Have you ever had a truly life-altering experience that changed the way you looked at literally everything? Have you ever tried to share your new insights with people who have not shared your experience? Have you ever felt like there was no room for your perspective? Have you ever been removed from a circle you once thought would always welcome you? Have you ever come into the company of people who have shared your experiences, who understand and welcome your perspective and insights?
For the faith community that is represented in the Gospel of John, every one of the above questions would be answered with an emphatic “YES!” This group of devoted Jewish men and women – likely living in the city of Ephesus where Judaism was well-represented and supported – were eventually kicked out of their faith community because they experienced something life-changing from the Spirit of God as they lived their Jewish faith from the insights of their fully Jewish model, Jesus. By the time the oral traditions and scraps of written remembrances were recorded, the close of the first century C.E. was upon them. Their experiences of God and that of their former community deeply informed what was written and why.
The Gospel of John begins with a poem that would have piqued the interest of any Jewish person as it would recall the opening of Genesis: In the beginning… The Word to which John’s Gospel refers is more than speech – it represents the logic, the mind of God, the ethos of God that provided the impetus for all of creation from the beginning: love. An ethos which stood in stark contrast to many reigning beliefs that saw the gods and God very differently: vengeful; barely tolerant of the puny, noisy, messy, foolish human beings running amuck on the earth far below. The view of God as the generative, creative, loving, life-and-light-giving Ground of Being created a very different foundation from which to build a life. This perspective, which embraces the idea that everything and everyone everywhere is imbued with the Word means everyone and everything has inherent worth and deserves to be treated with dignity by virtue of being a reflection and repository of the presence of God. Such an idea is dangerous to those who would prefer to measure the love that God has for others based on their personal biases and desires. Human beings are innately aware of threats. Our reptilian brains kick into gear when we sense that our security is being challenged – even the security of destructive systems that are themselves a threat to our potential for life. To weather the storm that reaction-based fear brings from deeply-entrenched systems tests mettle. What made the Johannine community so steadfast even as they endured the intense pain of being kicked out of the family?
I was born in Missouri, the Show Me State. When someone says they’re from Missouri even though they’ve lived in Napa their entire lives, they are saying that they need to be convinced in the veracity of what they are being invited to consider. They need to see for themselves whether or not a thing or idea is true before they buy in. In a sense, everybody is from Missouri, but we generally don’t know it until we come upon something that, to embrace, would truly challenge our security. John’s community had experienced something so compelling that they could not not believe and embrace following Jesus. Individually, they had life-altering experiences that caused them to see everything differently. Once seen, they couldn’t “unsee” it.
What they saw was what John’s prologue poem was communicating: the Word came to give light and life to everything and everyone. The Light they saw could not be understood by those who had yet to see; nor could it extinguish the light. This enlightened perspective was there to stay for this community of faith. So powerful was their experience that being ostracized from their faith family of origin – and even death because of their new way of seeing – could not and did not dissuade them. They carried on in hope, proclaiming what they believed as best they could, spreading the Word, bearing light, sharing life.
I think there is merit to a “seeing is believing” way of life. Apparently, this was a key piece in John’s theology as well. In the first fifty verses of his Gospel, references to seeing show up twenty-three times by my count. What they were seeing changed the way they believed. What were they seeing? The very Word of God at work before their eyes – a different kind of seeing than simply that which our optic nerves and surrounding components can perceive. They experienced God. It is possible to forget even the most incredible experiences of God – that’s a fact (see The Transforming Moment by John Loder). If you are placing yourself in the community of other people who have had similar experiences of God, however, the odds are good that you will not only maintain your belief, but that it will grow as your experience is supported by mutual sharing. (Side note: Coals grow cold when separated from the fire. They stay red-hot when in the company of others. Beware trying to practice your faith in isolation!)
Seeing is believing leads to believing is seeing – we begin to see what was always there, now visible because of our belief. Those in John’s community (and beyond) began seeing God in their midst in everything and everyone because of their belief. This only served to increase their faith – and resolve – as they moved forward with their lives in community. They experienced Light shining even while surrounded by the worst forms of darkness and all its violence and death. This is the vision of faith John wants us to see from the very beginning, because this ethos has been around since the very beginning, because in the beginning, there was simply the Word, the ethos, of God.
The great question for us as we dive into John is this: have we seen the Light? You will be faced with this question in different ways throughout this Gospel, which was the intent of the author. During my pre-adult life, I thought I had it – I thought my faith was what it was supposed to be. A good knowledge of the Bible after having grown up in the church, and a pretty good understanding of the ethic of the Christian faith. The point was to live according to the precepts of the faith as taught and lived by Jesus. I only discovered that what I had was only religion after I saw the “more” possible in someone else. Not that religion alone is all bad – it’s just that it misses out on so much more. The relationship piece is a real thing, and this reality makes an enormous difference in one’s understanding of the religion and how to employ its ethics. I think it is fair to say that the Gospel of John is surely on board with this way of thinking. That belief would allow people to become children of God is a nod to saying that we can experience and be more, but that “more” is predicated on seeing – that’s where the greater power lies. John the Baptist and the new disciples of Jesus all saw, and their lives were forever changed.
Seeing requires an atomic change. Very small yet very big at the same time. The smallest, simplest shift, yet so difficult because of how much we rely on the eyes of intellect and reason so much more than any other receptor. It’s not that the faith is anti-intellectual or unreasonable – quite the opposite, really. It’s just that seeing the movement of God requires us to let go of our need to control or understand fully before allowing ourselves to see. I think it is somewhat akin to various aspects of love. Love is unreasonable, and yet once we love someone – various types of love for various types of relationships – we know we do. Our love is not necessary logical or reasonable, yet it is there in all of its power just the same. Seeing is like that. We have to lower our guard to be open to Someone else. Once we do, we have a greater shot at seeing the Divine in our midst.
I have no formula for you – only encouragement to be open to it and pursue it. It has changed my life over and over again for the better. It has changed the lives of countless others as well, including the Apostle Paul, who is noted as the author of a letter to the church in ancient Ephesus where he wrote:
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.
God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan…
Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. – Ephesians 1:3-11, 15-17 (NLT)
May you find yourself truly seeing this week as you open your eyes to the “more” which has been in front of you, in you, around you the whole time, longing to be seen and believed.