Archive for April, 2005

I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life

Sunday, April 24th, 2005
Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:2-10

John 14:1-14

I am grateful to the Reverend Doctor Gomes for the invitation to preach here today, a great honor. He is to be congratulated and envied for his sabbatical, and I sincerely hope that he is enjoying a term of refreshment in which he can look with pleasure on his accomplishments and prepare himself for the work ahead. After all, the sabbatical is the only part of the academic enterprise invented directly by God, as recounted in the Genesis discussion of creation regarding the seventh day.

Our gospel contains the famous, or notorious, saying by Jesus: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The notoriety comes from its negative part: “no one comes to the Father except through me.” This has sometimes been taken to be a rejection of religions other than Christianity. Yet there is no evidence that Jesus had that in mind at all. In every instance, save one, of Jesus’ recorded encounters with people who were not Jews like himself, he was positively impressed with their faith and helped them just as he did his own kind. Think of his dealings with the Samaritan woman at the well, the Canaanite woman who ate the crumbs under his table, or the Roman Centurion whose boy he healed. The exception was Jesus’ encounter with Pontius Pilate, and there the issue was not religious affiliation but honest government.

The positive part of Jesus’ saying is at the center of defining the Christian Way. Those of us who are Christians take this saying as our inmost identification: Jesus is our way, truth, and life. At the same time it is a Way that can be followed by anyone who is willing to do the work Jesus did. In Jesus’ culture and time, a son was defined as inheriting his father’s estate and work. So, we infer that Jesus was trained as a carpenter because Joseph was. More importantly, Jesus defined himself as Son of God for the reason that he did God his Father’s work, as he said in our text. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus runs back through the generations and ends, “son of Cainan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” I’m sorry that the ancient sensibilities left women out of this order of things; yet it takes only a little modern imagination to see that daughters too can be identified through the work of the parent, even the divine parent.

Whatever other meanings might belong to the phrase, “Son of God,” as applied to Jesus in the New Testament, Jesus says in our text that he is Son of God because he does God’s work. Because of the unity of that Father-Son work, he can return to God. Moreover, because he had taught the disciples also to do God’s work, they too can return to God. This is the plot behind the discussion of Jesus returning to the Father and preparing a place for the disciples. He says that they already know the way to the Father. Flustered, Thomas says they do not know the way. Frustrated, Jesus says “I am the way, etc.,” and you have been with me long enough to know me. He says that, if the disciples do not believe in him as such, at least they can believe in the work that he did among them. I take this to mean that non-Christian people can still be in unity with Jesus and God by doing his work.

We know from the text immediately following ours, which is in the lectionary for next Sunday, that his work has been to build communities of love, with all this entails regarding justice, peacemaking, forgiveness and mercy, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, opening the eyes of the blind, visiting those in prison, hospitality to those different from ourselves, embracing our enemies, and enduring with patience all the high costs that go with loving communities. We each of us know close analogues to these works in our own situation. Many things in our country need to be changed if we are to uphold straight justice for rich corporate crooks as well as petty thieves from the ghetto, if we are to make peace rather than go to war to get our way, if we are to practice forgiveness and mercy rather than vengeance against those who lash out against us, if we are to care for the poor rather than reduce entitlements to pay for tax cuts, if we are to educate those most in need in addition to those who already come from a culture of learning, if we are to release political prisoners and those who defended their country against us when we attacked, if we are to offer God’s hospitality to all creatures instead of only those who look, think, and act like us, if we insist that no one can be regarded as an enemy without also being the object of our love, and if we are willing to endure the constant defeats in small as well as large things as we strive to live out loving communities in our families, friendships, neighborhoods, civic units, nation, and world. This is the old story of the work of the Christian Way: you know it, and we have a ways to go. Yet nothing in what I just listed as the works of a Christian, deriving from Jesus’ work, and in unity with God’s work in creation and redemption, requires that one be self-identified with Jesus or Christianity. Anyone can take on that work, which we, if not they, know is in continuity with God and Christ’s work.

