Recognizing that at the heart of Christianity is God's heart for us may seem like some too big a temptation to self-centeredness to bear, but it doesn't have to be. We can permit ourselves to know God's deep, passionate, abiding love for us without getting all uppity about ourselves.
Think about that moment when the doors at the back of the church open and the bride steps through. You know it's happened because you can see it all over the groom's face; the bride sees it, too. It takes her breath away to see his breath taken away, to see her beauty reflected in his delight. It does not diminish the wedding to see this silent exchange of deep love and delightedness; it enhances the whole thing. We witness this and say, "Look how much they love each other," and we are filled with great joy.
It's why we weep.
But we would not say that the bride has become self-centered. Not at all. We would not say that she has lost sense of the wedding because her breath is short. We would not say that she has lost all sense of what she and her groom are going to create together because her beauty has been recognized. That is absurd. And is the same with us, with the bride of Christ.
John wrote an entire Gospel with this idea at the very core of his witness. Whenever he refers to himself in his account of Christ's life, he does not call himself by name. He does not even reference himself with a personal pronoun. Rather, he says, "the disciple that Jesus loved." We have figured out that this was John himself. And you know?
It's still not about him.
It's a bold statement, to be sure. Most of us read that with our modern sensibilities and we say, "Well...John sure thought pretty highly of himself!" Or we just think it's weird and move on. Or whatever. But it's not weird, and it's not at all that John thought highly of himself. Rather, it is that John knew deeply, without a doubt, how highly Jesus thought of him.
What John wants us to realize, what he wants us to know, is that he's not telling this story as a reporter. He's not telling this story as a mere witness. He's not even telling this story as just any disciple, which we might today refer to more as a "fan boy." I mean, how much can you trust someone who is fired up about the thing he is talking about? If someone came up to you wearing a T-shirt, a ball cap, a bracelet, and socks that all spouted the same band's name, you would expect that that person's opinion about that band would be slightly biased (at least). If you get the story of Jesus from a disciple, you might think it's a bit biased, too. After all, look at everything John gave up for this story. It has to be a good story, right?
But John says he's not just a disciple. He's no fan boy. His investment in this story is much more than just this story; it's the very depth of his relationship with the Man he's talking about, one who loved him.
It turns everything on its head. It takes everything to an entirely new level. It's actually the one and only piece of evidence we have in the Gospels about how thoroughly relational Jesus is. Sure, He talked to everyone and broke bread and got into boats and invited others to go with Him, but all of that could, on the surface, be just utilitarian. He could be doing it just because that's the way to do things.
Give us, though, a disciple who says he was loved, and that changes everything. When John says he is the disciple who Jesus loved, that tells us that Jesus loved him. He's relational. He's invested. He's engaged.
And really, it doesn't make us for an instant think that the Jesus story is about John. It doesn't make us think that the Gospels are secretly supposed to tell John's story. It doesn't make us think that John was so self-centered that he couldn't get out of the way. No, it makes us love Jesus more because we see Him through the beloved disciple's eyes.
It's a right understanding of self that's the heart of this whole thing. It's the contextual understanding of self. It's the relational understanding of self and Christ that makes this whole thing work. And we might say, in our modern vernacular, that it is humility that is at center of John's bold witness.
I think it's something even more simple than that - I think it's purity. It's the pureness of a disciple who looks into Jesus's eyes and sees how deeply He loves him. It's the pureness of a bride who, in that flick of a second, catches her groom's eyes dancing with delight and is delighted herself. It's the pure, natural radiance of this moment, this breath-taking moment of realizing how beloved you are...because He loves you.
He loves you. His story, and He loves you in it. His altar, and He's waiting for you at it. His wedding, and you are His bride.
And if we don't have a Christianity that makes room for that, how can we keep on saying our God is love?