This passage is a difficult one! And two different kinds of difficulty have been the focus of my attention as I have meditated on this text this week. The first kind of difficulty has to do with whether Jesus is consistent as a teacher. Is he contradicting himself here. And the second has to do with the practical difficulty of actually taking Jesus seriously.
Let’s look at the apparent contradiction first. Verse 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That seems pretty clear. But the question is, how can he say that after he has said earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” and then again, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ but I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” and then “You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How can the world’s most radical peacemaker, say he did not come to bring peace but a sword?
As always with these kinds of things the context clarifies what might be meant here. In today’s story Jesus is sending his disciples out to the villages of Israel and he says ‘You will be hated by all because of my name’. That’s the clue! He knows that his gospel of the kingdom challenges the very foundations of the world. It’s not just unfashionable for some. What Jesus is on about is a threat to everyone. But he sends them into this world anyway, safe in the knowledge (and this may sound crazy to us) that the haters can only kill the body and God who has the power over our ultimate destiny is in fact the gracious Father counts the hairs of our head and notices even the death of a sparrow (and values each of us profoundly). In other words, the one who really matters, says Jesus, is with you when all the world is against you.
But the point is, the immediate reception of the peacemakers, whom Jesus calls ‘children of God’ will not be a peaceful one. It’s not a peaceful life he is offering them, even if they carry his message of peace. This paradox, the catches their attention… It’s because he was known as a preacher of peace that his statement about not bringing them peace makes everyone sit up and listen. In the immediate future the life of his peacemakers will be anything but peaceful.
For Jesus the conflict between his disciples and the world is not just an accident of circumstance. Jesus says that he comes to reveal what is hidden since the foundation of the world. In other words, this world that will hate his disciples is founded on something so pervasive that they are oblivious to it. It’s like fish, who can’t see the water. And when Jesus reveals it and introduces a different world he is not going to be welcome. He’s just going to seem irrelevant at first, or even dangerous, to those in power. Even today after 2000 years of this idea of loving enemies and the development of notions like ‘human rights’ we still know in our hearts that there is something profoundly destabilising, politically destabilising about the call to ‘love our enemies’. Nations are built on the need to hate enemies. So there is a deep paradox. Because of this hatred at the root of society… the makers of peace will not, at least initially, bring peace.
But let’s take it down to the family level as Jesus does with his would be disciples.
Jesus talks about conflict that even divides families because of him. Look at Jesus own relationship to his family. John 7:5 says ‘not even his brother’s believed in him’. What does that mean? Does it mean that Jesus brother’s couldn’t believe that he was the second person of the trinity? Not at all. The question of whether Jesus was divine in some way arose after the resurrection, when the brother’s began to see things in a whole new light. What his brother’s couldn’t accept or believe in was his politics. They could accept that he was the kind of Messiah he claimed to be. A Messiah who loved his enemies i.e. enemies of Israel could only be a contradiction.
Brian Zahnd (whose book I have been reading this week – and recommend highly, its called ‘A Farewell to Mars’) says we have the same problem today. We can believe in Jesus ‘theologically, spiritually, sentimentally … but not politically. We believe Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, but we don’t really believe he was a competent political theologian.’
In John 7:7 when Jesus realised that even his brother’s didn’t believe he could be the Messiah without a sword Jesus says to his brothers “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it, that its works are evil.”
That’s a really interesting statement…
Brian Zahnd comments on this that its hard to imagine that Jesus brothers didn’t testify in some way about the evils of the world. They were pious Jews. James was know in the early church as ‘James the just’. But Jesus was the one who had the analysis that got him killed. Jesus was the one who testified not primarily about what might be called the symptomatic sins of the world – prostitution, tax-collection and so on – those kinds of morally and socially unacceptable social symptoms… we might say. Jesus had a focus at a completely different level. He went to the root of the problem.
Which leads us to the deeper difficulty of this passage. The deeper difficulty is not a theoretical one, its a practical one. Do we really want to follow? Are we prepared to take him serious. Publically! Todays reading is all about Jesus disciples going public. Not simply to take seriously the idea that he is the Son of God. But to take seriously the fact that his politics are God’s politics and therefore ours also. If we just believe in him in our private lives, we won’t get into any trouble. There will be no razor blade dividing our families. To put it less dramatically than Jesus does, the profound tensions Jesus talks about will not threaten our closest relationships. We will simply live relatively comfortably in the same world everyone else lives in. But if we take Jesus seriously enough to seek to embody the kingdom (as our church mission statement puts it) well, we can’t say Jesus didn’t warn us.
As I stand up here with these observations. It crosses my mind that one common response is to be grateful that we live in a world where Christians are not persecuted. The problem with this observation is that I fear we also live in a world where Christians have made an art of not taking Jesus’ politics seriously, a world in which the majority of those who claim to believe in Jesus seem to be oblivious to the fact that the incarnate Son of God is also the most significant political theologian the world has ever seen.
