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A Little Sermon from a Little Text

 

2nd  John 12

 

Question: “Have you seen Victor Shepherd recently?”   Answer: “Yes. I saw him two days ago, and I saw his body three days ago.” Nobody says such a thing. Anyone who spoke like this would be looked upon as deranged.

Then let’s ask the question again. “Have you seen Victor Shepherd recently?” Answer: “No. I saw Victor’s body go by yesterday, but I didn’t see him.” Once again nobody speaks of a human being in this manner. Whether we have ever pondered the relation between body and person or not we grasp intuitively the fact that the human body is always at the same time a person, even as the human person is always person-and-body together.

The reason we grasp this intuitively is simple. God has fashioned us humans to be embodied persons. We are not disembodied spirits. To say we are embodied persons isn’t merely a way of speaking, an exaggerated way of speaking, as though we were no more than bodies. If we were no more than bodies we should simply be animals. We are more than animals, however; we are persons. Unlike the animals we alone are made in the image and likeness of God; unlike the animals we are the only creatures to whom God speaks and from whom he expects a response. Nevertheless, we are like the animals inasmuch as we are creatures of flesh and blood; we are embodied, and we exist only as embodied.

Did it ever occur to you that the only knowledge we have of each other, the only knowledge we have of each other as person, is a knowledge mediated by our body? I have encountered Maureen thousands upon thousands of times, but never once have I met her, the person of Maureen, except in the form of meeting her body. I have never met my wife; I have never met any human person, apart from being confronted with that person embodied. For this reason there can never be any substitute for physical presence.

I want to remind us all of something more that we all grasp intuitively; namely, there’s no relation at all between the beauty of the person and the beauty of the body. All of us have known since childhood that some people are beautiful persons even as their bodies are less than beautiful, if not downright ugly. On the other hand there are people with gorgeous bodies who remain ugly persons. It’s odd, isn’t it: there’s no connection between the beauty or ugliness of the person and the beauty or ugliness of the body, even though there’s every connection, a necessary connection, between person and body. There’s no living human body that isn’t person, just as there’s no person who isn’t embodied. Bodiliness is essential to our personhood. We can only meet others as their person is mediated to us through their body. For this reason (let me say it again) there can never be any substitute for physical presence.

In 1994 our daughter Catherine graduated from Queen’s University and immediately moved to Hong Kong . Her moving there meant the first protracted absence between her and us. It so happened that we had just purchased a fax machine (we didn’t have e-mail in those days;) whereupon we began using up roll after roll of fax paper. Not all the paper we used pertained to messages she was sending us. In fact most of the paper was wasted on junk messages we were getting from real estate companies in Florida and investment companies in Canada , both of whom assumed we were awash in surplus cash. Despite the yards of wasted paper we had to throw out each morning we had no choice but to leave the fax machine turned on twenty-fours per day since we didn’t want to miss even one small transmission that Catherine might send us at any hour from her business office half way around the world where our day was her night and her day our night. Every morning Maureen and I leapt out of bed and ran to the fax machine to see if there was something for us from Hong Kong .

Then Catherine came home on her first holiday. What did she say to us, and what did we say to her, that we hadn’t communicated through fax transmissions and long-distance telephone calls and letters? Nothing. Then what was unique about her being with us? Her physical presence. Was her physical presence important, all that important? Tell me: was she important? After all, her physical presence meant that she herself was present. How important all this was to me I shan’t attempt to tell you. But I witnessed it all as I watched Maureen await the day of Catherine’s arrival. In anticipation of the day of our daughter’s arrival Maureen resembled a six-year old on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t that the more we heard from Catherine through fax and phone the less we needed to see her; on the contrary, the more we heard from her the more we longed for her physical presence.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the first to acquaint me with all of this through his little book, Life Together. Bonhoeffer penned the book during the last war as he sought to school a handful of young scholars as pastors in the Confessing Church , the Confessing Church being those Christians who resisted Hitler’s attempts at denaturing the gospel, Hitler’s attempts at bending the gospel to Nazi purposes as surely as the Swastika is a bent cross. In the course of forging a community of these young scholars (most of them soon to be perish) Bonhoeffer cited today’s text and commented, “Christians find immense joy in each other’s physical presence.” The first time I read this I was startled. Doesn’t something else have to happen, something more happen, than that we simply be in each other’s physical presence? Doesn’t something novel or noteworthy, not to say earthshaking, have to be said or discussed or pondered? I was too young to appreciate Bonhoeffer’s wisdom when I first read his words, and therefore I dismissed them as somewhat sentimental. In my older age, however, I have proved Bonhoeffer’s words not only true but also profound time and again: there is immense joy in the physical presence of others, and especially in the physical presence of fellow-Christians. We don’t have to be saying or doing anything remarkable every time we meet; but it’s always essential that we meet.

The apostle John tells us that he has much to discuss with the congregation to which he has written his epistle; yet as much as he has to discuss with them, he would rather not use paper and ink. He much prefers to meet them and talk with them face to face. Why would he rather do this than lengthen his letter and put in writing all that he wishes to discuss with them? Because he knows the danger of not speaking face to face, the danger of not being in the physical presence of others.

Years ago I noticed that if we attempt to communicate with others when we aren’t meeting them face-to-face, all sorts of things can go wrong quickly and usually do. For instance, if we have to disagree with someone and we do it through a letter, the person receiving our letter can only read words. She can’t “read” our body language, can’t see the expression on our face, can’t hear the tone of our voice. All she has to go by is the dictionary meanings of the words in the letter.

As a pastor I learned years ago that if I have to disagree with a parishioner on any matter, however slight, it’s fatal to express myself in a note or even a telephone conversation. The only thing to do is visit that person.

In the same way I discovered that friends who don’t see each other for protracted periods begin to suspect each other. Our hearts play tricks on us. We wonder why we haven’t heard from Sam or Samantha, then begin to wonder what she really meant by that cryptic expression in the third line of her last Christmas note. Not content to read the lines she wrote, we start to “read between the lines;” that is, we think we are seeing messages and meanings beyond what the words say, even contrary to what the words mean – and all because we are hearing no voice and seeing no face. Finally we conclude that we aren’t such good friends as we thought we were because no doubt Sam or Samantha has found someone preferable to us – and so on. Our hearts foster suspicion that the person we thought to be steadfast friend might just be growing indifferent to us if not turning treacherous. (Let’s be honest: more than a trace of paranoia exists in all of us.)

Then we meet our friend face-to-face. It takes only five minutes for us to feel sheepish and stupid (even as we say nothing,) since in five minutes in the bodily presence of our friend all our suspicion has fled and we know that we were imagining it all and our friend cherishes us as much as she ever did. How could we ever have thought that our relationship was strained in any respect?

Simply put, we have come to know that seeing someone else face-to-face dispels ambiguity in what that person is trying to communicate with us. As ambiguity in his communication is dispelled, ambivalence in our heart about him is dispelled as well. If we can simply have the person physically present there is virtually no scope for ambiguity in her communication to us and therefore no scope for ambivalence in our heart about her.

I have a friend with whom I have spoken on the phone virtually every day for 30 years. Still, as often as we phone each other, we have to meet face to face. When we do, what do we say that we can’t say or don’t say on the phone? Nothing. What do we say that we haven’t said before? Little. Then why do we have to meet? Because there is a human significance, richness, delight – ultimately inexpressible – to being in the physical presence of each other. For this there is no substitute whatsoever. And there never will be.

 

John writes, “I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” John penned his short epistle to a congregation in Asia Minor . From the content of the epistle it is evident that John and the congregation knew each other well. He didn’t want to meet these people face to face in order to find joy. He already had it; so did they. Both John and the congregation rejoiced in their throbbing relationship with Jesus Christ. He, their Lord, had already told them, and they had already proved, that he is their joy. Moreover they rejoiced in the commonality of their life in their Lord. John doesn’t maintain that by seeing each other they will be made joyful; rather, their common joy in their Lord will be made complete. Isn’t it the case that when we meet people we cherish the joy we already possess is “topped up”?

A few years ago, on one of my several trips to New York City , I was in and out of the city for a brief, two-day holiday. As always I had a most enjoyable time in the “big apple”, and on that occasion even got to Greenwich Village, where I had never been before, to hear music at the world’s most famous jazz club, The Blue Note. Then I went to the Anglican Cathedral bookshop where I found a book that Maureen had long wanted. Then I went to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. When I came home on a Friday at suppertime I was vibrating with the stimulation of all that NY is for me. After supper I went down to the church to open my mail and respond to phone messages. But in a few minutes I was standing outside on the street., merely looking for someone from the congregation, anyone at all. As fine a time as I had had in NY, I missed the people of the congregation after two days. I felt that the joy the congregation and I had in Christ would be “complete”, “topped up”, if only I could find a parishioner. Needless to say, in 15 minutes I had found more than one whom I could see face to face.

Today, the first Sunday in September, is the anniversary of my coming to Schomberg. Today begins my fourth year among you people. When a representative from presbytery asked me to serve as interim minister in September 2001 he told me that the interim period would last four months; by January 1st the congregation would have called a minister who could then be inducted. Matters didn’t unfold in quite this way. I have been here three years and may just be here longer still. I want you people to know what a gift the Schomberg congregation has been to me. Maureen tells me that if my work elsewhere finds me dispirited at all, by noon on Saturday my spirits are lifting because I know I’m going back to Schomberg on Sunday. Sunday morning invariably finds me invigorated for the same reason. When I’m in Schomberg during the week I usually come into the sanctuary, stand where I’m standing now, and envision where people sit. Most people don’t move around much in the sanctuary and therefore it’s easy to see in my mind’s eye where you sit. And then as I “see” I pray for this person or that whose particular struggle or heartache or perplexity it is the pastor’s privilege to know, all the while anticipating Sunday when the hour of worship finds us together once again.

 

Like the apostle John of old you and I do find joy individually in our Lord, even as we find joy in our common experience of our Lord and the corporate worship of our Lord. Then let us ever render our joy complete by cherishing those moments when we can immerse ourselves in the physical presence of each other, whether we say much or little, always knowing that there is – and ever will be – no substitute for seeing each other face to face.

                                                                                                 Victor Shepherd                                                                                        September 2004

  “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink,
but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”