October 15, 2023

The Greatest of These, VI: Guilelessness

Passage: 1 Corinthians 13:6; John 1:43–51


Here in the midst of this sermon series on The Greatest of These from 1 Corinthians 13 we dive into a story about Nathanael from The Book of John:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”

I want to start with this claim: the Bible is an anthology of love. It is a treasure trove of stories that point us toward how to live a life of love.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says scripture is not so much “a collection of ancient documents, but our partner in an ongoing dialogue about our life here and now.”[1] So maybe it’s more like this: the Bible is an apothecary of belonging, or as biblical scholar N. T. Wright suggests, the Bible is “the book that assures us that we are the people of God when, again and again, we are tempted to doubt.”

On a week like this, where wars and rumors of wars again fissure and fracture, scripture becomes for us, as Wright says, “the book of tears and laughter, the book through which God resonates with our pain and joy, and enables us to resonate with [the pain and joy of God]”[2]

First Corinthians 13, then, is not just a definition of love, but evokes a multiplicity of stories… if we just open our ears. When you hear it, stories unfold.

If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; love is not irritable; love keeps no record of wrongs; love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.”

It sounds like an urging about love, but really it’s a story, and this story is tethered to another, which is tethered to another. Paul describes love, all the while telling his friends in Corinth that love is Christ-like.

He is pointing to the cruciform leadership of Jesus, where Jesus places the life of his friends

over his own, and self-sacrifice for the sake of justice emerges out of a sense of love. Love exactly mirrors the life of Jesus. And here it is again, the trail of one story leading to another. It’s somehow all interwoven. Love rejoices—never in injustice always in truth. In that way love is joy.

Love is joy. Love is a certain kind of joy too. This specifical kind of rejoicing, this word rejoicing in Greek is only used two other times, in the New Testament, both by Jesus. First this is a wedding day kind of rejoicing. It is the kind of deep, abiding, full body, clear, resounding, whole-hearted joy that you experience attending a wedding. Jesus says…the swell of the music, the catch in your throat, the instinctive tear, the goosebumps, the ritual, the blessing…this kind of rejoicing. This text that we use at weddings is accidentally (or maybe purposefully) linguistically hitched to Jesus’ understanding of wedding joy.

The story of love points to another story of love. And again the second time we hear from Jesus about this kind of joy is when the lost sheep is found, when the father or mother finally finds the lost son or lost daughter returning home.

Love is joy. Love is a finding seeking kind of joy. Love does not find joy in iniquity. Love does not find joy in injustice. Love does not find joy in wrongdoing. When someone trips up, makes a mistake, love cannot rejoice. Love only rejoices in the truth. Jesus recognizes this kind of love in Nathaniel. He calls Nathaniel “the one in whom there is no guile.”

Maybe it’s more like this: If the gospel of John were a movie, it would begin like a Star Wars film, Christmas Eve’s familiar words scrolling to set the scene…in the beginning was the word…. The theme music would follow cascading camera angles and you’d see a man out by a river inviting others into the river with him for some kind of sacred ritual. Maybe you’d be led to believe this was the main character.

Then come the men dressed in formal religious gowns, looking authoritative. A tense but unheard conversation ensues.

Then the next day…the man is back out by the river. This time someone comes forward into the river for this ritual and it’s all different. What looks like a bird, a dove maybe, comes down on this man’s shoulder. Whatever it is something is different. This man is important.

The artistry of cinematic genius now makes clear that this is the main character.

Evening comes. Morning again. A crowd forms around this man. Some onlookers mumble something unheard and he replies “come and see.”

The next day the two are joined by a third. “Follow me,” he says. Then the focus widens. The story slows down a pace. The third follower goes to recruit a fourth. Nathaniel. But he balks. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

We don’t need to know the specifics to understand what he means. A question like that conjures up our own prejudices. We know places from our own hometowns, our own experience, that would evoke the same kind of tone, the same kind of question. Not that anyone here has prejudices I mean. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Nathaniel is decisively skeptical without hesitation. He has pre-judged. And he can’t hide it. He wears his heart on his sleeve. But his friend tells him “Come and see,” these same words that we have heard just the day before from Jesus. The story always points to another story, even if it’s just yesterday’s story.

