by Rev. Joe Connolly
“If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater;….” — 1 John 5:9a
It was an era of great change and transition. People were thinking in ways they had never thought before, doing things in ways they had never tried before. Scientists, engineers were creating and building projects on a scale never dreamed of before.
One country was presided over by an individual nearly everyone referred to as the most powerful person on the face of the earth. That person was the leader of the one world power dominant among nation states.
The foreign policy of that singular world power, the dominant force on the planet, was simple: protect the homeland. That policy worked itself out in a number of ways.
For starters a large, powerful Army was maintained. Its very existence was influential well beyond the homeland borders. The real purpose of that armed presence was to make manifest the reality of its power so the trading interests, the commercial ventures of the country were protected.
Protecting that commercial potential happened in several ways. First, by creating trade routes. Second, by protecting them. This was done by maintaining bases, arsenals abroad in an effort to keep order, keep the peace, or at least to keep as much peace as was reasonable, in as many far flung lands as reasonable.
Commercial interests were also protected by making sure the Navy controlled the seas, especially the historic routes out of the East. Valuable cargo moved from the East across the seas toward the West.
That all these routes needed protection was a given. That’s because there were differences in those regions— East and West. There were differences in approach, in philosophy, in religion.
Sometimes those differences led to conflicts. Sometimes people died simply because they believed the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place.
But, if truth be told, people dying because of belief was more about statecraft than about any belief system or theology. After all, in order to thrive in the aforementioned environment, believing what the citizens who reigned in that dominant world power believed was only wise. In that way this was simply an era of go along, get along.
Sometimes peace was not consistent. Local squabbles were quite common. Often the peoples of the East— some thought of them as tribes— often the peoples of the East fought against one another. Sometimes they engaged in proxy wars.
They sometimes actually tried to fight the dominant state, but never directly. Subversiveness was their prime tool. Indeed, why pick a fight with those stronger than yourself when being subversive is an easier, more effective strategy?
But in the long term subversiveness was not effective. In the short term did it cause temporary trouble and consternation? Yes. But subversiveness was soon crushed.
Therefore it was, in fact, a time of incredible stability, in part because that one world power dominated the landscape. Sometimes things felt unstable because of subversiveness. But that was always short lived on the larger scale. And indeed, if one looked at the larger picture one would have seen the real cause of said instability— instability which often felt real— the obvious threat to stability was the world had entered an era of great change, remarkable transition.
And it was, indeed, a time of change. People were thinking in ways they had never thought before, doing things in ways they had never tried before. (Slight pause.)
Of course, what I have just described is what was happening about the year 100 of the Common Era, when 1st John was written. And the dominant world power I just described was the Roman Empire. Did that sound like the modern world? Well, yes. The more things change, the more they stay the same. (Slight pause.)
These words are from 1st John: “If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater;….” (Slight pause.)
It will probably not surprise you that I follow a couple of writers whose central topic is the church today or that the work of these writers appears mostly online or that they are in the age group referred to as millennials. The birth years of millennials range from the early 1980s to the early 2000s and they have come of age in the year 2000 or later.
Now, unless your head has been in the sand there are several basic things you’ve heard about millennials. Many don’t attend churches of any kind. But also, they think in ways people have never thought before. They do things in ways people have never tried before.
One millennial writer I follow identifies online with only a first name: Jonathan. Jonathan attends church and expresses worry that the institutional church does not understand what’s happening with millennials.
These are among the things Jonathan says about the church. “I love the theology, hate expectations of pseudo piety. Love the Gospel, hate patriotic moralism. Love the Bible, hate the way it’s used. Love Jesus, hate what we’ve done with the Rabbi. Love worship, hate Jesus-y entertainment.”
Among Jonathan’s suggestions to the church are these. “Week after week, season after season, let’s participate in the drama of the Gospel. It’s not supposed to be fun, not supposed to produce intense emotional response. It is a microcosmic, disciplined, anticipatory remembrance of who we were, who we are and who we are to be.”
