Boldly going where no love has gone before

John 13:1-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

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.”

As I child I loved going with my Father. The moment he said he was going to his workplace on the weekend, to check on something, my instant whine was, “Can I come with?” To go with my Dad to his workplace was a magical adventure. It was to enter into his adult world that seemed so big and so important.

You will excuse me then if I feel just a little dejected when Jesus tells me he is going away and that I can’t go with him. “Can I come with?” “No. Where I am going you cannot come

Jesus is returning to the Father. To that big and important place that humans have striven to discover and unite with since the beginning of human consciousness. Every shamanic ritual, every religious act has been an attempt to access the world of God. Drugs, drums and dance, have been employed as vehicles to carry the supplicant to the “other side” the place of God. Fasting, feasting, flagellating. It seems there is nothing we haven’t tried to, “bravely go where no one has gone before.

Jesus is very clear. ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’

Does that mean that he is inaccessible? At first glance it may seem so, but if we will read beyond the rebuttal we discover a key to the kingdom.

We may not be able to go where Jesus has gone, but there seems to be a simple practice that brings his Spirit back to us. ‘ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

The logical progression is quite clear.

Jesus has shown in the broken bread and the poured out wine, that he is the new Passover. The one who has, and who will, for all eternity pour out his life with loving care for his disciples.

Judas cannot participate in this as he has other plans.

The disciples will be shattered and scattered by what they will witness and understand as the ultimate failure of the Kingdom of God enterprise.

In all of this Jesus will be showing in his dying and in his forgiving that love can triumph over human destructiveness.

Of course this is not mere erotic love so he does not speak of a command to eros (one of the Greek words for love he could have used.) It is also not human philanthropic love that philos depicts. No Jesus commands the disciples to agapate one another as he has sacrificially loved us.

The command is nothing less than a command to become Jesus.

It is in the pouring out of our lives in selfless sacrificial love that people will know that we are Christ followers. I have a hunch that it is the way that we can go where he has gone.

When we have emptied ourselves and only love remains, then we will be one with the Father and we will be with Jesus.

We will have come to where he is in every moment… the silent heart of unconditional Love.

The call of the Slaughtered Shepherd

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.”

Once again I come to this passage from John’s gospel remembering that John never says anything that is not significant. Parchment was too rare and expensive to waste on non-essentials. Every word and phrase has power in John’s hands. It was John who gave us that chilling four word phrase just after Judas has departed the upper room, “… and it was night“. In that endline all the horror of what is happening is captured.

So I come expectantly, to this passage from John and he hits me with another of those phrases.

First he tells me that it was the time of the Festival that had been set up by the Maccabeans in 126BCE to commemorate the re-consecration of the temple in Jerusalem, the festival of the Dedication. He then hits me with, “It was winter”. A barren season when there is little sign of life. He is in the re-consecrated temple yet I wonder if John is suggesting that consecrating a building without consecrating one’s heart is a cold and fruitless ritual?

It is in this bleak architectural and calendar space that Jesus is questioned as to whether he is the Xristos, the Messiah.

I can almost hear the sigh in his voice as he replies,” “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Jesus has been performing many restorative acts of resurrrection, healing, forgiving. Restoring people’s food security, in raising men for vulnerable widowed homes. Countering bad shame blame theology by healing Canaanite children, Roman children, and even Synagogue leader’s children like Jairus’ daughter, to show that bad things do not only happen to bad people. If all of my works of restoration do not show you that God’s Xristos is here, then what will?

Remember, word economic John has located Jesus very precisely. All that is missing are the GPS co-ordinates and we could reference the spot on Google Earth! Jesus is standing in Solomon’s portico.

Solomon’s portico that abutted the court of the Gentiles, where all the sheep trading and money changing was going on.

  • Can you hear the haggling of the priests and the pilgrims?
  • Can you hear the clinking of the coins as they drop onto the tables that Jesus will overturn next time he comes to town?
  • I am sure Jesus heard all these sounds too.
  • But it was another sound that gave him the metaphor he needed for this Good News moment.
  • If we listen carefully you and I can hear it too.

Do you hear the bleating of the sheep and the silence of the lambs?

These are not calm and pastoral flocks, these are the fuel for the bloodthirsty religious machine that the temple has become, and it is the fear and dislocated cries of the scapegoated sheep that Jesus uses to teach us this Shepherd Sunday.

