Sermon for August 9, 2015 by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector
(Note: I am deeply indebted to John Shelby Spong for his book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (HarperOne, 2013) whose insights form the foundations of this sermon.)
For the last three Sundays, while we’ve been talking about the happenings in the court of King David, the sordid and the tragic, we’ve been reading from the Gospel of John. We need to orient ourselves, get into a different frame, with the Gospel of John. It is very different from the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. There is no birth story.There are signs and wonders, which are not miracles; they are never described as such in the Gospel of John. They are “signs.” They point to something beyond themselves.
The gospel signals its intent from the first sentence. “In the beginning was the word.” This reminder of the first words from Genesis Chapter 1 speak of Christ at the beginning, the Cosmic Christ. The gospel of John is less about the story of the human Jesus of Nazareth as he is with the Christ, who was and is and is to come. It is more poetic, more mystical, and we might say more strange than the others. It is not to be read literally, or at least not only literally. It scoffs at literalism often, as in the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus in John chapter 3. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” To read this book with an insistence on literalism is to be in the dark. We miss too much, and I dare say we miss the point. How are we to make our way though this strange and wonderful teaching of the Gospel? What is the Good News?
A story says as much about the person or people telling it as it does about the subject. So we ask: who were these people, who put this gospel together? What difference did Jesus make in their lives? What is it about their experience of Jesus that they want to communicate? So first, Who wrote the Gospel of John? John Shelby Spong has helped me to understand the Gospel of John as a Jewish book, rather than a gnostic text or primarily of Greek origin. He argues compellingly that it comes from a community of Jewish mystics. That is, they were a community of mystics in the Jewish tradition who were followers of Jesus. By “mystics” we mean, not a group of theologians or rabbis or thinkers (although they might have been these too) who came up with a set of doctrines and then put it together into a gospel. They are, rather, a group who experienced abundant life through their experience of being in a community of Jesus followers, and want to communicate that experience to us. Mystics are to be found in all faith
traditions. And they are always, to one degree or another, at odds with the orthodoxy of the religious institution, which generally wants to mediate, regulate, and define what faith is. I would say that mystics and orthodoxy need each other. We need the scripture and tradition to give frame, to keep mysticism from becoming all about itself, and at worse, a reflection of our own egos. And in some way, mysticism is what all religions are pointing to, which is your, and my, direct experience of God. Our experience of God, and our experience of God through each other and the world.
As to the Gospel’s authorship, the weight of scholarship is that there likely was not a single author, but several, and that the Gospel was edited and revised over time, probably over several decades. Why is this important? Because the experience of this community changed in this very turbulent time. Without getting into how many authors there are – scholars debate, and it’s beyond my pay grade – I suggest that there are three primary threads: 1) Traditional Jewish thread, solidly located within Judaism, 2) a thread reflecting a community in deep tension within orthodox Judaism, but still very much a part of it, and 3) a growing awareness of a deeper sense of identity as part of the universal, cosmic oneness of God. These three threads are not progressive in the text, but rather are woven throughout.
In the Jewish thread we see Jesus as the new Moses. Jesus being Moses-like (feeding of the 5000 would remind the original hearers of the manna from heaven God gives the Israelites in the wilderness; Jesus walking on water would remind people of Moses parting the Red Sea). These events in Jesus’ life would have been readily recognized as invoking Moses. They present Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish messiah.
And then there is the second thread, where we see the rising tensions between this community and the leaders of the Jewish synagogue. Remember that in 70 CE Jerusalem was sacked, which was very bloody and violent, and the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans. In the very tense and fearful years that followed, the followers of Jesus were expelled from the Jewish synagogue. This was all very tense, and emotional, and throughout it all courses a current of fear of Empire and the Romans. Raw feelings that come across in the text of this gospel, especially in the phrase “the Jews.” We don’t know exactly who the Gospel means, but it is clearly anachronistic to interpret these words as referring to a religious and ethnic group entirely separate from the followers of Jesus. These passages were later read as conflict between Jews and Christians and have been used to justify anti-Semitism over the centuries. We need to own this, and to recognize its falsity. The community of Jesus followers were overwhelmingly Jewish, so this reading makes no sense. John Shelby Spong suggests: “if [every time] we hear the words “the Jews” we were to read them as “the orthodox party that lead the synagogue” we’d be much closer to the mark.”