“Be inclusive. Save us from ourselves. We don’t need more youth group lock-ins,” he says, “more senior adult outings on beekeeping or genealogy.”
“We need more of each other, need to look into the faces of old, young, rich, poor— faces of different colors, races, backgrounds— so we can learn to see Jesus in faces that don’t look like us. We need community not based on age, economic status, skin color.”
“We need to welcome the toughest, deepest, grittiest, desperate, shocking questions. We millennials have a lot of questions. And what we see in the world doesn’t jibe with what we grew up hearing.”
“You, the church, have done damage by requiring politeness, refusing to engage, rebuking honesty and vulnerability. You’re better than that, church. At least you should be. You should be a safe place for struggling, grappling, doubting.” (Slight pause.)
One thing we don’t seem to get about the writer of 1st John is this person might as well be living today and be a millennial. The world situation is not that different. The thinking presented by John is like that of a millennial: filled with challenging questions.
And religion, or at least the organized, institutional versions of it in the 1st Century of the Common Era in Rome and in the East, was being challenged by people who were thinking in ways in which they had never thought before and challenged by people doing things in ways which they had never tried before. Put another way, there was a great spiritual awakening among the people at that time and in that place.
What existed then in terms of institutional religion was two visions about God. One was a Western, Roman institutional vision: there are many gods who take care of their own individual responsibilities. When you prayed to a god of fertility, for instance— biological or agricultural fertility— fertility became a possibility.
The other institutional vision was Eastern: one God ruled. But for many this one God had become as domesticated as Roman gods. If we worship at the right temple, say the right prayers, do the right deeds, everything will turn out just fine.
But the Jesus we find in the New Testament insists that we free God from domestication. Jesus insists a domesticated God is not found in the Torah, not found in the Prophets.
Jesus insists God wants us to participate in forming a new world. Jesus insists that we think about God in ways we have never thought before, do things in ways we have never tried before. And Jesus says we need both think and do now— right now. This is, hence, not a domesticated God about Whom Jesus speaks.
And the writer of 1st John is trying to explain this radical person commonly referred to by the name Jesus. And, if that is what Jesus said about God, the author of 1st John feels compelled to explain who this radical, undomesticated Jesus is.
What the writer offers is revolutionary, precise and convoluted. Let me try to unpack the convoluted part. I think this is what the writer says: Jesus is related to God in a way no one has ever been related to God before or since— the Only Begotten.
Hence, John says what people already know but often do not want to hear: the resurrection is the testimony of God about Who Jesus is and testimony about the radical covenant of God proclaimed by Jesus. And we are, thereby, called by God to participate in the radical idea of Jesus: the Dominion of God is now, right now. (Slight pause.)
In fact, this message repeats what Jesus said. God’s presence is real and with us— us, the church— now. God wants us— us, the church— to do the work and the will of God, now. God wants us— the church— to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, clothe those in tatters, now— right now.
I want to suggest in order to do that, we, the church, need to start thinking in ways we rarely have before. We, the church, need to start doing things in ways we rarely have tried before. And if we do that, do the work and the will of God, now— right now— then our times, like ancient times, will also see a great awakening— people thinking in new ways. People doing in new ways. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Many of you probably have heard the report on religion this week concerning the growth of the segment of the population called ‘unaffiliated with churches.’ Historian and theologian Diana Butler Bass insists what is really happening is people are thinking in new ways doing this in different ways and it is a Great Awakening. Bass says this: ‘An awakening is cultural change. It transforms the ways in which people gather, form community, make meaning— a historical social transformation. Awakening does not result in larger churches; it results in transformed religious understanding and practice. It is not a revival. Revival is individual experience that results in greater church membership. This is a transformation, an awakening.’”
BENEDICTION: The work and the will of God is placed before us. Further, we are called to be faithful and seek to do God’s will and work. In so doing, may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.
1. I have edited this some for the context of the sermon but I do not think I’ve changed the intent or the meaning of Jonathan.