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Gospel: John 17:20-26
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
Longing for glory together.
I long for glory. Some nights, when the noise of the highway has begun to fade, I stand in our back yard looking into the stars, and it is as though I might fall into the sky; it is as though we are on the edge of something so profound we can barely guess what it is, yet sense that there is something here— that we are a part of something— which in swallowing us up would fulfil us beyond our dreams: Glory. I sense some thing the same as we gather tired and distressed around the Table in all our difference and irritation and pettiness. We are near that One which is Glory.
Chapter 17 is a summing up of John's Gospel. It is the final word before the decisive act of human history, which begins in Chapter 18: "After Jesus had spoken these words, [the words of Chapter 17] he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden..." That valley divides the Mount of Olives (where the Messiah stands to rescue Jerusalem in Zechariah 14) and the city of the temple. It is a great divide, and yet Jesus seeks to heal the divide and make the two places one. John calls the place, not the Mount of Olives, but a garden, a paradise, in Latin, that genesis-place in the tradition where we hold the vision of Creation in its wholeness. In fact, in his death and resurrection, Jesus does heal the divide; the question is whether we will embrace the healing.
In John 14, Jesus says "12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these..." What if we took this seriously? Would we come to a greater understanding of the Gospel than even that of John!? Would we see something implicit in John, glimpsed by John, but not fully fleshed out, which, if John were to read the text of our lives, would have him rejoicing for us?
I ask this because, in John, there is a tension. In John, there is the glory of one which John knows 'in his bones' is to find completeness and community with God— in God. (so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one) And yet, also in John, there is division and othering. There is a bitterness toward the Ioudaioi which goes much deeper than a mere description of their presence and opposition to Jesus; we have used it to justify centuries of anti-Semitism. The description of the Pharisees is not only meant to spark in John's readers the question, "Am I behaving like this?" It often has the flavour of condemnation. John inevitably slides into the present state of humanity, in which he lived, where there is always 'us and them'; for example, "22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, 'Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?'" (John 14:22) Perhaps you have heard the opprobrium we so often enunciate when we say 'the world.'
And yet John saw clearly— it is in his introduction— that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him..." (John 3:17)
So we have a choice in John; we can read John 17 as a love song to the church, and we would not be wrong, but there is an inclusive and an exclusive reading of this chapter, and of the gospel, which will determine whether it is a song of glory, or a song of grieving. Our vision, inclusive or exclusive, will affect everything we read this week; indeed it will shape our hearing and living of the gospel.
I think where John points us, and where Jesus is leading us and healing us to go, is to see that, fundamentally, there is no 'us and them.' There is only, if we are to be human, us. The world is not them; "the world" is a way of seeking to be... us. It is a way of living out our longing to be... us. It is a way of seeking to be... one! But it is a way of being us which fails us, which enslaves us, which blinds us, and which destroys, rather than creates and heals, our humanity. In fact, "the world" is a beast which devours us. Once we have fed this monster its scapegoat we always need to find another victim so that we can feel safe.
'Us and them' is a dualism. In a vicious cycle where our imagination constructs, and the construct further shapes our imagination, 'us and them' dualisms imagine a Kidron Valley which forever keeps those of us who live in God's temple apart from the garden paradise in which the temple is meant to live; (cf 1 Corinthians 3:16, Rev 22) that is; the state of being where the garden grows within the temple city, and there is nothing accursed!1
My friend Sharonne gave me these words from a teacher: If you accept one dualism, then you accept all dualisms. This saying is true. It is the truth which underlies the words of Jesus in Mark 3:3 (which are echoed in Matthew and Luke) "How can Satan cast out Satan?" Or, as we might say, "How can there be unity and glory founded upon division?" That would simply be one more echo of the myth we live by, the myth of redemptive violence which, as Walter Wink said, "is the dominant myth in contemporary Australia. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently." Actually, Wink said America, not Australia, but my misquotation is accurate because 'us and them' is the universal myth.
'Us and them' is itself what Jesus, if we have eyes to see, calls the world. 'Us and them' is the accusation (Satan is the accuser cf Job 1:9-11) of difference when humanity, if we are to be fully human, can only be one, can only be us. 'Us and them' therefore, is a denial of our humanity! The world is the way of being which seeks, by making the accusation of difference, to create oneness. It is blind to the understanding that unity and, therefore, humanity, is not about adherence to intellectual systems and doctrines and the removal of difference, but is about conciliation and community despite difference and including difference.
Let me try to unpack this a little more, because it seems to me to be at the heart of our divisions as church. In the Uniting Church we are currently tearing ourselves apart over matters of marriage, as though marriage were the thing of importance. Yes, we often cry for unity, but this unity too often means your agreeing with me in the sense of you consenting to my way of seeing things. And that consent unpacks to your leaving 'them' and joining 'me,' and 'us.'
