Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Pitching Kingdom Tents (1 John 2:15-17)

(Homily for the University of Sheffield Chaplaincy's Ecumenical Communion on Apr 15, 2015)


Cosmos Is Not Creation

Over the last few years, as a result of my PhD, I’ve practically lived in the book of Genesis. More than once I’ve forgotten the names of my own housemates—but never have I come up short for the names of my other intimates: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Hagar, Dinah, and Tamar. All this to say, when I first read through today’s text, it left a bad taste in my mouth. “Do not love the world or the things in the world”? In Genesis, God creates this world. God affirms that it is very good. And so do I. I love so much in this world. A cup of coffee to greet the sunrise. The unexpected smile of a stranger. The laughter of friends. The way that a drizzly day draws out the depths of green across a Peak District vista.

“Do not love the world”? John—I thought—must be speaking about a different world than the one I know, a different world than the one God created in Genesis.

And as it turns out…he is. In the Greek, John is speaking about the cosmos. And in Greco-Roman thought, the cosmos is not the same as creation. Whereas creation is an unforeseeable play of plants and creatures and land and sea, a garden bursting with new life, the cosmos in Greco-Roman thought is more comparable to, say, a snowglobe. It is a fixed spatial reality, “closed, eternal, unchanging.”[1] And it’s governed by a cosmic law (the kind of law that says all the snowflakes will settle on the ground as soon as you stop shaking the globe and set it back on the table.) For this reason, Greco-Roman philosophers—most famously the Stoics—advised that the best course for life was to find your own place in the cosmos, to live within the natural order, to align your life with the way things are.

Conforming to the Cosmos

And quite often, we do just that. Like modern-day Stoics, we accommodate ourselves to the ways of this world, this cosmos. Which is to say, rather than dreaming of the kingdom of God and asking, “Why not?”, rather being transformed by a vision of a transformed world, we content ourselves with and conform ourselves to the present cosmos. We let the cosmos tell us what can and cannot happen, what’s possible and what’s impossible. We let the cosmos run the account books, balance the scales, pattern all of life according to its rule. We follow the cosmos in its love of power, money, and prestige: all the things that order our lives, that determine the way things are, the way things can be. We don’t welcome change to the cosmos itself, the present world and way of doing things; rather we uphold its rules, we play the game, and seek only to fix ourselves at the top.

In Charles Sheldon’s classic novel In His Steps, a “tramp” sensationally stumbles into a pristine church in the middle of a worship service and, in a few words, exposes just how closely that particular church is aligned not with Christ but with the cosmos, with, as John would have said, “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches.” “It seems to me,” the homeless man says, “as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery.”[2] To paraphrase the homeless man: this church wants a God who is “softened, bathed, powdered,”[3] not a God who smells, who needs a home, who interrupts a worship service and asks for food.

The Coming of the Kingdom: New Life Means Letting Go

Only recently we celebrated Easter. Resurrection. Today’s scripture is a crucial reminder, though, that resurrection walks hand-in-hand with death, that the melody of new life is not complete without the harmony of letting go. Until we die to the present cosmos, to the way things are—which is to say, in John’s words, until we allow the present cosmos and its desires to “pass away”—we will not live into the new creation that springs from the kingdom of God.[4] Until we set down our own personal snowglobes, we will not fall in love with the newness and surprise and hidden beauty of God’s creation.

According to John, we are called not to satisfy ourselves with our own desires, hopes, and aspirations, not to build ourselves up as part of the present world, as pillared halls in the present city—but rather to pitch Kingdom tents, to live in the world and love it for all its life, all its goodness, but also to continually let go of it in the knowledge that our plans alone will get us nowhere beyond ourselves and the present world, to continually relinquish it in the hope that we might welcome the coming of a new world, the coming of the kingdom of God.

On that note, I close with a fragment of a poem by Mary Oliver that might also be our prayer:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[5]

So that—we might humbly add—we can welcome God’s new creation. Amen.


[1] John D. Caputo, Truth (London: Penguin, 2013), 98.

[2] Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps (London: The Big Nest, 2013), 14.

[3] Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), ebook loc. 323.

[4] Cf. Gal 6:14-15, which ties together this reflexive death of self-to-world and world-to-self with new creation.

[5] Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods,” in Risking Everything (ed. Roger Housden; New York: Harmony, 2003), 72.

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