Permit me to focus in more detail, however, on the meaning for Christians of “the way, the truth, and the life”. The “Christian Way,” I think, has two main forms. The first form is what I call the “Church Christian Way,” which most people identify with Christianity. However you define the Church—and I advise you to duck when professional theologians start arguing about that—it includes a vast array of institutional forms that preserve the memory of Jesus and his work, and that interpret how that work extends from his Galilean context through all the cultures of the Christian world. The Church has a rich literature and hymnody, many forms of assembly, a calendar for rehearsing epitomes of the Christian life, and many social communities in which people live the particulars of their lives from birth to work to death.

The second form of the Christian Way, by contrast, is a Cultural Way and consists in struggling to understand our secular situation in Christian terms, to discover what Christian terms mean in our situation, and to learn how to be faithful to Jesus’ work in secular life. People in this second way might also belong to a Christian congregation and identify with the Church, but that is not their center of gravity as it is for people who are on the Church way. This second, Cultural Christian Way, relativizes the Church as one institution among many, and activates faith outside it. One thinks of poets such as T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Geoffrey Hill whose work has been the leading edge of Christian thinking but who have not been thinking only in and for the Church. The theologian Paul Tillich was a bit like this, thinking for the world rather than the Church, and he is held in suspicion by many Church theologians for that fact. I suspect that in a university such as this, though not of course in Memorial Church this morning, many people work predominantly on the Cultural Christian Way rather than the Church Christian Way.

Jesus is the Way and the Truth. To speak of Jesus being the Truth supposes something like the following. Merely to fall into a category to find an identity is one thing. To fulfill that categoreal identity by being an exemplary or fully realized member of the category is quite another. For instance, many coloratura sopranos have sung, but Lily Pons and Joan Sutherland were true coloraturas. Many baseball players have played, but Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams were true players. There are many Christians like ourselves who identify with taking on Christ and his work, and yet most of us are
schlubs. The true Christians are the saints.

That Jesus is the truth for Christians means that Christians are in transition to become more like him, more Christ-like, more fully integrated into God’s work in the world, more effective in it, more emptied out into it. This transformation deepens and ramifies the symbols of Christian piety. Consider the Lord’s Prayer by reflecting on the creation by virtue of which God is called Father, and see it to encompass a universe of vast age and extent, violent beyond imagination, indifferent to human needs save in the fragile environment of the third planet out from Sol on the edge of a minor galaxy. Our life-world is an engine of consumption, micro-organisms eating smaller ones and in turn being eaten by larger ones. Species live on other species and are prey in turn, finally vanishing to extinction when their habitat no longer tolerates them. The blood of human beings has about the same saline proportion as the seas from which our slime-mold ancestors emerged, and we bear the genes of fish, frogs, snakes, and tigers, as well as the sensitivities of the founders of human civilization. So when we pray the Lord’s Prayer in transition to greater spiritual depth, the meaning of “Our Father who art in heaven” is that God is the Father of all that, a wild, fierce and destroying Father as well as the Father of justice and human order. Moreover we are part of all that creatureliness down to the saltiness of our blood, the snake in our genes, and the lives of others in our diet. The truth of Christ is not the tame stuff we tell our kids. The truth of Christ is the awesome, wild, and often unbalanced character that is able to stand in the divine winds of cosmic blasts, to stare down the abyss of suffering and fiery glory only poets can imagine, to love the God who leaves us nailed to crosses, to take up the work of our Beloved whose precious loving communities heave atop the tectonic plates of brute force, passion, blood, and poetry. Did you ever wonder why the central ritual of Christianity is a cannibal rite in which we symbolically eat the flesh and drink the blood of our Founder? It is because nothing any tamer could present the awesome depth of the Truth of Christ into which we would be transformed.

Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That Jesus is “the Life” pulls together many different senses in which the image of life is used in Christian scripture. In Genesis God breathed into the clay doll and Adam became a living being. In Deuteronomy God set the choice between life and death and urged the people to choose the life of obedience that would lead to prosperity and flourishing of Israel. In Ezekiel God re-knit the dead dry bones and breathed life into the people of Israel so that they would again be united and flourish. Jesus repeatedly brought the dead back to life, although they were not necessarily better off spiritually than before they had sickened and died. On the other hand people might be physically alive and yet spiritually dead, when the Holy Spirit summons them to new spiritual life in Christ. Jesus’ resurrection from physical death introduced a new level of spiritual life as fellowship with God, characterized by the symbol of the Ascension, and yet Jesus claimed already to have had that fellowship in his last supper with the disciples prior to his death, and said that with the Holy Spirit they too could have that fellowship of resurrection to life with God within this life. To follow Jesus’ Way in our work, to press on toward him as the wild Truth of our lives, is to inhabit a life that combines and intensifies all these senses of Jesus as the Life.

Jesus’ term for this in John’s gospel is “eternal life.” Eternal life embraces the future but is a quality of present life. Eternal life incorporates the past, adding life to the inanimate, overcoming death in present abundant life. Yet the abundance of eternal life is not like worldly prosperity—often quite the contrary: its signature, after all, is the cross. Jesus’ Way and Truth lead to participation in the eternal abundance of God’s life. Jesus said, “the Father and I are one.” We can imagine only the tiniest slice of the eternal abundance of divine life, but even this little includes the winds of cosmic blasts and the abyss of suffering and fiery glory. It includes also within our ken the fierce fecundity of God’s creative love that throws up countless galaxies, swarms of species, and rivers of power for healing and new chances. While on Jesus’ Way and living in his Truth, we reflect back this divine cosmic love and then receive again our love returned and magnified, ever more creative, then share it out with others, receive it back and send it yet again in new directions. God’s eternal abundance is a living engine of creative love in which we share through every pulse of loving God and neighbor. We love and are loved more than we know. By taking Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we know the way into the divine Father, just as Jesus said in our text. With love’s powers we bear up under all trials and enter ever more deeply into the wild abundance of divine immensity. This Way, Truth, and Life are open to all. But thanks be to God for our Rabbi Jesus Christ, who shows us the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

To Follow the Shepherd

Sunday, April 17th, 2005
Acts 2:42-47

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

Our three texts today are embarrassing, each in its own way. The passage from Acts presents the most idealized image of the early Church that you can imagine. A community of over 3000 people devoted themselves to learning from the apostles, fellowship, common Eucharistic meals, prayer, miracles, pious awe, sharing everything in common, spending much time in the Temple, enjoying one another with glad and generous hearts, praising God, and gaining the respect of the people, with the result that the community continued to grow every day. Who of you who has spent any time in church at all would believe this unalloyed evangelistic success? This is an odd passage even for the Bible. It follows immediately upon a passage in which Peter berates sinners to save themselves by accepting Jesus as the Messiah, and it is followed by a long story in which Peter and John get thrown into jail for healing and teaching in the Temple, texts which are much more typical biblical narratives. Then the next thing that happens is that two new converts try to cheat the rule of owning everything in common by keeping some of the proceeds of their property and they are struck dead. The ideal community does not last long. In fact, our idealized text is embarrassingly like a Hallmark Card version of church history.

The text from 1 Peter is embarrassing in two ways. The first is that the lectionary editors start the passage with the second sentence of the paragraph. The first sentence reads: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” The call to endure suffering really refers to the suffering of slavery, which our editors try to hide from us. While this text is not exactly an endorsement of slavery, it certainly is a refusal to criticize it even when the slavery is torture. The second way this passage is embarrassing is that it seems to say that suffering itself is good, and that because Jesus suffered, we also should suffer. This text has been cited to justify abuse of women who are supposed to feel good about the suffering they bear. The sentence immediately following our passage says: “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” The image of brutal men being tamed by the docile suffering of their brutalized women is a deep embarrassment. Like slavery, the debased status of women was part of the general Roman society of the time and we have rejected both on Christian grounds.