And then as I stand up here with these observations I am also aware the some of our congregation do indeed know the consequences of taking Jesus seriously. They have sought to ‘embody the kingdom’ and have felt that razor blade cut deeply into what they thought were close relationships. Blessed are you peacemakers. You are children of God.
Psalm 8, Matthew 28:16-20
What does it mean to be human? … That is the topic of todays sermon. In the Psalm we see it in the words of the old translation ‘what is man that you are mindful of him?’
But notice how different it is if you put the question that way! It is not an abstract question about human nature, which I might imagine some philosophy of human life. It is the question of one who wonders at the mystery of the universe itself… And in that wonder addresses God as the source of all that is… This is not some ancient farmer calling on a local deity to protect him. This is someone who begins to consider God as creator of all. And in that context calls out to God in delight and wonder… wonder at the greatness of God and an intense awareness of the smallness of human life. Why does the creator of the universe have the slightest interest in human life?
And when the question is put that way… suddenly the question of what it means to be human becomes a question of responsibility. Humanity is responsible. Responsible to God the creator of all. Responsible for all that is less complex, less powerful than it. To ask the question that way, is to find ourselves at the intersection between God and the created world… conscious… but conscious in a very specific way… conscious of responsibility.
But notice the poet here is even more specific about God’s interest in humanity. God is interested in humanity as a location of danger in the scheme of things. Humanity is endangered by violence. The enemy and the avenger threaten God’s creation. God seeks to provide for creation in the light of this danger So in verse 2 we read
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark (a defence, a strong place) because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger
It’s hard not to see an anticipation of the Christian gospel in this Psalm. God speaks here, from the mouths of the weakest of humanity. God chooses, not the warrior, but the little ones (babes and infants). It’s not clear in this brief and mysterious sentence, how the voice of the babes and infant silence the enemy and the avenger. But it is clear that the psalmist in his enthusiasm for the greatness of God is not worried about the usual so-called ‘realistic’ solutions to military and political problems.
And yet, having said that, the last thing the psalmist is doing is avoiding responsibility. To be human in the presence of God the creator is to be accountable to God for the welfare of the creation in which we live. The psalm calls it ‘dominion’ and if you listened to any of Selwyn Yeoman’s sermon’s over the last few years you’ll know that that doesn’t mean domination of the world. It doesn’t mean doing what we want with other creatures. It means care or stewardship, in the name of God who delights in all of creation – the language, the way the psalmist summarises the description of the created world is very similar to Genesis 1.
It’s an anticipation of the Gospel… Human beings matter so much in God’s purposes that God became flesh among the little folk of Israel… gathered a group of little ones to train in the Way of peace and reconciliation. To put it another way… human beings mattered so much to God that God took responsibility for their responsibility (which doesn’t mean that they no longer had responsibility… but that God enabled that responsibility after it had been disabled and bound up in sin). This is the mystery of the Gospel… God became human that we might be human also and thus participate in the life of God.
We live as shadows of our true humanity… And so Jesus lived a fully human life, gathered the least of the world around him as disciples and called them to ‘make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (according to our Gospel reading for today)
‘Making Disciples’: What does that mean?
I guess many of us grew up with a kind of idea about what it means for Christians to make disciples… this business that Jesus left in the hands of his disciples… We used to call it the Great Commission, often meaning that the mission of the church was to get people to join something… perhaps it was to join the number of the ‘saved’ through making some kind of decision… for others perhaps it was getting people to join the church, perhaps because it was thought to be a great way of improving society… or for whatever reason… My point is though, that Jesus doesn’t talk about joining something. Jesus talks about a process of learning and following. A disciple is a learner or a follower. The mission of the church is that the whole world (‘all nations’) learn the way of Jesus Christ.
And what we learn is the way of Jesus… because the name, Jesus, is now part of the name of God. God has moved into the human world. God is, in this complex way, moving out towards creation, towards humanity as a human person, that humanity might, with our own proper responsibility, move more fully into the life of God… and so all creation will flourish as it is intended to (as the writer of Psalm 8 imagined).
“teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you”…We are people under authority. The first thing about Christians is that they are followers of Jesus. If Jesus says to abandon the sword, we abandon the sword. If Jesus says to give our wealth to the poor, we give it to the poor. If Jesus says we are to love our enemies, we love them. We mightn’t know exactly how to do that in all situations, but we take that ‘how question’ with utmost seriousness.
“and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”
And in doing so we are not alone. We live with Jesus … and in the wake of Jesus… We live in the age between the ages.
And while doing so we call God, Trinity – Father, Son, Spirit. And we do so because Jesus is also God’s name. Jesus is not just ‘a human being’ the divine human being, God coming towards us, gathering us in the Spirit.
John 17: 1-11
This is Jesus last prayer for his friends before his departure. On such occasions prayer is appropriate. On all sorts of occasions prayer is appropriate, I guess. When do you stop to pray with others? It’s awkward isn’t it, if people aren’t expecting to pray. It’s like we need a special excuse. We have habits like praying before meals, so that becomes accepted. But what about other times? I wonder, have we lost the art of public prayer? Perhaps we need excuses to pause and wait on God in our everyday life? Is there a gap between public prayer and private prayer? Is it important to give expression together to our dependence on God? And when we lose the habit, how do we regain it without being manipulative or specially pious? Perhaps we shouldn’t need excuses to pray, but I suspect we lack confidence. I do.