And our main character Jesus, this one on whom the dove has descended, meets Nathaniel and all the narrative pressure bubbles up to the surface. “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.”

And just as suddenly, we’re taken back to another story. A story within a story. A memory conjured with just a word, because the word guile of course, conjures craftiness, cunning, schemes, and tricks, and Jacob (before his name is changed to Israel) is the great trickster. He tricks his brother out of his birthright. He tricks his uncle out of his livestock. Maybe he is even crafty and sly in squeezing a blessing out of the one who comes to wrestle him in the night.

But in Nathaniel, there is no falsehood, no deceit. Nathaniel is not like Jacob. Nathaniel is someone you can trust. Nathaniel is an honest man. Nathaniel has no false bone in his body. Nathaniel is a man of integrity, a teller of truth, genuine through and through. This is what love looks like. Love rejoices in Nathaniel. Love rejoices in the truth.

Makoto Fujimura is an artist. He didn’t grow up as a Christian, but the spirit of God rose up in his midst nonetheless, and so he just published a book called Art + Faith, endorsed both by biblical scholar N. T. Wright and Martin Scorsese (you don’t see that every day).[3]

Two decades ago Fujimura was living in New York City, and on 9/11 he was trapped underground on a subway, trying to make it home as the towers crumbled. His train backtracked to Fourteenth Street, right by St. Vincent’s Hospital, where doctors and nurses waited for the wounded. When he emerged from the subway, he could not see the towers because of all the smoke. The days and soon his art, became defined as before and after. He could no longer create art in the same way.

At the behest of a soul friend, Fujimura began to read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The friend thought that T. S. Eliot might become for him a guide through the tumbling trauma and uncertainty he faced.

  1. T. S. Eliot wrote this slim volume of poems from war-ridden Great Britain in the 1940s. As Fujimura explains it, Eliot was an air-raid warden during the Blitz, and fully experienced the dark shadow of those days.
  2. T. S. Eliot himself needed a guide through this impossible season, so he (see, even here we are seeking the story within the story) turned to the poetry of Dante, the apophatic theology of St. John of the Cross, and the late quartets of Beethoven.

So with Dante and T. S. Eliot by his side, Fujimura journeyed down into the “darker woods… where the way was wholly lost.” Fujimura asks us to read T. S. Eliot and picture him trapped in the subway underground on that perfect blue-sky New York City day in which for him and the world the way was wholly lost.

But there is always a story within a story. Fujimura also asks us to read T. S. Eliot and picture his grandfather, living in Japan at the time, who was asked by Japanese officials to go survey the wasteland that was Hiroshima in the days after the bomb.

In that why when we read Fujimura today, and hear the story behind the story of T. S. Eliot who listened to the story of Dante, and Saint John of the Cross, and Beethoven, we are invited to think of our own dark woods, or the dark woods of the news unfolding in our world, where the path is obscured, the way forward seems forgotten.

In the “numbing silence” after trauma, T. S. Eliot’s voice was as close to truth as Fujimura could get: God’s voice was hushed, but T. S. Eliot spoke “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.” And he spoke, “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”[4]

Part of this poem is on the front of today’s bulletin. Potent words. In a sermon series about love, we can easily say “oh, yes, I know, I know, I know what love is… yes, yes, 1 Corinthians 13, I get it, I get it.”

But somehow for me today at least, what T. S. Eliot writes from within the shelterless storm of an air-raid is that we need to be uneasy about what we love, about who we love, about how we love, about what we choose in the name of love, because love the wrong thing, and love can turn you upside down.

False love can turn everything upside down. Knowing what love is not might be just as important as knowing what love is. Love does not rejoice over injustice but rejoices in the truth.

*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. The Bible Makes Sense. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.

[2]Wright, N. T. BioLogos. "N. T. Wright on Scripture and the Authority of God." BioLogos. Accessed October 2023. https://biologos.org/articles/n-t-wright-on-scripture-and-the-authority-of-god

[3] The story of Fujimura and T. S. Eliot that follows is from: Fujimura, Makoto. Art + Faith: A Theology of Making. Yale University Press, 2020.

[4] Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1943.