"The truth" and "the deceivers" are both fraught
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 13th: Genesis 24:1-27; Psalm 81; 2 John 1-13. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
What a great way to start off the work week. You have read an entire book of the Bible. Second John in its entirety is 13 verses. Raymond E. Brown, a renowned biblical scholar, revised the way people read the Johannine writings of the Gospel and three Epistles. I draw upon his thinking here. John’s community emphasizes spiritual authority. It is a charismatic community. Paul’s writings lay the groundwork for a hierarchical one, and Paul’s churches have stability and durability. John’s may have faded away with time, and we may catch glimpses of this unfortunate occurrence beginning right in the biblical text itself.
In the Epistles, the chief adversaries are the deceivers. “The Elder” writes 2 John to a particular community, “to the elect lady and her children.” In other words, to a church and her members. In this charismatic Johannine community, the Elder has no hierarchical authority to impose his will. What the Elder does have is a charismatic understanding of “the truth” that is respected and accepted by others of the community. This is the grounding of his authority and of the community’s cohesion, and this the Elder emphasizes in his introduction: “… whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever.”
The adversaries, in such a community, are termed deceivers. They subvert the truth. We’re not exactly sure what the truth entails, but it may be what will come to be called Docetism. This word comes from the Greek verb to seem. Some of the earliest believers in Jesus were affronted by the idea of His real suffering. Their motives were to honour Christ, to protect Jesus from the humiliation of the cross. Out of thin air, however, they created the idea that Jesus only seemed to be human and only seemed to actually suffer. There is one line in their writings that the spiritual Jesus laughed above the cross when His crucifiers thought they were doing Him harm. This incipient Docetism can be seen in the words “those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” These are the deceivers.
The deceivers have rejected the truth of the Elder and of the community that accepts that truth, and “[m]any deceivers have gone out into the world.” This means they have rejected and left the charismatic community and returned to the world, which is anything and everything outside of the Elder’s community. This is where it gets scary. This is where faith can turn into a bunker-religion, which is the exact opposite of Jesus’ ministry and message.
The Elder describes anyone who thinks differently than the truth, than his teaching of the truth, “any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!” The antichrist! In other words, “If you do not agree with me, you disagree with Christ, you are opposed to Christ, you are the opposite of Christ, you are the antichrist.”
It is distressing to see that the Johannine tradition that gives us such beautiful expressions of Christian love is the same tradition that sinks to the level of condemning all who differ from their profession of the truth as antichrists. We can see here the seeds that lead to religious hatred and violence as all justified by the belief that we are the protectors of the truth and that different means antichrist.
The Docetism that may define the deceivers denies the reality of Jesus of Nazareth. It denies Jesus’ human nature, which denies Jesus’ connection with all of us. It breaks the connection, as well, between God and us through Jesus’ combined human and divine natures. It would be comforting to imagine that Jesus’ suffering were all an act, but it was real and it was horrifying. Jesus’ sacrifice is testimony to the unwavering commitment of Jesus to His gospel and it is the absolutely perfect testimony of Jesus’ love for everyone, even the ones who nailed him to the cross. So Docetism is dangerous in that it threatens all of this, but it is just as unfaithful to the example of Christ to ignore his gentleness.
May Lent give us the time to ponder what we hold to be the truth and also to look at how we react to those we disagree with, and may we consider both in the shadow of Golgotha’s cross.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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