The Spirituality of Teachability: God’s Home School

The Spirituality of Teachability: God’s Home School

Sermon on John 14:23-29 for Easter 6 C, May 1, 2016

John 14:23-29
Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

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I remember as a young person puzzling over the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make any sound?”  Or this one, “Do colors exist, or is my experience of a color just the interpretations my brain makes on the basis of the rods and cones in my eyes as they receive part of the light spectrum reflected in different wavelengths by different objects?

Understanding Science – really?

Recently I heard a professor who asked the question, “Would a glass of water exist if I were not looking at it?”  Apparently, the answer, from modern physics, is only “potentially so.”  The reason for that involves quantum mechanics and is so complex I will not even attempt it.  I am quite certain I do not understand it.

If the physical universe is so difficult to adequately comprehend, how much more so the non-material world?   Think of all the great minds that have struggled, over the years, with questions like: What is love?  What is freedom?  What makes life meaningful?  What is my purpose in life?   As difficult to understand and talk about as they are, these are the kinds of abstractions that people live for, and are willing to die for.

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If these non-material concepts are challenging, how much more so is the concept of God?  I was listening to the Science Mike podcast in which he was answering a question about the different dimensions, besides space and time, that modern scientists speak of.  In his explanation he said that there is no way our brains can conceptualize these other dimensions, even if mathematical models indicate their presence.  Our brains just cannot conceive of them.  The only world we experience is the world of three dimensional space and forward moving linear time.

How much more difficult is it for our brains to conceptualize God?  We use words like “infinite,” but that does not go too far to help.  Infinite is a negative, meaning not finite.  We say “immortal,” but that too only means not mortal, not subject to death.  We say “invisible,” but again, it only means that we cannot see God with human eyes.

In spite of this challenge, throughout the world, and from our earliest origins as humans, we have been attempting to speak of the Divine – the gods, or of one God.  To speak of God is to use human concepts expressed in human language.

God-Language is Symbolic

This means that all of our language about God is symbolic.  This is a hugely significant thing to say: all of our language of God is symbolic.  At the core of our tradition as Christians, and at the core of Judaism is the essential mystery of God.

The closest we can come to naming God is found in the story of Moses at the burning bush.  God’s voice, in the story, says God’s name is Yahweh, or “I am that I am” which is either pure being or, probably more accurately, pure becoming – being, in process.  Well, that may be a name, but what does it mean?

So, every serious theologian and every religious tradition speaks of the ineffability of the Divine.  So when we speak of God, we speak symbolically.  We try to speak truthfully, but it is the truth of symbol.  We use terms like, “the Ground of Being,” or “the Depth dimension of life.”  John Calvin used the words “O depth” to speak of God as mystery, which I quoted not too long ago here.

Rejecting Inadequate God-conceptions
I believe that one of the biggest reasons we see a rise in atheism now is that many people are simply rejecting conceptions of God that are totally inadequate.

For example, if God is conceived of like a Superman, a being, apart from the wScreen Shot 2016-04-30 at 7.02.33 PMorld, who has unlimited power to act on the world, and sometimes does, but most of time just stands idly by, as evil and tragedy cause suffering and harm, then that God would be a moral monster.

Of course that kind of conception of God must be rejected.  I guess if that were the only possible way of conceiving God, then rejecting that concept might make you an atheist.  But perhaps it simply means that a new way of thinking about God  is needed, which of course, is the case.

So, for me, calling God “the Ground of Being” or “the Depth dimension of life” is an attempt at being more adequate than the idle Superman concept, but these phrases have a severe limitation.  They are impersonal.

God as Personal – at least

Whatever God is, God must be at least as sophisticated and complex aScreen Shot 2016-04-30 at 7.05.51 PMs we humans are, but of course, much more.  Just as plants are more complex than rocks, and animals more than plants, so we humans are complex enough to have consciousness.  We know ourselves as persons.  We have will and purpose.  We can communicate and have relationships.  God must at least have these personal capacities.  God must at least be personal, though much more so, at a level we cannot imagine.

The Symbol of Spirit as Personal Advocate

I say all of that because we need to have that background when we read texts like the gospel of John.  John’s community was a mystical community.  Remember it is in John’s gospel alone that we hear Jesus saying, flat out, “God is Spirit.”  So how do you speak of Spirit in human language?  You must speak symbolically.

