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Love Amid War: St. John’s Day

In his Christmas message from 1942, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, contrasts Augustus’ empire — “it had been won by force and rested on force” — with that of Jesus, whose love established “an empire therefore indestructible.” Our hope in wartime, Temple says, can only be fulfilled when “we all submit our ambitions, our desires, and our policies to the Love which came down at Christmas.” In another 1942 Christmas message, this one for Canada, Temple likewise speaks of “a power that increasingly lays hold of men’s hearts and wills” and insists “our selfish hearts must be penetrated and then filled by the energy of His love” if we are to defend freedom and direct it to fellowship.

Thus, for Archbishop Temple, Christmas isn’t just about Santa Claus and stockings. Christmas is about recognizing the danger, spiritual and political, in our self-centeredness. About his distressed times, Temple claimed “the liberty that rests on selfhood and self-assertiveness is doomed, and justly doomed.” That selfish liberty had resulted in the political corruption and paralysis that Mussolini and Hitler replaced with the idolatry of the state. Temple will even say that self-centeredness is Original Sin itself.

What then are we to do about it?

In his Christianity and Social Order (1942), which quickly sold over 139,000 copies as a paperback that “could be slipped into a back pocket,” Archbishop Temple recognizes that education broadens horizons and commits us to truth and beauty. Yet, even then, the self remains “still the center and standard of reference.” So, Temple says, “complete deliverance can be effected only by the winning of my whole heart’s devotion, the total allegiance of my will — and this only the Divine Love disclosed by Christ in His Life and Death can do.” Thus, the social order may require Christ born in a stable, not Augustus Caesar and his legions, even if Temple considered Augustus relatively “merciful and gentle.”

This “whole heart’s devotion,” the “total allegiance of my will,” calls for worship. Worship through, in, and with Christ is a form of consecration — “industry and commerce no less than family and friendship,” and eucharistic. We not only offer our lives to God, who returns them to us as “agents of His purpose, limbs or a body responsive to His will,” but we specifically offer bread and wine to receive Christ’s body and blood to transform our self-centeredness into an abiding with Christ. Temple says of how we normally reflect and imagine, “All this is gathered up in that emotion which most cleanses us from selfishness because it is the most selfless of all emotions—adoration.” Ordinary prayer, too, must dislodge the self; “we more and more let self-dedication take the place of petition for ourselves.”

About Christmas, then, Temple recognizes a “feast for children” and the warmth of family reunions, but he also asks us to “be very sure that we keep in mind the deeper truth from which all our celebrations spring.” There’s the danger that Christmas becomes “a dreamland of unreal beauty,” whereas our endurance of the “harsh realities of the world” may depend on the radically transformative power of its central mystery.

Today’s lectionary readings for the Feast of St. John have Jesus repeatedly telling Peter to “Follow me,” and note a perplexing “rumor spread in the community that this [Beloved] disciple would not die.” In his Readings in St. John’s Gospel (1939-40), Temple interprets John 21 in terms of St. Peter’s transformation from self-centeredness. Peter begins with work that is “self-chosen” — “I am going fishing” (21:3) — and catches nothing, as if to show, “The work which we do at the impulse of our own wills is futile.” Jesus then appears as an ordinary stranger; Peter, upon recognizing him, behaves with “characteristic impetuosity.” Reviewing Peter’s entire experience with Jesus, Temple sees both “passionate loyalty” and still a “vein of self-will,” for our passions may remain “possessive or self-assertive in some degree” — “You will never wash my feet” (13:8) — and lead to failure. Peter denies Jesus three times. (Earlier in his commentary, Temple had noted the danger in even very pious forms of loyalty; he quotes a sermon from Bishop Charles Gore: “To be the inheritors of a great tradition gives men heroism, and it gives them blindness of heart.”)

The memory of Peter’s self-will and failure shadow Jesus’ questions to him in John 21. In response, Peter, who had once declared, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you” (Matt 26:33), now refuses any comparison with others, even if Jesus asks him if he loves him more than others. Peter also does not claim to love Jesus with the self-forgetfulness of agape. Instead, “he uses the word of simple friendship,” philia. Jesus then asks Peter if he loves him, without any comparisons. Peter gives the same answer. Jesus asks a third time, using Peter’s word philia, echoing Peter’s threefold denial. Peter says, penitent but still trustful, “You see that I am your friend.” He can now be charged with the full responsibility of feeding Jesus’ sheep, instead of just feeding the younger lambs, or generally tending the sheep, because the mature sheep “often have no knowledge of what their own needs are, or, still worse, suppose that they know when in fact they do not,” and, finally, Peter can be their friend. Temple had written of the shepherd, “The test comes when he has to choose between his own interest and that of the flock,” and Peter, somewhat past his self-will, is ready for such a test.

Peter had once himself been “willful and headstrong,” with impulses that were generous, but “he followed them as much because they were his as because they were generous.” Now he can and must follow another, even to the point of martyrdom. As for the Beloved Disciple’s perplexing future, though, Peter remains curious. However, Temple points out, “The Lord does not answer speculative questions or satisfy curiosity.”

Temple writes of Jesus, Peter, and John:

So the story of this Gospel ends with a little group standing apart from the company of the disciples. It consists of three: the Lord of love; the disciple in whom self would be offered; and the disciple in whom self would be forgotten.

“If we are to enter into the life to which the Lord Jesus incites us, the self in us must be eliminated as a factor in the determination of conduct,” yet this proves to be so difficult, Peter remains a source of encouragement for us. If John is the disciple “in whom self would be forgotten,” simply and naturally, Peter is far more relatable.

Temple’s focus on the self explains a memorable line from his Readings, that “St. John is strongly anti-mystical.” What Temple means by “mystical” is a “direct apprehension of God by the human mind.” The problem is that our minds are so “distorted by self-will” that seeking “a supposedly direct communion with God in detachment from all external aids” cannot free us from “distortions.” As Rowan Williams paraphrases, “the mind which takes itself for its own object in seeking clues about the divine nature will fail and fail dangerously.” For Temple, then, we must “avail ourselves of the true Mediator,” who is nothing less than life itself, a humanity that we must make our own. In fact, for Temple, the “distinctively Eucharistic discourse” in John’s Gospel is when Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (15:4), because it here is clear that what is important is “permanent abiding,” eating and drinking as sacramental signs of communion between we who “have no life in ourselves” and the Source of all life. (Temple fears the sacraments becoming magical objects that can be manipulated by the unchanged self.)

Temple’s focus on the self, and his wartime claim that “our selfish hearts must be penetrated and then filled by the energy of His love” if we are to defend freedom and direct it to fellowship, also mark an important contribution to social thought. The political difficulty is that we are so self-centered that we either fragment society or turn in reaction to authoritarian idolatry. Temple asks how we find a candidate to perform the “double function” of fostering both individual development and fellowship. He does not wish to impose Christianity, for Christianity is about Christ, not Roman emperors. Nevertheless, Christianity remains the only candidate for this “double function,” for it frees the self from self-centeredness to love all those whom God loves, so society depends on those who have freely found redemption and show the possibility of a life that no longer centers itself. As signs of this sacrificial love, Temple sees the ecumenical movement and “the fellowship of Chinese and Japanese Christians while their nations are at war.”

The self, though, has a way of imperiously returning to self-centeredness. Ironically, even as Temple writes, “We never know who is doing the greatest work for God,” one of his examples is predictably gendered: “And there is a girl, poor and uneducated, of whom no one ever thinks; but because she is loving and devout she sows the seed of life in a child entrusted to her care who grows up to be a missionary pioneer, or Christian statesman, or profound theologian — shaping the history of nations or the thought of generations.” This is not to impose anachronistic standards on Temple. If Temple realizes that for his war-torn world, as opposed to that of an earlier generation, “no Christian map can be made,” and “here the figure of the Kingdom is the Cross,” nevertheless his examples feature neither outcasts nor those who subject his world to radical critique.

Perhaps, on this Feast of St. John, we might remember that St. John, whom William Temple likens to a portraitist, selflessly gives a better picture of St. Peter than he does of himself. He is the bearer of tradition because he is “the disciple in whom self would be forgotten.” And, on Christmas, we might recall that the birth of the Savior reminds us that, even amid world wars, “We do not have to conquer this evil world in any strength of ours,” because any force of ours would leave intact what only Love decenters.

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