The Cross in Quaker Faith

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life [Jn. 3:14-15].

For Friends, the historic event of the cross is only a part of the fulfillment of God’s plan; the actual atonement takes place within the human heart. Though the cross shows a fulfillment of the prophets and the Law, Friends claim that the fulfillment of the prophets’ words and actions is the experiential knowledge of Christ risen within, that the inward event is the resurrection to eternal life. In the opening quotation, Jesus refers to three consecutive dispensations, and in this essay I want to show the sequential and progressive relationship among them.

To help envision the incremental process leading to completion, we can imagine a jointed spyglass with three parts or tubes that collapse together. As the parts extend one-by-one, greater vision is gained. For the first part, Jesus draws from Israel’s history: Moses’s lifting up the brass serpent in the wilderness. Jesus then ties this event to the cross on Calvary: the lifting up of the Son of man. The final segment is inward and spiritual, rather than outward and historical. Whoever believes in this lifted up (resurrected) Son of man has eternal life and does not perish. Later in the Gospel of John, eternal life is defined as “know(ing) the only true God” (Jn. 17:3). Jesus’s end goal is to have others enter a particular awareness or “knowing,” an inward state.

Prefiguring the Cross

First, we’ll examine the event from Israel’s history. We turn to the people of Israel led by the prophet Moses through the wilderness:

And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died (Num. 21: 4-6).

Because the journey was hard, the Hebrews came to regret their reliance upon God who had brought them out of Egypt for what seemed to them no other reason than to die. They spoke against their Creator and thus alienated themselves from the source of life. The serpents bite; the people die. Seeing the consequences and confessing their error, they reaffirm their dependence and seek to re-establish their connection to God through their prophet. They ask for life, that the death-bringing serpents be taken away:

Therefore the people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us (Num. 21:7).

The serpents are left to plague them, though God does give an antidote to the poison, and they overcome death:

And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Num. 21:8-9).

This story is rich with information about the relationship between God and humanity; no wonder it sprang to Jesus’s mind! God would have the people in relationship with Him, even providing for their restoration after they have separated themselves from Him. The Hebrews recognize their error—their sin; they petition for help and then obey God’s command. The relationship is restored, and God can work with them once again. The event itself is mysterious. The restoration to life occurs when the people obey the command to look at the raised brass serpent. To cast their gaze, to behold the serpent of brass, is to overcome death. The people’s attention is refocused away from their mortal plight and toward that which God has provided. We can see some foreshadowing of what is to come—the Son of man lifted up.

The Cross on Calvary

Quaker understanding of the cross differs from that of other Christian ideas. However, in the year before the great opening that revealed Christ alive, present, and speaking to his condition,  George Fox described the significance of the crucifixion in this way:

At that time the sins of all mankind were upon him, and their iniquities and transgressions with which he was wounded, which he was to bear, and to be an offering for them as he was man, but died not as he was God; and so, in that he died for all men, and tasted death for every man, he was an offering for the sins of the whole world (Journal, 5).

John Curtis, a New Foundation Fellowship worker, noted in his study guide to Fox’s Journal that this description is very like the “well-expressed view which is held by many types of Christians.” With his opening in 1647, Fox’s understanding changed, leading him to differ from other Christians in holding that the essential sacrifice and atonement must occur within each human heart, a sacrifice prefigured on Calvary. Fox writes:

In the flesh without them [in history], he [Christ] is their example or figure, [while] “Christ in his people is the substance of all figures, types, and shadows, fulfilling them in them, and setting them free from them (Works, 3:592-3).

Jesus’s submission in Gethsemane  (“nevertheless not as I will, but as thou [wilt],” [Mt. 26:39]) must be our own, if the actual reconciliation or atonement is to follow.

It is separation from God that is the problem to be overcome and to which all solutions allude: the brass serpent, the cross on Calvary, and the inward submission to God. And each situation calls for a re-direction of intention. In the wilderness, the people are to cast their gaze upward toward the raised ensign of the brass serpent. People are likewise to cast their gaze to the historic cross, and further, to recognize that the Son of man has taken on their situation, has assumed humanity’s spiritual state. In both of these situations, there has been a shift in people’s awareness: In the first, people simply behold the uplifted ensign; while in the second, they not only behold the uplifted one but become beholden to the one who has acted on their behalf. Greater ties result, reaching into the inner man—to his sense of gratitude and obligation for the sacrifice that has been offered on his behalf.

The Cross, the Power of God

Friends have recognized that more than gratitude and obligation are required of humankind; it is eternal life to which we are called—that we may know the only true God (Jn. 17:3). This is the final and end purpose of the plan of which the first two developments have been described. How different is the account of the inward atonement from that of Fox’s earlier explanation of the outward cross on Calvary! And yet, in his description, Fox returns to the outward event as the corporeal model of his experience:

None know the atonement of Christ but by the light within…Mark! He saith, the light is that which gives the knowledge, and the light within doth not set up another atonement: but they that deny the light within set up another atonement than Christ. We should be made free from the law of sin and death while we are upon the earth. And here the blood of Jesus is witnessed, and the atonement, and the Father and the son; and this is all seen with the light within (Works, 3:121).

The seventeenth-century Puritans objected to this claim. The Quakers call the light within Christ the redeemer, and thereby, the Puritans said, the Quakers had set up an idol, which denied the things that God had already done for humanity. Quakers countered this attack with the assertion that they did not deny the person of Christ but vouched for the re-enacting of his historic work within the heart. Says Isaac Penington:

That charge of thine on us, that we deny the person of Christ, and make him nothing but a light or notion, a principle in the heart of man, is very unjust and untrue; for we own that appearance of him in his body of flesh, his sufferings and death, and his sitting at the Father’s right hand in glory: but then we affirm, that there is no true knowledge of him, or union with him, but in the seed or principle of his life in the heart, and that therein he appears, subdues sin, and reigns over it, in those that understand and submit to the teaching and government of his Spirit (Quaker Spirituality, 144).

But what if the inward experience does not occur? What if there is no comprehension of the cross as an inward condition, no owning it as a just paradigm for our limited and alienated state? Instead, what if the cross on Calvary is revered with a false confidence, which claims to stand in good stead in the here-and-now and in the hereafter? If the cross is viewed as a culminating historic event by which we are somehow mysteriously reconciled to God, it does become an idol.

If we return for a moment to the brass serpent and locate its whereabouts sometime later, well after it has served its intended purpose, we find it under the censure of the prophet Hezekiah. He saw that the brass serpent had become an idol for the Hebrew people, and so he destroyed it:

He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made, for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it (2 Kings 18:4).

