Dear God, we pray for another way of being …
Long ago I made it a rule to always try to preach on the hard texts of the Bible. Today’s reading depends on one of these, so while you have the selection from the Gospel in front of you – that is John 14: 8-17 – I want to read the earlier statements that set John’s agenda. These are the words he accords to Jesus:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me … I go and prepare a place for you … so that where I am, there you may be also … Thomas said, ‘Lord we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’.
Twice last Friday and twice again on Monday, funeral preparation has engaged my whole attention: it seems to be that time of year. At some point I ask the family what Bible readings they would like to have at the service. I suggest various passages such as the Beatitudes or 1 Corinthians chapter 13, but the most frequent response, even from non-regular churchgoers, is a request for John 14 verses 1-6. These verses must rank as among the most exclusive texts in the Bible. Taken alone, and out of a larger context, they seem to have only one meaning: Jesus is the universal pointer, guide and access to God – ‘no one comes to the Father except through’ him.
That theme governs today’s Gospel reading of verses 8-17 of chapter 14. In shaping this address I am not trying to second-guess your beliefs or interpretations of bible themes. These words may have provided you with a lifelong conviction about the centrality of Jesus in your life: indeed that sentiment is key to my own sense of being Christian. But do you perhaps share with me an awkwardness when you see beauty and hear truth from other sources?
We had recently moved with our three small children into a tenement in a back street of Newtown. Opposite, the parents and children lived in a derelict house, the electricity long ago disconnected. Two teenagers, the girl heavily pregnant, were renting just below us and regularly brawled in the street – he chasing her with threats of a beating. Two doors the other side, the neighbour could remember the Les Darcy bare-knuckle fight and the dairy in King Street and the creek that still ran under our house. I was leaning over the fence – as you used to do in those inner city days – tut-tutting about last night’s very dramatic brawl. She responded quietly ‘To know all is to love all’ and changed the subject. But the words changed me from critic to carer. She had spoken the truth to me.
You could multiply that very ordinary story and tell me a hundred ways in your own life about people who have showed you opportunities and truths that added to your life. And because you are an audience with a huge experience of life’s variety you have seen and followed the way of other religions, values and human endeavours. You have taken to heart the insights of gurus, scientists, historians, poets and artists who have awakened you to actions and values that, for want of any better word, you call the truth. The outcome for each one of us has been a discovery of life’s richness.
So, what is the point of this Bible assertion attributed to Jesus? Today’s Gospel reading explores one way of understanding it – and please hear that emphasis on ‘one way of understanding’. If my words perplex you, take the trouble to explore the text carefully and with your imagination sharpened by life experience let your questioning and your common-sense suggest the breadth of your discovery of truth.
Mostly I avoid defining myself – but if you pushed me very hard I would call myself a Jesus-person. Push me a little harder – around some of the assertions I have been making in this series of addresses on John’s Gospel – and you will get the drift that I am very uncomfortable with God language. I again say this plainly to anchor the message in John’s text: I do not believe in God, I seek to live in God.
I am not trying to be shocking or heretical and certainly am making no commitment to atheism. The Bible stories are about God-in-action not about God as some absolute divine entity outside the creation. Yes, the Bible assumes a Creator independent of creation, but Bible conversation captures human imagination. Its stories are about the divine life that works in us and in our relationships. The text in front of us has the same intention.
God is Father – expand the word as you hear it read; put Mother there if you feel more comfortable. Sense the meaning of God as embrace, God as generosity, God as compassion and then add the human face, always add the human face. When we talk about God we are not dealing with abstractions. Jesus said, if you want to see God, then do God’s works, just as I have done God’s works. When you see and follow me, said Jesus, then you see way and truth and life in action. The actions are our journey into God, our divine life.
Listen again to these words of Jesus – first in summary: Jesus said, ‘I live in God’. Focus on verse 11: ‘Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me’. Our long Western history has turned this into a creed but the personal meaning of the words is so clear. These are words that each of us might say every day: we live in God because we learn together the meaning of God as embrace, God as generosity, God as compassion and then we add the human face, always add the human face.
Now let’s re-engage the text: ‘Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me … [but if you can’t bring yourself to this] then believe me because of the works themselves’. I wish more evangelists would offer us this side of the story because it balances the seeming exclusivity of Jesus’ words. We need to acknowledge that many who do not share our creedal convictions are still partners with us in the discovery of way, truth and life. But once more, return to the text that forms the basis of today’s Gospel reading – John chapter 14 and verse 2: ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’. I admit the text is complicated with interpreters reaching widely differing meanings (http://bible.org/seriespage/exegetical-commentary-john-14).
On my reading, John explains his intention or premise, by reminding us that ‘to dwell in the Father’s house’ is (verse 15) to live by the commandment to love each other and to acknowledge the Spirit that links us to God and each other. What more is that than to honour the human face. With all my own awkwardness about God talk, I need not therefore slip into Jesus or Spirit talk. In his lifetime Jesus claimed to do the works of God; in our lifetime the Spirit is to awaken us to the works of God. None of these works are about miracles – they are the everyday of seeing and honouring the human face.
Today, Pentecost Sunday, I urge you to live that story in your own everyday. This will open for you some radical decisions. Loving another person is no easy matter. ’Diversity, adversity, disagreements, conflicts, hardships, tough situations, difficult people, career set backs, new cultures, exaggerated goals and failures are all loud alarm clocks and unique and precious opportunities to learn and grow. But it takes tremendous insight and courage to avail of them as such’ (Deepak Sethi, What leaders need to learn about leaders). These are all tests of our ability to love another person with integrity from the heart.
Loving like this has its negative side: we may wish only to speak peaceably but sometimes we need to challenge and critique. As theologian and biblical interpreter Walter Brueggemann has urged, we must learn to ‘subvert’ the hostilities and disconnections of our larger world and even sometimes in the church community. Brueggemann underscores forgiveness, hospitality, and generosity as three primary subversive acts. These life qualities shape ‘an ability to hold loosely what the world assumes and to walk into alternative contours of reality, which we have only in hint and trace’ (based on a Dwayne Howell review of Walter Brueggemann and Carolyn J. Sharp, eds., Disruptive Grace: Reflections on God, Scripture, and the Church, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011, quote from p. 296).
In these acts of subversion we celebrate the manifold face of God in the human condition. We discover the expanse of way and truth, with life opening to more and more one-to-one possibilities. This is set on a wide plain where hope, endurance, courage and self-discipline are the mark of a woman or man who has discovered God as embrace, God as generosity, God as compassion and to this they learn to add the human face, always add the human face.
A Meditation Homily based on the Gospel reading for Pentecost Sunday, John’s Gospel chapter 14 verses 8-17.
19 May 2013