All month long I’ve been steamrolled by this little book called After Whiteness about, well, the Church. Here’s a passage from it.
The crowd is everything. The crowd is us. People shouting, screaming, crying, pushing, shoving, calling out to Jesus, "Jesus, help me," "Jesus, over here." People being forced to press up against each other to get to Jesus, to hear him, and to get what they need from him. People who hate each other, who would prefer not to be next to each other. Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, rebels, insurrectionists, terrorists, murderers, tax collectors, sinners all... widows, the orphans, the poor, the rich, sex workers, wonderers, magicians, musicians, thieves, gangsters, centurions, addicts, magistrates, city leaders, people from all over the Roman Empire--all pressing to hear Jesus. ... Jesus created the condition for the crowd, reflecting God's desire for the gathering. The crowd was not his disciples, but it was the condition for discipleship. It is the ground to which all discipleship will return, always aiming at the crowd that is the gathering of hurting and hungry people who need God... Theological education must be formed to glory in the crowd, think the crowd, be the crowd, and then move as a crowd into a discipleship that is a formation of souls, always enabling and facilitating the gathering, the longing, the reaching and the touching. Our educational settings need to be aimed at forming souls that are being cultivated in an art that joins to the bone and announces a contrast life aimed at communion.
Imagine yourself right now as you are, in this church service, as a member of the crowd pressing in to see Jesus, to hear him, to touch the hem of his garment. What are you doing as a member of the crowd? How are you hurting? How are you hungering? What are you longing to hear from Jesus?
It can be easy to forget at times, amidst the structure and scaffolding of our modern institutional life, that The Church as we describe it in the Gospels was people, sometimes just a couple, sometimes great crowds gathering en masse to see this guy who offered something that they desperately wanted, or needed. Communion, before it was the sacrament that we know and enjoy, before it was installed in our prayer books and constrained in rubric and canon, was people being together, longing to be together. It was the pull into the crowd and it was the crowd itself. Communion was the longing to be together that was stronger than the fear that drove them apart.
Before Church became this big institutional framework, it was people, together, hurting and hoping, who followed this guy around because he had something to say that they very very much needed to hear.
What is it that you very, very much need to hear? What is it that your neighbors and friends very, very much need to hear? What is it that the people you read about in the news or see on TV, very very much need to hear?
The thing that Jesus knew how to do was put a finger on the pulse of the beating heart of a People, to find that pulse and to tap it, for the healing and the communion of all. All. We are that People.
Jennings names this longing within us, between us, our Eros, a Greek term for a particular kind of love. And Jennings challenges us to reclaim that Eros as a part of our Christian life together. There’s a lot of ways we could describe Eros, but I might point to the feeling you have on the way to a first date, how you feel as you’re walking up to the door of a birthday or dinner party of a friend you love, the excited anticipation while your airplane taxis on the runway, the shared energy of being in the pit at a concert or in the crowd of a stadium, the feeling of connection when you’re telling your friend about a problem you’re facing and they really, really get it. It’s the moment where time slows down, and that feeling of gracious overwhelm overtake you–Eros is both that feeling of overwhelm and also the wanting to be even more in the moment. Eros is that dull ache of longing you’ve felt all this last year,,, your hunger to be back out in the world, back with your people and in your places. That’s the Eros Jennings is describing. That’s the kind of love that Jesus has for the crowd and the kind of love and longing that drew the crowd together.
The tricky thing about the fallout from 2000 years of institutionalizing from that original crowd seeking after Jesus, is that the Eros has been dulled,,, concealed behind institutional expectations and traditioned practices, legalistic understandings of propriety. In the Church, our attention paid to the crowd’s longing–to our own longing–has been replaced by the Church’s expectation that the crowd will show for Church itself rather than according to their longing. We might be a little clearer on what the crowd should want, what they ought to need, what is fair or appropriate for them to want; we might not even think to ask because we think we know already.
So again, I’ll quote Jennings:
The crowd is everything. The crowd is us. People shouting, screaming, crying, pushing, shoving, calling out to Jesus, "Jesus, help me," "Jesus, over here." People being forced to press up against each other to get to Jesus, to hear him, and to get what they need from him.
For what are you shouting, screaming, crying, pushing, shoving, calling out to Jesus? For what are you calling out “Jesus, help me,” “Jesus, over here”?
I hear these themes just beneath the surface of 1 John and I wonder what it might sound like to rewrite this passage to reflect this sense of entanglement that Jennings calls us to. Try this out:
There is no fear in longing, but perfect desire casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in Communion. We long because he first longed for us. Those who say, "I desire God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not delight in a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot delight in God whom they have not seen.
I do not need to tell you that our Communion is not perfect, that we are burdened by our fears, and the culture of punishment thrives. What I am saying to you today is that how things are right now is not the only way that they can be; another world is possible. What we are going for here is a perfect Communion–one where my hurts and your hungers and everyone longings are attended to–and you have to believe that it is possible.
We are so conditioned to pit our longings, our hungers, our hurtings against one another, to think that safety and well-being is a zero-sum game, to think that Communion is a an untrustworthy or financially unsustainable metric or that some people are undeserving of it. Christians have to break themselves of that twisted logic–there is enough for us, for all of us. We are so prone to conflate the Eros given us by God–the longing for life and health and connection–with the distorted shadows of longing,,, for wealth or notoriety or power or supremacy. Too long have we lived in the pursuit of the latter without an attention to the former. Again I ask, for what do you hunger? How do you hurt? For what do you long? Where do you see those hurts, hungers, longings in our world? Where do you see destructive pursuits of wealth, fame, control?
You may not know your own longing, and that’s okay. You may not readily recognize longing in the world and that’s understandable, too. We have been well-trained to ignore Eros; and in that case, your work is to peel away what conceals your longing from you, the shut off the noise that drowns it out, the slow down the pace that renders it a blur. Our work is to pay close attention to the cries of the crowd in the world–the hurt and the hunger and the longing–and to believe that the Communion we so crave is exactly where the longing leads us. I wonder what we’ll find there.