You don’t trust that I am the Messiah, because you don’t recognise my voice above the noisy screams of your own conflicted lives. If you were my sheep, this call to life, love, compassion and community would not be strange to you, and you would follow me. But as it is now, all you have is this beautiful building and a winter-blighted religion in which your frozen hearts cannot care less about the desperation of the pilgrims who need to know God’s life.

That is why I have come. I have not come for fancy porticoes and friezes, nor for festivals and feasts. Of all your laws I will keep only one rule, that you love God and each other. And of your rituals I will retain only a piece of broken bread and Elijah’s cup of wine from the Passover meal. The rest is as dead as these poor bleating sheep soon will be. There is no salvation in all this sacrifice. That is why I have never once spoken of myself as a sacrifice. No I am a Shepherd.

A shepherd whom your laws declare to be permanently unclean, because I work with blood and dung.

Yet, despite who you judge me to be, those who need life and love, compassion and community, come to me. Their belief is not some doctrinal and ethical veracity, it is simple trust. Trust that opens their eyes to glimpse God, in me and in themselves. In that union of my Father and me they come to share in a life that will last forever.

These sheep of mine will become, by grace, one flock with one shepherd. This flock will be struck and scattered across the face of the earth, for it is winter now, a cold and barren time.

But one morning the sun will rise, the hearts of ice will melt, and the Shepherd will repeat his eternal call once more. “Follow me.”

You may slaughter sheep but you cannot kill a shepherds love.

Not in winter, in fact not ever!”

You can never go home again

John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

It was that master of integral thought, Ken Wilber who first woke me up to the reality that, “You can never go back…” No matter how great the trauma, nor how strong the nostalgia, there really is NO place like home. It doesn’t exist anymore.

Living and counseling as I do in the beauty of Port Alfred, or as the locals call it “at the Kowie” referencing the river that mouths into the sea here, I find myself using the analogy of the river often. I refer particularly to the reality that you cannot put your hand into the same river twice. It is a Zen saying that highlights the Buddhist emphasis on impermanence. You see, the river is always changing and so the second time you put your hand into the waters, the river has already changed and isn’t the same river anymore. We cannot go back.

Yet this is exactly what Peter and the other disciples do after the Resurrection. Some would say, they were back in Galilee because Jesus told them to go there. Others like John Shelby Spong would posit that their dreams of ministry and mission for the Kingdom had been totally destroyed, and that Peter’s statement, “I am going fishing.” And the other disciples’, “We will go with you” are statements of resignation to having to return to the way of life they left when Jesus called them away from those very shores three and one half year before. They soon learn that you cannot go back, and that you cannot cast your nets into the same lake twice. Their efforts to ply their previous trades are fruitless. That is, until Jesus appears on the beach. Unrecognizable, his resurrection influence on their gutted world is evident even though his identity is not. Isn’t this a beautiful illustration of Prevenient grace? You don’t have to recognize Jesus to experience the fruitful blessing of his risen presence.

There are two other details in this fish barbeque scene that lure my preaching mind for some deeper reflection during the coming week.

Firstly, the fish is already on the fire. It is essential for the disciples to realize that Jesus is sufficient to himself. He doesn’t need them to fish for him, in fact the dependence is all one way. The church is totally dependent on Jesus and not the other way around. Some of the worst preaching I have heard, is preaching that fails to emphasize this truth. I am sure we have all heard this kind of saying, “The Lord really wants to bless you but he can’t because, …” The sentence is completed with any number of conditions that try to sluice-gate the flow of grace to the congregation. “You have too much sin in your life”. “You haven’t got enough faith”. “You haven’t paid your tithe” Take your pick, it’s all rubbish! Heresy created by not noticing that the fish that Jesus is about to share with his destitute disciples, is already on the grill before the boat (the iconic symbol of the church) pulls ashore. “I have food you know not of.” Remember? When will the church stop trying to control the flow of grace?

Secondly, is it not sad that Peter is the only one who is prepared to jump ship to get to the risen Lord? Too many years in too many pastoral appointments in a mainline denominational church, have demonstrated to me that few Christ followers will leave the comfortable confines of the iconic boat, and swim to Jesus in the sea of challenge and faith (even if they can’t walk on it as Peter momentarily did earlier). In these days of pedophilic scandal, diminishing attendances at worship, conflict riddled clergy and council relationships, we still cling to the gunwales and want to keep our feet dry. Why are we clinging to this leaky vessel, fast becoming the ghost ship of the damned? Are we cursed to cling to the 153 fishy dogmas, doctrines and rules, when Jesus already has fish, that he wants to feed to his flock, cooking on the beach?

