In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not (Jn. 1:4-5).
In the prologue of the fourth gospel there is a reverent announcement of a profound mystery: the one who created us in his image would restore us to our rightful place, full of life and light. The light, a specific power and presence, may be discovered within each of us while we yet live. Although the light shines without ceasing, it may go unseen indefinitely, for an invisible and obdurate darkness prevents our seeing, our recognition. Were it not for God’s grace working within us and within history, we would continue in this natural state where we do not receive the abundant life that he would have us know. Instead we would subsist on the sporadic tranquility afforded by the realization of our fleeting desires.
In this essay I want to present some ideas that are basic to understanding Quaker faith by discussing passages taken from John’s Gospel. First, we’ll examine the natural condition in which we are obstructed, a state from which we can be fully released only by Christ’s inwardly experienced return. Second, we will focus on the particular work of two of Jesus’s disciples: Peter and John. In reviewing their roles in chapter 21, we can see how the two are prepared to work jointly in a complementary way to bring in the kingdom of God.
OUR NATURAL CONDITION
By command from the Lord, George Fox was sent “to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive Christ Jesus” (Journal, 34), and thus began the Quaker movement with its mission to bear witness to the light that overcomes darkness. Drawing heavily from statements in the fourth gospel, Fox describes the light’s effect upon the self-awareness of those who come to know it.
The true light which John bore witness to was the life in Christ the Word, by which all things were made and created. And it was called the light in man and woman, which was the true light which had enlightened every man that came into the world, which was a heavenly and divine light which let them see all their evil words and deeds and their sins, and the same light would let them see Christ their savior, from whence it came to save them from their sin and to blot it out (Journal, 303).
The light which lets one see Christ also allows and requires one to see the “evil words and deeds and…sins” that hitherto we have hidden from our sight. Fox is in accord with the passage in John: the light is stronger and more complete than the darkness. It can and does reveal what darkness has hidden. Both the book of John and Fox’s writings underscore the superior power of the light that can withstand and dispel the condition of darkness. Whether the light is discovered inwardly or preached outwardly to others still in the darkened state, its power prevails.
It is this language of all-or-nothing light or darkness, good or evil that may fall heavy and foreign on our modern ears. We may not be at ease thinking of others or ourselves as sinful. If we have come from other than Quaker Christian traditions, traditions which claim that sin is inescapable throughout one’s life, it may seem an intolerable as well as archaic doctrine. If we neglect to learn what early Quakers meant by sin, we may miss out on the opportunity to grasp the message in their writings.
But if we were to take a fresh look at what they meant by this word “sin,” seeing it as an overriding and unconscious weakness and failure rather than specific destructive behaviors, we then might recognize and own it for both ourselves and others with feelings of compassion and forgiveness. If sin referred to an absence of spiritual power (as darkness is an absence of light) rather than a display of worldly control, might we then recognize it in ourselves? Would that awareness of our need help to open up and give place to wisdom that former ages have known and recorded? Would we see that Christ is necessary for us and for all?
In this passage from a sermon on the unbelief and muteness of Zechariah, we see Karl Barth, a theologian of the last century, sensing our need and giving voice to our perplexity:
Yes, we certainly talk with each other, we find words all right, but never the right words; never the words that would really do justice to what actually moves us, what actually lives in us; never the words that would really lead us out of the loneliness in which we find ourselves; never the words through which a community would really come about, and through the community that life that we lack. Our talk is always such an imperfect, wooden, dead talk; fire will not break out in it, but can only smolder in our words, others certainly notice that we mean something, but not what we mean, that we want something, but not what we want. They may well understand us, but they always understand us falsely. Ah, the misunderstandings that constantly creep in on both sides. Why is it that we actually interpret, perhaps must interpret every third word someone else says other than how he meant it? Why can’t a person express himself more clearly? Or why can’t a person listen more carefully? And so we speak, but our speech is like that of a mute. It seems that most of what we say, it’s as if it were never said.