On the other hand, what if the cross is set aside as irrelevant and given no place within present-day Liberal Quaker faith and practice? Dismissing this reference point of the cross (and thereby denying the reality of the sin and alienation that it is meant to overcome) do we not humor ourselves into claiming that our best efforts and intentions are already divinely inspired? Remember the error–the profound human error–made by the Hebrews in the desert: we usurp God’s wisdom and authority and replace them with our own lesser capacities. Says Rufus Jones:

If any supposes that Friends have inclined to be “humanists” and to assume that man is so inherently good that he can lift himself by his own belt into a life of consummate truth and beauty, he has not yet caught the deeper note of Quaker faith (Quaker Spirituality, 278).

The “deeper note” to which Jones refers is the cross,“the power of God,” as Fox reminds us. By the power of God, which is known only through the inward cross, can we carry forward the hope and obligation enjoined upon us.

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Increase Our Faith (Some observations on Luke 17:1-10)

Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith (Lk. 17:1-5).

One of the more difficult facts of life is that “offences will come.” Being on the receiving end of an offense and mulling over the injustice suffered from another’s selfish or wicked act, one is likely to find that one’s equanimity and focus have been lost. This loss of orientation is recognized and conveyed in a more literal translation of the first verse of this passage:

It is impossible that there should come no causes to make man go astray (The New Testament, Lattimore).

This literal rendering foregrounds the danger to the soul that results from having undergone an offense: the wounded soul may “go astray.” Having suffered injury, the soul is tempted to covet and use power to restore its broken equanimity in what seems like just retribution. Brandishing power over others in order to restore sense of self perpetuates the offense. And this dynamic repeated indefinitely becomes a de facto principle ungirding human interaction, and results in a world of fear, anger, and misuse of power. “The whole world lieth in wickedness”(1 Jn. 5:19), thereby ensuring that, as Jesus said, “offenses will come.”

In this passage, Jesus walks his disciples through this problem and into the solution. He begins by addressing the issue of justice: the offender has trespassed a boundary; violated an understood agreement, spoken or not; and caused misery to another who is innocent. Though accountable, he himself seems not to have suffered at all. Not so, says Jesus; there is justice within, and the offender can expect great misery:

woe unto him, through whom [offenses] come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones (1, 2).

Being sunk into the darkness and chaos of the sea (with a millstone necklace!) with no  firm ground nor hope of life is the justice meted out to the offender’s soul. The victim’s sense that the miscreant should suffer for his misdeed as much or more than he himself has suffered is satisfied by Jesus’s pronouncement; in the soul, justice is served. Not only does this vivid image of punishment reassure the victim that an equal or greater suffering will come to the wrongdoer, but it also warns him to stand guard against the temptation to likewise become an offender and undergo such a punishment himself. Jesus would put a stop to the chain reaction of victim becoming offender.

Assuring the disciples that inward justice will always be in force, Jesus stills the impulse to take retribution, to pay back. As an alternative to this natural destructive impulse, he then sets out a rightly ordered procedure for handling offenses:

Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him (3 and 4).

The soul speaking truth to power disencumbers itself of the burden of injustice and puts it in the open. Should the offense have been unintended, the misunderstanding is brought to light and can be explained. If the wrongdoer recognizes that he’s overstepped the boundary, behaved unjustly, and in the future is willing to abide by agreed limits–signaled by his repentance–then forgiving is in order. Conversely, if there’s a refusal to recognize acceptable limits and no repentance forthcoming, the relationship is not to be restored.

These are all principles that can be practiced using the powers available to our nature: reason and conscience can get us this far. Beyond the restoration of relationship by truth-telling and re-affirming social boundaries, however, is a call to handle offenses in a way that requires more than human ability. Jesus calls us and the disciples to this new way: to reframe the event and see it differently; to see it through the perspective of faith, rather than perspective of our limited worldly nature. Doing so will enable us to see that we can lose nothing that can truly affect our well-being.

When the events of life are seen through the eye of faith, one cannot be deprived of anything necessary for one’s happiness. If one’s treasure is in heaven, can anyone break in and steal? No. It is only when there is a failure to see that one’s treasure is in heaven that one can be rattled or devitalized by worldly loss. Living in faith, no power or principalities,

nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-9).

Living in a world where offenses inevitably come, the disciples feel their well-being to be under threat. They also intuit that faith is the sole guarantee of their inward peace…if they just had enough of it. So sensibly, they ask of Jesus: “Increase our faith” (Lk. 17:5). Jesus responds:

If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you (6).

Implied in the apostles’ request for increased faith is the assumption they already have a certain degree of faith, and they just need more. Jesus corrects them: If they had even a tiny amount of faith (even as “a grain of mustard seed”) they could do a mighty act of power: they could command a tree to uproot itself and be “planted in the sea; and it should obey.” (Note the echoing imagery: the offender who sinks in the sea [2] and the tree, which, through faith, can thrive there [6].)  Man’s lack of faith entails a lack of power over nature: his own human nature. Without faith, Man has no power to avoid disorder and weakness, and he sinks into the chaos of external threats, the offences that are bound to come, and into the ocean of darkness.

Having faith, he can thrive even when planted in the chaos of the world that lies in wickedness, even as a sycamine tree could be planted in a hostile environment of the sea. Having faith, the hearing/obeying relationship with his Creator, Man is restored, strengthened, and empowered to withstand and rise above such assaults upon his soul. He is given the power of God to rule over his human nature and to thrive regardless of the circumstances.

Though the disciples think they already have faith and simply need more, Jesus knows faith to be something other than what the disciples understand by the word. Likewise, the seventeenth-century Friends carefully distinguished the difference between what was commonly thought to be faith and the meaning given to the word by Jesus. Penington asserts (emphasis his):

That the true faith (the faith of the gospel, the faith of the elect, the faith which saves the sinner from sin, and makes him more than a conqueror over sin and the powers of darkness) is a belief in the nature of God; which belief giveth entrance into, fixeth in and causeth an abiding in that nature….And nothing can believe in the nature, but what is one with the nature. So then faith is not a believing the history of the scripture…or a believing that Christ died for sinners in general, or for me in particular…but a uniting to the nature of God in Christ (Works, I: 239-40).

Faith is “a belief in the nature of God”…which causes “an abiding in that nature.” It is “a uniting to the nature of God in Christ” that is the true faith which keeps us in peace, empowered to withstand all the assaults that will come. In the final verses of this passage, Jesus instructs the disciples in the way to receive faith.

But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do (Lk. 17:5-10).

Jesus is telling his disciples to attend to the work that is set before them and not to get ahead of themselves. As is often the case, Jesus uses rhetoric to make his point. Notice the shift in point of view in this passage indicated by the use of different pronouns: first, Jesus puts the disciples in the position of master (“But which of you, having a servant”); second, the pronoun shifts from the second to the third person, and the master is referred as “he,” no longer as “you” (“Doth he thank that servant”); and third, Jesus moves to the first person pronoun “we,” thus putting the disciples in the position not of the master, nor the onlooker, but of the servant (“say, We are unprofitable servants”).  Jesus has gently moved the disciples to seeing themselves as servants rather than seeing themselves as masters, the latter being their natural inclination. Faith is the hearing/obeying relationship with our Creator, and we are not our own masters, though we have claimed to be so since the Fall.