Peter and the disciples went home and discovered that though it may have been “where the heart” was, it certainly wasn’t where Jesus wanted them to be.

How utterly consoling is the conclusion to this abortive homecoming.

On the same shores (or is the spoonerism correct “shame sores“) where scant three years earlier Jesus spoke life changing, home leaving words; he speaks them again… “Follow me

We can never go home again, that’s true.

What is also true is it’s never too late to leave home and follow.

Come on”, says Peter, “Jump ship! There is fresh fish cooking on the beach!

The importance of being uncertain.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

It was Wilson Mizner who quipped, “I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.”

The history of doubt in the West begins not so much with Thomas as with the influence of Rene Descartes (31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650)

Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to provide a philosophical framework for the natural sciences as these began to develop. In his Discourse on the Method, he attempts to arrive at a fundamental set of principles that one can know as true without any doubt. To achieve this, he employs a method called hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt, also sometimes referred to as methodological skepticism: he rejects any ideas that can be doubted, and then reestablishes them in order to acquire a firm foundation for genuine knowledge.

Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist (Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy). Most famously, this is known as cogito ergo sum (English: “I think, therefore I am”). Therefore, Descartes concluded, if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting, therefore the very fact that he doubted proved his existence. “The simple meaning of the phrase is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof that he does exist.”é_Descartes

Descartes began the movement in the West away from mystery to certainty, which was great for science but sad for spirituality because he moved the locus of consciousness from the heart to the head. It has remained there ever since.

One of the reasons I find the Philokalia teachings of the Eastern Orthodox so engaging, is the instruction to “stand before God having placed the mind in the heart.”

You see I don’t think Thomas was a doubter as much as he was an honest engager of reality. He wanted to be sure.

It is this quest for certainty that has become a serious challenge to mainstream Christianity today. The rampantly growing fundamentalist wings of all the world’s religions are thriving because in a world filled with uncertainty, the deepest longing of the human heart is certainty. The fundamentalist however make the error of assuming that certainty in matters of faith is possible.

Part of the problem as Karen Armstrong points out in “The Case for God” is that faith has come to mean belief (as in belief in doctrine and dogma) where in fact the word pistis means trust in a person or a truth. Trust whilst being a far more relational (heart) word than belief (head) word also has less certainty to it. Which is Armstrong’s second contribution to this discussion. She points out that in the ancient religions including Patristic Christianity, there was a healthy balance between Mythos and Logos, whereas modern Christianity has lost the mythos dynamic altogether. In fact ask the avergage person today what a myth is and they will say, a fictional story that isn’t true. Fundamentalist Christians won’t even allow their children to read Harry Potter! Mythos in the true understanding of the concept is a symbolic archetypal description of truth in the form of narrative.

I love the story of the elderly Granny who is tell her grandchildren the story of the Exodus and prefaces the telling with, “Now children I need to tell you that this story is absolutely true. It just might not have happened this way!

It is this respect for mystery, mythos and doubt, and my weariness with cock-sure certain conservative Christians that attracts me to the writings of Leslie Weatherhead. He was the person to coin the phrase, “The Christian Agnostic

A-gnosso means “I don’t know

It is the opposite of certainty and the seed bed of real trust in Jesus who seems to come closest to me with his bleeding hands and side, in the moments of my life when I am least certain of myself and of most everything else.

Doubt and Faith are companions and not opposites. “I trust in the areas of my life where I am not certain.”

So as I am feeling a tad burnt-out after preaching through Holy Week and the Easter Tridium , let me end my blog this week with some salient quotes from Weatherhead’s “The Christian Agnostic

Leslie Dixon Weatherhead (1893-1976) was an English Christian theologian in the liberal Protestant tradition. Renowned as one of Britain’s finest preachers in his day, Weatherhead was noted for his preaching ministry at City Temple in London and for his books, including The Will of God, The Christian Agnostic and Psychology, Religion, and Healing. Weatherhead trained for the Methodist Ministry at Richmond Theological College, in south-west London. The first world war cut short his training, and he became Methodist Minister at Farnham, Surrey, in September 1915. After serving in India, Manchester, and Leeds, Weatherhead was called, as a Methodist Minister, to be Minister of the City Temple, a Congregational Church on Holborn Viaduct in London. He served there from 1936 until his retirement in 1960.

