February 2006

Please read 1 John 5:1-6. It seems to me that this blog is a kind of counterpoint to what I wrote last week. Interesting that it comes from a text in the same theological tradition as John 9. Perhaps what makes John’s claim of “victory through faith” different from the talk I complained about last time is that he does not deny the pain and horror of the cross, but sees it as a transforming power.

During the dark days of World War II, a young Dutch man named Christiaan Beker lay in a hospital bed in Berlin. Death was close at hand. Enslaved by the Nazis and forced to work in a U-boat factory, he had contracted typhus. Chris was sent to the infirmary of the labor camp, but there was no doctor there, only an attendant. Moved finally to a hospital, the Dutchman received care. But he was thrown out on the street in his pajamas when his bed was needed for a German soldier. Somehow he made his way back to the factory, but he found that the whole complex had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombs. So he was left with nothing. His captors sent him to yet another camp, where he collapsed. He was finally transferred to a hospital by some foreign workers.

One day a Polish boy was put in the bed next to Beker’s. Beaten senseless by the Germans for picking up a cigarette butt, the young man could barely mumble. He died three days later. A biographer of Beker’s comments: “Chris had never before been face-to-face with such brutally inhuman cruelty; its effect was staggering….It was then, while lying beside the wasted body of a Polish boy murdered for less than no reason at all, that Chris determined to become a theologian.”

The writer continues: “But it was not clear that Chris himself would live. Convinced finally that he would not, he made his way to the window to see how he would die. The night sky itself was a conflagration, bombs exploding and buildings consumed in flames. Sick with typhus and viewing the apocalypse, Chris confessed that ‘only God is real’” (Ben Ollenburger, “Suffering and Hope,” Theology Today, October 1987: 357).

J. Christiaan Beker did become one of the world’s foremost biblical theologians. Reflecting on the experiences of his life, he once wrote: “A biblical theology of hope views the present power of death in terms of its empty future and therefore in the knowledge of its sure defeat.”

For this man who came through the terrifying ordeal of war to affirm his hope in God’s reality and God’s triumph, death was very real and present. And so it was and is for scores of others, including ourselves. This side of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, in a world of terrorist attacks, of violence against women and marginalized groups, no one can naively pretend that evil and horror are not real. Confronted with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, a debilitating heart attack or the death of someone we love, we fool ourselves if we underestimate the power of sickness and grief to rearrange our lives over the long term. Anyone who watches the daily news cannot deny that there are forces at work that seek to undermine God’s kingdom. And they’re doing a pretty good job of it.

The author of First John was no more a stranger to such deformative and destructive forces than Chris Beker or any of us. Yet it was precisely in the midst of the struggle against such foes that he made a startling statement. He claimed victory through faith!

It is no accident that John then goes on to assert that the one who overcomes the world is the very one who believes Jesus is the Son of God. He means that it is the historical Jesus–the one who lived and ate with sinners, who became hungry and tired, who died on the cross–it is this one who reveals God. Against his opponents, John insists that it is the very one who died that is the Christ, the Son of God. He came by “water and blood.” In other words, he was born. And he died. This Jesus is the object of the faith that overcomes.

In Jesus who suffered yet was raised, God has overcome every power that would hurt, divide or destroy us. God’s way of patient, self-giving love ultimately triumphs. Maybe that’s what Jesus knew on his last night with his disciples. He told them: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

It’s not how much faith you have. It’s in whom you have it.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.


Note: Please read John 9:1-41 first or this piece will make even less sense.

I once heard a radio commercial in which a man explains that when he gets in a check-out line, it suddenly becomes shorter. Batteries are always included with any electronic device he buys. Everybody laughs at his jokes, which are always hilarious. All around, his life is great. It turns out that such bounty is due to his having a checking account at a certain bank.

I’ve heard some Christians describe their lives in much the same way. The typical spiel goes like this: “Isn’t it great to be a Christian?! I’m blessed every day! I’m so happy and full of joy all day long! I sing and shout the praise of God. Whatever I want, I pray for and receive. New car? I have it. Money for bills? It suddenly appears. I don’t ever feel sad or lonely, because I am sure Jesus is right by my side.”

When I hear such talk and compare it to my own experience, three possibilities come to mind: a) I’m not a Christian, because my life isn’t like that; b) God must hate me and has abandoned me, because my life isn’t like that; or c) such talk simply doesn’t describe reality. I know (a) isn’t true, since I do in fact trust Jesus as Lord and Savior, and have since childhood. (B) also is false, no matter what invectives I might hurl at God, psalmist-like, from time to time, because the abundance of the evidence from Scripture and life is that God does love and provide for me. So, I’m left with (c): the “victory in Jesus” crowd is out of touch with reality.