Barth is sensing a veil of darkness that separates us from our intentions, a veil that words cannot penetrate and leaves us isolated, resentful, and anxious. And aren’t these the emotions, the inward condition, that often lead to behaviors we might recognize as sinful? It is the inward state, darkened, veiled, isolated, and alienated that Christ the light restores to wholeness. It is a transformation needed by all people, for it is the natural condition of all. It is Christ, the Word, which lifts us from the emptiness of our own words and establishes us on unshakeable ground where reality and utterance are perfectly conjoined.
Language undermined by loss of meaning is not solely a problem of our time; in the following passage, we see Fox suffered it as well:
And I was afraid of all carnal talk and talkers, for I could see nothing but corruptions, and the life lay under the burden of corruptions. And when I myself was in the deep, under all shut up, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great, that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted (Journal, 12).
Lack of right understanding, lack of meaning and the human spirit reacts, often in the seeming sabotage of depression. It is most clearly in language, which depends upon sounds to bear meaning that we notice our famished and weakened state. But though the weakened condition is present in all, the hunger is not always so keenly felt as it was with Fox. In the same passage of his Journal, Fox goes on to say:
And I saw professors, priests, and people were whole and at ease in that condition which was my misery, and they loved that which I would have been rid of (12).
These words are echoed by another prophetic voice of our time, that of Lewis Benson, one of the founders of New Foundation Fellowship. In his book Catholic Quakerism, he asks:
How long can men live in a moral vacuum? …How long can men be content to let life happen to them without agonizing over its meaning? Apparently millions of people can put up with this state of affairs for a very long time. But the human spirit eventually rebels against a comfortable, secure, but meaningless existence. Man was not created to live in a state of peace without understanding (70).
Annulled meaning in life or words is not always foisted upon us; sometimes it is chosen. Where there is intent to sever words from their meaning, there is a lie. It is interesting to note in chapter eight of John that when Jesus describes malevolence incarnate, he speaks not of the absence of love but rather the violation of truth. He says that the devil
Abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own; for he is a liar, and the father of it (Jn. 8:44).
Jesus assigns the harshest possible designation to the intentional severance of words from meaning. We can therefore construe his intent and purpose to be just the reverse: to ally words with that which is real, to ground utterance in meaning, to root words in the Truth. And yes, just before his execution, we see the ultimate hero summarize his life. Jesus stands before Pilate and avows:
To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth (Jn. 18:37).
PREPARATION FOR THE WORK OF RESTORATION
To bear witness unto the truth that dispels confusion and deceit, to bear witness to the light that shines in the darkness is to continue Christ’s work on earth. But first there must be some preparation for that work. So let us now turn to the final chapter in the book of John, where Jesus assigns tasks to Peter and to John to perform after he has departed and ascended into heaven. Each disciple has his own work, which differs from the other, and each disciple undergoes preparation for the work. Though the work will be different, the preparation is similar. The disciples must see themselves as they are; they must be open to what the light reveals about them, and so there is some discomfort.
Peter grieves as he is walked backward through his tri-fold denial of Jesus before the cock crew by means of a tri-fold affirmation of his love, devotion, and commitment. And Jesus forewarns him that he will suffer crucifixion in the end. These difficult truths, Peter accepts. There is significance in the change of names in this passage, from Simon to Peter. As truth is revealed and the disciple comes to see himself as he truly is, he is transformed from the carnal man, Simon, to the spiritual man, Peter. It is a new identity.
Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him. Feed my sheep. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, when thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifiying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me (Jn. 21:15-19).
Preparing Peter entails Christ’s leading this disciple to recognize the painful truth about the condition of his heart, of his character. Has John been similarly prepared for his work? Has he seen himself in truth? If it is so that grief and discomfort accompany the recognition of one’s true state, and these difficult feelings about oneself must precede the coming of Christ Within, then where is the evidence that this has taken place within John?
We are given only two pieces of information about John in this passage: 1) he is the disciple whom Jesus loved, and 2) he leaned on Jesus’s breast at the last supper and asked which disciple would betray him.