So this is a prayer. Like all of John’s Gospel, but probably more so, though, this is also a theological reflection by the gospel writer, John. No one was sitting by taking notes when Jesus prayed. There were just memories that Jesus prayed, possibly memories of the themes of his prayers, but more significantly, memories of his sense of mission, his sense of what he was doing and how that related to God. And from these memories John composes a summary of Jesus praying.
Let’s think about that summary. Jesus looks up to heaven, and says “Father” – Abba. His relationship to God is one of intimate trust. This is the God he has been imitating all his life. His life has been an expression of the grace of Abba. And now, Jesus senses, ‘his hour has come’. The culmination of all that obedience… the final chapter in that lived expression of God’s life is upon him. And what matters to Jesus, as John understands it and recalls it, is that Abba is known, Abba is glorified. If God as the gracious one, the giver of life, if God’s self-giving is to be known to others, then Jesus must be enabled to carry it through to the end. The Son must be given the power to love to the end, so that the Father’s love will be known and the Father glorified. So he prays “Glorify the Son so that the Son may glorify you.” As the future church would say, there is an interchange of giving going on between Jesus and his Abba which is of the very essence of God. Giving and receiving is not just something God does, its something God is.
Then he gives thanks for his friends. These are the ones God has given him. Not the select few who will make good leaders in the future, not the smart and the good looking, who have chosen him… but the rag-tag bunch that God has given him. (In this sense Jesus is not unlike you and me… except we tend to be on the look out for better people with whom to spend our lives). The God who has given Jesus a universal mission in relation to all people, has nevertheless given him these particular people with whom to share his time on earth, these particular people with whom to share eternal life, and only because he shares eternal life with these particular people will the rest of the world also know eternal life.
Tell me, what is your definition of eternal life? [feedback]
Here Jesus gives a definition of eternal life. Did you notice it in our reading? “And this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God and Jesus the anointed one whom you have sent”. Not live forever in heaven, but know God and messiah Jesus. Not ‘know’ in the sense of having a clear rational understanding of God. Not know about God but know God. Throughout the Old and the New Testament this same thought is there, that although God is beyond our understanding, knowing God in the sense of participating in God’s life, interacting with God, is nevertheless what it’s all about. Eternal life is knowing God through knowing Jesus. As we enter into the life of Jesus and know him, so we enter into God’s life. This IS eternal life. Literally ‘zoe aionios’ – the life of the age to come – is given now.
Jesus is praying for them and for us… Jesus did not leave behind a body of teaching in a book (like the Qur’an) or a program to be followed. Jesus didn’t write anything. But what he did leave behind was a community. He makes it clear that he doesn’t pray directly for the world at this point. Sure it is clear in John’s gospel that the point of it all is that the world will be saved (John 3:17 – Jesus says to Nicodemus that he came from God so that ‘the world’ might be saved) but Jesus knows that God’s way of engaging the world is a community that has experienced and continues to experience eternal life. The community of the age to come lives now… and Jesus prays for them. A community who have seen the glory of God in the life of Jesus, a community who are kept in the ‘name of God’. Jesus last prayer is for us who make up the ‘left behind’ community – who by, virtue of their knowledge of God, are, for Jesus, nothing less than the hope of the world. And so he prays for us, in the words of one translation ‘keep a firm hold on them through the power of your name, which you have given me’
This week someone said to me, ‘Bruce, I have a problem, when I get annoyed and angry I keep taking the Lord’s name in vain’. I don’t think I had anything particularly helpful to say at the time. But it got me thinking about this concept of ‘the name of God’.
Jesus prays to the Father that he would keep his friends ‘in your name’. It’s a big concept. It’s not really about words, is it? My friend was thinking about the 10 Commandments and the one ‘thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain’. There is a Jewish tradition which does focus on the word itself… and makes the name of God something to be feared and never uttered aloud, YHWH.
Jesus not only speaks God’s name, he, in a sense, demythologises it. He takes away their fear by living out the life of God among them (this is where we can’t read John’s gospel understanding that the name of God is more than a word). He changes their understanding of God’s very nature. John makes it very clear, the inner character of God, the Word of God (The Name), becomes flesh, takes time among us. YHWH means ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be who I will be’. John’s Jesus rubs it in: I am the light of the world; I am the bread of life; I am the way; I am the truth; I am the life; I am the good shepherd...” Jesus exposes God’s name, demonstrates God’s name… but according to John, not by claiming glory for himself but by giving his life in shame, and giving glory to God who will raise him up. The name of God is manifest as and in gracious humility.
The interesting thing here is that these friends, this community that Jesus leaves behind, get to share in this same glory, they get to manifest the same name of God, they get to give their life away for others also. And as they do so they will be united in the same way that the Father and the Son are united. Not by being numerically identical, of course, but by giving and receiving our lives from one another.
