Encounter and Rebirth

Sermon on John 14:1-7

I recorded this sermon for the Rev. Josh Andrews and the Methodist Churches he cares for (Trinity United Methodist Church in Spencerville, Ohio; and, Westside United Methodist Church in Lima, Ohio). The text follows the video.

 

I love the explicitly obscure imagery in this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The story of the house with many “dwelling places” seems to be a break from what came before in chapter 13 where Jesus foretells Peter’s denial. Yet, a theme overlaps thus binds the two chapters together: discipleship.[1]

“Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’” (Jn 14:1-4)

Moving swiftly from prophesying Peter’s denial to speaking of peace, faith in God, and a dwelling place with the Father actually makes sense when you place it under the umbrella of “discipleship.” What the disciples—especially Peter—do not understand is that good discipleship starts not with us choosing to follow after God; rather it begins with God’s preparation of a place for us and God’s coming to get us. Thus, disciples are where Jesus is, or where Jesus is there are the disciples. (One can’t exist without the other.) Just as we are born in the flesh by our mother where our mother is and into a space prepared for us by her; so too are we spiritually reborn by God where God is and into a space prepared for us by God.

I don’t want to vilify Peter. His profession in chapter 13 (and echoed by Thomas’s question in our passage) makes sense according to his logic: if this is the long-awaited Messiah, then yes, Peter’s going to go into battle for him; he’ll lay down his life for Christ–like a good soldier in the midst of battle for his General. If we know anything about Peter, it’s that he’s wonderfully human, and in this we are all pulled into the story—no matter how much we may think we would’ve gotten it. Peter’s logic here is air-tight; but it’s wrong. He won’t die for the Messiah, rather, the Messiah will die for him.[2] Thus, to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow where Jesus is headed necessitates not the risk that death might occur in a battle for life, but that life might occur as a result of death.[3] Dare we come to the end of ourselves and … find more, abundantly more?

The path that lies ahead for the disciples is through Jesus, and this will necessitate a death: a death of what has been held true, a death to dogma and doctrine, a death to human made idols, a death to our reason, our common sense, and our rationality, our self-justification, and a death to our self anchored in false narratives. For all of these things are on a collision course with God in the revelation of God in the event the cross. The disciples will not be entering into battle against the tyranny of other nations; rather, they will enter into confrontation with the tyranny of themselves, rendered and returned to dust.

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” (Jn 14:5-7)

Where Jesus is going the disciples cannot follow and they cannot lead. They must let Jesus, the Christ, make the “way” both for himself and for them.[4] Thus, in that Jesus is going to make the way for them, he’ll be the way for them and this renders Jesus as the inseparable “way and goal.”[5] Salvation occurs when one is brought into encounter with God in the event of faith, this happens and is the means by which this happens to the person. Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection re the way and the goal for a disciple.[6]

If Jesus is both the way and the goal for the disciple and by which the disciple is defined, then, according to John, to be a disciple is neither mere mimicry of Jesus nor surging ahead of Jesus with weapons bared. Rather, it is to be found in Jesus—Jesus is the way. Not a doorway, not a gateway, but the way: the path from which the disciple never veers and is thus also the goal for the life of the disciple. It is in Christ where the one who hears the call of God and is forever changed and altered, the one who could not hear but now has ears to hear—to hear so deeply that they can’t unhear what they’ve heard, and they are always hearing truth and receiving life. The Christian, the believer, the hearer never moves from her location in Christ but is plunged deeper and deeper into Christ thus into truth and into life. [7]

The language of John describes the disciple of Christ being the one who dies and finds life. The one who is encountered by God in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is returned to the very dust that is the substance of the earth, thrown into a wholly other God being wholly dependent on the self-disclosure of this God that God is love, and finds not death unto death but, by the presence and activity of divine mercy and grace, finds and receives the fulness of life. It is this one who is yanked out of her previous existence and thrust into a new one that is oriented in God toward her neighbor in a living, true way.[8]

All of this is so incredibly abstract and heavy. What does it have to do with my life? With me? I intellectually understand that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life; but then I don’t know. Or, do I?

As I read and meditate on this text written so long ago, something sparks a maternal familiarity; something I know deep in my gut, something my body tells me she’s done. And then, like a freight train, memories overwhelm me.  I know this…I know what Jesus is describing… This is none other than birth language. We are born of women in the flesh and are made “people”; we are reborn of God by faith and are made disciples. The maternal heart, pregnant with desire for the beloved, and the unconditional sacrificial love of God shining through the text–cloaked to the casual observer, like Jesus’s divine sonship is to anything but faith.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’  Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’” (Jn 3:1-6)

 

I know this language because I’m a mom, because I’ve nurtured and brought life into the world through my body, that my children are my children and perpetually so because of an eternal relation between mother and child—no matter how doubtful, how confident, how meager, how substantial, how rocky, how wonderful, how distant, or how close. Forever it is my voice, my scent, my touch, my very heartbeat that my three children will know and recognize better than anything else in the world. It is their presence, their bodies, their laughs, their cries that will perpetually tug at something located in depth of the core of who I am. Birth is not the end of the symbiotic connection between mother and child; it is the very beginning, it is the way.

In the process of bringing forth life, a mother will lay her life down for her child, one whom she knows and yet does not; she can’t do anything else, she will, through every groan and each contraction, look death in the face and say: my life for this one. Her body will be broken, the water will spill, and the blood will run; and, what looks eventually like sure death will be become the event of abundant life. She will birth this child at the expense of her own body, she will make a place for this child, she will carry this child, she will nurture this child… where she is, there the child will be also. And where the child is, there, too, will she be.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (Jn 3:16-17)

Love* is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves in the midst of the closeness intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity. Love loves.

It is in divine love that is our common location with each other and with God. This divine Love is both agape and eros: it goes out, it seeks, and it takes the beloved back into the lover. Love causes the lover to always be with the beloved. The lover never forgets the Beloved because by love the beloved is always with the lover. Love is the path and the destination.

In the encounter with God in Christ in the event of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are reborn in and through love. And this Love is the way, it is truth, it is life. God is love; God loves you; you are reborn of God by faith. you are forever the Beloved.

Happy Mother’s day.

 

 

*This and the following paragraph are adapted from this post: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2020/05/08/love-and-solidarity/

[1] Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, and JK Riches. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971). 595-6

[2] Bultmann John 598, “…he does not know that he cannot enter the field ‘for’ the Revealer, but only the Revealer for him…It is therefore clear that the following of Jesus is not an act of heroism.”

[3] Bultmann John  597, “Thus the following of Jesus has become a possibility in this double sense—as world-annulment and as following into the δοξα—only because of Jesus’ victory over the world; it is therefore possible solely through faith in the Revealer, in whose υπαγειν the victory over the world is accomplished.

[4] Bultmann John 605, “By describing himself as the way Jesus makes two things clear: 1. his case is different from that of the disciples; he does not need a ‘way’ for himself, as the disciples do, rather he is the way for them…”

[5] Bultmann John 605, “The way and the goal are not to be separated as they are in mythological thinking. In the myth the redemption has become embodied in a cosmic event, and therefore-contrary to the intention of the myth—it is conceived as in intra-mundane event, as a divine history, which takes place apart from the existence of man, who is referred to it as the guarantee of his future.”

[6] Bultmann John 605, “…the redemption is an event which takes place in human existence through the encounter with the Revealer, with the result that the believer’s present is already based on his future; his existence is eschatological existence; his way is at the same time his goal.”

[7] Bultmann John 606-7, “That means that there is no ‘short cut’ to the correct understanding of αληθεια and ζωη. The discovery of this αληθεια is not something established once and for all, at men’s disposal, such as could be communicated in ‘condensed form’ like a truth of science; on the contrary everyone has to take the way to it for himself, for only on the way does this truth disclose itself. Similarly Jesus is the truth; he does not simply state it. One does not come to him to ask about truth; one comes to him as the truth. This truth does not exist as a doctrine, which could be understood, preserved, and handed on, so that the teacher is discharged and surpassed. Rather the position a man takes vis-à-vis the Revealer decides not whether he knows the truth, but whether he is ‘of the truth,’ that is to say, whether his existence is determined by the truth, whether the truth is the ground on which his existence is based. And as in Christianity everyone has to start for himself from the beginning, so too there is no such thing as a history of Christianity within world-history, in the sense of a history of ideas or problems, in which one progresses from stage to stage, from solution to solution; each generation has the same original relation to the revelation.”

