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.”

Not So For You: A Mother’s Day Post.

“To bring children into the world and slowly to birth one’s death and to accept it rather than to get it over with, quickly and if possible without awareness of it–as our shabbiest fantasies would have it–are acts of participation in creation. They refuse to fall in love with the alien reality of money and violence that has laid hold of life. The pain of birth encourages and convinces us of life. Just as a piece of bread can convince us of God, so this pain is a sacrament, a sign of God’s presence. How could we ever have lost it?” – Dorothee Sölle – Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian

 

During a conversation about summer break awhile back, my second son casually offered, “Well, mommy’s always on summer break.” The statement was like a needle scratching across a record; the party went silent. My eldest son sat up straight and gave his brother the look of, “Dude, you’re on your own now…” as he scooted down the bench at our dinner table, creating a healthy distance for/from the wrath he expected to land in his brother’s lap. My husband was in the kitchen slicing something; the slicing stopped as his eyes–filled with what I would call a healthy (and proper) dose of panic–darted from my second son to me, back to my second son, back to me. The toddler babbled about something; she saw the whole thing as an opportunity to shove the remainder of her dinner on to the floor… “oooops…fressert pweeze?”… <<giggle>>.

 

The one who uttered the statement looked around; everything about the tension in the air told him he’d just said something wrong. Very wrong. He realized it. His head slowly turned, and his blue eyes slowly met mine.  I was calm–let’s be more honest about that–I was as calm as I could be on the outside. In a cool and very controlled tone–the tone that my children know as the tone of sit-still-say-nothing-nod-amply–“Summer break?…Really?” I asked him. He nodded. I knew why he’d assumed that and even why he said it…out loud. “Just because I don’t leave to go to a job or go to work, doesn’t mean I’m not working at a job. If you really want the truth, Mommy doesn’t get summer break and she barely gets a vacation. Not even my sleep is mine. Mommies are at work every hour of every day, every day of every week, every week of ever year… Summer break?” I chuckled, and shook my head slightly. I poked around my dinner plate with my fork. “Not even close, buddy.”

 

No this isn’t a post about the unsung heroism of the stay-at-home-mother’s work day. Though, these works should be praised. The myriad of things I do every day from the hours of 4am to 9pm (when I practically fall into bed) to keep this house running, to keep #TheLarkinThree alive, and to maintain the barely existing heartbeat of my own professional work is worthy of applause. But I don’t want applause. I hate applause. (Anyone who knows me well enough knows just how much I hate applause and praise.) So, I’m not writing to be told I’m doing a good job or to be told that being a stay-at-home-mom is a noble choice…if I hear that one more time when I meet someone from my husband’s office, I’ll lose it.

 

I told the story above because what dawned on me (much, much later) is that if my son thinks I’m always on summer break, then maybe I’m doing my job right and well.  That he doesn’t see me as working hard or that I’m always burdened by them, is indicative of a daily aspect of motherhood most don’t see in operation until death.

 

You can look upon my body and see the scars of having become a mother. From the moment a plastic stick tells me I’m “with child” my body starts to change.* My brain chemistry will alter (forever); I’ll be hardwired from here on out to put an other before myself. When he cries, I’ll come. When he stumbles and falls, I’ll scoop him up. When he’s troubled, I’ll comfort. When he runs away, I’ll run after. During pregnancy my body will betray me. My own body will choose him over me. My nutrients course through my body first to him and whatever is left, I’ll get. My mind and my body sacrifice me for his life; way before holding him in my arms, I’ll go through a multitude of deaths to bring forth life.

 

Not least of which is laboring to deliver. In labor I am confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And I’ll confront death alone. No one takes my hand and guides me through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; I will come close to and growl at death, bring it, Death! I’ll stare it down. My life for his! I’ll cry. And I’ll bear the wound of this battle in my physical body.  (Wounds that will later allow men to judge me as unattractive and unappealing, judgments I’ll absorb and utter against myself as I look over my body reflected back to me by the bathroom mirror).

 

I could bring up the continued wounding of my physical body–how my breasts are now oddly shaped because of years of nursing, expanding and contracting; how my weight fluctuates depending on the time I have to take care of myself; how the nutritional values of my meals is skimpy because I’m gleaning from left overs remaining on little plates by little people. But the reality is that it’s not merely my physical body that incurs the wound, pain, and suffering, of being a mom. As I said, you can look upon my  body and see the scars and disfiguring of being a mom, but there’s more you can’t see unless you not just look but also listen.  For the suffering and pain of being a mom isn’t merely restricted to my body, but also to my mind and my soul. My body–inside and out–is continually broken for these children of mine.**

 

“The real question the pain of birth gives us would be how we might come to understand pain as birthing pain, labor pain as doors opening, groaning as ‘the onset of the glory of the freedom of God’s children.’ How do we approach our pains so that they do not torment us like pointless kidney stones, but, as pains of labor, prepare the new being?…We need a different theology of pain that finally feminizes the questions and relates our pain to the pain of God. The question then will be: How does our pain become the pain of God? How do we become part of the messianic pain of liberation, part of the groaning of a creation that is in travail. How do we come to suffer so that our suffering becomes the pain of birth?” – Sölle***

 

But there’s more beyond the inner and outer breaking of my body. There is something you can’t see or hear, because this war that wages is one that is mine alone. This battle is between me and the age that has come before me on behalf of the age to come. And it wages everyday I walk the earth; it’s the battle I’ll take with me into the grave. (And, truly, if I fight well, you’ll rarely see the effects or feel the impact of this war.) It’s more than just a my-life-for-his: it’s: his-life-will-be-free. Free from all of the generational shit that has been repeatedly passed down over and over and over again. Free from pain and suffering that should’ve never have happened…ever. Free from anxiety, stress, fear where there should’ve been peace, tranquility, and comfort. The battle is one that is not about a body breaking but the very opposite; it’s about a body strong, resilient, being a stronghold in the time of disaster. Like a dam holding back tons of water threatening to wash out and drown what lives peacefully in its shadow and protection, my body will hold back what has come crashing into it from the repetition of history to protect those who live and depend on my protection. Everyday I will awake and make intentional choices, decisions, and actions that repeat my motherhood-mantra: it will not be so for you. And, this shit ends with me; I’ll wrestle it into the grave it so deserves. Everyday, I will utter the divine “no more” that has infiltrated my language because of my encounter with Christ who defined love as suffering, love as a body broken, love as freedom where there was oppression, love as comfort where there was fear, love as tender embrace where there was abuse, love as acceptance where there was rejection, love as new life as a gift to us out of/because of Christ’s death and resurrection.

 

 

 

 

*In rather imperfect terms (needing some renovating and updating) I’ve written more about the process of death to life as it relates to the very beginning of motherhood here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/08/12/death-to-life-in-fertility-to-birth/

 

**I’ve written here about the inner body breaking: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/06/22/my-body-broken/

 

***Thank you to David W. Congdon who supplied me with the quotations from Dorothee Sölle.  You can follow him on twitter @dwcongdon; I’d recommend it. 🙂