It must have been the spring of 1984, or perhaps of 1985. John, the ever faithful priest and pastor of the rural Ulster parish stood in the pulpit of the church and preached on verses from Saint John. The congregation, which filled every pew, were attentive listeners as he sought to explain the words of Jesus.
John was a voice of reason among many more strident voices, a voice of neighbourliness among many who saw the way forward as adversarial relationships and confrontation.
John’s interpretation of Saint John Chapter 14 was that Christians were those who listened and followed the words of Verse 15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” His was the way of kindliness, and gentleness and grace. Jesus for him was the man who washed the feet of his friends when they gathered for the Passover meal. Jesus was a healer, a reconciler, a peacemaker.
There were words in the reading from the Gospel that lent themselves to a very different interpretation, to a very different understanding of what it meant to be Christian. Verse 17 could be read in a way that convinced of their rightness those who felt themselves to be in an adversarial relationship with the world, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
John ministered in a community where there were many people who were sustained by a circular argument. People believed themselves to have the presence of God with them and, having the presence of God, they must be right. They were right because they said they were right, and those who opposed them must therefore be wrong because they must lack the presence of God. The humble theology embraced by John seemed to be concerned with a religion very different from those who built shiny new churches and grand church halls.
An adversarial approach to the world would sustain a church for as long as confrontation was the mood of the community. While sectarian tensions persisted, the theology of division ensured churches were crowded. When the days of the Troubles passed and the old suspicions faded, people lost interest in sermons of denunciation and churches began to decline. One Belfast church that once boasted a congregation of two thousand, people who would listen to sermons lasting an hour or more, slipped away to a congregation of a few dozens.
Confrontation marked Jesus’ dealings with the religious authorities of his times, he was fierce in his condemnation of corruption and of religious leaders who exploited the faith of people for their own personal interest. His attitude to the world was that it was the object of God’s love and compassion. An adversarial attitude to the world would be a denial of Saint John Chapter 3 Verse 16.
John’s sermon on that spring day would have reached Chapter 14 Verse 21, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” He would have concluded with the words that Christians were those who kept Jesus’ commandments.
Even among the congregation sat in church, there would have been those who disagreed, those who believed that being a Christian demanded a form of words, that unless one declared oneself to be “saved” one could not be a Christian.
Had John been challenged, he would have smiled and said, “do you think so?” He would have gone home to his Sunday lunch, with a strong sense in his heart of God’s presence.