I recently kicked off a new sermon series on 1 John at ChristChurch London. For some foolish reason I thought it would be a nice, light book to preach over the Summer… how wrong I was! It may be a letter on love, but it’s no trite love letter. There’s some tough material in those five short chapters!
But as I worked on the talk, I was struck by the bold and beautiful claim of the very first verse.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim” (1 John 1:1)
John is talking about Jesus. The Word become flesh. God, in human form. And his claims are powerful. Whilst many of us would typically express our interaction with God in vague ways, or using language of interior experience:
- Have faith
…John’s language is incredibly concrete, and rooted in external sensory experience:
This is unprecedented. In the Old Testament many people claimed to have heard God. A handful of people – Adam, Abraham, Moses – claimed to have seen Him, or at least part of Him. But nobody, until the coming of Jesus, could claim to have reached out and touched God.
And yet that is exactly what John claims to have done.
Take the account of the Last Supper. The disciples are all reclining on the floor, enjoying a meal together. And in a throwaway line, John – the disciple whom Jesus loved – comments that he ‘leant back against Jesus’ (v25). Imagine eating a meal, whilst leaning on God-in-flesh! As Cornershop might have sung:
Everybody needs a deity for a pillow“!
As I reflected on this, I kept remembering the words of John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s sonnet High Flight.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
It’s a well-known sonnet, much-loved by aviators. A soaring description of the euphoric feeling of flight. Escaping the bondage of gravity and going where man is naturally unable to go. And the chosen phrase to depict this remarkable privilege: “to touch the face of God.”
The phrase is not unique to Magee. It both predates him, and inspired others after him. He borrowed it from an earlier poem by Cuthbert Hicks:
Now joy is mine through my long night,
I do not feel the rod,
For I have danced the streets of heaven,
And touched the face of God.”
… and in turn, it became the culminating phrase in President Reagan’s address following the 1986 Challenger disaster, which was then echoed in The West Wing, where Bartlett (accompanied by Ave Maria) delivers an inspiring speech about progress, challenges and the advancement of humanitarian achievement.
‘Touching the face of God’ is the elusive honour. The pinnacle of exploration and achievement. The thing towards which humanity and science and aviation and the human spirit are stretching…
John says, “We did it already. 2,000 years ago!”
In his commentary on 1 John, Stott points out that the words John uses in chapter 1 to describe his interaction with Jesus are powerful. He didn’t just ‘see’ Jesus, as if he caught a brief glimpse of him from a distance. Rather theasthai implies that he beheld him intelligently, so as to fully grasp the meaning and significance of that which came before his field of vision. He didn’t just ‘touch’ him in a momentary sense – brushing against him casually. Rather epsēlaphēsan suggests that he examined closely, as if checking his authenticity.
John had the privilege of not only seeing and hearing God in some difficult-to-quantify, spiritual sense. He was able to examine, explore, question, grapple with, eat with, lean on, embrace, reach out and touch God incarnate.
Surely the greatest of all privileges?
Yet, despite having had this incredible experience, John doesn’t laud it over his readers, or consider himself superior. Rather, I imagine him penning this letter with the words of Jesus ringing in his ears, in a conversation with Thomas from the very end of his own gospel:
Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
In a weird kind of way, there is a greater privilege than seeing or touching the face of God. And it is not seeing or touching the face of God, but still believing.