[8] Bultmann John 606, “Εγω ειμι η οδος: this is pure expression of the idea of revelation. The Revealer is the access to God which man is looking for, and what is more—as is implied in the phrase Εγω ειμι and is stated explicitly in words ουδεις κτλ.—the only access. Not, however, in the sense he mediated the access and then became superfluous…On the contrary, he is the way in such a manner as to be at the same time the goal; for he is also η αληθεια και η ζωη: the αληθεια as the revealed reality of God, and the ζωη as the divine reality which bestows life on the believer in that it bestows self-understanding in God. All three concepts are bound to each other by the word Εγω: just as Jesus is the way, in that he is the goal, so he is also the goal, in that he is the way. He cannot be forgotten in the of the goal, for the believer cannot have the αληθεια and the ζωη as acquisitions at his own disposal: Jesus remains for him the way. Of course that is not to say that αληθεια and ζωη are a goal that is always to be striven for and that is an infinite distance away; on the contrary, in going along the way the goal is reached. Not however in the sense of Stoicism or idealism, where the goal is ideally present in the infinite way…nor is it a ‘perpetual striving to make the effort’; rather it is the state of existence that is subjected to the actual word of Jesus within history, for there God is present. But the believer finds God only in him, i.e. God is not directly accessible; faith is not mystical experience, but rather historical existence that is subject to the revelation.”

Revelation upon Revelation

A Birthday Reflection

I know this is a week late, but, nonetheless, it appears. My Birthday revelation. 

There is no real coherence to this post; the only common ground is that over the past year I’ve learned a lot as I am wont to do. But, last year was hard. Very. Hard. I had revelation upon revelation about people: they aren’t always who they say they are. I know that this seems like quite the kindergarten thing to learn, but sometimes, even as “wise” adults…we must learn this lesson again. 

You see, there’s a longing I have: to fit in. I have never. I just don’t. I still don’t. And the irony is that I care but don’t care because I’m a 5 who idealizes belonging but then when I get it, I hate it. I guess here I say: lolz. I think sometimes I fear my own individuality. It’s quite fierce and not even I can wrestle it to submission. It’s an alligator, and I’m not one to wrestle alligators. I think this year I’ve learned through some very traumatic mediums: That I’m okay; that I’m enough. 

And I am enough. I know, a protestant priest preaching such drivel…but I believe this. I am content in me–trust me, this has been put to the test this past year…and even so: I am content. It took some great loss, some great trial, and some great self reflection: I am enough. I’m okay. Even if I have “original” sin, it doesn’t mean that I’m inherently “bad,” that all I do is crave wicked. I don’t. You don’t. It’s not a sin to be okay on your own, or to feel one inside of your own skin. That’s not “sin.” It’s not a sin to feel whole and entire in your flesh; it’s not a sin to like yourself. (By the way, there’s no real righteousness in consistently hating yourself or debasing yourself through your own self-criticism; you don’t get the gospel more than me because you think you’re shit. B-t-dubs, that narrative your listening to is not the gospel at work but your broken-ass script you use to keep yourself insulated from prospects of confession and new life.) You can like yourself, and you can like the idea of self-change without it becoming a self-righteous thing. Sin is better defined as that law you use to discern who is “in” and who is “out”; sin is better defined not as individuality but as a “bird” flipped to the rest of humanity–just me!. Sin is better defined as a hatred of self that devolves into a selfish self-non-awareness that steals from the rest of the community your very presence. To love yourself is not pride; to love yourself is an acknowledgement that the One who made you knew exactly what the One was doing. To think you are better than everyone else is bad; to love yourself is not to think that you are above everyone else but that you are worthy of the love that you have received and will receive and will give.  

But aside from that here are some of the things I’ve come to learn this past year:

  1. Everyone reveals themselves; you just have to wait. Doesn’t matter who they say they are, actions speak louder than words. I get tired of people lying to me and speaking crap to me and putting the table cloth of “encouragement” on top of it. Doesn’t matter. That shit stinks to high heaven. Substantiate your words or don’t; just, please, don’t waste them. Our world is so full of useless words, there should be a global call to all who care to use words that have meaning…meaning that incorporates their own being. I tell my students: substantiate your words with yourself. It’s why I like for them to use the first person singular pronoun…I think thisI feel that… If you put yourself behind your words you can’t hide from the attack that may come, and maybe you’ll think about what you say before you say it. What if we reclaimed words, used fewer, and let ourselves be in more of our words…   ….   …. what if?
  2. Speaking of words…Let others tell you who they are. This concept coincides with the first: everyone reveals themselves, and so we should let others tell us who they are rather than determining who they are especially when they protest that you have them wrong. One friendship that went very south was one where I could not speak for myself or convince the person that their perception of me was based on a few poorly developed ideas of me. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like you have to yell and shout at deaf ears to be heard. That type of relationship is not a friendship of equals; that is a situation of some sort of domination. You know who you are–even at your worst–no one gets to tell you who you are…especially someone who has known you for only a few months. Experiencing this, I’ve become more adamant about holding back judgment about other people. Let them tell you who they are–even the hardest to get along with–everyone has a story. Think: Gabby Gabby from Toy Story 4. She seems so evil but she has a desire, a story that drives her: to be loved, to be some kid’s comfort. We could brush her off as evil; but she’s not. She has a story. But if we turn the movie off midway she remains evil…but if we let her tell her story…she resonates with us on a human level. I hope we all listen to others. (Also included here is anyone who needs to control you to make their world more calm…this is also a means to dominate and tell you who you are and determine who you should be.)
  3. People who love you aren’t stupid for loving you. I think we struggle with this sometimes…At least I know I do. I was bullied in middle-school. I was fat and ugly and there wasn’t one person there who wouldn’t let me forget it. Except for a small table of other “outsiders”. A table at the cafeteria where I found refuge but where I also found discontent. I found myself looking down on those who liked me because they weren’t the ones who were of status…what’s love if it can’t get you somewhere? What’s love if you do nothing but hate yourself? While I know now that I radically misconceived love, I find that I (we?) still struggle with those who love us. If we have that self-contempt that is so extolled in some theological circles, we will perpetually question those who love us…they’ll always be mistaken. But they’re not.  Now, bear with me: I’m a mom, I know unconditional love and I love…like LOVE my kids. I’d go to fist-a-cuffs over any one of them. There is unconditional love; I’ve felt it. But it’s hard to believe that anyone else would ever unconditionally love us that doesn’t *have to*. But there are people like that who also do not share the same or similar genetic code as you do. There are people who love you just because and do not have to. I won’t name mine because they should know who they are (if not, text me, I’ll send flowers or chocolates….) Don’t forsake these people who love you just because; don’t forsake them just because you don’t love yourself. Let these people tell you a different love-story with you. I guarantee that love-story is better than your hate-story. I cannot guarantee that that story will be a happy ending…but that right now that love is real…don’t let it go. 
  4. and last…Don’t hide your story. I’m famous for this. Well…this sounds hypocritical after an exhortation to be yourself, to let others tell you about themselves, to substantiate your words, and to receive love as is… I promise that I substantiate my words to the best of my ability, that I try to love those who love me and let them love me in return, and that I am myself. But there are somethings or (rathter) something that I still wrestle with: anger over years lost. I’m writing this portion because I think it’s important to my story and because I think I’m not alone. I’ve had years stolen from me; and I hate it. I want those 7 years back more than anything. 7 years of catastrophic self-destruction. I was so angry; I was so lost. I hated me and the world for nearly a decade. I wanted to self-destruct, to implode, to cease to exist.  I wanted to go supernova leaving only a destructive black hole in my wake. My anger coursed through my veins and around me. I was destruction. Everything I touched was dirt and not gold. I hated myself in a visceral way for nearly a decade. And then Christ. And then I encountered God in Christ by the Spirit in the event of faith and I was yanked out of my self-de-struction and oriented toward the world in others-con-struction. But there is still part of me that wants those 7 years back. Those 7 years of anger and self-destruction. I feel that I’ve lost those 7 years. But then recently I realized…those 7 years (and the ones preceding that time) are the reason I am who I am. I know…I know pain; I know turmoil; I know (deeply) existential crisis that brings you the brink; I know darkness; I know trouble; I know that surge of guilt and resentment that courses through your veins where you think you won’t survive before it moves from the warmth of you inner elbow to the pulse of your ankle. I know. And while I wrestle with my age in light of this loss, I realize…that I am who I am because of it. So I cannot resent it fully. I can’t hat it fully because I’d never change who I am, I’d never change my story, I’d never change the fact that I can sit in the deep, deep darkness and those “lost years” are part of my story. Not many of us can say that…but I can. I can sit with you…I promise. I’ve a decade of pain so deep that allows me to be with you not matter what. I’m here with you, in the darkness, no matter what; I mean that with all my person; and I have no problem showing you. Just ask….

So I say this to conclude: I’m 44 and unashamed after many years of feeling regret for having “lost” those years. I’m 44 and don’t want those 7 years back because they’ve deeply formed me. I’m 44 and a whole person, content with herself and who she is now. In my 20s, I never thought I’d make it this far; I’m proud that I have. I’m here, I’m present, I’m active, and I’m not going away anytime soon. And I just don’t quit. #ThatsAPromise #ThatsAThreat

These are my birthday reflections. And to reflect on a question from last year: Am I happy with who and where I am? I have to echo last year’s response: Yes. I am very happy with who I am and where I am. 100%, yes.

