Dec. 30, 2012
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
Years ago, when Tim was the rector of the Syracuse Urban Cluster, we worked closely with the minister of a Pentecostal Holiness congregation. We shared services, festivities and community events. We marched through the neighborhood, praying in front of crack houses and anointing with oil any who came up to “Father Hall” or “Minister Ellis,” as our friend was called, to be saved.
Not long before he started his congregation, Minister Ellis was a jazz musician, a studio and session musician, and the grandson of folksinger Libba Cotton. What drew him and his congregation to the Episcopal Church, we wondered? After not too many sermons we understood: it was the Gospel of John, with its deep poetry, its stark contrasts between darkness and light, between those who hear Jesus’ voice and follow him and those who stray. The Gospel of John is not easy to understand, but if you live a life of ups and downs, of tragedies and near-misses, the Gospel of John is easy to feel.
Soon after we moved back here a year ago, Tim ran into Larry Ellis, a joyful reunion with many promises of getting back together. Sadly, not long after that, Larry Ellis died, unexpectedly, putting to rest a glorious voice and a magnificent soul. His music rose from the depths of his experience to the heights of glory, confident that no matter what came to pass, he belonged to Jesus, the rock of his salvation.
A theology based on the Gospel of John revels in contrasts: darkness-light; knowledge-ignorance; blindness-sight. Taken to an extreme, it defends an “us against the world” understanding of Christian community. It can feed notions like the “clash of civilizations,” leading to the demonization of “others” who just don’t get it, others who reject our world view.
It is all too easy to stay on the surface when we read the Gospel of John, and revel in its dualisms of good and evil, dark and light. But to do so can distort the Jesus about whom John is talking in this Gospel, a Jesus who brings a light to enlighten everyone – everyone – into the world.
In 1803, the English poet William Blake wrote a poem which ended,
God appears and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in Night;
But does a Human Form display
To those who dwell in realms of Day.
God comes in a form we understand. If we live in gloom or trouble, God first appears to us as light. But if we already have had a glimpse of that light, God comes to us as one of us, embodying our hopes for righteousness and justice, love and freedom, giving us something tangible to hold on to and model our lives upon.
The Gospel of John reminds us that God has been calling us into being since the beginning of time. The light still shines and there is no darkness – no depth of human evil, no ignorance or fear or violence or death – that can block it out. If you listen closely, you can hear the angels – and Larry Ellis – sing.