Jesus prays for us… that we will give and receive our lives from each other… and as we do that we will be one body. Not by agreeing on everything. Not by being identical to each other… but by letting go of the possession, the possessiveness that we feel about our life and our self. Which is harder… to give your life to someone else or to receive it from someone else?
We like being original… being the origin of our own life. We don’t like receiving our life from others. We have learnt to deeply value independence.
It seems to me that things like this (independence) are a better example of what it means to take the name of God ‘in vain’ than yelling out ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ when we hit our finger with a nail.
We bear, in our body, in our life together, the name of God – even the glory of God, or Jesus prayer has not been answered.
Last week Jesus anticipated going to his death, in order to prepare a place for us, for many people, and talks of coming back from his death, in resurrection, in order to be with them, in the Father’s house, to be the Way in which we live with the Father.
In this week’s reading Jesus promises them the Spirit
What does it mean that we have the Spirit? Is it about warm feelings in our heart? Is it about special gifts or powers? Maybe… maybe its about both of those things… We have no idea about the limit’s of human possibility set free by the presence of God – or what a truly human life would look like in the power of the Spirit of God (except of course we know that it is in Jesus own life)… But today I want to suggest something more specific… rather I think our text from John suggests something more than both of these things.
Jesus says “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever… This is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive.”
Jesus is our advocate… but he promises another advocate
Let’s take that word Advocate. Some translations have ‘comforter’ and ‘helper’ and ‘counsellor’. Some don’t even translate it at all. They just put the Greek word paracletos into English and invent a new word, Paraclete. You may have come across that term. The fact is paracletos (in its basic meaning) simply means Advocate, or perhaps even better, ‘Public Defender’. Many commentators don’t quite know what to make of Jesus claim to send a ‘public defender’ an ‘appointed lawyer for the defence’ to be in us. It just seems a bit weird. What does he mean?
I suspect very few, in any of us here today, have actually been on trial and in need of a defence lawyer. And yet at a deeper level, how often do we feel the need to defend ourselves. Say, for example, Jan says to me, “I wish you could help more with the housework”, I can feel like I’m on trial. I have these antennae that are very sensivitive to possible trials. Even if she says it to me in a nice way. Even if she is quite justified and the request is reasonable, which it probably is, that still doesn’t stop me feeling like I need to defend myself. I wonder how much of our lives do we spend trying to justify or defend ourselves with others? Our desperate need for the approval of others means we are constantly trying to justify ourselves to them. Maybe it’s your boss, or someone you work with, or your parents or your spouse, or your minister. Do you find yourself lying awake at night, thinking up the big speech you’re going to deliver in order to defend yourself the next day?
And how often is defense hard to distinguish from attack and accusation. How often do we find that psychologically, with our worries about our place in the world, our significance, war is a way of life – for fragile people like all of us are.
I was listening to National Radio this week and I heard a program about soldiers who were in hospital during world war 1 and the British soldier got to know the German soldier and they developed some mutual respect and one day the German soldier said to the British guy, something like “It’s crazy that we are at war, two of the finest military nations in the world. Think of what we could do if we joined forces against the rest of the world.” [hmmm]
At some point defense and offence merge into a world-view where the struggle for superiority is just taken for granted. Whether it be in our personal life, or in our empire.
Jesus says, into the world of accusation, self-accusation, and self-justification and defensiveness, I will send an Advocate who will be in you – the Spirit of truth.
The Spirit of Truth… They say the first victim of war is truth. You know the main reason we struggle to really listen to one another well? We are busy trying to compose our defence speech while the other person is still speaking. We need the advocate, the Spirit, who takes away our self-defence… so we can listen… and as we can listen to one another and to God, truth happens. Truth and war don’t mix at a political level… nor at a personal level.
Imagine the weight coming off our shoulders (the peace of mind) when we realize (not just in our head, but in our hearts) that we really and truly do not need to defend ourselves!
A spirit of truth who creates a difference in the world – a Jesus-difference. Hear the difference. Jesus says of this advocate “The world cannot receive [him], because it neither sees him nor knows him”
The world is blind to the Jesus-difference … Why is that? Not needing to justify ourselves… is other-worldly… it makes no sense because the world runs according to a different system altogether. According to the Testament the world is under the sway not of the counsel for the Defence but of the Prosecution (Satam = Accuser). According to this system, according to the ‘real world’ of the ‘accuser’ (Satan), Jesus is invisible… we would say ‘unrealistic’. And apparently what we need most is to be realistic.
We, on the other hand, according to Jesus, know the Spirit within us. We will have spiritual vision. We will see Jesus in the world. Do you see Jesus in the world? Jesus, still alive, in other human beings, particularly among ‘the least of these’.
I will not leave you orphaned!… [advertising opportunity for the Tom Waite album] (parentless) He will continue to parent us spiritually.