“I believe passionately that Christianity is a way of life, not a theological system with which one must be in intellectual agreement. I feel that Christ would admit into discipleship anyone who sincerely desired to follow him, and allow that disciple to make his creed out of his experience; to listen, to consider, to pray, to follow, and ultimately to believe only those convictions about which the experience of fellowship made him sure.”

“As I see it, all questions regarding the factual accuracy of Biblical statements—notably such ‘miraculous’ events as Virgin Birth, Resurrection, etc.—are wholly irrelevant to the true issues. Indeed, I should go so far as to say myself that the whole value of the Gospel story to mankind—and it is very great—lies not in its historical but in its legendary, mythical, or ‘typical’ character. It is not, I think, the Sermon on the Mount—or at least not this alone—that constitutes the peculiar contribution of Christianity to human thought, for very similar maxims are to be found elsewhere, and in any event could be deduced from first principles. It is to be found, rather, in the affirmation that all that is best and highest in man, as typified in the person of Jesus, is bound to arouse opposition, is often persecuted and apparently destroyed—yet is in fact indestructible an does perennially ‘rise again’ triumphant over seeming disaster.”

“The essential in Christianity, past, present and future, is loving Christ and one another, and if the Quaker finds God in the silence and the Salvation Army in the band, the Roman Catholic in the Mass and the Baptist in immersion; if the High Anglican likes incense and ceremonial, and the Methodist puts his emphasis on personal experience, the fellowship of the authentic class meeting and Charles Wesley’s hymns, why talk of disunity?

“When people said to me, ‘I should like to be a member of the City Temple, what must I believe?’ I used to say, ‘Only those things which appear to you to be true.'”

“When I really believe a thing, I mean that its truth possesses me. . . Truth is self-authenticating, and when it possesses me, nothing can shake it from its enthronement until some greater truth displaces it or gives it less prominence.” [ellipsis added]

“We still make of prime importance matters about which Jesus said nothing. How can a matter be fundamental in a religion when the founder of the religion never mentioned it?

“No argument or logic carries the same degree of conviction as insight, and it is the kind of conviction by which we know that dawn over the Alps on a perfect morning is beautiful. Argument cannot produce it and doubt cannot remove it. The outward beauty meets the inward recognition and in our hearts we know.”

“Any man, to the extent to which he is good, reveals the nature of God.”

“I am not prepared to hand over to any other person, though wise and learned, or to any institution however ancient or sure of its position, my inalienable right to search for ever-growing and ever-expanding truth. I believe the craving for security in belief is one which arises from within ourselves, and can only be met adequately form resources which are within ourselves. It seems to me that it is far more important for a soul in evolution to believe a few things because it has struggled, thought and suffered to discover and possess them, than it is for it to have a comfortable and orderly faith which it has adopted from any source outside itself.”

“I reject unchecked subjectivism as the authority in religion. No one can suppose that the final authority in religion is what the individual happens to think is true, unless his decision is preceded by long meditation, the weighing of all the available evidence and prayer for guidance.”

“. . . we must not thrust beliefs on people, belaboring their minds to try to make them accept orthodoxy, we may set these same beliefs before people, showing them the rich truth which we have found and which they may come to receive as their questing mind develops and grows.”

“I would like to be able with authority to present the case for believing in God, but I would far rather be and authoritative argument for believing in God. The saints are the best argument for Christianity. They have the highest authority in the world for they coerce us and yet our coercion is a willing one. They drive us along the way which in our best moments we want to go. When we read their lives, and even more when we touch their lives with our own in day-to-day living, we meet Christianity’s unanswerable argument. We know, with an authority nothing can resist or overcome, that Christianity changes lives and that if Jesus Christ were given a chance he would change the world.”

“For myself, I refuse mentally to close the canon as if inspiration had run out! Why should we follow traditional thought more than modern thought?”

“We must resolutely refuse to judge Jesus by the Bible. We must judge the Bible by Jesus; by the total effect of a consistent personality made upon us from all sources, including our own experience.”

“There is no authority for God’s existence except the inward conviction that is born of mystical experience.”