Sermon on John 17:20-26, for Easter 7, Year C, May 8, 2016
[Jesus said:] “I ask not only on behalf of these,
but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,
that they may all be one.
As you, Father, are in me
and I am in you,
may they also be in us,
so that the world may trust that you have sent me.
The glory that you have given me
I have given them,
so that they may be one,
as we are one,
I in them
and you in me,
that they may become completely one,
so that the world may recognize that you have sent me
and have loved them
even as you have loved me.
“Father, I desire that those also,
whom you have given me,
may be with me
where I am,
to see my glory,
which you have given me
because you loved me
before the foundation of the world.
“Righteous and Just Father,
the world does not know you,
but I know you;
and these know that you have sent me.
I made your name known to them,
and I will make it known,
so that the love with which you have loved me
may be in them,
and I in them.”
The gospel text is a perfect one for Mother’s Day because it culminates in Jesus’ prayer that we would all know love. Jesus’ prayer, as written in John’s gospel, has a number of “so that” statements that show us the purpose behind his requests. Listen to the “so that” which comes at the culmination of our text today:
“[Father], I made your name known to them, and I will make it known,
so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Jesus said that love would come from knowing God’s name. Well, Jewish people already knew God’s name, Yahweh; the name God gave to Moses from the burning bush; the name that means pure being, “I am that I am” or perhaps, pure becoming in process, “I will be what I will be.” But Jesus taught us to know this God of the Ground of Being also intimately as Abba, Father or Papa. Jesus addresses this prayer, and all his prayers, to his Papa.
God as Mother
Could God, whose final purpose is that we all know that we are loved, also be known as mother? Love for her children, after all, is probably the chief characteristics of a mother. Of course. The Hebrew bible has several places where the mothering nature of God is celebrated. We used one in our call to worship from Isaiah 66 which has these phrases:
[God says,] “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” and Isaiah adds, “you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees.”
God is “her”, the one who nurses children, who comforts and dandles them on her knees. Amazingly progressive sounding, and yet the ancient world was full of female deities. It is relatively modern to have a problem with that.
From the ancient wisdom found in the Creation story we read that the “One of the Earth” or Adam and the “Mother of all Living,” or Eve, male and female, were both made in the image of God. The Creation poem in Genesis says,
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
Is it possible to think of God both as a father and as a mother? Is it possible to hold two concepts together that seem to be opposites, or at least as paradoxical? That question is important for understanding Jesus’ prayer which we will see in a minute. And it is crucial to understand who we are in God, and our role in the world.
But first, to prepare us for thinking about paradox, I wanted to share with you what I just learned from a scientist. On her podcast called “On Being” Krista Tippet, interviewed Frank Wilczek, the Herman Feshbach professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wilczek was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004. His most recent book, on the role that beauty plays in math and science is called A Beautiful Question.
Wilczek said this, abut paradox, or what scientists call complementarity:
“For normal truths, the opposite is a falsehood. But deep propositions have a meaning that goes beyond their surface. You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.”
He explained, for example, the question, ‘Is light a particle or a wave?’ It is both, “and sometimes it is more useful to think of it as one than the other, or the opposite; both can be informative in circumstances, but it is impossible to apply them both at once.”
Another example he discussed was space and time. We experience them as separate and distinct, but scientists, since Einstein, know that the space-time universe as a singularity.
So, light is both a particle and a wave. God can be thought of with the paradoxically intimate symbols of both Father or Mother, Papa and Mama, as protective and as nurturing.
The paradox that Jesus keeps turning over in his prayer is the paradox of mutual indwelling, or what the Buddhist tradition would call “inter-being.” God in us, and us in God. He prays:
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”
The paradox is between unity and separateness. We experience our lives as separate selves: separate from each other, separate from the world around us, and separate from God.
Perhaps it was that initial separation we all experienced at birth, as we come out into the world, separate from the womb of our mothers, that left us with a permanent sense of disconnection, of separateness.
Could it be that just as our experience of the separateness of space and time is an illusion, since they are really one, or that our thinking of light as either a particle or a wave is an illusion, since it is both, so also our thinking of ourselves as separate selves is an illusion?
