Thursday, 16 September 2010

The greatest dignity is that of belonging to the community of the beloved disciples of Jesus Christ - a reading at morning prayer

Morning prayer this week is being led by Theodore Gill. On Tuesday he read this for us as we reflected on 1 John 1. You can find the order of service for the prayers here. These were powerful words to hear early in the morning ...

Conclusion of Raymond E. Brown’s
The Community of the Beloved Disciple
(Paulist Press, New York, 1979, p.163-4):

…At various times I have referred to the theology of the Fourth Gospel as challengingly different, volatile, dangerous, and as the most adventuresome in the New Testament… Over the centuries John’s Gospel has provided the seedbed for many exotic forms of individualistic pietism and quietism (as well as the inspiration for some of the most profound mysticism). Johannine christology has nurtured a widespread unconscious monophysitism, popular even today, in which Jesus is not really like us in everything except sin, but omniscient, unable to suffer or to be tempted, foreseeing the whole future. (At the same time, Johannine christology has been the mainstay of the great orthodox faith of Nicaea.)

The ultimate check upon what Kysar calls the “maverick Gospel” has been the church’s hermeneutical decision to place it in the same canon as Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Gospels which implicitly advocate the side opposite to many Johannine positions. This means that the Great Church, “the church catholic” of Ignatian language, whether consciously or unconsciously, has chosen to live with tension. It has chosen not a Jesus who is either God or man but both; it has chosen not a Jesus who is either virginally conceived as God’s Son or pre-existent as God’s Son but both; not either a Spirit who is given to an authoritative teaching magisterium or the Paraclete-teacher who is given to each Christian but both; not a Peter or a Beloved Disciple but both. Tension is not easily accepted in ordinary life, and we usually try to resolve it. So too in church history – but because of the church decision about the canon, attempts at simple resolutions of these theological tensions into a static position on one side or the other are unfaithful to the whole New Testament.

This means that a church such as my own, the Roman Catholic, with its great stress on authority and structure, has in the Johannine writings an inbuilt conscience against the abuses of authoritarianism. (So also the “free” churches have in the Pastorals an inbuilt warning against the abuses of the Spirit and in 1 John a warning against the divisions to which a lack of structural authority leads.) Like one branch of the Johannine community, we Roman Catholics have come to appreciate that Peter’s pastoral role is truly intended by the risen Lord, but the presence in our Scriptures of a disciple whom Jesus loved more than he loved Peter is an eloquent commentary on the relative value of the church office. The authoritative voice is necessary because a task is to be done and unity is to be preserved, but the scale of power in various offices is not necessarily the scale of Jesus’ esteem and love. In this day when Catholics quarrel about how much respective authority pope, bishop, priest, and lay person should have, and when Christians quarrel about whether a woman should be an ordained minister of the eucharist, John’s voice cries out its warning. The greatest dignity to be striven for is neither papal, episcopal, nor priestly; the greatest dignity is that of belonging to the community of the beloved disciples of Jesus Christ.