Radical Relationship and Revelation

The following is an adaptation of a message delivered during worship at Richmond First Friends on October 23, 2016.

John 15: 9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

You might be surprised to learn this, but not all Quakers are like those in your home meeting. I know this because when I worked for Indiana Yearly Meeting years ago, one of the aspects of the job that I appreciated most was the opportunity to visit a wide range of monthly meetings and experience their worship styles and cultures. And this is just among a few dozen Friends United Meeting churches our immediate geographic area!

In my current role at Earlham School of Religion, I have been able to expand this circle even wider – visiting yearly meetings from Southern Appalachia to Philadelphia to monthly meetings like Whittier Friends Church all the way out in California. It’s a blessing to get to know, learn, and worship with Quakers in all of these places.

Just this past summer I was able to attend a portion of the annual sessions for Wilmington Yearly Meeting. To give you a flavor of the diversity of that yearly meeting, you should know that it includes meetings from Tennessee to Ohio. It counts among its pastors ESR graduates you might know such as Jonathan Goff, Julie Rudd, and the recently retired Donne Hayden. But it is also the only Yearly Meeting I’ve attended where I’ve been told that ESR graduates nothing but flakes and that I needed to vote for Donald Trump.

Ah, the diversity of Quakerdom!
Now, don’t get me wrong – I did enjoy my time among our Wilmington Yearly Meeting neighbors. In fact, my message today is directly inspired by that visit. The morning I arrived, I was able to participate in a workshop led by the clerk of the yearly meeting, David Goff – Jonathan’s father.

His workshop was on the Robert Barclay’s Apology. If you’re not familiar with the Apology, this is considered the first comprehensive articulation of Quaker theology. It was published in both Latin and English in the late 1670’s and proceeds to tackle one article of faith after another in a series of propositions.

Barclay, you see, was the academic companion to the passionate preacher George Fox. Elton Trueblood says that Barclay’s Apology "saved the Quaker movement from extinction by giving Fox's preaching...."

Now, the Apology can be intimidating. Even in the “Modern English” versions its language is not what you would find in the average popular novel. ESR’s MDiv students are all supposed to read and be familiar with its contents, and knowledge of it is often included as one of the requirements for recording of ministers among Friends.

So, while I can tell you that I have read it, I have to admit that although I did find some worthwhile nuggets within its pages it is not a text to which I have returned often. That’s my confession. And I’m here to also say that I believe that this is a shame.

It’s a shame because I genuinely believe that Quakers have a unique theological lens through which to view the world – one that over 300 years later still remains relevant, fresh, and vital not just for Friends but for others who may long to hear such a voice.

I am indebted to Dave Goff for opening my understanding of Barclay in this way. In the workshop I attended he went through each of the 15 propositions contained in the Apology – one by one.

Instead of that comprehensive approach, though, I would like to start with just the first two and consider them as an interconnected pair. So, let’s read these through these and then spend some time reflecting on their meaning.

Are you ready?

First proposition
Seeing the height of all happiness is placed in the true knowledge of God; "This is life eternal, to know the true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent”; the true and right understanding of this foundation and ground of knowledge is that which is most necessary to be known and believed in the first place.
Ok, that was easy – this is the big one:
Second proposition
Seeing "no man knoweth the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son revealeth him"; and seeing the "revelation of the Son is in and by the Spirit" (Matt. 11:27); therefore the testimony of the Spirit is that alone by which the true knowledge of God hath been, is, and can be only revealed; who as, by the moving of his own Spirit, he disposed the chaos of this world into that wonderful order wherein it was in the beginning, and created man a living soul, to rule and govern it, so, by the revelation of the same Spirit, he hath manifested himself all along unto the sons of men, both patriarchs, prophets, and apostles; which revelations of God by the Spirit, whether by outward voices and appearances, dreams, or inward objective manifestations in the heart, were of old the formal object of their faith, and remain yet so to be, since the object of the saints' faith is the same in all ages, though held forth under divers administrations. Moreover, these divine inward revelations, which we make absolutely necessary for the building up of true faith, neither do nor can ever contradict the outward testimony of the Scriptures, or right and sound reason. Yet from hence it will not follow, that the divine revelations are to be subjected to the test, either of the outward testimony of the Scriptures, or of the natural reason of man, as to a more noble or certain rule and touchstone; for this divine revelation and inward illumination, is that which is evident and clear of itself, forcing, by its own evidence and clearness, the well-disposed understanding to assent, irresistibly moving the same thereunto, even as the common principles of natural truths do move and incline the mind to a natural assent: as, that the whole is greater than its part, that two contradictories can neither be both true, nor both false.
Whew – that’s a lot to take in!

