Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B, May 17, 2015 on John 17:6-19
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.
[Jesus said:] “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
If I were God, I would have slowed down that Amtrak train before it got to the bend in Philadelphia where it derailed and killed and injured all those passengers. I am sure all of us feel that way.
If I were God, I would have prevented that man on the motorcycle from killing the pedestrian in Foley recently. I would have put the idea in his head: “Hey, I better slow down; this is dangerous.”
I guess if I were God I would act to prevent all evil and suffering in the world. Earthquakes would not happen in places where people lived, like in Nepal.
Helicopters carrying people trying to rescue earthquake victims there would not crash. Boats carrying desperate, men, women and children, away from horrific violence and hopelessness would not sink and drown them in the Mediterranean.
I have been thinking about these ideas quite a bit because I am going to be addressing the GSHS graduating class at the Baccalaureate service here this afternoon. I have been reflecting on the trends we keep hearing about, the increase in the number of people, especially young people, who have given up on institutional religion, and the growing number who identify as non-religious and even atheists. Certainly the age-old problem of suffering and evil plays a huge role in the demise of faith.
And there are other causes at work as well. One recently published paper has linked decline in religious faith with the divorce rate. The connection between divorce and loss of faith may not seem obvious at first, but psychologically, it seems well established. Apparently if children loose their confidence in the credibility and reliability of their parents at an early age, they tend to stop seeking any meaning outside their own ability to sort things out. (source: Losing My Religion: Why People Are REALLY Leaving the Church (It’s not what you think.)
In addition, people in mixed marriages involving different faiths, which second marriages often are, find common ground in practicing neither, increasing the likelihood that children will grow up without religious roots. I am not arguing against mixed-faith marriages, only pointing out one of the frequent consequences.
So if I were God, maybe I would do some intervening to keep marriages together and healthy. Maybe I would put the idea in the heads of people “You know, maybe I am partly at fault here too; maybe I should practice forgiveness instead of ruminating on my own righteousness.” It does not seem like such a huge task for God, right?
Or how about God tweaking the brain functions of people with mental illness – just a bit? Not a lot to ask, right? And yet the change could be profoundly good.
But God does not do these kinds of interventions against suffering and evil.
The holocaust is still in living memory for some here today. So is the suffering of millions at the hands of Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution in China, the genocides of Rwanda and Srebrenica in Bosnia, and the uncounted tens of thousands of Iraqi’s who died because of the mistaken intelligence we believed, that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.
This is not a new problem. It was death and destruction the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that motivated Voltaire to write is bitterly satirical Candide, in which he lambastes then notion of philosophers such as Leibniz who said that logically, if God exists, then this is the best of all possible worlds.
The no God option
How do we respond? Or rather, how do we adequately respond? The most basic response is to say that all of this evil and suffering simply demonstrates that there is no God at all, at least not a good one who possesses the power enough to do things in the world.
According to this way of thinking, the world is just a material universe, formed by randomness and chance over long periods of time, without any intention, purpose, will or memory. Things just happen. That is all. We should grow up and stop wishing Daddy was up there watching over us.
But though that does answer the question, “why do bad things happen?”, it completely fails to account for the problem of why we find them bad. What difference should it make to us that random things happen to material creatures? Fish die; mosquitoes die. People die too.
But it does matter. And much more matters as well. It matters that we believe that we have a reason to be here. It matters that our lives have purpose. It matters that values are real, that love is real, that goodness and justice are real, and that we are not here as pure accidents of time and matter in a meaningless material universe.
It matters that we feel wonder and awe at the stars, at the clouds, at the ocean, at the birth of a baby, at music, art and literature. Dance matters. Rituals matter. Beauty matters.
So, what do we do. The idea that there is a God just makes the evil and suffering of the world completely incomprehensible. The idea that there is no God makes the meaning of our lives incomprehensible. Where do we go with this?
One possible path is in finding sufficient reasons to remain open to a second naiveté. The first naiveté of childhood was simply innocent faith that the world was good. In a normal home in normal circumstances, we can believe that we are loved and valued, that our lives are important to other people, and that trust, love and security are offered.
But that view really is naive, and most people eventually leave it behind as adults. Along the way, some become cynics, some even become utterly disillusioned, even depressed. Most of us find a way to cope in a space between having our eyes wide open to the badness on the evening news, on the one hand, and the need to get up in the morning and fix breakfast and go to work for the sake of the family on the other.
But can we go from the undoing of the first innocent naiveté to faith in spite of evident, and even overwhelming evil?
