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Revolutionary Christianity

David Rensberger, in his helpful article, “Conflict and Community in the Johannine Letters” points out the deeply revolutionary and apocalyptic nature of the Joahnnine message, especially in relation to Christology and the ethics of agape:

The author of the Letters defends incarnational Christology not just because it is “what you heard from the beginning” (1 John 2:24), though that is part of his appeal, but because it rightly expresses the nature of the God who is love.What is at stake, in this author’s view, is not the authority of tradition but the most fundamental theological insight of Johannine Christianity: that God, out of love, entered fully into the human condition, risking and suffering death itself in order to bring life to human beings.

This is not an essentially conservative theological position. It radically challenged the established religious cultures of its time, both Jewish and Greco-Roman, by insisting on the freedom of God to act in a way utterly unanticipated by tradition, a way that upset not only commonplace theological and philosophical assumptions but hierarchical social structures as well. What is happening in 1 and 2 John is not so much a struggle against revolutionaries as a struggle within a revolution. Neither side questions that the way of God is contrary to the way of the world (though the author tries to associate the opponents with the world in 1 John 4:3-6). The battle is over how the revolution is to be conceived: in its original terms as radical divine intervention in the world, or in a new way as radical divine opposition to the world. In a sense, it is a struggle over how to maintain the purity of the radical Johannine way, whether by preserving the pure teaching “heard from the beginning” or by purifying it still further from contamination by the flesh. The Elder is trying to prevent, not the success of a revolution, but the diversion of a revolution onto a path that he fears may cause it to fail.

It never ceases to amaze me how deeply the Johannine corpus delves into the most fundamental issues of Christian faithfulness, never disentangling but always bringing to the fore the inextricable connection between Christological confession of Jesus as the fullness of God, come in the flesh, and the ethic of radical, self-giving love. All of this is predicated on God’s own descent into the world in Jesus, this radical divine intervention that can only, to my mind, be described as apocalyptic.

In Jesus God’s Trinitarian agape has invaded “the world” (i.e. the system of powers and principalities whose dominion over creation is predicated on the power of death) and created a rupture within it, a rupture of self-abandoning love that goes to the cross for others. And in the sending of the Spirit this Christic rupture of love continues to break into history, giving men and women to one another in this same pattern, rhythm of cruciform love, the love that seeks not its own but willingly lays itself down for the other. The church is the sign and sacrament of this rupture within the rule of the fallen powers, this rupture of agape, of self-abandonment into love. It is only by this radical gift of God’s Trinitarian love, the love that breaks through the powers of death, that we are given to one another, to live together within this Christic agape. And thus it is only in a common life of constant prayer and doxology by which we continually offer up our own our bodies (Rom 12:1-3) to God’s agape that we can live and embody the gospel, the gospel of self-abandoning love.

And it is precisely in this self-offering, this abandoning of ourselves in love for one another that we stand, fully in the utter fleshliness of the Jesus’s revolution. There is nothing more concrete, nothing more fleshly, nothing more earthly, than this love, the love of Jesus Christ, and him Crucified. Which for us always must mean “Love one another, just as I have loved you.”

5 Comments

  1. Hill wrote:

    Needs more “utterly,” otherwise a great post.

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  2. Brad A. wrote:

    I presume in your second-to-last paragraph, you mean “…agape has invaded ‘the woRld’”…

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Brad A. wrote:

    What an idiot – I mean “worLd”…

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  4. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    “What is happening in 1 and 2 John is not so much a struggle against revolutionaries as a struggle within a revolution. Neither side questions that the way of God is contrary to the way of the world (though the author tries to associate the opponents with the world in 1 John 4:3-6). The battle is over how the revolution is to be conceived: in its original terms as radical divine intervention in the world, or in a new way as radical divine opposition to the world.”

    Nicely put. Both ecclesial fetishism and institutional conservatism represent what Trotsky once called the Stalinist state: The Revolution Betrayed.

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Benoît wrote:

    How are we to concretely work this “agape”? From the English language the best one can do is understand it as non-erotic love, but that tells us nothing about scope (we “love” our shoes, dogs, friends, favorite movies, etc) or, more importantly, intensity (I don’t love my shoes as much as my friends, or they as much as my parents or lovers, etc). Drop the Koine Greek context and it stands for something left open, like a mouth. And what does it tell us about this agape that it is consubstantial with a god breaking into the world it’s positioned in opposition to? So far this idea seems more revolutionary in word than deed, and I’ve yet to find any writing on these matters to exceed that limit. I’m not trying to be polemical with that last statement, it just seems to me that we readers of the scriptures do more praising, more reading, more interpretation, more text-uring if I may, than living.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

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