Then Peter, turning about seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee (Jn. 21:20)?
This is the disciple who in seeking the truth took the initiative to ask a risky question. It may not seem risky to us, because we know the answer: that it was Judas who betrayed Jesus, not John. But at the time John asked this question, he did not know that it was not he himself who would be singled out as the culprit rather than another. He courageously asked and left himself open and vulnerable to the answer. Though the truth might have devastated his self-concept and caused him grief (as it did Peter when he was confronted with the truth of himself), still John unlike Peter, sought out the truth for the love of it.
This is the cross, to love the truth more than self, to let false self-centered importance fall away, so that the truth can be known, to seek it out with one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength. John risked hearing that he himself was the son of perdition. Before Christ Within appears, so must we all acknowledge the man or woman of sin revealed within.
Then I asked them, seeing Judas, who betrayed Christ and was called the son of perdition, had hanged himself, what son of perdition was that which Paul spoke of, that sat in the temple of God, exalted above all that is called God, and what temple of God that was in which this son of perdition sat, and whether he that betrays Christ within, in himself, be not one in nature with that Judas that betrayed Christ without (Journal, 146).
THE WORK OF RESTORATION
We have seen that the preparation for continuing Christ’s work is the same for both Peter and John; it is to see themselves as they truly are. Now let us look at the work each is given to do, how that work is determined by their particular strengths and capacities, and how the work of each is a necessary part of bringing heaven to earth.
After the scene is set in chapter 21 with location and character identified, the dialogue begins:
Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They [the disciples] say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing (Jn. 21:3).
Peter, the man of action, leads the disciples. It is he who announces the decision to fish; the rest of the group follows. Mentioned first in this chapter, Peter has a prominent role from the outset in this story, while John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is not distinguished from the others until verse seven. It is John who is the first to recognize the Lord. “Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord” (Jn. 21:7). Through his ability to recognize—to see and to know—John mediates between the Lord and Peter, allowing the latter to move toward the Lord with an assurance and dramatic gesture that befits a leader: Peter casts himself into the sea to swim to shore, while the others follow in the boat. As a seer, John has exercised his capacity to direct the group and its leader to the Lord.
The work given to each Peter and John is fitted to their individual abilities: John is a seer of the Lord; his function is prophetic: to see and state where the Lord is to be found. His work is to tarry: to wait till the Lord appears within his sight, so that he can inform the others. As a result of John’s sight—his prophetic insight—Peter can act with discernment and direction.
Peter doesn’t see as well as John; in fact, he doesn’t see that John is doing any work at all. Peter asks of Jesus: “and what shall this man [John] do?” Jesus challenges Peter by responding, “If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?” He then goes on to say, “Follow thou me”(Jn. 21:20-21), exhorting Peter to attend to what he can see and the work he’s been given to do: the shepherding and caring for the flock, that is, attending to the spiritual need of others. These two disciples—one facing toward the Lord and relaying his insight to the other who is facing toward the world—together form a bridge between heaven and earth, and together work to bring the one to the other.
No organizational affiliation, be it Christian, Quaker, or New Foundation Fellowship can substitute for the inward practice of waiting patiently to receive the truth about oneself. No honorable intentions, good works, noble words, or friendly behavior can bring access to God: nothing will do but a humble willingness to stand still in the light to hear what it reveals. It is the necessary preparation that enables us to participate fully in Christ’s work. In this passage from the Journal, Fox walks us through the process whereby we prepare ourselves for this holy encounter:
For I turned them to the divine light of Christ and his spirit that let them see all their thoughts, words, and actions, that were evil, that they had thought or spoken, or acted; with which light they might see their sins and with the same light they might see their savior, Christ Jesus, to save them from their sins, and that there was their first step to peace—to stand still in the light that showed their sin and transgressions and showed them how they were strangers to the covenant of promise, without God in the world, and in the Fall of old Adam, and in the darkness and death; and with the same light they may see Christ that died for them, who is their way to God and their redeemer and savior (Journal, 117).