We came up in tribes. We naturally divide into tribes. Some scholars suppose that the human brain can only recognize about 150 people as fully developed relationships. Beyond 150, we need to resort to “hierarchical schemes and stereotypes” to make sense of the world around us.
150 people is alot of people! … and hardly any. Look at your facebook…
Our natural state in the “hunter/gatherer” society was to divide up into tribes. Our tribes were social in nature. Inclusive. In your tribe, you wouldn’t meet many new people. You would stay in the same basic place for weeks, months, years – maybe your whole life.
In New Guinea, anthropologists have studied similar cultures that still operate this way. In fact, if two men meet out in the jungle, they will sit down and go through their entire family history looking for a connection, looking for some common thread – if they can find one, they don’t have to fight! There might be a lesson there. I wonder what it would be like if we spent, oh I don’t know, 5 minutes seeking to understand one another, seeking for what we have in common – before we unload on other another!
Tribes help us make sense of the world. If we just hang out with people like us, we’ll be comfortable, we’ll be more at ease with our world. But then, it’s a global world so we often have to interact with the “other.” The one who isn’t in our tribe, they are not in our little world. What is different, what feels different, what looks different, is a threat to the integrity of our tribe. It’s a threat to our worldview. It’s a threat to the way we understand the world.
What does your tribe look like? Who gets to be “in” and who gets pushed “out?” What are the significant features of your tribe? What does the language sound like? What are the symbols? The rituals? The artifacts and ceremonies?
What does your god look like? Tribal gods. Everyone has them. Its that attribute of God that makes the most sense to the tribe. Its that part of God that gives meaning and a sense of “rightness” to the tribe. Thats a tribal god.
Tribal gods are a reflection of the culture. They are reflections of the values, principles, and prejudices of the culture. They reflect us. For better and for worse.
Of course, as a Christian believer, I hold to the theology that there is only One God. This God transcends other gods. This God is understood through the sacred writings known as the Bible, through the testimony of professed followers, and through the very Nature around us. Clearly, my God isn’t tribal.
Except when I start to define God as such.
When I make God in my image, when I speak for God, when I get to say what God hates and what God loves, I am starting to define what my tribal god looks like. Herein is the rub, how do I follow my calling to preach and avoid painting God in my image?
I grew up in West Michigan. A place “settled” and certainly shaped by the influence of the Dutch. Grand Rapids oozes the Dutch influence. The religion is strongly reformed. I like to joke that everyone in Grand Rapids is at least a little Calvinist. The Methodists lean that way, the Baptists lean that way, even the Catholics are not without the influence of the god of the Reformation!
Here’s the thing – it’s not that somehow my tribal god is not the Almighty I grew up worshipping – it’s that we Christians tend to shape our tribal god by emphasizing the parts that we like, the parts we relate most to. If we relate to the god of the Old Testament, we tend to shape our God in that fashion. Our New Testament God seen through Christ is still vengeful, still angry, still desiring of our fear – our worship reflects this, our stories reflect this, our preaching reflects this.
The God that some worship is still a violent God. A god of wrath and thunder. A warlike, masculine god that sends armies of angels to fight our battles. The remnant that remains struggles to survive the onslaught of the Wicked One and we fight in great spiritual battles. Everything become shaped by this idea and soon simple conversations about what to decorate the county courthouse lawn become moments of epic battle! A conversation about who gets to “marry” (whatever that means) gets painted in terms of the great apocalyptic battles in Revelation. Cause that’s not tribal at all…
Saints, are we even making an attempt to understand the Other? Are we even trying to see life from another tribes point of view? What exactly are we fighting for? How are we being known? Is this what our god looks like?
John writes to brand new, baby movement. It has grown out of the singular teachings and traditions established by Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. The story of the earliest Church is the story of a transformation of a tribal God into something bigger, something grander, something different than the world had know to this point. When John writes his gospel, he calls to memory what is important for this group to know. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke write their stories into the collective memory of Christ, John aims squarely at the problems that are coming to the front of this burgeoning faith. He, having the benefit of hindsight, is able to emphasize the parts of the story he believes this new religion needs to remember.
A main theme throughout his Gospel? Love. “For God so loved the word (cosmos) that he gave…” This is not the traditional Jewish view. This is not the Roman view or the Hellenistic view. This is something different. John himself is a sufferer at the hands of the growing persecution. He does not have a good reason to be inclusive. He is in a real battle – not some perceived threat to culture – a very real struggle that violates his very person.
And he writes of love.
Thinking through everything that the new Church needs to remember about Jesus, thinking through everything that this Body needs, through what Paul has been writing, through what the missions movement has accomplished, thinking through Peter, James, Judas, Thomas, Philip, Junia – what his brother and sister Apostles have endured – he recalls to mind Jesus’ imperative to them:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Read the entire chapter if you can. I envision John leaning up against a rough door frame somewhere on the Island of Patmos, an eager scribe sits next to him writing down what the revered Apostle can remember of his time with Jesus. John is the oldest, the last remaining Apostle who walked and talked with Jesus. Already, Jesus was becoming the stuff of legend and tales. Already, there were battles about who Jesus was and what Jesus taught and what it meant to follow the prophet from Nazareth. But here, leaning against door, sipping water from a clay cup sits one who actually knew what was important to Jesus. He begins the chapter as the narrator:
“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I love this. What does the old man remember? Jesus loved him and all the rest “till the end.” John associates what Jesus does with the love that God showed to the world by sending his Son. John, who started the Gospel by declaring Jesus as the “logos” the “very expression of God” in human form, remembers the Jesus loved them right to the Cross.
The next two stories that precede our text are expressions of that Love. Jesus, coming from God and going to God, knowing the everything has been given to him, takes the place of a servant, takes off his outer robe, puts the towel on his shoulder and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus loved them unto the end. He showed by service.
Then, he prophesies that Judas would betray him. As a master storyteller, John puts us there, we feel the tension in the room – “what you are going to do, do quickly.” The disciples are shocked, angry, and afraid as Judas leaves. Then our text picks up:
“When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What is to be the new artifact? What is to be the symbol of this new religion? Right doctrine? Right actions? Earnestly contending for the faith? Getting it all correct? Having the right answers? Protecting the judeo/christian culture? Is that what the disciples will be remembered for?
It is certainly not what John remembers Jesus wanting.
Later, John would ask Peter, not “is your doctrine correct Peter?” Not, “do you love my church Peter?” Not, “do you love the liturgy Peter?” Not, “have you the right apologetic to defend me to atheists Peter?”
He asks, “do you love me?”
Saints, it is so easy to give in to the god of violence and power. It is so easy to emphasize the parts of God that are most like us. It is so easy to declare that God is on my side and everyone who is against me and my perception of reality is clearly against God – but that is so small. It’s so limited. God is SO much bigger than the stunted little world a barely understand.
Jesus calls us to something far more difficult than learning and defending dogma. Something far more difficult and challenging than picketing or voting or screaming in an online forum battle – Christ calls us to love.
When our tribe comes out and interacts with all the other tribes in the world, let us be known, not by what we are against, what we hate, what we declare that God hates, but by who we love; how we love; the overwhelming concreteness of our love.
Its simple. Its profound. Its so challenging because it demands so much of us.
They will know that we are Christians by our love.