So in John we hear Jesus speaking symbolically of God, of himself, and of the Spirit.  Jesus’ favorite symbol for God is to call him Father – very personal, very relational, even intimate.  Jesus speaks of himself as mystics do, as being one with the Father.  He understands himself as a vehicle for God the Father’s message.

But John’s community lived at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth, and he was no longer present to speak with them about God.

Nevertheless, they still experienced God.  And their experience of God had a distinctively Jesus flavor.   The Spirit of Christ was still present for them.  So what symbol could they use to speak of this in human language?

In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus calling the Spirit, the Advocate.  In this symbolic language, Jesus speaks of the Father, sending the Spirit to us as an Advocate.  Advocate was a term that was relevant to their culture.  It just means someone that shows up to give you exactly the help you need in that moment.

Reminding and Teaching Further

What kind of help?  Here we learn that the Spirit helps by reminding the Christian community of what Jesus taught.  But more than that alone; the Spirit continues the teaching process further.

“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  (14:26)

So, if the Spirit both reminds and teaches, then our task is to remain teachable.  Our goal, as we try to follow Jesus in our culture, in our generation, is to keep open to the Spirit of Christ as he schools us.  Mature Christians practice the spirituality of teachability.

What have we learned?

And, over the years, we have, indeed, been taught.  We believe that the Spirit has taught us, after thousands of years of being unteachable, that slavery must not be tolerated. Jesus never said that, but we have been taught that by the Spirit.

The Spirit has also led us to open the doors of the church to the ministry of women, after all these years.  And finally, we have concluded that there is no basis for discrimination that finds any justification for the community that follows Jesus.  We are all and equally loved by God.  God’s grace is the one and only basis for our spiritual lives.  We have been taught to practice radical hospitality.

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So the Christ Spirit is the Advocate who shows up teaching us what it means to follow Jesus in our generation.  There is also a deeply personal aspect of the Spirit’s work as well.  By the Spirit, God is not just an external presence, but an internal reality.  The symbolic concept here is a home: God’s Spirit takes up residence inside us.

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

We live and move in God, so we could say that our home is in God, and here, we discover that God’s home is in us.  Some call this a “mutual indwelling.”  This is where even symbolic language utterly breaks down.  It ends in a paradox.  God in us, us in God.   But how else can human language say it?

What does this symbolic language mean?  It means, at least, that God is intimately involved in the moment-by-moment life we live.  God is living God’s life in the lives of each of us.  It means, at least, that God is there for us, as an Advocate, in every moment.  It means, at least, that God is for us, not against us.  It means, at least, that God is the name we give to that force in us, luring us towards love, towards the good, towards beauty and towards truth.  It means, at least, that the trajectory of compassion that Jesus set in motion, can continue in us.


And of course the personal effect of knowing that as we live in God, God lives, by the Spirit of Christ, in us, as an Advocate, a teacher and guide, can only be one thing: peace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Peace, the opposite of anxiety and fear, is the product of a life of trust.  We trust that God is with us, spiritually, in us, helping us, and that we are not abandoned as orphans, nor merely the little people, running around like ants, observed by the idle, distant Superman.
This is the peace that continues even in times of suffering and pain.  Knowing that if God is at home in us, God is there, in fact suffering with us.  Not as an external observer of our suffering, but one with us as an Advocate in our sufferings, assuring us that we are not abandoned.  We will be alright.

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How do we experience this peace?  We experience this peace only as we are mindfully awake to the present moment.  If God is in us by the Spirit, living our lives in us, this can only be about the present moment we are living.

We do not live in the past; it is over.  We do not live in the future that has not yet happened in our experience.  We can only live in the present; in the moment.  So God’s Spirit is in the present moment.  It is in the present moment that we come to experience the peace that the Spirit gives.

How do we become more mindfully present in the moment?  Mindfulness is one of the fruits of practices like meditation.  This important and historic Christian practice almost dropped out of use by Protestants after the theological battles of the Reformation, but thankfully, meditation is being rediscovered by many today.

A regular practice of contemplative prayer, or mindfulness meditation, and other mindfulness practices such as yoga or mindful walking, produces the fruit of mindfulness in us, allowing us to experience the peace of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.

Fingers pointing at the moon

Yes, all these words are symbolic.  And, as symbols, they are inadequate.  We acknowledge that fact.  But as symbols, they point to a reality, like fingers pointing at the moon.  The fingers pointing are not the moon, but all we can do from here is point, and give gratitude.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid,”  

because, as we can only express symbolically, we have the Spirit, the Advocate, sent by the Father, at home in us, teaching us to follow the Jesus path, giving us peace.