We are to serve righteousness, whether instructed by the conscience or later by the law of faith to serve the Lord our Righteousness (Jer. 23:6); that is our duty. That duty will vary from person to person, but the rigorous standard of adhering to what is true and right does not vary from person to person. That standard is righteousness, and the soul must hunger and thirst after it, that it may be filled with faith. It is the sincerity of pursuit that is judged by Christ. We cannot obtain righteousness ourselves, any more than we can judge ourselves; we are subject to judgment. We, however, can and must do, like the servants in this parable, “all those things which are commanded” to us, laboring inoffensively and honestly that we may in faith come to cease from our own works.

For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:10-13).

 

 

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To Stand Still in the Light

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not (Jn. 1:4-5).

In the prologue of the fourth gospel there is a reverent announcement of a profound mystery: the one who created us in his image would restore us to our rightful place, full of life and light. The light, a specific power and presence, may be discovered within each of us while we yet live. Although the light shines without ceasing, it may go unseen indefinitely, for an invisible and obdurate darkness prevents our seeing, our recognition. Were it not for God’s grace working within us and within history, we would continue in this natural state where we do not receive the abundant life that he would have us know. Instead we would subsist on the sporadic tranquility afforded by the realization of our fleeting desires.

In this essay I want to present some ideas that are basic to understanding Quaker faith by discussing passages taken from John’s Gospel. First, we’ll examine the natural condition in which we are obstructed, a state from which we can be fully released only by Christ’s inwardly experienced return. Second, we will focus on the particular work of two of Jesus’s disciples: Peter and John. In reviewing their roles in chapter 21, we can see how the two are prepared to work jointly in a complementary way to bring in the kingdom of God.

OUR NATURAL CONDITION

By command from the Lord, George Fox was sent “to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive Christ Jesus” (Journal, 34), and thus began the Quaker movement with its mission to bear witness to the light that overcomes darkness. Drawing heavily from statements in the fourth gospel, Fox describes the light’s effect upon the self-awareness of those who come to know it.

The true light which John bore witness to was the life in Christ the Word, by which all things were made and created. And it was called the light in man and woman, which was the true light which had enlightened every man that came into the world, which was a heavenly and divine light which let them see all their evil words and deeds and their sins, and the same light would let them see Christ their savior, from whence it came to save them from their sin and to blot it out (Journal, 303).

The light which lets one see Christ also allows and requires one to see the “evil words and deeds and…sins” that hitherto we have hidden from our sight. Fox is in accord with the passage in John: the light is stronger and more complete than the darkness. It can and does reveal what darkness has hidden. Both the book of John and Fox’s writings underscore the superior power of the light that can withstand and dispel the condition of darkness. Whether the light is discovered inwardly or preached outwardly to others still in the darkened state, its power prevails.

It is this language of all-or-nothing light or darkness, good or evil that may fall heavy and foreign on our modern ears. We may not be at ease thinking of others or ourselves as sinful. If we have come from other than Quaker Christian traditions, traditions which claim that sin is inescapable throughout one’s life, it may seem an intolerable as well as archaic doctrine. If we neglect to learn what early Quakers meant by sin, we may miss out on the opportunity to grasp the message in their writings.

But if we were to take a fresh look at what they meant by this word “sin,” seeing it as an overriding and unconscious weakness and failure rather than specific destructive behaviors, we then might recognize and own it for both ourselves and others with feelings of compassion and forgiveness. If sin referred to an absence of spiritual power (as darkness is an absence of light) rather than a display of worldly control, might we then recognize it in ourselves? Would that awareness of our need help to open up and give place to wisdom that former ages have known and recorded? Would we see that Christ is necessary for us and for all?

In this passage from a sermon on the unbelief and muteness of Zechariah, we see Karl Barth, a theologian of the last century, sensing our need and giving voice to our perplexity:

Yes, we certainly talk with each other, we find words all right, but never the right words; never the words that would really do justice to what actually moves us, what actually lives in us; never the words that would really lead us out of the loneliness in which we find ourselves; never the words through which a community would really come about, and through the community that life that we lack. Our talk is always such an imperfect, wooden, dead talk; fire will not break out in it, but can only smolder in our words, others certainly notice that we mean something, but not what we mean, that we want something, but not what we want. They may well understand us, but they always understand us falsely. Ah, the misunderstandings that constantly creep in on both sides. Why is it that we actually interpret, perhaps must interpret every third word someone else says other than how he meant it? Why can’t a person express himself more clearly? Or why can’t a person listen more carefully? And so we speak, but our speech is like that of a mute. It seems that most of what we say, it’s as if it were never said.

Barth is sensing a veil of darkness that separates us from our intentions, a veil that words cannot penetrate and leaves us isolated, resentful, and anxious. And aren’t these the emotions, the inward condition, that often lead to behaviors we might recognize as sinful? It is the inward state, darkened, veiled, isolated, and alienated that Christ the light restores to wholeness. It is a transformation needed by all people, for it is the natural condition of all. It is Christ, the Word, which lifts us from the emptiness of our own words and establishes us on unshakeable ground where reality and utterance are perfectly conjoined.

Language undermined by loss of meaning is not solely a problem of our time; in the following passage, we see Fox suffered it as well:

And I was afraid of all carnal talk and talkers, for I could see nothing but corruptions, and the life lay under the burden of corruptions. And when I myself was in the deep, under all shut up, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great, that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted (Journal, 12).

Lack of right understanding, lack of meaning and the human spirit reacts, often in the seeming sabotage of depression. It is most clearly in language, which depends upon sounds to bear meaning that we notice our famished and weakened state. But though the weakened condition is present in all, the hunger is not always so keenly felt as it was with Fox. In the same passage of his Journal, Fox goes on to say:

And I saw professors, priests, and people were whole and at ease in that condition which was my misery, and they loved that which I would have been rid of (12).

These words are echoed by another prophetic voice of our time, that of Lewis Benson, one of the founders of New Foundation Fellowship. In his book Catholic Quakerism, he asks:

How long can men live in a moral vacuum? …How long can men be content to let life happen to them without agonizing over its meaning? Apparently millions of people can put up with this state of affairs for a very long time. But the human spirit eventually rebels against a comfortable, secure, but meaningless existence. Man was not created to live in a state of peace without understanding (70).

Annulled meaning in life or words is not always foisted upon us; sometimes it is chosen. Where there is intent to sever words from their meaning, there is a lie. It is interesting to note in chapter eight of John that when Jesus describes malevolence incarnate, he speaks not of the absence of love but rather the violation of truth. He says that the devil

Abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own; for he is a liar, and the father of it (Jn. 8:44).

