3 John – A Letter Between Friends

The elder,

To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

13 I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.

As a 21st century woman married to and mother of minority individuals, I must admit I read the Bible with a highly skeptical eye: one that seeks out the less than noble impulses of the writers and compilers.  I am quick to find the sexist, racist, and power-hungry undertones in a passage.  I’ll be honest: the first impressions I got from this book were that it was divisive, complaining, and controlling.  But the longer I sat with it, the more I was able to see God’s true message of love and friendship shine through.

This little book is fascinating from a historical point of view:  We get a glimpse of how the early church was working and forming, how different people and factions were jostling for control.  First, the Gnostics. Remember, a theme throughout John’s letters is his concern that Gnosticism might infiltrate the wider church.  While not as directly referenced here as in 2 John, that concern is still indirectly visible.  Basically John is saying,”Hey, don’t accept those doing evil, like those Gnostics. Instead, here’s my letter of recommendation for Demetrius – someone with a message I personally approved.”  Second, this Diotrephes guy.  John almost sounds like a little old church lady here, doesn’t he?  Maybe that’s just a fault of translation, but accusing someone of “loving to be first” and of spreading “malicious nonsense” just sounds like church lady accusations. That, coupled with the sending of a warning letter and promising to call Diotrephes out in person makes me picture John in a Sunday hat and a jello-salad in hand, quivering from head to toe in self-righteous anger.  Clearly, I’m poking a little fun at John here, but as discussed in 2 John, these early factions were of real concern, as they often did lead to schisms in the church.  There were people (including John) who knew Jesus personally still living at the time of this writing, and even with that close-to-the-source knowledge, we already see these factions – like Gnosticism and Cerinthianism – peeling away.

But why was this letter included in the Bible? It seems rather petty, doesn’t it?  John accuses Diotrephes of gossiping, but it doesn’t seem like John is doing much better here.  This short letter is a catalog of various in-fighting. Were there no other more uplifting and noble letters left behind by any of the other apostles?

There were lots of books left out of the New Testament, as it turns out.  Some of clearly dubious authorship, and others that required more debate. It seems generally accepted that the New Testament wasn’t canonized (aka set in stone, if you will) until the first half of the fourth century.  And the truth is, we may never know why, exactly, early church leaders decided to include this letter instead of, say, the Gospel of Thomas.  Perhaps these books are truly divinely inspired, which is where many online articles on the subject of New Testament canonization leave it.  Maybe it’s a little faithless of me, but the inclusion of 3 John just seems more like something man would do than God. My guess is that early church leaders liked the historical aspect of the book, and can claim that “true Christianity” won out over the warring factions that John faced.   This is a letter in which church leaders can point to and say, “See? We’re winning!  We are right and they are wrong!  John faced this sort of resistance, too, and our [insert any cause, belief, or crusade here] is righteous and justified.” In short, I worry that this book is one that can be used by those doing harm, by those so convinced that their way is right they have become blind to the love and guidance of God, to justify their bigoted beliefs.  It’s a book that encourages Christians to feel at war with anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs, especially to be at war with other Christians who don’t share their beliefs.

That sounds awfully jaded, I know.  But one of the amazing things about Jesus is his message can transcend petty human politics.  So even if this book was included in the New Testament for more worldly than divine reasons, God can still speak to us through it.  Let me tell you what else I got out of this book, and what I believe we should focus upon. It is, above all else, a letter of encouragement between friends.  John opens his letter with a kind wish: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health.” He calls Gaius “dear friend” four times in these fourteen short verses.  He offers Gaius encouragement in the face of adversity, and sends help in the form of Demitrius.  He praises, advises, and commiserates with Gaius.  In short, John is an exemplary friend in this letter.

Also, it’s critical to point out that even though John disagrees with Diotrephes, he is still reaching out.  John mentions having already sent Diotrephes a letter.  He has sent emissaries to Diotrephes’ church.  John even plans on addressing the problem in person (health and time permitting – remember, he’s an old man at this point). “If I come,” John says in v. 10, “I will call attention to what he is doing.”  This, I think, is so different than many warring factions within the church today.  We would rather hurl insults at each other than reach out to each other and try to resolve our differences.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think anyone should suffer toxic abuse, and it is 100% okay to cut vitriolic, hateful people out of your life for the sake of your own mental well-being (and definitely for your personal safety, should it sadly come to that).  But if we continue to reach out to those different than us, my firm belief is that we will, eventually, win them over.  “Kill them with kindness” was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings.  Somebody will always manage to do so, but it’s generally hard to hate someone who is warm and open and caring, even if they are completely different than you.

This week I encourage you to be firm in your beliefs while at the same time being caring towards others.  That’s a hard balance to strike.  But kindness, coupled with strong conviction, can go a long way towards making a difference.  Just look at John: his conviction in Jesus Christ helped shaped the Christianity we know today.   The next question is, how will our belief in Jesus shape the world going forward?

2 John – The Importance of Context, Again

Hello again dear friends, it’s been a minute…long story short, we jumped into full-time farming much sooner and with less money than expected. Due to the generosity of friends, family, customers, and even complete strangers we successfully raised funds through our Kickstarter campaign (it’s not accepting funding anymore, but you can read to whole story at the link) that will allow us to make our next transition.  We’ve been working hard, and still have a long way to go til the season is over in November, but I’m gaining a little more breathing room every week.  For now, I’m going to stick with one post a week, published on Sunday, and build back up to three posts when I’m done processing broilers.  As of this writing, I only have 1,000 more (about eight weeks) to go! I’m excited to get back to reading the Bible with you all.

The elder,

To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.

It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

12 I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

13 The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.

I picked this chapter to jump back into writing because it’s short.  This is the whole book of 2 John right here.  I’ll read 3 John next and knock out another whole book in one blog post, too, and feel super good about myself.  Also, if we’re using the Bible as a general tool of reflection and meditation, we should be able to find pertinent information in almost any part of it, so why not re-start here?

A little background on all the Johns (ha, ha) running around the New Testament.  There’s the Gospel of John, then three shorter Johns (seriously, I’m cracking myself up over here) later in the NT, of which this is the second.  All are attributed to the Apostle John, so I guess the NT really only has one John.  (Alright, I’ll stop now.)

In all seriousness, John was very concerned with two heresies cropping up in the early church: Gnosticism and Cerinthianism.  Gnostics believed that only the spirit was divine, and that everything worldly was profane.  The divine spirit of a person could only be released through some sort of special, mystic knowledge of which Jesus Christ was an emissary.  Gnosticism lead to two extremes: punishment of the flesh and hatred of the world, but also extreme licentiousness because since the body was of the profane world, anything done with it or to it wouldn’t impact your spirit’s divinity.  Cerinthianism, so-named for it’s major promoter, Cerinthus, believed that Jesus was just a man to whom the Spirit of Christ joined after his birth and left before his death on the cross.  This would mean Jesus was not divinely conceived and not wholly human and wholly divine.

The church was very young when this letter was written, like maybe eighty years old.  As in many of these early letters (we’ll see a lot of them when we get to Paul’s writings), the authors are trying desperately hard to keep their young organization together, establish some Standard Operating Procedures, if you will, and make sure that the mission remains coherent, relevant, and appealing.  If this sounds rather calculating – it was.  I’m not knocking the faith of these early church leaders. In fact, I admire them for being able to shepherd Christianity through such a trying time, but it is important to remember that history is written by the victors.  Should Cerinthus or the Gnostics gained more followers, Christianity might be completely different than it is today.

Human influences directing the course of religious thought? Gasp!  That can only mean one thing: while Christ may not be fallible, Christianity most certainly is.

A fallible Christianity may sound scary, but I think it’s liberating.  Remember, Christianity used to promote the Crusades and slavery.  There were some Christians who praised Hitler.  Those were human influences on a religion that changed (or thankfully disappeared) over time.  A fluid Christianity means we are allowed to explore our faith, our relationship with God, and know that if we mess up – or if our religion messes up – we get to try again.  Think of it like a marriage:  I love my husband, but I know he’s not perfect, and as much as it pains me to admit it, neither am I.  That doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up on our marriage.  We’ll talk through our differences, make adjustments to our relationship, and hopefully we both grow together. Faith can be like that, too.  Isn’t that so much better than a rigid set of rules we’re never allowed to question, one that stunts our thinking and never allows growth?

As we read more of John’s letters, I want you to keep context in mind.  Because having read through all the Johns (sorry, couldn’t help one last John reference), I found a lot of loving and relevant information.  But John’s fear for the early church is visible, too, and I worry that some people, throughout history, have used that fear to justify xenophobia, intolerance, and a rejection of the world – which, let me remind you, is also God’s glorious creation.