It’s That Simple

It’s That Simple

Sermon on Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35 for the 5th Sunday in Easter, C, April 24, 2016

Acts 11:1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

John 13:31-35
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

When I was a child, it happened more than once that someone had the idea of making a Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 2.02.45 PMclub.  Our close circle of friends would swear loyalty to each other  and seal it with an oath.  We would say, “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”  That is called an oath of self-cursing, or, technically, a self-maledictory oath.

These kind of oaths show up in the bible.  You may recall Ruth, promising to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi with the promise,

“The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.”

Actually, circumcision is also an acted out oath of self-cursing.  It is symbolic castration.  It is saying, “May my family line, my name, die out and be forgotten in this community if I am ever disloyal to the covenant.

Circumcision was the sign of the covenant with Abraham, according to the story.  It  was supposed to be a permanent practice for all future generations of the descendants of Abraham, those who inherit the covenant and its promised blessings.

Think about those exclusive clubs that children make with their loyalty oaths.  They are so natural and instinctive that there must be something deeply human about them.
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Probably it goes back to the very behaviors that we evolved to practice that enabled our survival.  We learned to band together in tribes, back on the African Savannah, and as a loyal group, we fought off predators, we hunted and gathered food, and we cared for our young.

So, gathering into exclusive groups was an adaptive advantage back when we were putting bones in our noses.  Whether or not it is still an advantage, the instinct remains, “cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”

Growing up

Part of what it means to become a mature adult is learning that instinctive behaviors can often be completely inappropriate.  How long does it take to train siblings not to fight with each other?  Years, right?

Brain scientists know that the primitive part of our brains, which they refer to as the “lizard brain” is where that automatic impulse to fight back comes from.  There is no rational thinking in that part of the brain; when we feel threatened, the part they call the amygdala fires, and we want to fight back.  But mature people discover and learn alternatives to violence, which is preferable to a lawsuit or jail time.

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I guess we should not be too harsh with the struggle they had in the early church to avoid the instinct to make an exclusive club out of being Jesus-followers.  At the beginning, they all were all Jewish; descendants of Abraham.  They had a long history of being distinct from he Gentile nations around them.

Circumcision not only made them distinct, it was also a serious oath of loyalty.  They were used to being distinct.  Moses added other practices that made Jewish people distinct as well, especially the kosher food laws, and the prohibition of all work on the weekly Sabbath.

But for those early Christians, it was complicated.  They were self-consciously trying to follow Jesus.  Jesus had been with them and had completely transformed their lives.  He had taught them a revolutionary way of conceiving of God.

Jesus taught them that they were children of God who could call him Abba, or Papa, without temple, without priest, and without sacrifice.   He taught them that they were not to think of themselves as impure, but perhaps only lost, in need of being found, and God like a Good Shepherd or like the Father of the prodigal son, was in the finding business.

And to top it off, Jesus took this message across the Mason-Dixon line; he took it to uncircumcised Gentiles.  He went to their side of the lake, to their towns, where he healed them, he fed them; for heaven’s sake, he loved them.  From the cross, with Roman nails killing him, he forgave them.

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In the sacred scriptures of the Jews, the Torah, there were strict laws about your obligation to your neighbor.  Jewish people were taught to understand that they were a covenant community with deep moral responsibility for their neighbors, especially the weak and vulnerable, “the widow, and the orphan.”  They were not even allowed to charge each other interest on loans.

But their responsibility to non-Jews was different.  They were not “neighbors,” in the strict sense.   This is why, when Jesus summed up the whole law saying “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor” the man asked him “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan which ends with the question turned around: “Who was a neighbor to him?

So, the early church had a complicated situation.  They had the human instinct to form an exclusive club, and the cultural and religious background to think of themselves as separate, as “the chosen,”  but they had been transformed by Jesus, whose life practice and teaching was completely non-exclusive.

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Maybe this is why, in the story that Luke tells of those early days, they were open to Peter’s perspective.  But I must say, they were going way out on a limb.  They had the Word of God from Moses on one hand, with strict, specific laws, and centuries of respecting those laws, and what did Peter have?  A vision, a voice, and a visitor.

Peter’s vision was amazing.  Imagine: coming down from heaven, a banquet tablecloth with sizzling hot ham, pork chops, and bacon, along with shrimp and lobster,  and a voice saying, “Bon Appetit”!  With apologies to the vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians among us, it makes your mouth water.   But not if you have grown up considering this kind of food horrible.  Think of being offered dog meat, for example – you do not even want to think about it for a moment.