Jesus assigns the harshest possible designation to the intentional severance of words from meaning. We can therefore construe his intent and purpose to be just the reverse: to ally words with that which is real, to ground utterance in meaning, to root words in the Truth. And yes, just before his execution, we see the ultimate hero summarize his life. Jesus stands before Pilate and avows:

To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth (Jn. 18:37).

 

PREPARATION FOR THE WORK OF RESTORATION

To bear witness unto the truth that dispels confusion and deceit, to bear witness to the light that shines in the darkness is to continue Christ’s work on earth. But first there must be some preparation for that work. So let us now turn to the final chapter in the book of John, where Jesus assigns tasks to Peter and to John to perform after he has departed and ascended into heaven. Each disciple has his own work, which differs from the other, and each disciple undergoes preparation for the work. Though the work will be different, the preparation is similar. The disciples must see themselves as they are; they must be open to what the light reveals about them, and so there is some discomfort.

Peter grieves as he is walked backward through his tri-fold denial of Jesus before the cock crew by means of a tri-fold affirmation of his love, devotion, and commitment. And Jesus forewarns him that he will suffer crucifixion in the end. These difficult truths, Peter accepts. There is significance in the change of names in this passage, from Simon to Peter. As truth is revealed and the disciple comes to see himself as he truly is, he is transformed from the carnal man, Simon, to the spiritual man, Peter. It is a new identity.

Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him. Feed my sheep. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, when thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifiying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me (Jn. 21:15-19).

Preparing Peter entails Christ’s leading this disciple to recognize the painful truth about the condition of his heart, of his character. Has John been similarly prepared for his work? Has he seen himself in truth? If it is so that grief and discomfort accompany the recognition of one’s true state, and these difficult feelings about oneself must precede the coming of Christ Within, then where is the evidence that this has taken place within John?

We are given only two pieces of information about John in this passage: 1) he is the disciple whom Jesus loved, and 2) he leaned on Jesus’s breast at the last supper and asked which disciple would betray him.

Then Peter, turning about seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee (Jn. 21:20)?

This is the disciple who in seeking the truth took the initiative to ask a risky question. It may not seem risky to us, because we know the answer: that it was Judas who betrayed Jesus, not John. But at the time John asked this question, he did not know that it was not he himself who would be singled out as the culprit rather than another. He courageously asked and left himself open and vulnerable to the answer. Though the truth might have devastated his self-concept and caused him grief (as it did Peter when he was confronted with the truth of himself), still John unlike Peter, sought out the truth for the love of it.

This is the cross, to love the truth more than self, to let false self-centered importance fall away, so that the truth can be known, to seek it out with one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. John risked hearing that he himself was the son of perdition. Before Christ Within appears, so must we all acknowledge the man or woman of sin revealed within.

Then I asked them, seeing Judas, who betrayed Christ and was called the son of perdition, had hanged himself, what son of perdition was that which Paul spoke of, that sat in the temple of God, exalted above all that is called God, and what temple of God that was in which this son of perdition sat, and whether he that betrays Christ within, in himself, be not one in nature with that Judas that betrayed Christ without (Journal, 146).

THE WORK OF RESTORATION

We have seen that the preparation for continuing Christ’s work is the same for both Peter and John; it is to see themselves as they truly are. Now let us look at the work each is given to do, how that work is determined by their particular strengths and capacities, and how the work of each is a necessary part of bringing heaven to earth.

After the scene is set in chapter 21 with location and character identified, the dialogue begins:

 

Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They [the disciples] say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing (Jn. 21:3).

Peter, the man of action, leads the disciples. It is he who announces the decision to fish; the rest of the group follows.  Mentioned first in this chapter, Peter has a prominent role from the outset in this story, while John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is not distinguished from the others until verse seven. It is John who is the first to recognize the Lord. “Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord” (Jn. 21:7). Through his ability to recognize—to see and to know—John mediates between the Lord and Peter, allowing the latter to move toward the Lord with an assurance and dramatic gesture that befits a leader: Peter casts himself into the sea to swim to shore, while the others follow in the boat. As a seer, John has exercised his capacity to direct the group and its leader to the Lord.

The work given to each Peter and John is fitted to their individual abilities: John is a seer of the Lord; his function is prophetic: to see and state where the Lord is to be found. His work is to tarry: to wait till the Lord appears within his sight, so that he can inform the others. As a result of John’s sight—his prophetic insight—Peter can act with discernment and direction.

Peter doesn’t see as well as John; in fact, he doesn’t see that John is doing any work at all. Peter asks of Jesus: “and what shall this man [John] do?”  Jesus challenges Peter by responding, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” He then goes on to say, “Follow thou me”(Jn. 21:20-21), exhorting Peter to attend to what he can see and the work he’s been given to do:  the shepherding and caring for the flock, that is, attending to the spiritual need of others. These two disciples—one facing toward the Lord and relaying his insight to the other who is facing toward the world—together form a bridge between heaven and earth, and together work to bring the one to the other.

No organizational affiliation, be it Christian, Quaker, or New Foundation Fellowship can substitute for the inward practice of waiting patiently to receive the truth about oneself. No honorable intentions, good works, noble words, or friendly behavior can bring access to God: nothing will do but a humble willingness to stand still in the light to hear what it reveals. It is the necessary preparation that enables us to participate fully in Christ’s work. In this passage from the Journal, Fox walks us through the process whereby we prepare ourselves for this holy encounter:

For I turned them to the divine light of Christ and his spirit that let them see all their thoughts, words, and actions, that were evil, that they had thought or spoken, or acted; with which light they might see their sins and with the same light they might see their savior, Christ Jesus, to save them from their sins, and that there was their first step to peace—to stand still in the light that showed their sin and transgressions and showed them how they were strangers to the covenant of promise, without God in the world, and in the Fall of old Adam, and in the darkness and death; and with the same light they may see Christ that died for them, who is their way to God and their redeemer and savior (Journal, 117).

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Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox: The New Worship (lecture four)

Fox repeats this call over and over: “Keep your testimony…for your worship in the spirit and in the truth, that Christ Jesus hath set up” (Works, 8:34); “keep up your testimony in the light, power, and spirit of God, for the worship that Christ set up above sixteen hundred years since, in spirit and in truth…which is a worship that cannot be shaken.” (8:84) This is a testimony that the Quakers had before the peace testimony was formulated in 1660, and I think in Fox’s mind it was the most important of the Quaker testimonies. It is the thing that brings people to Christ, as they see that we are gathering together to feel his living presence in our midst. — Lewis Benson

In the fourth lecture of the series Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox given at Moorestown meetinghouse in 1982, Lewis Benson examines the origin and nature of early Quaker worship. His intent is “to get a new perspective on the problems of contemporary Quakerism, and to bring something into the life of the Society of Friends today which is the heritage of all Quakers but has not survived in any living tradition.”

There is an assumption among Liberal Quakers that waiting in silence during the hour of worship replicates the early Quaker practice, an assumption which fails to take into account that the intent of early Quakers was entirely different from that of contemporaries, which centers on personal reflection that is sequentially shared. Early Quaker worship was attended by “people who had heard and received this everlasting gospel and who were filled with a fervent desire to gather together in the name of Jesus to wait to feel his presence in their midst as their living teacher, leader, ruler, counsellor, and orderer.” Early Friends gathered together and quieted themselves in order to receive and  hear their heavenly prophet, receive intercession from their heavenly priest, be ruled as a people by their heavenly king, and be fed by their heavenly shepherd. Their cohesion was the result of waiting together for guidance, acceptance, and instruction that came from heaven, and not from one another’s personal perspectives.

For Fox, meeting in the name of Jesus has a very definite content, and it has to do with the gospel experience, the experience of Christ as present, and present in a functioning way. I have found 22 references where Fox makes it clear that “meeting in the name” involves such a definite experience (Benson).

That this revolutionary way of worship should have been lost from Quaker communities over the last several hundred years is not surprising; for it had likewise been lost since the apostles’ days and not recovered until the early Quakers practiced it 1600 years later. Yet corporate worship in spirit and in truth, meeting “in the name of Jesus,” remains forever available to reclaim yet once more by any who come to be “children of the New Covenant.”

Benson’s essay can be found at the website of New Foundation Fellowship (nffquaker.org) under the Resources tab which features Benson’s writings. Here’s a link: The New Worship

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JOHN 8 AND 9: A LESSON FOR PROPHETIC MINISTERS

In the ninth chapter of the book of John we are given a story of a healing, a bestowal of sight to one who has been blind from birth. Unlike many of the healing stories found in the first three books of the New Testament, this story is more than a simple interchange between Jesus, the healer, and the one who is healed, for the individual’s restoration to health is the catalyst for a dramatic conflict which takes place within the setting of society. The beginning of this story is the transformation of the individual, but as the plot progresses, we see the rippling effect that the individual’s transformation has upon the surrounding social hierarchy and relationships within it. We witness the inevitable confrontation between the way of the newly empowered and the old way of the world, where power and authority are wielded destructively. The man, once blind but now sighted, takes on and overcomes the oppressive force.

The simple, heroic story contained in John 9 is complete and satisfying in its own right. It has an additional function, however, in that it forms a unit with John 8. Together these two chapters combine to present a lesson about good stewardship of the prophetic gift to those who are called to minister the gospel, the power of God. Each chapter presents a distinctly different approach to encountering the darkness in the world. If we compare the two, we will see the better strategy. For while one is productive, the other is not. Let us learn the lesson these stories hold.

FRIENDS’ INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURES

Before examining the text, let’s first look at Friends’ way of understanding Scriptures. Traditionally, we have found spiritual meaning in Scriptures that is beyond the literal content of the text. Early Friends wrote about the spiritual implications of scriptural language and argued against  literalism, which in their time was the prevailing basis for exegesis.

In Fox’s Journal, there is a story of an encounter with a Jesuit, who argues for a literal interpretation of Christ’s words: This is my body; take this in remembrance of me till I come. The Jesuit claims that the bread and wine once consecrated by a priest becomes “immortal and divine and he that received it received the whole Christ.” Fox replied to him:

Now Christ said, “This is my body”; also he said, “I am the vine, and the door and the rock of ages.” Therefore, is Christ an outward rock, door, or vine?

“Oh,” said the Jesuit, “that is to be interpreted.”

“Then,” said I, “interpret also his words, ‘This is my body,’ of which he said, ‘Take this in remembrance of me till I come'” (Journal, 344).

In the story we will explore in John 9, blindness and sight are used as metaphors. Blindness refers to spiritual ignorance; this story is not about physical impairment. Physical blindness (standing for spiritual insensitivity) was understood as metaphor by early Friends:  “…for that eye that is turned from the light is the blind, and leads into the ditch, and is to be condemned” (Works, 4:25).

Additionally, when we read a story in scripture, we should keep in mind that some parts simply move the plot along, so that the lesson is easily grasped by means of a good, strong narrative. For example, when we read that Jesus healed the blind man by spitting on the ground and making a paste with the spit, and spreading it on his eyes, we know that these particulars are not significant in themselves. (There is no magic involved in healing the spirit.) Rather for the sake of the narrative, the cure must be as visible as the ailment itself, for it is the visibility of the cure that compels the Pharisees to acknowledge that it has occurred. Their chagrined weakness in the presence of heavenly power is an important part of this story.

If we marvel at the literal particulars of the cure (the spitting on the ground, the spreading of the paste on his eyes), if we see this as a magical “sign and wonder,” we put ourselves among that wicked generation that Jesus admonished.

An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, except the sign of the prophet Jonas (Mt. 12:39).

We come to understand the fundamental spiritual meaning of the scriptures when we ourselves have undergone our sojourn in and release from the belly of the whale, that darkest of places! Till then, like Jonah, we are all recalcitrant prophets in the dark whale’s belly, out of the life and power in which the Scriptures were written, out of the life and power in which they must be read and understood.

When we look at stories in Scripture, we must carefully distinguish on the one hand between those elements that function to make the lesson of the story clear and, on the other, those elements that run parallel and refer to our spiritual lives that are outside the story. An example of the latter is Jesus telling the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam, which the writer tells us means “sent.” The blind one is “sent” in the story; just as in real life outside of the story, the Lord sends out the once blind but now-sighted ones, i.e. his ministers

to preach gospel to the poor; He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind (Lk. 4:18).

The Scriptures often teach us a lesson about spiritual reality within ourselves or within the social sphere by constructing a narrative structure that is analogous to inward experience.

THE HEALING

If we study the language of this character (the blind man) from the beginning to the end of chapter nine, we can see him change and become strong. There is a profound transformation of his personhood. This sense of personhood is the area in our own lives that Christ heals: that deep existential foundation on which our sense of self rests. Let’s follow the text through and see what the blind man says from beginning to end.

For the first ten verses of the story, he says nothing. He is spoken of by others; the disciples puzzle over the cause of his infirmity, and his neighbors argue about his identity. But he himself is passive, silent, and lifeless, a puzzle to others and without an identity: a non-person.

Following his cure, his first words (in the original Greek) are “I am” (Jn. 9:9 Mc Reynolds).  These simple words reveal much. When the community’s chatter has ceased, the healed individual emits a simple, strong statement of self-awareness. The man knows who and what he is; the man asserts consciousness of being. This dramatic moment in the story is a point of reference for us readers in our own particular histories. For within each of our lives, there is a possibility of a moment when one first experiences the transcendent range of one’s being. Then is one convinced that it is for this joyful fulfillment that we humans have been created. When we have come into the knowledge of God, it is a moment of healing, of irrevocably affirming life. Having come out of the darkness, out of the emptiness, we can say simply: In this is life.