I’ll leave you with an example. In v. 9 John says “anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teachings of Christ does not have God,” and then in v. 10 warns “do not take him into your house or welcome him.” Oftentimes, churches would receive itinerant teachers, listen to their lessons, and then send them off with provisions for the next leg of their journey.  In these verses, really verses 7-11, John is warning his followers specifically about Gnostics, Cerinthians, and other “heretics.”  If you didn’t know that (or were willfully blind to it), it could be taken as a warning to never help any non-Christians, ever.  This clearly goes against Jesus’ own teaching of being kind to the stranger.  While it would certainly be easier to turn a blind eye to the sufferings of those not like us – and justify it with a Bible verse, to boot! – we would be guilty of willfully misinterpreting Jesus’ teachings.  Long story short, context is important for everyone, not just biblical scholars!  We’ll see more of that as we continue reading these letters.

Matthew 13 – The Importance of Preparation

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

31 He told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables,
    I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there.54 Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”

58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

Just as a marathon runner trains for their sport, just as a musician practices their art, we must properly prepare our hearts for Jesus.  Or, as Jesus puts it, the soil of our hearts must be made ready to receive his message.  Then, and only then, will our hearts (and his message) grow.

I think this is a beautiful idea that illustrates God’s understanding of our fallible human selves.  The disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables right after he delivers the first parable, the Parable of the Sower.  Jesus answers them, “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been revealed to you, but not to them.”  In other words, “y’all already get it, but the others have some catching up to do.”  And Jesus wants to give us the time and the tools to do that catching up.  The parables allow us to come at Jesus’ message from an angle, working up to a full understanding of what he is and what he requires of us.  Because let’s be honest, even after 2000 years of Christian tradition, it can be kind of overwhelming to hear.  Can you imagine how it was to be around, in Jesus’ time, hearing his message for the very first time?  Your sins are forgiven and you shall have life everlasting as a child of God?  What the….

Let’s focus on that Parable of the Sower, because I see the others in this chapter as supporting parables.  Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower to his disciples starting in v. 18.  Seed that falls on the path is an analogy for those who hear the message but don’t understand it; seed on the rocky places is for those that hear the message and rejoice, but it doesn’t “take root;” seed that falls in the weeds is for those who let their faith be choked by the world’s troubles and distractions, and then seed in the good soil is those who hear, understand, and apply Jesus’ message.

Upon the initial reading it sounds a little like predestination: only a special, pre-selected few will receive the Good News, and everyone else is condemned.  But what farmer or gardener do you know that just spreads their seed willy-nilly all over the path, the rocks, the weeds?  Sure, a little bit might get there due to wind or spillage, but by and large they are careful where they plant their seed, making sure the soil is good and ready.  So really, I see this parable as Jesus calling us to prepare our hearts for him.  Are the weeds of life choking you?  Then start weeding-simplify, refocus, whatever you need to do to get to a place where you’re ready to receive God’s message for you.  Is the soil of your faith rocky and shallow?  Build it up!  Fertilize with friendships and community support.  Have you been completely abandoned to the elements, like the seed on the path?  I don’t know what that individual can do, but maybe that means it’s our responsibility, as a society, to see what we can do for them.  So you see, we aren’t abandoned or predestined, but rather being invited to fully prepare ourselves for Jesus’ message and God’s purpose for our lives.

Then, when we are ready, when the tiny mustard seed of Faith is planted in good soil, it will grow to great heights.  It will pervade every aspect of our lives, just as yeast does in a well worked dough.  In the right conditions, Faith is strong, tenacious, and pervasive.  But just like practicing a sport or an art, or preparing a garden, it takes some work to get there.  Jesus knows that and is okay with waiting on us to catch up, he just wants to see us making progress.  Get out there and practice kindness, practice love.  Get out there and weed away whatever is distracting you from doing those things, and you will find your understanding, like a treasure buried in a field or a merchant looking for fine pearls.  What beautiful things you can grow with God’s help, I can’t wait to see.

***

I know there is a lot I didn’t get to here, like the separating of the weeds and wheat or the good and bad fish; and Jesus’ less-than-cordial welcome back to his hometown. But the beauty of the Gospels is these stories are often told in more than one book, so we have a chance to revisit them and examine a different aspect next time we come across them.  So don’t worry, I’m not ignoring them, this is just what I was moved to focus upon this time.