So, the banquet table cloth had to be presented three times, along the message that stands in dramatic contradiction to massive amounts of scripture,

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Can one person’s mystical vision overturn chapter after chapter of sacred text?

Well that was not all.  Then came the voice and the visit.  Peter reports that three men, from Caesarea, arrived at the house and, he says,

“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”

So, here we have a mystical vision followed by a report of a message from the Spirit asserting the opposite of what the Old Testament teaches, saying: “make no distinctions.

But that is not all; it was not just a vision and a message, there were real live people there.  And when Peter went and told them about the Jesus message, they had a direct experience of the Spirit, just like the Jewish disciples did on Pentecost.

So it was their personal experience that made the argument solid.  God was doing something new.

None of this should have been a surprise for followers of Jesus.  Jesus himself had already broken the ice with Gentiles.  His whole lifestyle was one of openness and inclusion.  He taught that even if we consider them our enemies, we must love our enemies.

The way John tells the Jesus story, in the upper room, on the night of his arrest, Jesus gives a solemn “new commandment” to his followers:

“love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The only distinction that separates the followers of Jesus from other people is that they are famous for loving others – and of course – love makes no separations or distinctions.  Yes, it is a paradox.  It calls for non-dual thinking.

Learning the Lesson: Meditation

How long it takes to learn this!  We have such a history of racism and discrimination – not just we Americans; this is a deeply human problem.  Anytime  you have groups of people who find reasons to think of themselves as “us” and others as “them” you have “us vs. them.”  It is as human as Cain and Able.  We find it natural, even pleasurable, to be in exclusive groups, from childhood to adulthood.

My experience of being in the Balkans has alerted me to the seductive power of the “us vs. them” message.  You can get yourself elected easily if you keep telling everyone how “us” is being threatened by “them” and their ways – their language, their religion, their views.

But friends, that is the opposite of love.  And it is the opposite of the way of Jesus.

So here is what I believe.  We must face the fact, without being in denial, that we all have this natural human condition within us.  We do.  It is there. It feels good to be in an exclusive club.   It is in our brain stems.   But we can change.

Which is exactly why we all need the very practices of Jesus to overcome our natural Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 3.44.01 PMinstincts.  Jesus was a “Spirit person” as Marcus Borg likes to say. He was deeply open to the Spirit; deeply in touch with the Divine.  As we know from the gospels, Jesus spent a great deal of time in contemplative prayer.  That was, we are told, his habitual practice.

The people who scientifically study this kind of meditation all agree that one of its powerful effects in the brain is to calm down that lizard part, where our instinctive desire to hate and fight come from.

As we practice the Christian habit of daily meditation, we begin to grow in our capacity for loving compassion.  Meditation, I believe, is indispensable today, more than ever.   There is something almost magical about what happens when a person develops the daily practice of sitting in silence for twenty minutes.  It produces a compassionate calm that is amazing.

Some people say that they cannot meditate because their minds wander.  All that means is that they  have not learned the one little mental tool used by people who meditate.  We give our minds a very small task to do, and bring our full concentrated attention to that task, as a way of anchoring ourselves in the present moment.  Some use a mantra word, some simply focus all attention on their breathing.

And yes, the mind wanders.  That is what all our minds do.  And it is okay.  When we become aware that our minds have wandered, we simply begin again, and re-focus on our anchor, on our mantra word, or our breathing.  That is all.  We sit silently in the presence of God.

But the point is that this daily practice of contemplative wordless prayer, or call it mindfulness meditation, is an indispensable Christian practice for those whose goal is to keep Jesus’ commandment  that we love one another.

It opens us to be able to love one another as Jesus did, crossing lines of gender, of race, of religion – all the lines that separate us into “us” and “them,” and make us want to form the kind of exclusive groups that the early Christians figured out they must not become.

The world needs us to be that community, famous for loving.  The deeper the divisions are in our country, the more we need bridge builders.  The more painful the wounds, the more we need healers.  The more angry the rhetoric, the more we need people of the gentle way.  The more hate there is, the more we need people like us to become experts in loving one another.

Being the Shepherd’s Sheep

Being the Shepherd’s Sheep

Sermon on John 10:22-30 for April 17, 2016, 4th Easter C

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

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I remember how bemused I was as a young person, when someone, probably my father, pointed out to me that the bad cowboys in the TV show we were watching wore black hats, while the good cowboys wore white hats.  That was my first introduction to the concept of symbolism in story-telling.