So what are we to make of these passages? Well, one of the ways that Dave made them come alive for me was to frame them as rooted in understandings of relationship and revelation that were radical for the time in which they were written – and I think potentially still so for many today.

Part of this understanding emerges from what Barclay means by knowledge of God, and that comes through as we hold both propositions together. He later explains that “true inward knowledge of God is through the revelation of God’s Spirit,” and distinguishes between what he calls “airy head-knowledge” and “saving heart-knowledge.”

Knowledge of God as Barclay understands it in proposition one is not about book learning, in other words – it is about the inward knowing of relationship. This is consistent with why Quakers named themselves Friends, and has its roots in Scripture. Recall the passage from John 15, where Jesus says to his disciples “I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

Guilford’s Melvin Keiser wrote about Barclay’s relational theology and explains that it gets to the origins of the name Quaker, as well. Outward Quaking was the visible manifestation of an inward and personal experience with God.

As Keiser explains, “Inwardness was the level of life and spirit that Barclay and his seventeenth-century Quaker contemporaries descended to over and over again in meeting for worship and daily living. From this spiritual dimension work and action emerged filled with vitality as outward forms. The outward was thus the inward made manifest; the inward was the outward in potentiality.”

This is powerful stuff! It means that you and I and everyone else have direct access to God – and not just as servants – but in significant and meaningful relationship as Friends.

What hope, what joy, what overwhelmingly good news this can be for anyone struggling in this life. It is a message like this that has the power to motivate the early disciples and the early Friends, and it can motivate us today.

But Barclay doesn’t stop there. In proposition 2 he carries this radical relationship further to encompass radical revelation. “These divine inward revelations,” Barclay says, are “absolutely necessary for the building up of true faith.” They are accessible to each and every one of us. And, while he says they will not contradict Scripture or Reason, neither are they lesser.

This is huge!

It was huge in his time - a culture dominated by a text-based hierarchy of authority for church doctrine and a class-based hierarchy within society. This is why early Friends suffered in prison for refusing to take off their hats to their supposed social superiors. This is why they could challenge the learned men (and it was men) of Cambridge and Oxford and appeal not only to the average person but feel comfortable addressing rulers as equals.

I would argue that it is equally powerful today. It is powerful to acknowledge that God may speak through any one in this room – from the youngest to the oldest, from the least wealthy to the most, and from those with power of any sort to those who feel disempowered by the world around them.

I think this calls us to a deep, challenging, and even likely uncomfortable respect for our neighbor, for the other. We model this by creating space in worship for anyone to voice a message, and we model this in our business by choosing to wait upon a sense of the meeting rather than forcing votes by majority rule.

Again, I believe this can be a powerful message to the wider community, and to the world. A world in need of frameworks of mutual respect and listening in the midst of profound disagreements and division. 

How can we best both reclaim our prophetic voice – the radicality of the Quaker message – and also live into it as individuals and together as a community? How can we be Bearers of Light to a world in need?

I would like to close with an excerpt from James Michael Tower, who reconceived the propositions of the Apology as Poetic Prayer. Here are the first two stanzas:
(1) At the core of our being is Your truth, shining amidst the shadows.
From where else could we begin to grasp the heights of the eternal?
Or the depths of the pure, living waters of Your love,
The source and foundation of all that is real?
(2) For You give clarity to the eyes of our hearts even now.
Who could deny the holy visions You have set before us?
How You reveal Yourself not only by Your word but by Your presence,
That woos us and draws us as a gentle hand tugging our hearts.

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