Important to notice in these early lines of the story is the simplicity of the man’s speech. Except for the names of others, he speaks in monosyllables only. He answers the questions others have posed to him, thereby allowing them to control the conversation. He has no agenda of his own and speaks only to provide information requested of him. He admits his ignorance and doesn’t hide it. “Then said they unto him, Where is he? He said, I know not” (Jn. 9:12). He holds to the truth: that is the working principle guiding his speech. He has no other agenda, and thus he does not use speech rhetorically, as a vehicle to manipulate others.

For a moment, let’s contrast the blind man’s simple use of language with that of another group of characters in the story—the Pharisees. The Pharisees, the authorities, do have an agenda: it is to hold onto power. The authentic power of God, Christ, has appeared on the scene and has healed the blind man, and this challenges the man-wielded authority, the man-made religion of the Pharisees. Because their control can only be assured by the sanction or acquiescence of their followers, they strive to influence adversely the thoughts and feelings of the community toward this new, authentic power that has appeared in their midst. They distort the truth, denying the evidence of the healing, and they discredit Jesus: the one who has manifested the power of God.

“This man is not of God,” they claim – putting the weight of their authority behind the declaration – for he violates the tradition; “because he keepeth not the Sabbath day” (Jn. 9:16). Repeatedly they question the newly healed one, hoping an opportunity will present itself to discredit the healer. “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” In strong, simple, certain terms, the healed one responds, “He is a prophet” (Jn. 9:17).

Again and again they summon him, forcefully displaying their authority.

Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner.…Then said they to him again, What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes (Jn. 9:24 and 26).

In the early part of this story, we saw that the healed man’s language was simple and passive. Now, we see a different stance:

He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples (Jn. 9:27)?

The once-blinded beggar has changed; he has taken charge of the situation. He asks the questions, putting his opponents on the defensive, and even makes a joke at their expense. No, the Pharisees don’t want to become Jesus’s disciples, and the question puts their shameful intent squarely in front of them. The healed one has outwitted, shamed, and defeated those in power. He doesn’t stop there.

The man answered and said unto them, Why, herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing (Jn. 9:30-33).

The complexity and power of the man’s argument effectively stills those who are opposed to his witness. Yet, he is still guided by the same principle that guided his former, simple declarative sentences: a regard for truth. His assertive tone indicates confidence and self-assurance—again a contrast to his former powerless passivity. He has been healed, and the powers and principalities of the world feel the threat he poses to their control. He does bruise their head, and they in turn do bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15). To remain in power, they must expel from their society the one who has defeated them with the truth. And this they promptly do.

In the final seven verses of chapter nine, there is a recapitulation of the two main points in this story. Jesus initiates contact with the healed one who now has been cast out of the community and questions him: Does he believe in the Son of God? Is there to be recognition of the relationship between them? True to form, the man in his simple regard for truth seeks a manifest basis for his belief:

He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee (Jn. 9:36-37).

This manifest basis for belief is direct, personal experience. The basis for belief is that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes (1 Jn. 1:1).

To complete the story, we see Jesus himself outwitting the Pharisees and having the last word. To the Pharisees’ question: Are we blind also, Jesus responds: If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth (Jn. 9:41). This verbal firework leaves the Pharisees in the dark, the darkness being the place they have already chosen for themselves. To recognize one’s need, one’s blindness, is to be ready for change. If one is content with (or resigned to) oneself, the world, and one’s way of operating in it, one will sense no need for change, and therefore will not be ready to receive the new and living way, the Light of Christ. The blind one was ready, in that he recognized his need, his inability to see. The Pharisees were not; they claimed to see, and their sin thus remained.

REACTION TO IDOLATRY

In chapter nine we are given a success story. One who was weak became strong. One who was blind, could then see. And those who thrived in the corrupt world were set back in humiliating defeat. The story follows a well-trod narrative path, virtue triumphing over vice, the underdog coming out on top. As a story, it is complete in and of itself. However, this story has an added function. There is another lesson to learn here, and it is particularly addressed to those who are sent by the Lord into this alienated and corrupted world to present the gospel, the power of God. This is a lesson about reacting to the evil we will encounter, both within ourselves and within the world outside of ourselves. How do we handle this challenge productively? We must take a step backward into the previous chapter to find an answer to this question.

That chapters eight and nine comprise a single unit with an overarching theme can be seen by taking a quick overview of their structure. In each chapter, the starting point is Jesus’s declaration: I am the light of the world (Jn. 8:12 and 9:5). (The story of the woman caught in adultery was later inserted at the beginning of chapter eight. It is missing from all early Greek manuscripts.) That such contrasting stories begin at the same point and with the same statement is a clue to the reader that a comparison between the two is being made. There is nothing haphazard or casual about the placement of Jesus’s declaration at the beginning of these chapters. The statement names the force, the light of Christ, and implies the world is without that light. The disparity suggested is then played out differently in the two chapters.

We have already seen the successful outcome in chapter nine. Jesus did his work; he healed someone, and in turn, that someone – with his eyes newly opened to the light – outwits and shames the Pharisees in their darkened state. So it can be said that Jesus overcame the darkness indirectly through his healing work of the blinded. In contrast with chapter nine, in chapter eight, we see Jesus confronting his darkened attackers directly. When challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus counterattacks with a ferocious directness. He meets them head-on, contradicting, arguing, accusing, and insulting them.

The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true. Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go (Jn. 8:13-14).

It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me (Jn. 8:17-18).

Logic and wisdom cascade from Jesus throughout this chapter, and the Pharisees are submerged. Jesus speaks over their heads; he insults them. He calls them ignorant, worldly, slaves in sin, likely to die in their sins, unteachable, base-born, children of the devil, murderers and liars. His words are unrestrained, furious, and profuse. Here is a sample:

Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (Jn. 8:44).

What is the end result of this verbal onslaught? The Pharisees pick up stones to throw at him.

Compare the ending of this story with the one in chapter nine. In chapter nine the one whom Jesus healed does the work of overcoming darkness, as it is manifested in the corrupt Pharisees. Here in chapter eight, Jesus himself has expended a great deal of energy, convinced, transformed, healed no one, and furthermore, he has endangered himself!

By comparing these two chapters, the prophetic minister can see the lesson about his or her work in the world. When one sees that the Word preached and offered has no place in the hearers, that the revelation given is unwanted, when minds are closed “because they receive[d] not the love the truth” (2 Thess. 2:10), then recall these chapters in the book of John. And, having done so, move on to reach those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. It may be tempting to lash out when deceit and greed are working destruction in tandem. Chapter eight of John shows us the waste that lies down that avenue.