When John tells his version of the story of Jesus, six or more decades after the first Easter Sunday, he loads his narrative with symbols.

In this scene, the first thing we learn is the timing.  The action here takes place during the festival of Dedication.  If you are trying to recall when in the Hebrew bible you read about, do not bother; it is not there.  Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 9.11.41 AM

Rather, this feast commemorates a time of re-dedication of the temple that had been desecrated by the Greek-Seleucid king, Antiochus IV.  He had been trying to wipe out Judaism, and thought that by building a statue to either himself, or to Zeus (it’s not clear) in the temple, and offing a non-Kosher pig on the alter, he could ruin it for the Jews.

Long story short, he was so aggressive and brutal in his suppression of Judaism that he provoked a predictable response; the people revolted.  The violent Maccabean revolution began, and was eventually successful.  The Greeks were defeated, the temple was restored, and in December of 167 BCE, it was dedicated.  So Jesus is in the temple at the time of that Dedication anniversary.  In case we miss the symbol, John also tells us that this gospel scene takes place in the winter.

Jesus is walking in that restored, re-dedicated temple, just at the time in which everyone was remembering the violent Maccabean revolution of the past, and many were wishing for the new violent revolution to begin, this time, against the Romans.

Recalling Solomon

The symbols continue.  John tells us that Jesus was in the part of the temple called the portico of Solomon.  Again, a symbol.  It calls to mind several thoughts.  First that this re-dedicated temple was quite the contrast to Solomon’s temple.

The priests there were not descendants of Aaron, but were appointed by Rome, and therefore under the Roman thumb.  The present King, unlike Solomon, was not a descendant of David, or even Jewish.  If you are Jewish and respect the Torah, all of this is a nightmare of in-authenticity.

But calling to mind Solomon also recalls what kind of a king he was – oppressive, self-aggrandizing, rich, and ultimately responsible for the division of Israel into  North and South from which it never recovered.  Jesus is in Solomon’ portico, in the days before a new unraveling of the nation that will even be worse.

Are You Messiah?
Jesus head shot

So, in this symbolic context, the leaders of the people (which is what John always means when he says “the Jews” – not everybody, but rather, the leadership) challenges Jesus about being the Messiah (= “the Christ”).

Jesus’ voice, in John’s gospel is quite unlike his tone and manner in the other gospels.  The overwhelming consensus among New Testament scholars is that in John, when Jesus speaks, we are not hearing the historical Jesus, but rather the Christian community’s decades-long reflection on the meaning and significance of this man Jesus, whom they experienced as the Christ, the Messiah.

In John, Jesus speaks in cryptic ways, sometimes awkwardly, as he does here.

So, they ask Jesus,

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

You would think that if Jesus wanted to be clear, this is his golden opportunity.  But instead, he answers:

“I have told you, and you do not believe.”

Jesus then tells them the reason they do not believe him, in spite of the works that he as done in the Father’s name, which should have convinced them.  Jesus says,

“you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

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Now to a Jewish person, the sheep and shepherd symbol is well known.  It is not just the 23rd Psalm that makes the idea of us being God’ sheep famous.  The prophets too used the symbol.  The people are the sheep, and the kings and leadership are the shepherds.

Throughout most of Israel’s history they were horrible at their job as shepherds, unless fleecing the sheep for all they were worth was part of their job.  Protecting the sheep is not what they were in it for.

So Jesus’ response could be read as a double insult to these leaders.  Instead of being good shepherds, looking out for the interests of the sheep, they were sheep themselves.  But instead of being good sheep, they were bad sheep.  Good sheep follow the shepherd’s voice, bad sheep do not.  Jesus says,

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

And of course, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is looking out for his sheep’s best interest, as he says,

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Eternal life,” in John’s gospel, simply means the quality of life experienced by someone who knows Jesus as the Christ. (John 17:3) Then, Jesus says, as he only does in John’s gospel, a concluding sentence that seems to come out of nowhere,

“The Father and I are one.”

The Non-violent community

If you tried to read this scene as a literal historical moment, it would be odd to say the least.  But if you read it as John’s community reflecting on their life experience as followers of Jesus, who believe that the Christ is among them spiritually, it makes great sense.