A few years ago a guy called Mark Skelton [see picture above] wrote this very simple and stark story in the Guardian about his life. It was entitled ‘Our daughter will be an orphan’. He told how his life was going along swimmingly with his beloved wife and daughter, and one day he went to the dentists for a pain that wouldn’t go away and he discovered his sinuses had a rare form of cancerous tumour. He talked about how he tried to remain positive and how his 11 year old daughter encouraged him with her optimism and how he began to prepare for his death. And then a few months later his wife Amanda went to the doctor with a back pain and she also had an inoperable cancer. He goes on to tell how he is relating to his wife and his daughter who will be an orphan possibly before her 12th birthday.
What this incredibly powerful story made me think about was the closeness of parent child relationships… we live in each other, we live in our children and our children live in us, we live in our parents and our parents live in us. Even our rebellion against our parents is a kind of ‘living in’, it’s because the other has formed us so profoundly in our identity that we react so strongly. Our children live in us and we in our children. And it’s not just in our family, we live in other people. None of us is an island. To be human is to be formed in our innermost being by significant others.
Jesus says to them and to us in a world of struggle and accusation, in a world where we internalize that accusation and start to accuse ourselves. In a world where, on the other hand, we might dare to imagine and practice another way… “I will not leave you orphaned… I will come to you. Because I live, you will live also.”
Not just live physically of course, but live in him as children live in their parents.
“On that day you will realize,” says Jesus, “that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
What the Spirit in us means for us is that we will live in Jesus and he in us, something like the way parents live in their children and children live in their parents. Not just in our DNA, deeper still, in our identity as people.
Because he lives we will live, in his presence and in the presence of the advocate our lives will take on a new quality, a freedom
Today’s text is one we have heard many times at funerals. Its also a text which does not spare us the big theological questions. Today I want to invite you to explore it more deeply with me.
Jesus is saying goodbye. Have you ever been with someone who is dying and they are saying goodbye. Jesus is dying. He is not on his deathbed. He’s with them in a room, washing feet, sharing food. He sees what is coming (his death) as a moment of glory. “Now is the Son of Man glorified”. And the disciples will be unable to take up their cross. They will be unable to follow him. Jesus says to Peter, ‘afterward you will follow’ but for now they are unable.
Where are you going? says Peter. And in that question he articulates a deep truth. We might call it ‘heaven’, we might call it the ‘kingdom of God’ but it lies beyond the capacity of our imagination. Lesslie Newbigin comments
“We have no map of what lies beyond the curtain, though theologians – and others – often use language which suggests that we have. We do not know the limits of the possibilities for our personal lives or for the life of the world”.
I like that way of putting it. There are possibilities for human beings that we have no idea of. We do not know the destination.
Chapter 13 ends with a stunned silence. Jesus has just told Peter that he won’t be able to follow, that he will deny him three times. It’s a great conversation stopper.
So today’s reading (Chapter 14) begins, Let not your hearts be troubled... there is plenty troubling them. You believe in God, believe in me also… or a better translation You entrust your life to God, entrust it to me also. That’s a wonderful summary of the faith, entrusting our life to the God who makes room for us in Jesus.
They don’t know the destination, they can’t follow just immediately… and yet they know the way. That’s the point of todays lesson. The destination may be a mystery… but the way is with them. The way will, in Jesus words, ‘come back and take you to myself’ and thus into the house of the Father.
This is where I think we need to clear our heads of clutter. This is not the rapture Jesus is talking about. I don’t think this is even the return of Christ at the end – the final judgement or parousia. Jesus, according to John’s gospel, is concerned with his resurrection, and the way that builds the Fathers house, not just after death but before death in this life. Jesus (the Risen One) is coming back from his death (his preparation work – at the conclusion of which he declared ‘it is finished’) … to be with them as the ‘way’ to the Father’s house. Not to provide a ticket… but to be with them ‘as the way’.
The other time the phrase ‘my Fathers house’ is used in John, he is talking about the temple, the holy place, place of intersection between God and the World. He has just staged a demonstration protesting about the money changers in the temple with the words “stop making my Fathers house a marketplace.” The Jewish leaders challenge his authority to act like this and ask for a sign and Jesus, without blinking changes the topic from the temple in Jerusalem to his own body and says ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” In others words the temple that really matters for Jesus (the intersection of heaven and earth, the Father’s house) is his own bodily life, and the life that will flow from it with his resurrection. Destroy this ‘Father’s house’ and I will raise it up in three days.
In other words the risen Christ (gone away and come back) has done the preparation. He has prepared a place, many places, many rooms in the house of the Father, and he has done so by giving his life up in a brutal death and receiving that life back as a gift from God. He has done so by making peace with a war-like humanity. And in coming back to them in forgiveness he makes space, room for them also in the life of God, in the house of the Father.
In my Father’s house there are many rooms... its a very evocative phrase. Are they rooms like the upper room where Jesus is meeting with them to say goodbye. Rooms where bread is broken again and again and wine drunk in celebration and remembrance. Are those the rooms Jesus means? Is he talking about rooms for many people… the house of Israel opened up to include people of all nations and tribes and cultures and diversities that they or we might barely imagine. Whatever he means, there is space for many, perhaps even for all. After all John begins his gospel by telling us that Jesus is the light that enlightens all people.