The gospel text from John is embarrassing because it likens us to sheep. Sheep are very stupid. They keep their nose down and wander from the path. Sheep need shepherds or they get lost. We surely are not so stupid and dependent, are we? To suggest that Jesus is a shepherd is strange imagery too. Except for the story of shepherds coming to praise his birth, he never dealt with them. Jesus was a town boy whose family was in the building trades. His friends were fishermen, and the activities of his childhood and youth were shaped by the fact that the Romans were building a city close to his hometown. The local economy was devoted to supplying that construction effort. Jesus was far from the pastoral life that dominated the imagery of the older Hebrew Bible. I suggest we just get over the embarrassingly unflattering suggestion that we are sheep and Jesus is a shepherd and ask what the text is about.

The text is about abundant life, of course. Jesus says he is the way to abundant life, and uses two images for this. To reach abundant life is like going through a gate. Jesus likens himself both to the gate itself, and to the gatekeeper. What is striking about our text, however, is the repeated juxtaposition of Jesus as the proper leader to the thieves and bandits, that is, the false leaders that will take the lambs to slaughter. Jesus, the true shepherd, will lay down his life for the sheep, a reference to the crucifixion; but the hired-hand shepherd will flee when the wolf or thief comes.

Who did Jesus have in mind as the thieves and bandits? Our passage comes right after Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees who refused to believe that Jesus had healed the blind man, and who badgered both the man and his parents to renounce Jesus. Those were the bandits he was referring to, people in his own religion, the Judaism of his time, who were dishonest, sneaky, and manipulative. Those Pharisees, remember, threatened the formerly blind man’s parents with excommunication from the Temple if they testified to Jesus, so they kept quiet; their son did not keep quiet, and the Pharisees did throw him out of the Temple. That was hypocrisy. The objects of Jesus’ attack in our passage were the corrupters of religion.

Abundant life, therefore, means true and honest religion, which Jesus defined as doing the work of God the father. What is that work? Doing what Jesus did when he claimed that he, like everyone to whom the word of God comes, is a son of God. Read the rest of John, chapter 10, for this argument. So what was it that Jesus did? What was his work, which he claimed was divine work? The gospel of John makes it very clear that Jesus’ work was to create communities of love that have a double effect. One effect of loving communities is to overcome the alienation among people that manifests itself in hatred and injustice. The other is to overcome the alienation between God and people that manifests itself in our sinful rejection of God and God’s work. This is to say, Jesus’ work was to bring about communities of love of neighbor and love of God. The consequence of Jesus’ work is redemption. Its content is life abundant. Jesus’ work is the gateway to redemption and life abundant, which he often called eternal life.

Jesus brought four things to his work. One was his positive preaching about how to live as friends and lovers together. Regarding our human communities he preached justice and mercy, care and forgiveness, peace-making and humility, all as conditions for love. Regarding our friendship with God, Jesus preached prayer, study of the scriptures, and mutual help through traditional means of grace for the attainment of intimacy with God. We all know these familiar positive points of Jesus’ teaching. Can we not take these as virtues for our own lives?

The second component of Jesus’ work was his skilled denunciation of hypocrisy. Again and again Jesus exposed the corruption of the institutions and teachings of his own religion by hypocritical leaders. He attacked the selfishness that led to the exploitation of the poor and powerless, a selfishness that decorated itself in the trappings of righteousness. This denunciation of hypocrisy was one of the principal offenses that got him in trouble with the authorities. Is it not incumbent on us, too, to name hypocrisy when we see it, particularly in our religion?

The third component of Jesus’ work was actually helping people usually by healing the sick and demented. He took sickness and sin to be symptoms of a broken world that needs redemption. The healing of these is itself a sign of God’s work to complete and redeem creation. We too can be healers of sickness and restorers of sinners to grace, can we not?