This is a community which is trying to follow Jesus, who famously refused to fight back violently, even at the cost of his life.  This is a community that practices non-violence.  So they tell the story of Jesus in contrast to the violence of the Maccabees, even in the face of the successful re-dedication of the temple.  Violence is not justified even by  its success, as if might made right.

Anyway, it was all for nothing.  By the time John wrote, they had had another violent revolution in which hundreds of thousands perished by the sword, and in the end, their temple had again been totally desecrated and destroyed.

In this context you have to ask the question, why did so many people not want to follow the Jesus path of non-violence?  Why are people still so in love with the sword?  Why are we so ready to justify every use of force for every far flung cause?  You still hear it today.

People calling for carpet bombing and killing families right along with the terrorists.  How do you explain our lust for blood and gleeful vengeance?  Our applause at “successful” drone strikes, even when collateral casualties are included?

It is hard to explain.  Maybe some people just have no intention of listening to this shepherd and belonging to his kind of sheep.

But maybe we are in a new day.  Just this week we learned that a Vatican conference was held in which bishops called for rejecting the “Just War” theory.  Arguing that this theory has been used to justify almost every war anyone wanted to fight.  They called for a complete re-thinking of what it means to follow Jesus.

One archbishop said that when Jesus, from the cross, said “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” he was referring to all of us, and that “In this statement, he united the whole of humanity under one father.”

Ego and Violence

Where does this urge to violence come from?  From where this need to fight back, to inflict wound for wound, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?

Clearly it is something we have within us.  It is natural, instinctive, and it appeals to our sense of entitlement.  Nothing celebrates the ego like vengeance.

And perhaps this is why John’s community concludes this scene with the awkward
non-sequitur from Jesus,

“The father and I are one.”

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John’s community was a mystical community.  They believed that not only was Jesus one with the Father, but that all of his followers are one with him, one with each other, and also at one with the Father.  There is a mystical union that connects all of us with each other and with God.  (John 17:20-23)

It is the tragedy of humanity that we do not know this.  It is not knowing, not understanding, not appreciating and living into our union with God that keeps us identifying ourselves as separate, as not-belonging, as not-his-sheep.

And from that mistaken sense of separateness, we feel that we must look out for ourselves.  We must fight back in kind.

Violence, aggression, anger, it all comes from the same source.  It is our ego.  Our sense of self, or what Richard Rohr calls the false self, or the small self.

We all have a sense of our identity – which we must have to be alive and healthy.  We get this identity from our family, our religion, our nation, our gender, our sexual orientation, the groups, and clubs and political parties that we join, and from our economic status.

As Rohr says, “Your False Self is what changes, passes, and dies when you die. Only your True Self lives forever.”  (From Immortal Diamond, p. 29. Kindle Edition.)

It is our false self that gets threatened, that gets defensive, that becomes offended, that gets angry, and in the end, is willing to be violent.

Your true self is who you are in God.  We are all, as the creation story says, icons of God – icon is the word image; we are made in God’s image.

God is the source of our being.  We live and move in God.  As a beautiful metaphor we could say that we are children of God the Father.  Jesus liked that metaphor.  Or we could say we are sheep in God’s fold, with God as our shepherd.  Or as Paul says, we are “in Christ.”  Or we could simply say we are one with God.  As Jesus said,

“The Father and I are one.”

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John’s community was a mystical community that understood this union.  Today many are re-discovering the ancient contemplative practices that are indispensable in awakening us to our true identity in God.   Meditation, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, mindfulness practices, yoga, are the tools we need.  Each of them silences the ego voice of anger, resentment, vengeance and ultimately, violence.

We need these contemplative practices now more than ever.  If nothing else, the current political climate should convince us of this.  But more personally, we are all probably convinced by our own internal conditions.

Who wants to get to the end of life a bitter, angry, resentful person?  Do we not all long to be people of inner peace, of calm contentment, and equanimity?

Contemplative practices, especially meditation, produces a fruit of compassion in us.  We become more and more aware of our unity with each other, and find new sources of sympathy and understanding for each other.  We become more kind and generous, more forgiving, in fact, loving.

We become, most of all aware of the sacredness of life – all of it.  We become aware of the present moment – the only moment we ever get to live in.  And most profoundly, we become aware of our true selves, our true identity; that we do belong, that we are beloved and forgiven; that we are children of a loving Father; that we are one with God.

This gives us the courage to be; to really be; to be alive to our lives.  It gives us the courage to trust that we are upheld in an ultimate sense.  To know that there is a Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep who listen to his voice, and follow his path.