“Here, I live”: a birthday reflection

Birthdays can cause us to take that self-reflective pause in which we examine our lives. In that pause, we take stock of what’s happened over the course of the past twelve months. We are like late night Netflix addicts, rewatching all those life episodes to which we already know all the lines and all the outcomes. We watch and (maybe) relive the great moments, the heart-stopping moments, the difficult moments, and even the moments where we thought our worlds were going to explode and implode at the same time….but didn’t.

We hear Birthday’s haunting and incessant questions: are you where you want to be? Are you where you thought you would be? Are you who you want to be? Who you’d thought you’d be? Are you happy with who and where you are? Birthdays aren’t very good at having their questions ignored; most of us will at least whisper some response, and we all know silence is itself an answer and rarely a positive one.

This past year, I’ve had some tremendous ups and some tremendous downs. But those specific events (the ones replaying in my head as I review this past year) will not be the substance of this post. The details of the events–at this point–mean very little to me because they’re dead and gone. The totality of those details, the mega-form they took, what as a whole they left me *is* what matters. In my opinion, what has remained with me in the aftermath of those events is more important than merely the petty details of this thing or that, of the he said-she said, of what went up or down. Because it’s in this aftermath where I looked at what I had and built from there. (We never really start over from scratch, we always build from what we’ve learned.)

From the very wonderful, amazing, heart-stopping, I-Can’t-believe-this-is-happening-right-now events to the dreadful, horrible, gut-wrenching, I-Don’t-see-how-I’ll-ever-make-it-through-this events, what has remained with me, over and over and over again is: life. In every way that word can be used type of life. Because no matter how much my knees knocked because of nerves or my stomach churned because of emotional turmoil, I kept stepping forward. And each and everyone of those steps drilled home the reality that I am very much alive.

I don’t credit myself with this aliveness, though I’m aware that I did play both an unconscious and conscious role in the process of stepping. (Some synapses have to be firing intentionally for a mind and body to engage in the act of stepping in a specific direction.) I do give some credit to really neat friends who refused to let me keep rehearsing the same lines of my favorite trauma script…even when it’s all I wanted to do. They used their words to turn my head in the right direction and urged me forward and not backward. Mostly, if not entirely, I give credit for this aliveness to my daily encounter with God in the event of faith. Because it’s here, in this encounter where I’m brought face to face with God, where I am wrenched from and out of a world that demands my allegiance and obedience and has me scrambling for some modicum amount of control, stripped of all that I *think* I am and of all that I let control and define me, and made painfully aware that there is no other way to embrace the future but through my pained confession that I do not know what comes.

All I know in this event encounter is God (all other knowledge, presuppositions, ideas, and conceptions have been exposed and burnt up by the friction of this encounter). And this knowledge, this face to face encounter undoes me completely, renders me to dust, brings me into crisis with everything around me. It’s in the crisis where the crucible is formed and my faith made to be as pure as gold; for in the tension I’ve nothing but what faith will locate itself in and that is God. Thus, all I can know is God, I cannot stand on my own here, and it brings me to death. Here, I die.

But yet even though I die, it is not merely unto death or to indulge the wicked intentions of a sadistic god. The God I believe in is the God of love and life, mercy and peace, humility and justice and in abundance. What has been proclaimed to me, shown to me, made known to me in the word and wisdom of God–the proclamation of Christ crucified–is that the activity of God moves from death to life, life in the here and now in vibrant, remarkable, awe-inspiring ways. Life out of death is resurrection.  My feet are (daily) planted firmly in this wholly other God on whom and in whom I am wholly dependent and that is life and life abundant; I’m alive. Here, I live.

What has proven itself time and time again over the past 365 days is: it’s in this event-encounter with God that I am made and caused and given the strength to stand and withstand the events (good or bad) that have come my way and will come my way because I am not dependent on the outcome (good or bad) or on myself. My dependence is on and in God alone by faith alone by grace alone. These events that happened to me only pushed me into a deeper dependence on God, which resulted in resilience, confidence, and strength that define me today. It is in and has been in the good and bad events of my small and short yet large and long life where I have experienced God in God’s self-disclosure as, “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Is. 9:6).

Thus, I’ll close by answering Birthday’s questions early in the day:

Am I where I want to be? Yes. The view from where I am is wonderful

Am I where I thought I would be? No. I could only have have hoped to be here.

Am I who I want to be? Yes, and there’s still room for more improvement.

Am I Who I’d thought I’d be? No. I don’t think I had the wits to see her coming.

Am I happy with who and where I am? Yes. 100%, yes.