Whatever happens after death, Jesus will be with us now on the way, but not just alongside us, he will be with us ‘as the way’… so that where I am, there you may be also”. To be with him, is to be on the way…. and to already have a room in the Father’s house.
Jesus says “You know the way to the place where I am going” Jesus agrees with Peter, they don’t know the destination… but they know the way. Thomas pushes back on this “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus reinforces his point. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me you will know my Father also.” If we are going to live in the life of God, if eternal life means life in God, the giver of life… then now, on this side of death it means living in the Son, in the way opened up by his preparation, in the place that he has prepared… in the room, the many rooms that he has prepared for us to live in. And Jesus says it’s not just about words, its also about action. Jesus does the works of the Father. And those who come after and live in him will do “greater works still”. Its not that Jesus comes with a message. The main thing is that he comes with is the action of God, the works of God. He is like God in his action. And those who live in him and the rooms he has created, will in turn be Jesus-like in their action… and therefore like God also.
But here, for many people, it gets a bit uncomfortable. “No one comes to the Father but by me” Is Jesus saying that only Christian’s are saved? (an awfully loaded and confusing way of putting the question). Is he saying that only Christians have a positive relationship with God? Does Jesus mean that some are automatically excluded because he is the way to the Father?
Some people walk away at this point. They say ‘Yes Jesus we liked the lovely comforting bit about the Father’s house and the many rooms and the preparation. But you are just wrong about no one coming to the Father except by you. We make our own way to the Father’s house. So they abandon ‘The Way’, or what we call the Christian Gospel.
Others say, Yep, only Christians go heaven. There’s no point even getting to the end of the funeral service and committing your loved one to the love and mercy of God, if, because of some decision they have made, they are automatically excluded from the Father’s house.That committal would be a lie. For these people funerals do two things. They either farewell Christians to the Father’s house, or they ‘sell life insurance’.
Let me offer instead, two responses to this dillema which, I think, together represent a ‘third way’ – a third way of understanding this passage.
1. All of us need to be set free from the warlike humanity that is built on its victims and is demonstrated in the action of crucifying Jesus. All of us need the preparation work that Jesus has done. All of us need the way of reconciliation that he has prepared. All of us need to be saved from ourselves (our distorted selves) and from the world that has formed us and which is so alienated (so different) from the gracious Father and creator whom Jesus called ABBA. We ALL need this way to the Father.
2. There are many in that way, in those prepared rooms, who neither understand the work that Jesus has done nor think of their lives in those terms. Nevertheless their life shows signs of being formed in his way – their actions correspond to his life, his way. None of us are in the business of judging another person, or even another group. And yet as John says in the beginning of his Gospel… the light of Christ is enlightening all of humanity. The Way can be found in surprising places. The Way is not the property of the church. The church is the property of the Way.
The Way is not the property of the church. The church is the property of the Way.
And in case all that makes you feel desperately inadequate, about whether you life reflects this way… we need to begin again at the beginning of the Chapter. Let not your hearts be troubled. You entrust your lives to God, entrust them also to Jesus. Death is not the end of the story, either for us of for anyone else. God has prepared and God makes God’s Way in the world and in us.
It’s certainly creating a bit of a discussion around the world and sending people, at least some people, back to their bibles to revisit that iconic childhood story to notice things they didn’t notice before.
I really like the movie. One of the things I like is that it sees the story with fresh eyes and reminds us that it really belongs in that strange mythological world of the first few chapters of Genesis. One obvious sign of this is the monsters, the giant creatures that Genesis 6 calls Nephilim.
Aside from that, what has struck me this week as I reflect on the story of the resurrection in todays text… is how this and the Noah story address the same theme – is there a new beginning for humanity?
Let’s start with the Noah movie. Aronofsky’s twist on the story concerns whether God’s promised covenant with Noah would actually result in the survival of any human beings at all, or just the innocent animals. It’s clear that Noah and his family will survive, but will they have offspring or just die out? Will there be a new beginning? In the Aronofsky version only one of Noah’s son’s has a wife before the rains begin to fall and she is barren. Suffice to say this is not how things remain. However, Noah is convinced that his vision of God’s will, of destruction by flooding means that God is determined to visit vengeance on humanity and that even if he and his family survive the flood, humanity will only die out. For Aronofsky’s Noah it is the will of the creator that matters above all else. Creation is God’s treasure and humans are destroying it. Violence fills the earth, violence against fellow human beings and violence against creation itself. God gives Noah a vision of a flood and for him it is a vision of justice. God’s justice requires the destruction of humanity. The question for Noah is whether there is any place for mercy in this divine justice.