From identity crisis to abundant life
And then there is the third strand. The community begins to redefine itself, in the face of their synagogue slammed shut, their city destroyed, their world shaken. They face very real questions of identity. Who are we now? That’s always the question, isn’t it, when something major shakes us? Even when it isn’t the magnitude of this shakeup, or when it is. A loss, a death, a major change. Who am I now that I am retired? Who am I now that my father has died? Who am I now that my wife has left me? Who am I now? And what does the Gospel say over and over and over again? I AM. I AM. The Gospel speaks to the depth of the true self. The “I am” below all the typical identity markers of ethnicity, family, abilities, geography. Calling us to transformation. To see beyond the identity markers that have been snatched out from under us, or simply no longer work. The gospel is a doorway to a new dimension of life. In this strand we see a rising universal self-understanding, an emerging Christ consciousness. The Gospel shows Christ as a teacher of the transformation of consciousness, and shows Christ’s God consciousness that he wants all of us to see, know and experience. The Gospel of John reveals a growing realization of the deep connection of all in the oneness of God.
We are invited to see in the Gospel of John this transformation to abundant life, and the way it happens. Our history, our identity markers, get torn out from under us, or they simply become too small to contain us. They aren’t who we are any more. Sometimes this is deeply painful and wrenching, other times a still, small voice of restlessness, a hunger. So we have the End, a deep unsettling. And the Middle, when we no longer know who we are. It feels like death. Many people cannot see beyond this, they cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they turn inward, they retreat. They contract in to a zone of what feels like safety, and is really an early death. It is to die before you die.
But it isn’t the end, and it isn’t death. This is what Jesus has been talking about these last several Sundays as we have read chapter 6 of the Gospel of John. This is what Jesus means by the bread of life, abundant life, and eternal life. This is what this community of Jewish Mystics who were followers of Jesus experienced. Jesus is not saying, “I know life right now is very, very hard, but don’t worry, you will have your reward in heaven when you die.” This is not what he means, or not all he means, by eternal life. Jesus is talking about life in the here and now. Bread. Sustenance. Grace upon grace, for those who believe.
And what is belief, in the gospel of John? It is not a head thing. It is not a mental assent to a set of propositions. It is relationship. It is trust. Trusting the movement of the spirit. Trusting going forward, and that Jesus has you. Christ holding me. Christ beside me. Christ within me.
A few weeks ago I connected via the wonderful world of Facebook with a woman I had known in seminary and hadn’t seen since we’d graduated. After the usual exchange of pleasantries she told me what had happened. The last knew her she was happily married with two small boys, and I’d heard she was serving in a parish out west. She told me that she had gone through horrible, messy divorce that left her badly shaken and grieving. One Christmas Eve, after leading her own service at her church, she stumbled into the Cathedral. Sick and exhausted, she plunked herself down in a pew in the back of the church. The choir anthem that night was Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium.
She spent the remainder of the night through the next morning listening to O Magnum Mysterium over and over again. By the next morning she was changed. She’d somehow, in some grace filled way, crossed the threshold into new life. Just when you think it’s over. When all you can see are the small shattered remains, the fragments, Jesus says “gather up the fragments”! Jesus is one “in whom a new God consciousness had emerged.”
John Shelby Spong quotes a retired bishop saying to him once, “The older I get the more deeply I believe, but the [fewer] beliefs I have.” (ix). That’s the belief that comes from experience of the living God in one’s life.
John’s Gospel invites us to experience Jesus as “a doorway into a new dimension of life.” (Spong, 19). This is the abundant life that Jesus promises to those who trust, who enter into relationship with him. This abundant life, eternal life, that Jesus is describing has less to do with forever after we die, than it has to do with our God consciousness while we are here. This is the bread of life that is real, tangible, and present. It always feels like expansiveness and connection. Jesus communicates this belonging. This is no exclusive club kind of a belonging to those who think the “right” thoughts, but a deep sense of connection to all life. Christ before us. Christ beneath us. Christ beside us. Christ within us. May it be so. Amen.