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1 John has wisdom for preaching in polarized communities of faith

The Rev. Dr. Janette Ok leads the ‘Equipping Preachers’ webinar for the Synod of the Covenant

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Janette Ok

LOUISVILLE — Preachers ascending the pulpit in a polarized church can turn to the letter of 1 John for, say, inspiration — or even a preaching series.

“It’s not an easy time for the preacher, trying to navigate our own biases,” said the Rev. Dr. Janette Ok, “much less those of our congregation members.”

Ok teaches New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary and led the “Equipping Preachers” webinar for the Synod of the Covenant this week. View her 78-minute talk, which included a question-and-answer session, here.

“You don’t need me to tell you American democracy is struggling with this very topic” of polarization, Ok said, “and the church has not been immune to this.” The ruptures “between fellow Christians are too apparent and painful to ignore.”

Ok asked participants to name some of what she called “the enemies in the room, in our sanctuaries.” Responses included “stubborn and self-righteous folks,” “those who proclaim all the answers,” “single-mindedness,” “once they are removed from power, they leave,” and “arrogance.”

The author of 1 John also names the enemies in the room: liars and antichrists. “That’s some powerful rhetoric,” Ok said. The term “antichrist” appears four times in the Bible — all in the letters ascribed to John, and never in Revelation. The author uses the term to describe people who have deserted the community.

The letters are written following a disagreement in the church about the messiahship and humanity of Jesus. Ok said the disagreement led to a schism between an orthodox group and secessionists. “First John is addressed to those in between,” Ok said. “The author is trying to combat false teaching of those who have disrupted and left the community. … The author is upset because of the damage they’ve done to fellowship. It’s not just doctrinal disagreement. It’s their failure to love the community. They left without turning back.”

The ”importance and prominence of love can’t be missed when you read 1 John,” Ok said, focusing a large portion of her talk on the first five verses of 1 John 5. “Here we see an emphasis on love and on faith,” Ok said. “Our love for God confirms our love for fellow believers.”

What “binds and unifies believers is our shared confession, not our shared affection. Affection is important and it delights the Lord,” she said. “But affection is a pretty fickle thing. It’s moody and it comes and goes. Confession is reflected in the relationships we have, in the trust we put in Christ.”

This kind of love, she said, is “cruciform, Christ-shaped and cross-shaped. The cruciform fellowship means our love doesn’t depend on natural affinities. It’s based on our status as children of God.”

“We have to be able to preach and remind our congregations of this,” Ok told the 25 or so preachers in attendance. “First John reassures us God’s commandments are not burdensome. … Freedom from the onerous weight of sin makes obedience light by comparison. We are set free to give God pleasure, and when we make it our aim to please God, we do what God loves.”

That reminded Ok of the celebrated comments of Eric Liddell, the central character in “Chariots of Fire”: “I believe that God made me for a purpose — for China. But he also made me fast! And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt. You were right,” he tells his sister. “It’s not just fun. To win is to honor him.”

Just a few weeks after Pentecost, Ok noted it’s often “easier to have a room full of people who speak different languages than a room full of people who hold different opinions than we do.”

“Maybe the differences in perspectives that aren’t fundamental to our Christological confessions … are a form of diversity the Spirit can use to disciple us,” she said. “The challenge [First] John presents is to embrace disagreement. … When we come clean and confess our sins, we recognize ‘the other’ as someone who, like us, Christ died for.”

God’s “intended purpose in loving us is fulfilled when we extend love to others,” Ok said. “We need to model civility and agree to disagree in church while holding fast to the fact that we are brothers and sisters, and Christ is our Lord. We need to be discerning that political issues don’t dominate our preaching and liturgies.” There should be “some mystery,” Ok said, over whether we lean blue or red.

Here’s what Ok had to say in Working Preacher last month on 1 John 5:1-6:

“Belief in Jesus as the Christ (5:1) and the Son of God (5:5) must not be reduced to intellectual consent to Christological ideas and verbal confessions of the creeds. Faith has power. Faith confirms our identity as God’s children and forges our familial bonds. Faith enables us to love one another and prevail over the forces that defy God and distort God’s love. It is through our commitment to our shared faith and love for one another that we love the parent and give God pleasure.”

“When in doubt, love. It supersedes everything else,” Ok told webinar participants. “You can’t go wrong.”

Learn more about the Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers series here. The monthly webinars are open to preachers who live outside the bounds of the synod. There’s no workshop in July. The Aug. 7 speaker is Dr. Lis Valle-Ruiz of McCormick Theological Seminary.

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