Still struggling with John
Gospel: John 14:15-21
15 ‘If you love me, you will keep [or, if you love me, keep] my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, [or, Helper (paraclete)] to be with you for ever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in [among] you.
18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’
22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
I grew up in a gentle, no nonsense Methodism: live clean and look after people. Church put me back together after each week at school. At church, I was valued and nurtured. At school, I was always the outsider, and always on guard. Direct physical violence was infrequent, restrained by the community adults who knew its dangers. But among my peers, I was always the "victim in reserve." It began only a few weeks into school, and it traumatised me; I still need to work against it.
During that time— when I was perhaps ten years of age— I had my first experience of a desolation which still persists, so that whenever I step out of the distractions of the everyday, I struggle to see any meaning or point to my existence.
These two experiences are the obsessio I bring to life.
An obsessio is whatever functions deeply and pervasively in one’s life as a defining quandary, a conundrum, a boggling of the mind, a hemorrhaging of the soul, a wound that bewilders healing, a mystification than renders one’s life cryptic. Whatever inadequate words one might choose to describe it, an obsessio is that which so gets its teeth into a person that it establishes one’s life as plot. It is a memory which, as resident image, becomes so congealed as Question that all else in one’s experience is sifted in terms of its promise as Answer. Put another way, an obsessio is whatever threatens to deadlock Yeses with No. It is one horn that establishes life as dilemma…The etymology of the word says it well: obsessio means “to be besieged." (Paul Jones, quoted by Richard Beck)
As I grew up, I began to hear rumours of a deeper life in the church: A meeting with the Spirit of God which promised healing; which promised a depth of reality that would let me be at home in the world, rather than excluded, alone, and questioning whether life was worth it. At that time, I could not have used those words to describe my situation, but I certainly heard the promise of a knowledge and experience which would heal, and build up, and it sounded like cool water to a man "doing a perish."
One night, on a long drive through the bush, I was favoured with an overwhelming ecstatic experience. Although, even then, a little piece of me stood apart, watching with a raised eyebrow and asking, "Really!?" This doubt didn't then matter so much, because something real had happened to me; something real had given me a new ease with life. I had been give an epiphany. And, suddenly, I was accepted; in the church, I had become one of those who had "seen."
[An] epiphania, etymologically meaning “to show upon,” [is] that which keeps the functioning obsessio fluid, hopeful, searching, restless, energized, intriguing, as a question worth pursuing for a lifetime. It keeps one’s obsessio from becoming a fatal conclusion that signals futility… Epiphania is epiphany precisely because its absurdity resides in being too good to be true. (Paul Jones, quoted by Richard Beck)
That eyebrow raising part of me, honed through years of being on-guard, soon questioned my experiences in this new way of being church. I began to wonder if many answers to prayer were not simply inevitable events which would have happened without our fervent intercessions. Much that seemed "answered" was trivial; graver concerns remained as intractable as before. In worship, I wondered if we were perhaps pretending a little; over-egging the custard. I began to feel that the promises of "life in the spirit" had been oversold. I could not help feeling that along with undoubted love, and deeply sincere sacrifice and commitment, there was also something fundamentally dishonest happening. Not least of this, was a tendency to approach difficult pieces of scripture, and other difficult questions, with special pleading and shallow interpretations which we would have scorned in other areas of life.
It began to seem like a make-believe world, and not very good make-believe, at that. I started to realise I had joined an elite who too often read the words "the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him," not with mourning, but with self-satisfaction. And other Christians had become the poor cousins for whom one feels sorry, and for whom one holds, albeit perhaps unconsciously, a certain disapproval.
I learned that I had left the place of the outsider and was becoming an excluder. When I began to voice my concerns, it felt as though I was quickly reassigned my outsider status by some of my peers. In a sense, I welcomed this, despite my pain. We make victims of our persecutors; even the disempowered can, in their own minds, heap hatred upon, and victimise and scapegoat those who have pushed them to the margins. In our pain, our self-justification becomes a cheap replacement for the grace of God that is Jesus' love for us, and we cease to love.
So John's gospel became, for me, a toxic text. I found myself deeply allergic to texts like this week's, because I had been relegated to the role of those who don't see, who can’t see, and who are at best the poor cousins who are letting down the side, and who should know better. I realised I was doing the same thing, "in reverse," and it seemed that even John, because of the pain of his persecution and exclusion, teeters on the edge of demonising those who do not see his vision. We can easily use his words to exclude and damn those who are different to us.
The first thing I see in John 14 is that "it's not about me." The "you" of the text is mostly plural. It refers to the "you" of the disciples, the people gathered around Jesus. To reclaim John, even a deep introvert like me, needs to be part of the gathering of God's people.
The role of the gathering of the church which John highlights is about love. Specifically,
13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master…
34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13)
Believe/Trust in God, believe/trust also in me…. if you love me, you will keep my commandments. … 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them. (14:21)
23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. (John 14:23-24)
We cannot read John from a position of privilege. We will be toxic, and the text will become toxic to us, and our last state worse than our first. (Luke 11:24ff) John speaks truth only from within the body which loves each member sacrificially.
We can only know him, and he can only abide with us and be among us— using John's words, if we keep the commandments to love as Jesus loved us. Jesus— I am reminding myself— had no poor cousins. 1 John 4:20 makes explicit what is implied by the verses above:
Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
There is something which marches in lockstep with the call to love: a gathering of people which hates and despises outsiders cannot love its own members in the way Jesus commands. Contempt and hatred cannot be walled off and restricted to the outsiders, because they flow from us, and start in us. If we define ourselves contra the outsiders— by what we are against, it shows our love for each other is dependent upon compliance to group rules rather than inspired and energised by our Christ-like sacrifices.
The second thing I have needed to sort out to be at some peace with John, is what "spirit" is.
I understand spirit to be the reality of love, of beauty, of creativity. These somewhat indefinable things are the primary characteristics of our reality. Without them, matter would be… just stuff. One of my key intuitions about the world is that what we often call consciousness has not somehow evolved out of matter; rather, spirit has chosen to associate itself with matter. Spirit is the ultimate reality; it blows where it wills; we can flow with it, or resist it. Flowing with spirit, attending to the quality of life rather than treating it as a biological engineering project, will deepen our consciousness. We will know spirit more clearly.
I think we church folk have often been afraid of this; we have been unwilling to trust spirit's good-will to us, much less the Mystery behind it; we have wanted to own spirit, in the sense of controlling it and staying safe from it. Much of what I heard, and said, about "baptism in the spirit" and "receiving the spirit" seems, on reflection, to have been about owning and keeping control of my life, of finding my answers to my fears and problems, and about getting what I wanted. Astounding and gentle love, and deep commitment, were often diminished and sapped by what I now take to be a fear of letting Reality have its head. We want God, and freedom, on our own terms. This blinds us to spirit.
The love of Jesus for us, and the genius of Jesus' humanity, is that he accepts the role in which he has found himself. "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." (John 13:1) Jesus does not simply love people in a way that suits him, he loves them by accepting the painful cup he is given, and loves them through that— "not my will, but yours, be done." This does not mean that the cup given him is just, or excusable, only that he drinks it.
In my life obsessio, something has asked me if perhaps the answers to the dilemma of my existence, and if perhaps the peace I long for, do not lie in searching for some kind of clarity and certainty about life. It has asked me if instead of finding acceptance, or in being "a somebody," life might lie simply in accepting that I am, in some ways, an outsider.
I'm not talking about some unhealthy glorification of my childhood wounding, but about accepting that I am who I am, and who I have been— not that I chose, or wanted to be, the outsider. But perhaps my freedom lies in living that to the end. I am the doubter. I will always question. Perhaps the compulsion to "be always on guard" (which I have so resented, and been unable to let go,) can be used as gift! My childhood trauma is never right; but it is what I have to drink— to work with, and to give to the world.
What am I talking about? This is the third thing. Our ability to imitate is central to our humanity. We copy those we admire, those we want to be like. We learn fast, and fall quickly into competition; human violence stems from competition with those who we once admired but who have become our rivals.
With eyes opened from years as a minister, and now knowing some of the underbelly of my childhood community, I have a new interpretation of some of my life experience. I can see that to the little kids who were instrumental in making me the outsider, I must have seemed so fortunate, and so self-assured— exuding superiority, to be honest. I had loving parents, good marks at school, effortless relationships with the teachers.
All this difference, especially in a culture which idolised sport over intellect, and didn't like tall poppies, made me the obvious scapegoat as we all tried to find some kind of security in life.
Yet, all the while, I so wanted to be accepted, and to be like them! I realise now, that much of my desire to know God, and much of my desire to have the answers to life as I grew older, was also an imitation; a desire to fit in, a desire to be accepted, even a refusal to accept life as I found it to be. I was as much a part of the cycle of imitation, rivalry, and violence as those I felt excluding me. (Our pain in the desolations of life is sharpened by our illusion that everyone else has it under control.)
In the Gospel stories, Jesus is the innocent scapegoat. "I find no case against him," Pilate said. (19:4) But his story breaks the cycle of violence because he says "Peace be with you," rather than seeking revenge. It shows us an imitation which is about service rather than competition. Someone has said it is not so much that we cease to imitate, but we seek to imitate the right person!
James Alison explains the role of the Spirit in this story for me. He speaks about the Advocate,
The Parakletos who will come … in Jesus’ name (John 14:7). That is, he will bring into creative presence the person of Jesus through the loving imitation of his disciples. It is not that the Holy Spirit is simply a substitute presence, acting instead of Jesus, but rather it is by Jesus going to his death (and, by giving up his Spirit bringing to completion his creative work: ‘tetelestai,’ “it is accomplished,” 19:30) that all Jesus’ creative activity will be made alive in the creative activity of his disciples. The memory of Jesus here (‘he will bring to your remembrance’) is thus not in the first place the cure for the absence of the teacher, but the bringing to mind, and thus to the possibility of creative practice, in dependence on Jesus, of Jesus’ creative activity. This is the sense of the peace which Jesus leaves with his disciples: not the peace which is the result of the suppression of conflict, or the resolution of conflict, such as is practiced by the mechanism of expulsion of the world, but the creative peace that brings into being: the primordial peace of the Creator from the beginning.” (The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 190 quoted by Paul Nuechterlein)
The Spirit comes not so much because it has been absent, but because we enter more fully into the world of spirit. That is; our imitating of Christ's love, our giving what we have, and our living what we have been given, realigns us. It moves us from being those who build themselves up by excluding and by being superior to others, in competition. It opens us to the discovery that Reality is about sacrificial love; about being for others rather than for ourselves. It sets us at peace with our world, although such a peace may unsettle those around it.
But the spirit is not our comforter in the sense of making everything alright for us. A paraclete was the defender in a trial. Paul Nuechterlein says
The Defender of the Accused seeks to uncover what really happened, the innocence of the accused. This pressing for the truth works culturally to unveil magical/spiritualist explanations used to scapegoat people.
It also works to awaken us to our selves; to uncover us. It shows us we are creatures evolving from beginnings of biological survival at any cost, into something else; into a humanity whose end is not death, but which finds in death, its end and purpose. This is where love has its power. Love keeps us safe from the mob; not safe in protecting us, but safe in keeping us from being in the mob. Nathan Nettleton says
The only way to avoid being swept up in the power of the mob is [to] unblock our ears [he is referencing the story of Stephen in Acts 7] and actively position ourselves alongside the victims. For it is there that we will find Jesus, and it is there with Jesus that we will find the truth of God and the power of unquenchable mercy, the only power that can heal our hostile divided world and set us free to live in love and peace. (Nathan Nettleton in a draft sermon on PRCL)
This is a meeting with reality, a seeing of the spirit of things, which the world cannot see. But because it stands with the victim— do you see how Nathan says "actively position ourselves alongside the victims?" Because it is the love which costs because it suffers, it has some protection from becoming the toxic religion which is for us, and which is seeking to fulfil only our needs, instead of loving others. Everything is redirected.
This is the only reading of Jesus' life which makes sense to me. To say that my end and purpose is found in death, and to trust that intuition, is more often to speak in hope than in a settled, peaceful acceptance or desire. But it is the only living I have managed which has not been hiding behind distractions or overwhelmed with my obsessio. Only here, do I find I am alive rather than besieged. There is something true in Jesus' words about laying down his life in order to take it up again. (John 10:18ff)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.
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