Look once again at the opening statements in these chapters, this time noting their differences. At the beginning of chapter eight, Jesus says:

I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (Jn. 8:12).

And in chapter nine he says:

I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world (Jn. 9:4-5).

Both statements have a reflective, re-orienting quality. In the first, he states his intention—his followers will have the light of life. In the second statement, he reminds himself that his time in the world is limited, and he must work now. This self-reminder follows fast upon the tirade which has just occurred in chapter eight. One comes to the conclusion: Jesus saw that the direct confrontation of hardened idolaters is a waste of precious time. He returns to his purpose; he recalls himself: I am the light of the world. The prophetic minister learns the lesson and draws the parallel: Look to one’s strength and purpose; don’t be weighed down in fruitless, enervating engagements.

This same strategy was offered by George Fox to Lady Claypole as guidance when he wrote:

For looking down at sin, and corruption, and distractions, you are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory; and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace (Journal, 348).

One can see that the strategy for dealing with “sin, corruption and distraction” in oneself is the same as the strategy for confronting these same manifestations of alienation that one sees in others. Do not focus on the evil but on the Light that overcomes.

DISCIPLINED INTELLIGENCE IN GOSPEL WORK

I would like to point out two further examples in which the writer gives guidance for sensibly directing one’s efforts. In chapter eight, Jesus engages in a fruitless tirade against corruption and darkness in the world, and in chapter nine, he is a less central figure, one who goes about his work, healing one who was in deep decline. The main conflict in chapter nine is between the Pharisees and the healed blind man. They differed greatly in their readiness to receive the needed transformation. The blind man was very receptive, and the Pharisees were highly resistant, hardened, and unmoved.

Between these two extremes of full readiness and full resistance are placed two additional groups: the disciples and the blind man’s parents. Unlike the blind man, none of these people is fully ready to receive the light of Christ. They all are provided with something that they value in the present age and will therefore be less inclined to seek further, truly wanting a change. Even the disciples accept and depend upon their culture for their understanding of right and wrong, justice and order. They ask Jesus: Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind (Jn. 9:2)?

Their thinking is derived from and restricted by the boundaries of their culture. In turn, the culture can’t grow because the minds that sustain it have been bound, closed, and thus cut off from life in the Creator. Into this stifling situation, Jesus opens the window of heaven and allows the wind to blow where it will (Jn. 3:8):

Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him (Jn. 9:3).

Jesus asserts that the creative power of God continues to be revealed in the restoring of his creation to himself. The perfection of God will be made manifest here on earth, as it is in heaven. He envisions what is to come: the creation restored, re-made by the power of the Creator. The disciples can see only the present malady and look backward in time for its cause, but Jesus can envision and thus enact a remedy. Yet, though the disciples are ignorant of the prophet’s vision of God’s restored creation, they are teachable. They want to understand; they ask for the truth.

The parents of the blind man are not so well positioned in the middle ground they occupy between the blind man and the Pharisees. Unlike the disciples, they lean toward the corrupted and unteachable Pharisees. They want something other than the truth; they want a secure place within the community of synagogue society more than they want an alliance with the truth, even though this desire entails a denial of their own son. They are asked by the Pharisees to account for their son’s recovery of sight.

We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind: But by what means he now seeth, we know not; or who hath opened his eyes, we know not:  he is of age; ask him:  he shall speak for himself. These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue (Jn. 9:20-22).

That is the only appearance of the parents in this story. They enter and exit the picture having secured their place within the religious society. Many to whom the gospel is ministered within Quaker communities are held fast by this same desire. Though sensing and even privately acknowledging the authenticity of the gospel they have heard preached, they nevertheless reject it publicly, since acknowledgement would jeopardize their standing within the community.

These two stories in chapters eight and nine of John teach one to act with disciplined intelligence in gospel work. Ministering the Word may or may not result in communication, as communication requires both receptivity on the part of the hearer as well as fidelity on the part of the speaker. Insisting on the validity of gospel ministry while disregarding the lack of receptivity in those to whom one ministers is a waste of time, strength, and social viability. It is poor stewardship of God’s gifts.

As one would expect, this same lesson appears in early Quaker writing. Isaac Penington sees that those who are hardened and self-satisfied in their idolatry are “unworthy” and will be passed by,

[those] who are so sound and whole in their notional apprehensions and practices that they have no need of the physician…and whom he intendeth shall have no share with him.

Beginning with a line from chapter four in Hosea (a chapter describing idolatry and its consequences), Penington underscores the Lord’s instruction to his prophet to leave the idolater to himself or herself:

“Ephraim is joined to idols” (he is well, he hath enough, he hath no need of me) “let him alone,” saith the Lord….it is my will to have mercy on these my greatly distressed ones, and to destroy (inwardly to destroy, oh, who knows what that means!) the fat and the strong, and to feed them with judgment (Penington, 3:278).

One must discern and acknowledge the lack of receptivity when it occurs, and one must refocus attention to the Light and move on to do the work elsewhere. The present darkened situation is an opportunity for God’s power to be displayed. Jesus disciplined himself to see over the darkness and said: I must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no one can work (Jn. 9:4). We, too, must look beyond the present darkness and attend to the work before us: receiving and ministering by God’s grace the new, yet age-old prophet’s vision of a world in transformation by the light that shines within.

Go through, go through the gates; prepare ye the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highways; gather out the stones; lift up a standard for the people. Behold, the Lord hath proclaimed unto the end of the world, Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. And they shall call them, The holy people, the redeemed of the Lord: and thou shalt be called, Sought out, A city not forsaken (Isa. 62:10-12).

 

 

 

 

 

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The Mediate Role of Virtue

Love mercy and true judgment, justice and righteousness; for the Lord delighteth in such. Consider these things in time, and take heed how ye spend your time. Now ye have time, prize it; and show mercy, that ye may receive mercy from the Lord: for he is coming to try all things, and will plead with all flesh as by fire (Works, 1:115)

This statement is from a letter that Fox wrote in 1651 while he was being held in Darby jail. In this letter, Fox admonishes local judges to love virtue, specifically “mercy, true judgment, justice and righteousness.” Notice that he does not reason with the judges about their duty, nor does he argue that virtuous behavior would benefit society. Both of these arguments would call upon the judges to choose virtue so that some ideal of character or society could be met. Fox, instead, gives different reasons for being virtuous: 1) the Lord delights in virtuous behavior; and conversely, 2) the Lord will judge and punish harshly those who refuse virtue, “[he] will plead with all flesh as by fire.” Fox is claiming that virtue is a necessary mediate condition for receiving the proximate favor of God, not a practical measure for achieving some human ideal.