You need not trust me on this. John the gospel writer would say the same thing. Yes, he would tell us, followers of Jesus have times of joy, assurance, and comfort. Sometimes churches are filled because the gospel is being preached, and people are hungry for the Truth. But he would insist that when we look at the larger picture, “everything’s goin’ my way” is not always a lyric Christians can sing.

Instead, the experience of the man born blind is more typical of the life of the believer. He didn’t ask to be healed, but was chosen by the Son of God as one through whom God’s work would be made known. Now he’s thrust onto center stage without having had so much as one acting class. His neighbors don’t know what to do with him. His parents won’t stand by him. The religious leaders get mad at him and call him names and throw him out of the house of worship. Finally, he’s on his own. His faith grows stronger, clearer, and more developed. But he’s alone, rejected by friends, family, and the religious establishment. Illumination, recovery of sight—and for the ancient Church, that was the effect of baptism—illumination often brings with it suffering.

That’s how it is to be a Christian living between Christmas and the Consummation. Especially if your experience and your very presence threatens those who claim to have everything figured out, who are in power, who want everything to go according to rules they made up, who believe they have a corner on interpreting the Bible. That’s how it is when your neighbors think you’re some sort of nut for sharing how Jesus has become the center of your life. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ and the gospel you challenge long-held traditions and doctrines. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ you speak out against racism, sexism, homophobia, war, greed, and the degradation of the environment. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ you act for justice for and with the poor, the hungry, the excluded. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ you challenge the power, the presumption, and the priorities of the powers that be. You’re likely to be shut out, shut up, shut down. And you will be lonely and discouraged and disheartened.

Fortunately, the drama that is John 9 does not end on such a despairing note. There’s a wonderful and encouraging epilogue. Jesus comes back and seeks out the man he healed. Our Lord strengthens and vindicates the new disciple, bringing him to a new level of comprehension. Indeed, it’s only at this point in the story that the man born blind says “I believe.”

So it is with the beleaguered believer and the Church struggling against great odds to proclaim an authentic gospel. People cling to power and prestige; such things are today’s favorite idols. They reject Truth as plain as the nose on your face because it would mean change. Therefore, we struggle now. Sometimes, often, we feel alone, and ask where God is, what God is doing. But there will come a day when Jesus will appear again to reveal himself fully and say a word of commendation to faithful servants. If there is peril in illumination, baptism, and witness, so is there great promise. Jesus will care for his own, leading them to a new place of faith and faithfulness.

It would be nice to end there. But there’s a footnote to the script that has to be read and heard. It’s a warning to the Church and the individual believer in every age as much as it was to recalcitrant Pharisees and skeptical neighbors in Jesus’ day. John knows that even the most iconoclastic and revolutionary movement can become the calcified, unmovable Establishment. What once was a dynamic movement of the Spirit can be threatened and frightened by new ways of thinking. It can want to silence prophets with a vision. It can seek secure certainty rather than relishing and inviting the ambiguity of faith (see John 3:8). It can work mightily and steadily and efficiently to quantify and box up/in what can’t be contained, what can only be apprehended by complete surrender of ourselves to the Divine.

So the writer has a solemn reminder for anyone and everyone in the Church who believes there is nothing more to see, nothing new to learn, nothing we can’t fit into our theological categories. A solemn reminder to anyone who claims “we see; I see.” It’s this: the claim to know for certain blocks an encounter with the Truth, because the Truth who is Jesus Christ can never be fully known this side of heaven. And the claim to clear sight with not a bit of distortion is a sure sign that we can see nothing at all, and our sin remains.

May God keep us free from such arrogance! And may he help us be but humble witnesses to the Light, sharing what we have seen and heard, until that day when we bend the knee before our Lord and find clear sight at last.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

I’m a guitarist, but don’t have a band. The names below are possibilities if I did. I’ve tried to combine in some of them ancient texts or practices with very contemporary science. If anyone reads this and actually uses one of the names, I’d love to know!

Quantum Eucharist
Jesus Clones (a twist on the call to be imitators of Christ)
Sick Green Horse (find it in the book of Revelation)
Jael and the Pegheads (how’s that for obscure?)
Temple Outcasts (from somewhere in the Gospel of John)
Sacerdotal Outlaw Band
Ezekiel Starship (wheel within a wheel…)
Camelhair Coat (Jesus’ forerunner’s fashion choice)
Manual Override (follow policy or really care?)
Ora Software (“ora” is Latin for “pray”)
Postmodern Saints
Head Full of Eyes (again from the book of Revelation)
Chancel Monkeys

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.