As the pandemic winds down we here at the hermitage watch for signs of a new world order. The feast of John the Baptist’s birth is symbolically significant. John is the divine messenger from God ushering in a new era. His prophetic witness comes out of the desert where man meets God in purity and truth. The one-joy man. John met the people outside the institution where he urged them to repent and prepare themselves for a new revelation.
In our day something new is coming down. Our churches are emptying out. Many are disillusioned. Those who remain are not necessarily believers, do not seem to know who Jesus is. We all have endured a communal trial and in many ways have been pruned against our will. And now it’s time to begin again. Perhaps John’s witness can be our guide.
We followers of Jesus know the truth of the Gospel. We know the person and intimacy of Jesus. Tom Wright, an Anglican bishop and Scripture scholar, who can be compared to C.S. Lewis as a popular Christian author, has a new book called Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes sense of the World. He posits seven signposts, the categories inherent to humanity by which we measure everything else: justice, spirituality, love, beauty, freedom, truth, and power. The problem is that things don’t seem to work out. For instance, we value relationships, yet we betray the very one we supposedly love. With each category he selects sections from the Gospel of John to open up new levels of understanding and ways to remedy the situation.
One of the categories Wright explores is Spirituality. Even though the churches are emptying out so many say they are interested in spirituality. Many are thirsty, searching for something more. He claims that most of these end up being gnostics focussed on “self-discovery”. Americans especially, haven’t abandoned faith. They’ve redefined God as “our future selves.” They have no felt need of redemption.
Yet we as individuals and as community crave so much more than a new and improved self. What about meaning? How can we be most perfectly human when so much in life defeats us? For example, we long for honesty, but corruption often triumphs. Tom Wright insists that we need a spirituality that involves our world, that is not an escape from it.
In John’s Gospel the Temple theme predominates. When Jesus drove out the money-changers, Wright posits, he was indicating that the old order was over. The Temple had been seen as a place of purity where God could dwell with man, where sacrifice was offered and the Covenant renewed. Now Jesus in his own person is to replace the temple.
“The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” Jn. 4:21-23
Jesus’ followers are to become other Christs, “little temples”, places where the One God truly dwells because they have seen him and have believed and have been reborn. Here we return to the theme of John the Baptist, the first one to proclaim, “There is the Lamb of God.” Jesus’ followers say “Behold, there is the Lamb of God who” takes on not only misunderstanding, hostility, suspicion, plotting, violence and murder, but somehow, through that whole horrid business, he draws the fire of ultimate evil onto himself to exhaust its power.”
The followers of Jesus belong to the Vine. They are the branches. God will make his home in them.
“I am the true Vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…you have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you…I am the Vine, you are the branches…” Jn. 15:1-5
They shall represent the Temple, the place where God and man meet, where the One God truly dwells, in whom the Covenant is renewed. God is saying of us as he is of John,
“It is not enough for you (followers) to be my servant…
I will give you as a light to the nations,
That my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Is. 49:6b
’Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which the believers in him were to receive…” Jn. 7:38b, 39
Those who come to him (Jesus) to quench their thirst will be life-carriers able to quench the thirst of others. Jesus’ followers need to be reborn, born from God with water and the Holy Spirit. Now grace and truth come through Jesus the Messiah with its transformative, Jesus-focused spirituality. So, finally, as John the Baptist is called to be witness extraordinaire, so are we. The Church is the believers. Inasmuch as they are faithful witnesses will be the strength and authenticity of the Church.