Implied in this understanding is the belief that there’s some advantage to receiving God’s favor and avoiding his wrath. Convincing people of this who are without the fear of God (that is to say, the knowledge of God) is difficult. It seems natural and obvious to the reprobate mind that each person must chart his own course toward maximum personal advantage, navigating around or conquering whatever obstacles impose themselves, even when those obstacles are the demands of virtue. Choosing virtue over opportunity for personal gain often does not seem wise to the man who does not know Christ: “for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light”(Lk. 16:8).

That this worldly wisdom is, in fact, not life-enhancing but instead is life-inhibiting ignorance that can and must be contradicted is the primary theme of Scriptures and seventeenth-century Friends writings. Both sources hold up the pursuit and acquisition of virtue as an intermediate and necessary step that prepares one to receive eternal life, knowledge of the living God. This assertion is reinforced repeatedly throughout these writings, one example being the sixteenth chapter of Luke.

At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus tells a story of a man who is lacking in virtue: a steward who has been wasteful of his master’s goods, and as a result is fired. In straits for how he will live, the steward decides upon a plan: he will curry favor with those who owe his employer goods by reducing their liability. Not only does this steward lack prudence and economy, he also lacks the virtues of honesty and righteousness:

How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, an hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore (5–7).

Once the man no longer has the job of steward, he will call upon these people for return favors: quid pro quo. The text then has the steward’s employer evaluate the scheme: “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”(v.8). How reasonable is it to praise fraud that has been injurious to oneself? The master praises the steward who cheated him; in a world devoid of virtue, reason also is in short supply.

This praise of the dishonest steward accelerates the chaos that began in the first line of the story: we were told that the steward was not doing what a steward does, which is care for his master’s goods. When a word no longer signifies its meaning, confusion results. When a steward no longer cares for his master’s goods, when a master praises his servant’s thievery, chaos and confusion abound. In verse nine, this chaos crystallizes into a maxim:

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fall, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

At this point in the story when confusion is rife, having gained the apex and planted a senseless maxim as its flag, the narrative voice shifts. Suddenly appearing in the passage’s final verses (10–13) are cogent, inarguable assertions that follow one upon another. One senses that Jesus, having finished his story, is now presenting its moral:

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much(10). If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches(11)? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own(12)? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon(13).

With the exception of the first part of verse ten, all these statements are put into a negative rather than a positive form: “…if ye have not been faithful” (11, 12); “No servant can serve…,” “Ye cannot serve…” (13). One may state with assurance that a sinful (negative) condition will not enter the Kingdom, but one cannot positively state that behaving virtuously will ensure entry; for that entry is determined by God alone (Mk.13:32). We cannot assess whether we ourselves are virtuous; God alone, who is a consuming fire, tries the heart. Lack of virtue prohibits receiving Christ, but even one’s very best effort to be virtuous does not guarantee the coming of Christ. For that, one can only prepare oneself, and then wait and watch(37).

Last First-day in worship at a meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were five messages given during the hour. Each contained a personal narrative which held up a particular virtue: benevolence, bravery, tolerance, empathy, and helpfulness. All the messages followed the same narrative arc: virtue was exhibited and virtue was rewarded. Embodying virtues is often rewarding, useful, and practical in shaping and improving our individual lives and of that of the social groups to which we belong. That is not, however, the reason for embodying virtue that either Jesus or first Friends give. For them, the condition of virtue is a mediate state, which is neither accommodated in the world nor yet given entry into heaven. Virtue’s purpose and value is that it prepares the heart to be acceptable to God. Virtue affirms and signals a desire and humble willingness to sacrifice and then to wait upon the coming of the Lord. It is faith before faith is given.

 

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Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox

Lewis Benson began his lecture series Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox at Moorestown Meeting in New Jersey in the fall of 1982. The first lecture in this series is titled “The Place of George Fox in Christian History.” It is now available for reading on the New Foundation Fellowship website, and can be accessed through Ellis Hein’s introduction: http://nffquaker.org/profiles/blogs/the-place-of-george-fox-in-chri… All are welcome to visit. In the coming weeks and months, NFF will sequentially post the nine remaining lectures in this series.

In this first lecture, “The Place of George Fox in Christian History,” Benson states his intention for the series: “to focus on Fox’s actual teachings as revealed in his writings,” thereby addressing two problems: 1) scholars’ mistaken interpretations of Fox’s teaching, and 2) widespread lack of familiarity with our Quaker heritage. These lectures provide an excellent opportunity for Friends to familiarize themselves with significant portions of early Quaker understanding, as Benson’s scholarship is thorough; his interpretation is sound; and his presentations are clear and coherent.

I always try to approach people’s interpretations of Fox with an open mind, but I’ve often found that he’s misrepresented and misunderstood. Lewis Benson also saw this problem and identified it in this lecture, referring to many scholars of his time.

One of the primary distinctions that Fox makes is that there is a pure religion “that comes down from above” (Benson identifies this elsewhere as Abrahamic religion), and then there is man-made religion (Adamic religion), which is arrived at by means of ideas, emotions, ideals, social pressures, etc., in short, anything human beings can contrive and subscribe to. In this all-too-prevalent man-made religion (Adamic religion), Person A will likely have a different take on religion from Person B. If, however, they each are choosing and forming their religion from ideas, feelings, principles, etc., they both are subscribing to man-made religion. An example of this apparently-different-but-actually-the-same man-made religion is Protestants and Catholics, though differing were, nevertheless, of the same root and stock, claimed the seventeenth-century Quakers.

In contrast to the Adamic religion that permeated their culture, what Fox and first Friends were given was the pure religion that comes down from above, i.e. revelation. (Recall Fox’s surprise at hearing “There is one, Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”) Now this Word is what is revealed by Christ, and is Christ, and is unchanging; it is the gospel, the power of God. Therefore, those who have received this gospel power find themselves in unity with those in history (first Friends, apostles) who had also received this heavenly dispensation. Because of that unity of spirit, we find that the words of these two groups convey our own most inward identity and also present wisdom that we can affirm, ascribe to, and benefit from.

The faith that comes down from above cannot be acquired by human beings; it must be given by God. So, what does one do? Letting John the Baptist’s words resonate within one’s heart might be useful, as he came before the Lord and prepared the way. Ultimately, it’s about needing truth for your soul like you need oxygen for your body.  I see this particular sense of the need for truth to be the hallmark of humanity, but people deny their humanity often. The words in John 1 speak to this denial: He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Meanwhile, we have a great deal of literature that affirms the reality of the gospel power. I’ve heard a number of people say they were convinced of the gospel by reading Fox. I’ve always found this suspect because one is assimilating ideas when one reads, and Life is not intellect, and neither is it emotion. Fox does affirm—throughout all his voluminous writings—the reality of the new, inward Life that God in His mercy and truth meets out to those who call upon Him in their need, to those who wait in readiness. There are quite a few of Jesus’s parables about preparing oneself. Most emphatic, however, is Jesus’s concluding lesson to his disciples shortly before he’s arrested:

Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch (Mk. 13: 35-7).

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