(Note for those looking instead for a Mothers’ Day sermon you might try Lectionary sermon for 13 May 2012 Easter 6 Year b (and Mothers day) on John 15:9-17) For the Gospel reading laid down for the lectionary for today – read on.)
Has John got this right? Jesus is reported here as praying a prayer which apparently remained unanswered.
The writer of John’s gospel has been criticised by many Bible scholars both for contradicting some key detail about Jesus in the other gospels (usually referred to as the synoptic gospels), and for his enthusiasm for oblique mysticism. *
Certainly a first reading of John gives an initial impression that he, or perhaps the apostle he used as his primary source, had been with Jesus for his mission – and he reinforces this impression by attributing the gospel detail to “the beloved disciple”, yet there are inescapable problems. For example he implies a two and possibly three year ministry for Jesus and records Jesus at three separate Passovers. The other gospels present a one year ministry and only mention one Passover. The Synoptic gospels highlight the baptism of Jesus, John has Jesus meeting John the Baptist but not being baptised by John. The others report Jesus’ parables and miracles as for helping people, John has no parables and sees only signs in the miracles.
John also gets some of the contemporary history quite wrong – or at least out of step with the work of other writers of the day. For example for the apostles and for the first few years of the Christian Church, Christianity was understood to be a sect of Judaism, yet for John, Jesus is portrayed as setting up a faith in opposition to traditional Judaism. Furthermore, the other great work officially attributed to John, namely the Book of Revelation, is written in a different style of Greek. And we could continue laying out why this gospel is widely accepted as a much later work, written we are told, by an unknown first century writer working from second hand sources.
Having said all of that, many scholars would insist that this gospel provides the most compelling theological presentation of all the gospels, and that includes those that did not make the final cut into the canon of the New Testament. John’s work, sometimes described as an extended essay on the centrality of love, is rightly praised in selecting phrases and metaphors which get to the heart of Jesus’ teaching. One of my friends calls John a portrait painter rather than a biographer and I can see what he means.
Today’s gospel lesson seizes on one of these critical ideas which have profound implications for current challenges to the current members of the divided Christian Church and a deeply divided world community. This is of course Jesus’ extended prayer for Unity amongst all who would follow his teaching.
As a prayer to produce a guaranteed result, thus far it appears at first hearing something of a failure. But when Jesus says he is praying that there shall be unity, it is a prayer of the sort where some very human responders, including Christians of our generation hold the key to the answer. Nor should we think of Jesus calling for something he was able to accomplish easily with his own disciples. In his own mission, Jesus encountered James and John competing to see who was worthy to sit beside Jesus in heaven – and another time, disciples who argued who among them was the greatest. Remember also Matthew the publican who had a collaborator record of working alongside the Romans as a tax collector, becoming a member of the same band of followers that included a zealot who was committed to getting rid of those like Matthew. Don’t forget too, according to the gospels, Judas was prepared to betray his master despite many months of being on the road with Jesus. Nor as it turned out, were things better after the events of that first Easter. Paul, as a new comer to the faith, was still to have his falling out with Peter and James.
However in Jesus’ prayer He was not simply focusing on his fractious and divided disciples. In verse 21, we find him praying for the disciples, He then prayed for all believers. And as self-claimed followers of Jesus we don’t need to look far before we encounter reason for embarrassment. Clearly, Jesus’ followers are still divided, just as they have been through the centuries, sometimes bitterly so. Can we not see and then begin to own this lack of unity?
Here I am not, as you might suppose, talking of joining the denominations into one unwieldy conglomerate. My concern is more for the lack of identification with others, an absence of identified unity offered to those who don’t share a common background. Jesus himself had modelled an acceptance of difference. He did not choose disciples for uniform background and nor did he accept traditional exclusions. Touching lepers, talking to the rejected of society, noticing the good in traditional enemies of Judaism; these things showed he was open to a unity of spirit and not a unity of re-jigged Church superstructure.
I remember some years ago putting some Teachers’ College students through an exercise whereby those not in the know were pressured by students in a set up situation, to agree with statements that were demonstrably untrue. For example I would draw two lines on the board and tell the class who were already present that they should pick the longest line as being the shortest when late comers came into the room. I would then wait for an unfortunate latecomer to arrive and ask the class to vote on the shortest line. Almost invariably, the latecomer on seeing the show of hands would uncomfortably agree with the nonsense option.
