To All Our Wonderful Mission Fish:
“What was that?” “What just happened to us?”
My Dear Beloved Mission Fish:
I hope this finds you well, beginning to grapple again with the challenges of life “back at school,” but still savoring the wonder and the beauty of what we experienced together on the mission trip. Perhaps, in odd moments, you are scratching your head and trying to figure out “What was that?” “What just happened to us?”
If you are, then you join a long line of Christians who found their circuits blown by an experience of God that couldn’t quite be contained or constrained or explained by mere human words or categories. They did their best to preserve the stories, the rituals, the beliefs they associated with the mystery they had encountered, but these explanations were always secondary to the experience itself.
Take for instance, the author of John’s Gospel. He recorded some of the most vivid stories and most exalted theology of the New Testament, yet his lived experience always remained paramount. Writing a letter to a little church he had founded, he began, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life. [1 John 1:1]
Do you see what John stressed? He didn’t begin his letter by appealing to ancient scripture, or by reciting ancient creed, or by constructing theological argument. John went right back to his lived experience, right back to what he had sensed: he declared “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” This isn’t philosophical speculation – this is existential testimony. “Hey, listen up! This is something that happened to me, and it changed my life forever. I want you to experience it too.”
Then, in one of the greatest gifts of scripture, John points us to his deepest understanding of his experience. He points us to where we might have the experience for ourselves. John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . Beloved, since God loves us so much, we ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” [1 John 4:7-8; 11-12.]
Did you catch those bold-faced words: “God is love“? Think about how simple and powerful and consequential those three little words are. John doesn’t say, “God is loving.” He doesn’t say, “Love is one of the things God does.” He doesn’t say, “God is like love.” John says simply, directly, unambiguously, “God is love.” Martin Luther would emphasize John’s verse, saying, “God is nothing but love.” [“Lectures on the First Epistle of St. John” in Luther’s Works, pp. 218-221.] When St. Augustine preached on this passage 1600 years ago, he turned the sentence around, saying simply, “Love is God.” [“Homily VII on the First Epistle of John.”]
Yes, God is beyond our human understanding. Yes, the experience of God is ineffable, beyond human words and categories. Yet, I trust and believe that John got as close to the heart of the matter as humanly possible. What John experienced in Jesus the Christ, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the love shared in his little church was the same wonder and power and mystery we experienced in Biloxi.
What was that?” It was the God who is experienced when we love. “What just happened to us?” We loved one another with a love that came from God, and, just because we did, we were “born of God” and “knew God.”
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
I give thanks to God, and to you, for allowing me to be part of it.
With you on the Quest,