For Noah there seems to be no alternative… but the movie pushes against this… It might make some sense if those outside the ark were all totally bad those inside the ark were all good, however, as in all good stories, this is not the case. Noah’s second son Ham knows that there is goodness outside the Ark, in the person of the girl he nearly took to be his wife – a girl who died in the flood. Ham is angry and is tempted to channel his anger in the way of Cain and to take revenge on his Father Noah and on Noah’s God. Will the violence of God perpetuate itself in the violence of Ham? What choice will Noah the purist make? And if Ham survives will the new beginning really be a new beginning?
This ancient story leaves us with this dilemma. Is there another way? Is genocide one of God’s tools of justice? And if it’s not, what does God do about a world filled with violence where creation is being destroyed.
This is not just an ancient story. It remains contemporary for us who have lived through two world wars and are currently complicit in the destruction of species and people groups through processes of environmental degradation and incredible economic inequality – same world!
Noah flips on its head the question we sometimes ask, and asks, Is there room for a God who loves not just the non-human creation, but the human creation as well? What will God do?
In our Easter reading from John 20 I wonder if, at a very personal level, this is precisely the question those disciples were asking themselves as they sat in the locked room, their hearts thumping, worrying about the Jewish authorities… but more importantly worrying about the news that they had heard from Mary Magdalene that God had raised Jesus from death.
If he was the Messiah, if he is God’s solution to a violent and violated world … albeit completely unlike any Messiah they had imagined … then the resurrection is the time of the justice of God’s Messiah… what will the justice of God look like? So when Mary tells them Jesus is risen they are frightened in that room. Is this the God of floods and genocide? What will God do? They wonder… as they sit together and remembered the way they deserted Jesus in his hour of need.
Jesus basically does 3 things to those frightened disciples. He greets them, he shows them his hands, feet and side and he commissions them with the breath of God (God’s Spirit)
Shalom says Jesus… It’s a big word.. Shalom – the harmonious welfare of all creation is what it means. It’s a big word and yet its also a very small word. It’s the Jewish word for hello. From a translaters point of view it should probably be translated. ‘Hello how are you’. An everyday greeting between friends. But John mentions it three times in this chapter. He knows that hidden in this small word is the big word… Peace… Peace be with you. I am reminded of St Therese of Lisieux’s writings about what she called ‘The Little Way’. The great thing about Therese is that there is nothing heroic or ostentatious in her life. She has this profound sense of how the most important things are hidden in the little things… the greatest saint might be the person on the checkout at Pak N Save. She looks at the detail of her life in the monastery and notices for example that some people are much admired and others in the monastery she finds irritating, crabby ill-mannered, lacking in respect, touchy about things… and she decides that for her Christian way this simply means making a decision to seek out these people in her recreation and spend time with them. A little thing perhaps. But enormous. Hidden in that little word Shalom (hello how are you) is all the bigness of God’s shalom – a new beginning for the human race. Jesus makes friends with those who deserted him and betrayed him.
The Second thing he does is show them his hands and his feet. Why the focus on his wounds? It’s not about proving his identity. Sure it works like that for Thomas later on. But here there is no question of doubt, just fear. And here we see the depth of the friendship Jesus is creating. He is not saying, ok so you deserted me and left me to be killed but lets forget about that now. Jesus places the signs of what went wrong at the centre of their new relationship. This is my body. Not just a piece of bread, but a wounded body. They took his body from him. He gives it back to them. And at the centre of this new friendship are these signs which remind them of what they have done – hands and sides – sign of what went wrong. Signs of the destruction of creation – God’s most glorious creation, the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly in the Noah story there is a talisman, a snakeskin, passed down from Adam through Seth to Noah. And you could think of it similarly, a sign of what went wrong. When one of God’s good creatures, a snake, became a vehicle of temptation.
Finally, Jesus breathes the breathe of God into them and commissions them to forgive sin. Why? Because this is how the new world begins… not through a flood of vengeance… not through a mercy that simply forgets what went wrong… but through a costly work of building friendship, in the full acknowledgement of what went wrong and continues to go wrong. The disciples are called to imitate precisely what Jesus is doing to them on resurrection morning. We sometimes say that only God can forgive sin, but clearly Jesus calls his people to act exactly as he did. To do this they will need all the power that God can give them. They will need the breath, the Spirit of God.
The new beginning is friendship, it’s living together (not necessarily in the same house or bed) but in the same depth of relationship that Therese calls the Little Way. The unity of church is ‘community’ – it doesn’t begin with the Pope in Rome or decisions of the General Assembly, but with the annoying person in the other pew, the irritating person who shares bread and wine with me (this is my body, my wounds), the person who’s upsetting my plans for the church. After ANZAC day when we have talked about and remembered the brutality of wars upon wars (as it was in the days of Noah) today we remember not wars but the arrival of Shalom. Peace be with you. The big thing is right there in the Little Way.
I want to take you back for a moment to your childhood. How is it that children go about deciding who to bully? [take answers] They find some distinguishing characteristic that makes someone stand out as different. It may be that the child has red hair. It may be they are overweight or have a health problem. It may be that it is a boy who acts like a girl. It doesn’t really matter what the distinguishing characteristic is. The kids don’t sit around and try and justify their decision with questions like ‘who sinned that this girl was born a ginger… or gay… or whatever’. Kid’s just go ahead and start talking about the person rather than to them. They just start calling them names or, in all sorts of little ways teasing or ganging up on someone. They group together and find unity in the way they relate to the child who is different
Who sinned that this man was born blind? is the opening question for today’s reading. Somehow this person abandoned to the roadside to beg must be to blame for his situation… if not him then his parents.
John’s gospel says to us today: Let’s talk about sin. It begins and ends with the theme of sin.
John is like that. He takes a story from the life of Jesus and tells it to us as a reflection on a theological theme. Today’s theme is sin. Sin, says John, is not being born with a particular condition that makes you stand out from the crowd – like blindness. Sin is not breaking the rules – like working on the Sabbath. Sin is crucifying people.
Let’s look at how the story demonstrates this conclusion.
Jesus begins quite directly. Neither this man nor his parents sinned. You are simply wrong! This man’s situation is not about sin at all. It is simply an opportunity for God to continue to create the world afresh.
So Jesus in a very symbolic act, reminiscent of the story of the creation of Adam from Mud (adamah) goes ahead and heals the man’s eyes with mud. He says that in doing this he is demonstrating the work of God… and he does it on the Sabbath, the day of rest, not work. Challenging the very heart of their religion. As he is recorded as saying in chapter 5 when accused of working on the Sabbath ‘My Father is still working and I also am working’. The work of creating the world, according to Jesus, is unfinished. Creation is an unfinished symphony.
Where the Pharisees and the Disciples see in a man’s condition an occasion for exclusion – a chance to put him outside the human circle as a ‘sinner’. Jesus sees an occasion to celebrate the fact that God continues to work on all of us. All of us are God’s works in progress. This is the Sabbath in which we live. So Jesus doesn’t just break their Sabbath rule, he challenges their whole understanding of Sabbath.
Jesus is like a bomb in their marketplace. He comes out of nowhere, fits into no formula… and brings this kingdom of God, this Abba-experience of God alongside sinners… alongside those the society is busy bullying. Jesus is messing up the playground.
Which simply means that he is about to become, himself, the focus of their bullying. And it’s fascinating how it happens. At first the Pharisees are divided. Some say. “These miracles must be from God” and others say. “No way! Breaking the Sabbath rule, can’t come from God”.
They need to solve this problem of division in their ranks so they go to the ex-blind man and then they go to his parents and then they go back to the man himself, desperately hoping that it’s all a mistake, perhaps the man wasn’t really blind? As the story progresses the Pharisees get more and more serious and the blind man gets more and more confident. The man who was once a nobody finds his voice.
So they come to him with the phrase you use when you about to begin a public hearing in a courtroom ‘Give glory to God’ they say, ‘We know that this man is a sinner’… and before they can complete their judgement he replies with delightful courage ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner or not. One thing I do know, that though I was blind now I see.’ He is not interested in their bullying game. He has no comment on their exercise in dividing the world up into goodies and baddies. But they press him… “But how did he open your eyes? Then the blind man really lets rip.
“I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
But the blind man is on a roll and nothing will shut him up now, so he continues:
“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
The bullying process is in place again… he is an outsider again. The Pharisees are now united. Problem solved. The ex-blind man may not be literally crucified… but the truth is they have excluded him from the circle of the human. They have socially and symbolically killed the man.
You might remember two Sunday’s ago we read the story of Jesus conversation with Nicodemus – also from John’s gospel – where Jesus is talking about the fascinating story of the ‘serpent on the pole’ and likens his own death on a cross to that story. What is on the pole is a symbol of what is killing the people. In looking at what is on the pole they see the truth about their own affliction. In seeing Jesus on the cross we see the truth about our own sin, that the essence of our sin lies in the process that lead to crucifixion.
As Jesus is summing up… we read that some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind are we?’
That’s the other great line in this story. Modern people understand that line… because we pride our self in our knowledge of our self. We think we know ourselves better than others do. The events unfolding in this story demonstrate that the participants are unaware of the processes going on in themselves and in their group which lead to crucifixion. They need the serpent on the pole, God on the cross, to learn to see clearly.
Jesus concludes, ‘If you were blind (like the blind man) you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘we see’, your sin remains.
Jesus has re-defined sin for them:… as the processes whereby we exclude others from life and community, banishing them to death, and manage at the same time to turn a blind eye to it.
What does this text say to us today?
Who sinned that this couple were born gay… and now want to marry… like normal people marry. What would Jesus say, do you think?
Would he also say, no one sinned neither these men nor their parents?
Would he also see a Sabbath opportunity? Would the same man who said ‘Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath’ also say ‘marriage is made for man and not man for marriage’?
Is marriage a sabbath opportunity for the God who continues to work on the sabbath. Is it an institution in which we are given space to learn the discipline of loving one another as Christ loves the church. What do you think the God who continues to create Adam would say to Adam and Steve?