This all means that who may marry whom is not the issue. This controversy and violence is merely the current pustulence of our subterranean denial of our animality which is not yet fully human which, when it erupts, always does terrible damage to those who seek to love each other... us.
What lies beneath us people, is our origin as animals which need to stay alive at any cost, animals which only have an existence as a species because staying alive at any cost is hardwired into their genes and behaviour. That is, animals are subject to an evolutionary imperative which is especially sharpened in Homo sapiens, for we have become conscious of the fact that we die; this makes "our workaday lives existentially unbearable." (See Richard Beck's The Authenticity of Faith pp69-72) And we bear that pain by postponing death for as long as we can, and with whatever it takes, which means that, (if we marry Becker, and Wink, and Girard) we stay alive by killing others. Jesus, and his people before him, have already taught us that murder is wrong, so we sublimate our murdering into symbolic killing. We mostly do a kind of scapegoating that issues in exclusion and shaming, but which in Australia is still always sliding into murder: think Nauru, Manus, the coward punches outside pubs, the murder of women. These deaths carry the blame for our fear of dying; they pay for us the price or our staying alive. I would go so far as to suggest that every lost and terrified man knows that he too can kill Jill, Eurydice, and Natalina, and it is in this that the world holds us in its power. The outrage at the loss of male privilege is, at base, terror at the loss of permission to kill. (And women have their own versions of the same.)
If there were no 'us and them,' if there were only 'us,' then such things would... literally... be unthinkable.
As an animal called Homo sapiens, the Faith leads me to define my humanity (not to mention my wisdom) as the degree to which I can transcend my animal need to stay alive at all costs. And that humanity is dependent upon— it corresponds to— the degree to which I can transcend viewing reality as based 'us and them.'
This is terribly difficult (and I choose terribly deliberately).
We are in the world. We are formed by the world. It is our reality, and if we lose that reality, we are adrift in terror, for we lose ourselves. We are like the fish in a goldfish bowl; we can only see out in the most blurry fashion, always mostly miscomprehending. We need some anointed person to "break in" and live for us a new reality, as James Alison says in his descriptions of Jesus.2 One could say that being in the world but not of the world is just about the hardest thing! But it is also at the heart of our conversion. We are not taken out of the world (17:15) because it is the place, both 'material and mind', where the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus saves us and leads us into being more fully human.
Jesus says in John 16, "take courage; I have conquered the world!" It is not that he has brought the rebellious to their knees. It is that in dying and rising he has been... Human. He has not lived by 'us and them.' He has simply been... one of us. And he calls us to be the same, to follow him and his example.
In John 13 he says
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.'
The healing of blindness is done not by intellectual argument. It is done by living love. What kind of love? "As I have loved you," which means the cross, which means the kind of life which transcends staying alive at all costs, including the cost of other people's lives.
This understanding of 'the world' should give us pause. It is not wishy-washy, or without substance. It implies that as Christians we can also be of the world, even entirely failing to see what is being offered to us. When we say 'them,' which is, if we think about it, to claim to be right, we fail to see that no one can be right. We are all wrong; our knowledge is partial, (1 Cor 13) if not miniscule. To say 'us and them' is to claim to be right, which is to claim to be in the place of God, which is to "exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator," (Romans 1:25) It means we are "[given] up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done."
In his world view Paul can only see this being given up as an act of God, and God having created the world as it is, I suppose he is right, in a sense; but the 'giving up' is a consequence of our idolatry rather than a direct act of God. It is to give up our humanity by giving in to the fear of death instead of trusting the love of God for us.
Our whole existence is lived in a world formed by such fear and maintained by its violence. Satan cannot cast out Satan, but the satanic accusation of one of us being 'them' is the only power we have until we embrace love.
In all this entrapment, love opens a way to freedom.
'If you love me, you will keep my commandments... Jesus 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.
This was the word from John 14, last week. It is in the 'beginning to try to live' as though death does not matter that we find freedom. Not through adhering to purity laws (also known as doctrine) but by simply giving to others what Jesus would give them if he were before them in our shoes, regardless of the cost, and regardless of the fact that they seem different or wrong. I am convinced that it is because of, and only because of, the little bit that I have done this, that I begin to see that there is no 'them.' There is only us. And it is why I begin to see, sometimes, that being swallowed up by the stars or buried by the needs of us around the table is not to die, is not to be feared, but is the forming of my humanity in a 'one' relationship which I can barely imagine but which lifts my heart to places I have not until more recently even dared to imagine.
The Love Song: As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us... I desire that those ... whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world... that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. For you have loved me before I was knit together in my mother's womb3.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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!
1 To explore this figure, for I am grasping for an idea through poetry, read 1 Corinthians 3: Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple. Alongside Revelation 22: Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more.
2 I take this from the subtitle (and ethos) of his book Undergoing God which is Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in.
3 cf Ps 139
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