The fourth and most important component in Jesus’ work was his own loving and winsome person. People who met Jesus loved him. Not everyone, of course, not those caught in the bonds of hypocrisy. But sinners loved him because of his own manifest love for them. Rich people loved him, poor people loved him, flagrant sinners loved him and the very righteous, whose only fl
aw was an inability to release their possessions, loved him. He worked so hard with his disciples, teaching and reproving them, but always loving them; and they loved him in return. Read the 14th through 17th chapters of John to see how Jesus’ love brought his disciples to be a community of love and friendship with one another and with God. Jesus’ disciples know the voice of their Lord, as the sheep know the voice of their own shepherd, because they love that voice, and love the love in that voice.

Our own spiritual lives are good if we fervently pursue justice and mercy, care and forgiveness, peace-making and humility, all these virtues that make for positive loving communities. Our spiritual lives are better if, in addition, we go through the purifying fires of rooting out hypocrisy. Hypocrisy in our institutions, our leaders, and friends, is dangerous to reveal. Hypocrisy in ourselves is painful to reveal. Yet we cannot face God without the honesty to admit who we are, save by the welcoming mercy of God that overlooks our self-deceptions and simultaneously shines light upon them. Jesus taught that our temptations to hypocrisy are Satanically inspired. In matters of honesty, our spiritual lives include a war against the Enemy.

Our spiritual lives are even better if, in addition to the positive virtues of love and the ruthless unmasking of hypocrisy, we actually do something to help people. Jesus taught that service to others is essential to spiritual life. The virtues proper to a loving community are hollow, in fact hypocritical, if they are not practically expressed in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, making peace, deconstructing the structures of oppression, and building a more just world. Devoting our lives in service to others in the name of God is essential to our spiritual lives.

Our spiritual lives are filled to abundance, however, if in addition to all these we are in love with Jesus. Christians find eternal life most abundantly in loving Jesus. Although we are at some distance from Jesus compared with his immediate disciples, we can hear his voice in the Bible. We can feel his love in our contemporaries who are filled with the love of Jesus. We can cultivate our imagination in meditation and prayer to understanding how Jesus could love us personally. We are each unique, with our own situations and personal relations, our own stations and ambitions, our own foibles and sins, our own gifts and dark secrets. To understand the love of Jesus for us personally, we need to imagine him addressing each part of us, companioning us in our peak experiences, bearing us up in our deepest sins and failures, working with us day by day. This imaginative life of sharing love with Jesus is the heart of Christian spiritual life. All our virtues, our truth-speaking, and good works feed into this spiritual imagination of divine friendship. The power of that spiritual imagination opens us to God. For, the love we find for ourselves in Jesus our friend is the love God has for us. And as we reciprocate that love in our love of Jesus, we learn to love the Creator who gives us this world.

Now we can understand the passage in 1 Peter about suffering. Our world is full of suffering, and that is among the gifts of God: not all gifts are happy ones. But by enduring the sufferings of life we learn to think with Jesus how he loves us and how we love him, and thus we learn better how to love God. And as for that embarrassing idealized view of the church that could not last, it serves as an ideal by which we test the fruits of Christian love. We measure the depth of our understanding of Jesus’ teachings, our grasp of his critique of hypocrisy, our commitment to his work, and our mutual devotion and friendship, when we see the effects of our spiritual life tending toward that ideal. That ideal sketches the fruits by which increasing abundance of life is measured.

Though we balk to think of ourselves as sheep, we do know the gate to abundant life. We know Jesus, the gatekeeper, and can respond to his call. Although the shepherd takes us over demanding paths of virtue, confession of hypocrisy, and works, it is his winsomeness that attracts and leads us. What I have called the knowledge and love of God in imagination is what the tradition has called the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus the Christ, the Good Shepherd, is alive with us in God’s Spirit. It is our privilege, and great happiness, to follow him. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville