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.”

The Truth Makes Free: A Homily on John 8:31-38

Jesus says, according to John, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32). And again, a bit later, “‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (8:34b-36). According to the words of Christ as recorded here by John, truth and freedom are inextricably linked. In other words, truth and freedom are so connected–one to the other–that no matter how hard and how long you looked you wouldn’t be able to find a point of entry with which to separate and disentangle them. The truth makes free, full stop.

But I want to be clear about something: this “truth” is not merely “honesty is always the best policy.” For such a simplistic correlation would render Christ’s statement trite: “just tell the truth.” But that’s not what Christ is saying here, there’s no “moral of the story” that you walk away with employing as you go about your day. Also, “honesty is always the best policy” places you in the subject position. Rather, you’re the intended recipient of this truth with its resultant freedom. In this situation, you are the hearer and the one being freed, not the speaker and the liberator. Plus, none of us here would ever really employ “honesty is always the best policy” for certainly if we did we’d have few if any friends and no need for SnapChat and its filters.

No, the type of truth that is being referred to here by Christ is the word of truth that exposes. The word of truth exposes us as we are (sinners) and exposes our situation (enslaved). Living under the burden and weight of darkness and lies in the enslavement to sin is exhausting. And by “sin” I don’t mean just the mistakes I make or the lazy and often selfish choices I make. By sin I mean the desperate appeal to myself to fabricate myself. In other words, when I live into the burden of creating and maintaining an image of myself that I present to you for you to see and promote the illusion that I am in control and autonomously so, this is when I am a slave to sin.[1] When I try to define and create myself by myself, I am a slave to sin. When I try to strike out on my own and neglect what God has done for, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I am a slave to sin.[2] And to live as a slave and burdened in such a way causes me to curve in on and become consumed with myself; I become disfigured as my human likeness wanes.

And I speak of this not because I’ve spent some time studying theology and concepts surrounding what it means to be a person in light of faith (though I have). But because I know personally how exhausting, and burdensome, and how death dealing it is to live a life that is for all intents and purposes a sham, a life that is a complete and total sham.[3] Living a false and sham life in trying to present to the world a version of me that I deemed was the right version, the acceptable version, the demanded and expected version of me nearly crushed me. I know what it’s like to run the race of self-performance and self-proving, I know the pressure to try to live up to unattainable self-imposed and others-imposed expectations and demands; I know the fear of being exposed a sham; I know the weight of a life that lacks the mark of real life: joy, laughter, and heart felt gratitude. I also know that you know, too.

The good news is that this false and sham life can only persist for so long, enslavement to sin lasts for only a period of time. Jesus say, “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (John 8:31b-32, 36). And you have been made free because truth has come and truth cannot be untruthed by our sham existence, by our lies and falsehood no matter how hard we fight against truth in our false and sham existence. The truth is the truth, and according to Jesus, it sets those it encounters free.[4]

The word of truth is the light in the darkness, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’” (John 8:12). The light of truth illuminates the thick darkness and exposes the one darkness has enveloped, pushing darkness back away from the one who is the object of the desire of the light of truth, the one who has long been enslaved by darkness. “‘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’” (John 3:16). And all of this is done in love and that is why the truth that exposes brings life and not death, brings absolution and not condemnation: because love loves the unloved into the beloved and the beloved is free, free indeed. “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:3c-5). Where light is, darkness ceases; where truth is, lies are obliterated; in the activity of love (the harbinger of freedom) the sham life succumbs to true life.

Where there is light and not darkness, where there is truth and not lies, there is freedom. There is freedom in being exposed in love by the light and by the truth that is the word made flesh (John 1:14), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), Jesus the Christ, the Son who makes you free (8:36). Where Christ is there is truth and freedom and “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). And if truth and freedom and grace upon grace, then those exposed and encountered by Christ are made to be the sons and daughters with Christ by faith in Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if sons and daughters then not slaves enslaved to the sin of the false and sham existence but freed sons and daughters unto true life—true, free, and vibrant life; a life marked by joy and laughter and gratitude in all that we undertake; a life bearing the marks of love’s success.[5] A life freed from the domination of proving and fabricating ourselves and freed into authentic human existence working in the world, unleashing the same truth and the same freedom we ourselves have experienced in our service of love.[6]

 

[1] Eberhard Jüngel, 233, “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. “The human drive to possess becomes theologically problematic only when human persons wish to take possession not merely of something—even if it is a great deal—but rather of themselves. And this is precisely what modern human persons want.”

[2] Working backwards from this thought from Karl Barth (CD IV.1.743-4), “If a man believes, this means that he has found in Jesus Christ an object which does not merely concern him and concern him urgently, which does not merely call him to itself and therefore out of himself, which does not merely claim him, but which is the one true object, which concerns him necessarily and not incidentally, centrally and not casually. It means that he has found in Him the true centre of himself which is outside himself. It means that he must now cling to Him and depend on Him, that he finds that he belongs to Him.”

[3] Jüngel “Becoming” 232, “In the end, it is the gospel of the justification of sinners by faith alone without the works of the law which identifies the conviction that humans can constitute themselves through their own acts as persons and, by taking possession of themselves, become free people, as an untruthful existence.”

[4] Karl Barth CD IV.3.1.476, “But as the truth cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the falsehood of [humanity], the reality of the grace God and the man freed by Him and for Him cannot be violated, altered or expelled by the image in which it must represent itself to lying man s the ground of so much pain…As the reconciliation of the world to God, the justification and sanctification of man, is the reality, and indeed the living and present reality in Jesus Christ the true Witness of its truth, a limit is set both to the falsehood of man and also to his decay and destruction, to the disintegration of his existence under the dominion of the pseudo- reality of that image.”

[5] Helmut Gollwitzer “The Way to Life” Invitation to Joy, “The real meaning of a call to gratitude is ‘You should open your eyes and acknowledge what ahs happened to you in this man’s friendly approach, then you will be grateful and laugh’. It is s call to acknowledgment, so this call ‘Let us give thanks and be joyful!’ is a call to acknowledge the friendly approach which has been made to us, God’s friendly approach to us”

[6] Building from Karl Barth CD I.1.457, “Free as the servants of God…No less plainly the ‘law of liberty’ referred to in Jas. 1:25; 2:12 is the order which is directly contrasted, but positively so, with the law of the Jews, an order under which a man stands who is not just a hearer but also a doer—and in James this means, not a forgetful nor a merely reputed hearer, but a real hearer of the Word of God who is claimed in his life-act, in his existence…His freedom to by Himself, what is at issue here is a man’s freedom for God, for the ‘glorious liberty’ of the children of God (Rom. 8:21), the analgia fidei of the divine freedom which alone really deserves to be called freedom”