stands apart, does John. It makes you wonder where he came from, with such a distinctive aspect. John is like his Gospel namesake, the Fourth Gospel. The youngest of the four, he stands out, so different from his synoptic siblings Matthew, Mark and Luke. They with their shared brown hair, their shared parables and teachings, their shared emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, their shared trips from Galilee to Jerusalem, they just don’t look at all like their younger redheaded brother.

In the summer, it happens, as it may in your family, there is a family reunion for one part of our tribe. Occasionally, we would go, growing up. Like yours, ours is something of standard reunion. It is held on a farm near Albany, which has been in the family since before George Washington rode a horse. After the usual light meal of beef, corn, potatoes, bread, sausage, pies, and pickles and so on, the extended family (or those who having eaten so can still move) will sometimes stand for a photograph on the long farm house veranda.

I ask you to look at the photo. I am holding it here. Can you see it? Well, even if you cannot see it across the radio waves, you can probably guess what it shows. Of these eighty people, do you see how many have red hair? About 60—young or old, tall or short, heavy or slight, male or female, they mostly have red hair, like John. 75% are redheads. In fact, in the photo, it looks like a sea of red hair. Maybe a red heads convention out in the farm fields of Cooperstown, NY. John isn’t the odd ball. His siblings are.

John is not the second century Greco Roman odd ball. His synoptic siblings are. When you put the Fourth Gospel, with all its red haired radical difference, on the farm house veranda of second century religious family literature, he fits right in. He stands shoulder to shoulder with all the Gnostic writings that are so like him, especially in these late chapters. It looks like a redheads convention. He looks and sounds quite like the rest of his second and third cousins, once or twice removed: The Paraphrase of Shem, the Treatise on the Resurrection, the Odes of Solomon, the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary. How else will we ever hear this voice of Jesus from John 17?

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom though hast sent.

Six Synoptic differences! Eternal life, not kingdom of heaven. Know, not believe. The only true God, not Abba. Jesus Christ, not Rabbi or Master. Sent, not begotten.

This voice is NOTHING like that of the Sermon on the Mount, or that of the parable of the Good Samaritan, or that of the cry from Psalm 22 on the cross. Not human, but divine, here. Not earthly, but heavenly, here. Not low, but high, here. Not immanent, but transcendent, here.

The community of the Gospel of John had a radical experience of Jesus, as God on earth. To render that experience meaningful, they had the radical courage to take language from the heretics around them, the Gnostics, and use it as their own BECAUSE IT FIT. It worked. It explained to the huddled humans clinging to Christ what they had experienced in him: divine grace and divine freedom. It rendered the sense of consecration, the sense of holy living and dying, the sense of consecrated joy, which they had found, with the Light of the World, with the Bread of Life, with the Good Shepherd, with the Resurrection, with the Word made flesh.

The community of the Gospel of John feared not the culture around them. They feared not truth, even when that truth was best expressed outside of their particular religious circle. They had the guts to use language belonging to pagans, outsiders, heretics, Gnostics to celebrate and consecrate their faith. In doing so, they opened up the church to the world, to the future, to the culture around them. They changed their way of speaking of Christ, and pointed to Christ above, in, and transforming the culture around them. They changed. They had the courage to change.

In age, our own, when the Gospel of John, served raw, without cooking, without historical interpretation, can be made to sound like the voice not of tradition but of traditionalism, we do well to remember John’s courage to change, to reach out to the culture around, to put the gospel in word and music on the air waves of a pagan culture, out on the radio waves of a secular world, and where possible to use that same culture.  …