If what Jesus is saying is true, then our true selves are who we are, in God. Hear again Jesus’ prayer:
“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one,
as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”
Jesus did not invent this concept of finding our being in God’s being. Psalm 90, attributed to Moses says,
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”
God is home. And yet, we feel homeless.
Richard Rohr, in his book Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self wrote:
“The deepest human need and longing is to overcome the separateness, the distance from what always seems “over there” and “beyond me,” like a perfect lover, a moment of perfection in art, music, or dance, and surely a transcendent God.” (p. 100). Kindle Edition.
So, the spiritual quest, the journey we are on, is to find our home in God. To know that like a mother, nursing her child, God loves us, and nothing can ever change that. Our longing is to know our true selves that way, in God, and God in us, by the Spirit, ever present, ever faithful, moment by moment.
What the Mystics Know
It is nearly universally true that the great mystics have all come to the conclusion that our sense of separateness is an illusion.
Contemplatives often speak of the sense of unity they have been given insight into – unity of all things, all people, all of creation, unity with the divine. Even the Greek poets which Paul quoted with approval spoke of God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
This is the root meaning of the word Atonement: At-One-Ment. This is what religion is supposed to announce: the word “religion” comes from the word for re-connecting, re-ligio, re-binding, as ligaments connect bone to bone. This is what salvation means: liberation from the bondage of guilt and shame; the freedom of forgiveness and reconciliation. Being one with God.
The goal Jesus had in mind, the reason he taught us to know and recognize our true selves as one with God, is not so that we could live contently separated lives. The goal and consequence of being one with God is being one with each other. Let us hear the “so that” in Jesus’ prayer again,
“so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one”
God’s goal for us is that we might live in that unity. The most true thing we can say about who we are is that we are one. If each is One with God, then we are one with each other. And if God is the source of all being, the source of all that exists, the Singularity behind the big bang that produced all the stars, the planets, and eventually the atoms in our bodies, then that unity extends to all of creation as well.
So, how should we then live? I think we can say with great confidence that thoughts and words and attitudes and behaviors that work towards this unity are God’s will, and those that create disunity are contrary to God’s will.
This unity, in Jesus’ mind, is not a begrudging unity, nor an apathetic unity, but culminates in genuine love. Again, another “so that” in Jesus’ prayer says it all:
“so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Love that defines our unity certainly entails well-being. So thoughts and words, and attitudes and behaviors that work for the well-being of others and of this world are God’s will, and those that work against that well-being are contrary to God’s will.
Love, the Ego, and Contemplation
Love is why we must speak of the ego. Our sense of ourselves as separate includes our inner voice, comparing ourselves with other selves, thinking of ourselves as in competition with others, judging others, and generally, looking out for our own self-interests. To be a loving person is to have done a lot of work on the ego we all have.
This is why living a life that includes contemplative practices is so crucial. To become a loving person, we must learn ways to overcome the ego-centric selfishness that is our natural starting place in the first half of life.
This is exactly what contemplative practices do: they train us to become aware of the inner ego voice that chatters in our heads, and to strip it of its obsessive power. In the concentrated silence of meditation, or contemplative prayer, we deny the ego voice is platform.
And from that practice of contemplation, or meditation, we become more able to love; more aware of our essential unity with God and God’s creation, and therefore, more willing and ready to speak and act on behalf of the well-being of others and of this planet. We experience atonement: at-one-ment.
How can this not effect every aspect of our lives; our relationships, our spending practices, our ethics, our politics, our ways of using energy and natural resources?
How can this not impact our thoughts and attitudes about our global neighbors, like people from Latin America, or Muslims?
How can this not influence our perspectives on race, on peace making, on poverty, on homelessness and healthcare and education? How can this not compel us towards forgiveness and reconciliation in our families and in the relationships of our daily lives?
How can this not fill us with love for the God who loves us, and who fills our lives with such goodness, moment by moment? The God we know paradoxically as protective father, and as nurturing mother. The God in whom we live and move and have our being. The God of total love.