I liken this to knowing the proper lyrics to a song that is on the radio. In the days before Google, which allows you to simply check the Internet for the proper words to a song you liked, you were reduced to just listening to a song over and over again to try to figure out what the singer was saying. This has produced some hilarious misunderstandings. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I found out that the Steve Miller Band’s song, “Big Ol’ Jet Airliner” was not, in fact, actually a hymn to my home state, “Good Ol’ North Carolina.” And my family still gives my father a hard time about the Christmas morning we found him unloading presents from the trunk of his car, merrily singing, “Feliz La-De-Dah.” And our esteemed Director of Music, Kevin Barger, apparently thinks that the old favorite hymn, “Lead On, O King Eternal,” has always sounded more like, “Lead On, O Kinky Turtle.” One musician, Seal, intentionally does not include the lyrics of his songs in his albums just so that people can come up with their own understanding of whatever he’s singing, blissfully ignorant of what the words really are. The words to songs and stories, unless explicitly laid out, are often easy to get wrong.
That is the essence of what is happening between John the evangelist and his community in a letter he writes just around the turn of the first century after Christ’s birth. He is trying to get the lyrics straight and clear up a growing misunderstanding. By this point, only a few decades have passed, perhaps, since Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, and yet there is already some disagreement among his closest followers as to what Jesus’ life on earth meant.
|All Saints icon|
The particular details of this controversy are not known to us anymore, but it apparently was so critical to the understanding of the Christian faith that John found he needed to make some things very clear. Bottom line was the factions of people who disagreed with John in the early church wanted to deny that Christ came in the flesh. That is, their understanding of God was such that they had no place for Jesus’ wanting to be involved in anything messy, like birth—or death, for that matter—and the daily ups and downs of human life.
And John was adamant: Jesus was real. His birth was real, his ministry among the sick and marginalized was real, and his death and resurrection—also extremely real—had really claimed God’s people from a life of sin death. This reclaiming that Jesus had done, made meaningful for each believer through the sacrament of Baptism, was so real one could say a new life had begun for believers on the other side of that water, right here and now. Claimed as God’s child by Jesus’ sacrifice, the believer’s life was now synched to a hope that was not fully tangible. Creatures made of flesh, themselves, they had been saved from a future of death and decay. With their lives and with their faith, they pointed forward to a new reality in the future that had not yet been revealed. Their eyes were set on the faithfulness of God even after their own death, and the promise of their own eventual purity, just as he is pure.
Those were the true lyrics of the faith, but they could be misunderstood. As God’s children, they would have some explaining to do on occasion. That is, they were going to need to be prepared to offer up, in both their words and actions, this real version of things—a view where God’s love in Jesus is turning things around. “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him,” John states, emphasizing the point that just as Jesus was and still is misunderstood, so can his followers expect to be misunderstood as they continue in his way. If some people in their community did not understand why John and his supporters behaved as though their lives—messy though they were—had been claimed for something better, it was no wonder. Jesus had been nailed to the cross for saying such things, too.
The British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis does an excellent job of portraying this aspect of Jesus’ nature and ministry in his series of children’s novels, The Chronicles of Narnia (which are really for adults, too). Those who are familiar with the fictitious kingdom of Narnia the characters who live there know that the Christ-figure in these stories is depicted as a giant lion named Aslan who is described as fierce and terrible but also beautiful and just. Aslan is often lurking in the shadows and mysteriously present just when someone is in need.
To us it may seem strange to depict Christ as a lion, but it was a very deliberate and genius choice on Lewis’ part. Lions are very fearsome. Everyone would identify them as both frightening and easy to misjudge because they have a mind of their own. In the C.S. Lewis’ books, Aslan the lion is often misunderstood, especially by those who’ve never met him and gotten to know him. Those in the stories who live outside of Aslan’s domain cannot comprehend how a lion can be loving or gracious. They only hear stories about him. His enemies often twist those stories and perceive him to be a demon, or a dreadful beast who haunts his victims in terror and who must be subdued. Yet those who are befriended by Aslan quickly learn that, while strong and fierce and all-knowing, he is, at heart, a good and compassionate lion.
There is a sense in which Jesus is always perceived and received in a similar way by this world. Stories about him will be twisted. The truth will be altered. His fearless command over our lives will be resisted and doubted. And so if those who believe in him that their faith and their actions are often misunderstood, that the way of life he lays before them often makes little sense, they only have to look his life to see why.
|Gustave Dore, Jesus Preaching on the Mount (1860)|
And there it is again: to live like this—to receive these particular blessings—will involve being misunderstood. It will involve responding to a call that not everyone else hears. It will entail living in a kingdom that, for some reason, not everyone else seems to acknowledge yet.
But here we must be careful, for there is but a short distance from being misunderstood to withdrawing from the world and rejecting it in hatred. It is a short trip from feeling constantly at odds with the world’s way of doing things and saying “to hell with it” altogether. And that is not the life of a saint. That is certainly not the life of Jesus. Jesus, you see, does not come, as John says in an earlier writing, to condemn the world, but to save it. Likewise, a saint learns to sees the world as an imperfect place, but nevertheless a place that God loves and a place that God has filled with surprising amounts of joy. A child of God, which what John calls saints, may become frustrated and even angered by the injustices and the mixed up priorities of the world, but a child of God finds ever new ways of loving and working to change the world, even if it is in the lives of just a few people around them.
Come to think of it, a saint sees the world almost like a large-scale version of themselves: full of sin, doubt, turmoil, disappointment, but nevertheless cleansed and claimed by a God who, as John would remind us, deals in messiness quite willingly. Yes, what John the evangelist was trying to make clear to his community two thousand years ago goes for us today: God likes messes. It seems so unnatural that a God who is so holy and perfect—a lion so fierce and fearsome—would choose for companions those who are so fundamentally flawed. It seems so preposterous that a God who is so powerful and wise would choose to make himself known to people who are so prone to weakness and doubt. But he does. Those are the beautiful lyrics of grace.
|Powaski Cemetery, Warsaw|
On this All Saints Sunday, as we ponder especially the lives of those children of God who have died in the past year and how they may have been, at times, misunderstood for their faith, let us give thanks for the lives and faith of all saints that point us to the kingdom to come. But, first and foremost, let us give thanks for a God who gladly deals with things when they get messy, a mighty God who revels in things like forgiveness and mercy and turning things around. Let us lift our voices and our lives in praise of a God who, in Christ, is real and really fond of reaching out to the sick and the suffering, really fond of turning over the gracious life of God even to the most hopeless of cases.
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Those are the words to this eternal song, and those who have felt this grace, those who have been turned around and have been taught the right lyrics time and time again—in the water, at the table—can’t help but move in that new direction, and can’t but help trying to get the rest of the world to join in the song with them.
Even when—Kevin, it’s “King Eternal”—it involves being misunderstood.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.