Imagine the nonsense of claiming to follow Jesus yet pretending not to see the governmental non-forgiving option when it comes to foreign policy. Imagine the nonsense of remembering a communion meal at which Judas was a guest, by celebrating the Eucharist in a form that could not be shared with some guests because they were not of exactly the local version of faith. Imagine celebrating a man who told the story of the Good Samaritan by pretending not to see the worth of the Red Crescent (the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross). Or bringing it closer to home, imagine coming this Sunday to celebrate one who prayed for unity in his followers and following this with total lack of interest in serious attempts both to seek unity of spirit and also a lack of interest in finding good in those who dress and worship differently.
It is a poor excuse to say in this we are no different to others. I suspect the meek acceptance of bad majority opinions continues to confine and shape thinking which a moment’s reflection might reveal as nonsense.
Ralph Milton tells an oft quoted story about how John Henry Fabre, a French naturalist did an experiment with some Processionary Caterpillars.
In Milton’s words:
These poor little beasties will follow the next caterpillar ahead of
them, no matter where that caterpillar happens to be going. Fabre
arranged a bunch of his fuzzy friends in a neat circle, each one
touching the one just ahead. Faithful to their DNA, each one
followed the next one. In the middle of the circle Fabre put some
of the caterpillars’ favourite food.
Would they stop following, even for a moment, just for a bite of
Not on your life. The food was there within inches, but they just
kept on following each other in circles until they collapsed and
died from hunger.
In the traditional Church, there is evidence that even now, processionary caterpillar thinking can dominate.
Jesus’ teaching is clear enough. There we find Jesus’ prescription for living in his way, his call for unity for his followers, his wish for total and generous forgiveness of enemies, compassion offered to neighbours ( even those who differ in belief), not building up treasures on earth and so on – all clear directions to those who might listen. Yet because we are bound by group traditions, we lose sight of the real food on offer. Time after time, woolly group thinking trumps our independent judgement about how we are progressing towards these goals.
If we felt free to choose from first principles, I suspect we would know to choose more helpful paths. Surely a society built on principles of unity, compassion and love would not only be true to Jesus’ prayer as recounted by John, but it would make more sense than the divided realities we are taught by our institutions to preserve.
When John defined God as Love, I believe this was a moment of great insight. When he records Jesus as saying 26 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.” He is also putting us in touch with a method to act on his call for unity.
Whoever first coined the expression “Human Beings” was perceptive. I have heard it suggested that there are really two types: be-ers and doers. The be-ers are simply content to let things the way they are and trust that everything will turn out alright in the end. “Beings” certainly conjures up this common way of thinking. The do-ers take an active part in working towards what they believe to be the best form of action. I wonder if it follows that if “human being” is a helpful expression, we should, as some have suggested, call the other a “human doing”? But whatever the case, I suspect that this two-form classification is at best an over-simplification. Many of us are capable of being a continually changing mixture of the two. However, if you asked me which form I saw dominating, I would have to admit the evidence is clear that the Human being dominates, and our lack of unity is the consequence.
The Dalai Lama once suggested: “the whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, and forgiveness”.
Although I find this persuasive as an ideal, I do not entirely agree that this is necessarily how religion turns out in practice. Like the consequent ideal of unity, achieving the Dalai Lama’s purpose of religion assumes that the human do-ers will overcome the inertia of the be-ers. The resulting outcome is as likely or unlikely as those with faults or frailties like us are prepared to make it become.
To focus on the expression of love would seem an extraordinarily persuasive way of bringing about unity. When an individual or a group is kind to us we automatically warm to them. Conversely when they ignore us or worse appear to be waving a big stick in our direction it is probably human nature to respond with antagonism and suspicion. Time after time, it is the socially isolated who become anti social in response, as many of the killing rampages in the US have demonstrated. Even internationally, nations like North Korea or Iran only threaten those who have threatened them in the past. That should suggest to us a way of encouraging trust in others.
Human beings we may well be. The question is: are we satisfied to leave it there?
*For an introductory overview of the criticisms see for example the Wikipedia entry on the Gospel of John.