The End of Analogies as Adequate
Probably the only path open, if there is to be a second naiveté, has to involve a humble confession that our God-analogies are utterly inadequate. We know that God’s essence is unknowable, but we have always attempted to understand God by analogies.
God is like the sun, but only in some ways. God is like a powerful king, but only in some respects. God is like a husband, for Hosea, or like a fire in which precious metal is refined for Micah. God is like an almost indescribable creature with faces and eyes and wings on a mobile throne of wheels within wheels for Ezekiel, if that analogy is helpful to anyone.
Or, God is like a Monarch in the heavens who, in his role as judge of the world, has to find a punishment for every crime, which he always takes as personal affronts to his authority, and in the end, needs blood sacrifice to assuage his righteous wrath. This was the view current in Jesus’ day, that Jesus reacted to.
For Jesus, the analogy of Father was a necessary counter to that judge analogy. As Father, God wants the best for his children. As Father, God provides for his children a good earth to live on and to enjoy. As Father, God plays fair with all of his children, causing the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the evil and the good.
As Father, God expects his children to get along with each other, care for each other, look out for each other, and to look beyond each others differences and to know each other as one family.
The Father analogy is a happy one, and a great improvement over the vengeful blood-hungry-judge analogies of the past. The Father analogy allows us to think of God as for us, instead of against us.
Thinking of God as Father includes paying attention to his instructions and directions which include the requirement that we forgive each other, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and even touch lepers with healing mercy.
The Father analogy gives us a God we can love instead of merely fearing, and gives us a family to love and in which to receive love.
Limits of the Father Analogy
But the Father analogy only makes all the suffering and evil all that much more difficult to understand. If God is a Father who cares, then certainly he would do something, right? But he doe not.
So we must humbly admit that every analogy breaks down. God is very much like a Father in many respects, but very unlike any Father we know.
Trying to capture in human terms what the God of the quantum universe is like perhaps is a fool’s errand with no possibility of an adequate conclusion.
And this, finally, brings us to the texts we read today. John’s gospel is unique in the New Testament, because it uses the language and lenses of mysticism. Mysticism means embracing mystery.
The mystery that we are wrestling with is the mystery of being itself. How do we conceive of God’s being? Is it even adequate to think of God as a being separate from the universe, like a creator-spectator, deciding when and where to intervene or to ignore?
Perhaps it is that concept of God as separate and detached from the universe that is at the root of the problem. Would it be possible to conceive of God as in-process with the unfolding universe, both its source and a participant?
Relating to God: the 2nd Naiveté
Well this is a huge topic, but we are still left with the question of our relationship with God, however we might conceive of God’s being.
And this is where the mysticism of the gospel of John can help. If God is the source of the cosmos, the divine Logos, as John presents him, whatever else may be said, God, the source, became flesh. God is fully engaged with humanity. As Tony Jones recently explained, “God jumped into the deep end with us” and is fully involved in our human life — up to and including suffering and death.
And yet, John’s gospel is the one that says it in the most plain language: “God is Spirit.” So we are left with a mystery; a conundrum: God became flesh and God is Spirit.
It would take a quantum physicist to explain how matter and energy are actually part of the same basic stuff of the universe; or perhaps a mystic. Dualistic thinking in either-or categories of flesh vs. spirit, soul vs. body, are simply inadequate.
So, John tries to grasp, with words, a way to describe the relationship of humans to the divine with phrases of relationship, of will, direction, purpose, and of ultimate unity.
[Jesus said:] “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word…. All mine are yours, and yours are mine…”
Job, centuries before had said,
“In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.”
However we conceive of the being of God, we are offered the second naiveté of trust that God is fully for us. That we are made for a purpose and that God is somehow involved in the unfolding of that purpose.
The text from John acknowledges evil and in the prayer of Jesus, asks God’s protection from evil.
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
But in John’s gospel, even Jesus, the word-made-flesh dies a cruel death at the hands of grossly unjust and evil people.
The mystery of evil is still a mystery. And the mystery of God’s being is still a mystery. But how are we going to get on with life in this world of train wrecks, earth quakes and mental illness?
We will live into the possibility that God, who is Spirit, can be encountered mystically. We who are Christians, will take the Jesus-path into that mystery. We will suspend our cynicism and doubt enough to let in the possibility that the things that matter are real: that love is real, that goodness is real, that we are hard-wired for wonder, and that we are created to respond to beauty.
We will hear Jesus call us, and send us just has he understood himself as sent by God, into a world of evil, on behalf of the good. And we will accept the essential truth of our unity, despite our surface differences, in spite of the unanswered questions we are left with. And we will live as if, when all is said and done, love wins.