March 10, 2019 sermon

Posted by on Mar 10, 2019 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

March 10, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I began a story that I intend to continue for the next several weeks as I attempt to describe how people from different walks of life viewed Jesus in various ways and how that is reflected in the earliest writings about him. The story takes place near the end of the first century, some 65 years after the death of Jesus and approximately 25 years after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire. We listen in as the fourth and final author and editor of the Gospel known as John explains how he wants people to understand and interpret it. John has just explained to some 20 followers of Jesus who are gathered together in his home how the stories in the Gospel need to be taken as mystical signs rather than literal events.

“So, John,” a middle-aged man says, “I’ve always had difficulty understanding the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand and Jesus walking on water in the Gospel of John. If I understand you correctly, I shouldn’t be taking them as historical events but stories told with a mystical slant. Can you explain what their meaning is if they are not to be understood literally?”

“All I can do is try,” John says, looking kindly at the man. “As a Jew you know that Moses is the greatest of our prophets. Two of the stories about him that are well-known are Moses walking through water on dry land and Moses feeding the Hebrews who were fleeing from Egypt and were hungry in the desert with manna or food from heaven. Would you agree that these two stories are very important in our Jewish faith?”

“Yes, without a doubt,” the man agrees, nodding his head.

“Well, what this Gospel is attempting to do is to show that Jesus is the new Moses. Jesus, too, can feed the multitudes with food or manna from heaven and Jesus, too, can walk through or on water as though on dry land.”

“Okay,” the man says. “I can understand that and can see that these stories are not to be taken literally, but I have even greater difficulty in understanding the next passage in the Gospel where Jesus says that he is the bread of life and that whoever believes in him will never be hungry and whoever comes to him will never be thirsty. Even more confusing is Jesus’ words that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life. I can certainly understand why I shouldn’t take them to be literal truth but how do I make sense of them from a mystical understanding?”

John turned and reached behind him where a loaf of bread and a cup filled with wine were sitting on a low table. He lifted them up and held them before him. “Every week we gather together and share in what we call the Lord’s Supper and we eat of this bread and drink from this cup. We use words similar to what you’ve just mentioned and claim that when we do this the risen Lord is somehow with us. Christians throughout the Roman world do this on a regular basis and although we all agree that it is important to do so, we also disagree on what exactly is happening and how it happens. Those disagreements arise whenever we try to understand it literally instead of mystically. Some people feel the need to know exactly what is happening and that is impossible to know. Those people who are able to simply participate and accept that Christ is present are far better off. You know that some of our members have left our community because they take these words literally and cannot agree with that. Neither would I if I took them to be such. We believe that it is the spirit that gives life, not bread and wine, so when we partake of these items later today, try to let your mind’s need to understand them as literal bread and wine go, and let your spirit help you to experience them as the love of a new consciousness. Take the life of Christ within you and experience the joy of new life and eternal life.”

“This is where I admit I have trouble understanding,” the man replies. “I want to let go of the literalism but whenever I eat the bread and drink the wine I see them just as they are. I don’t seem to be able to see them otherwise.”

John looked kindly at the man and then at the others gathered in his home. “Let me assure you that you are not alone with this problem. In fact, there is another story in our Gospel that illustrates this so well. It is the account of the man born blind.”

“I know that story well,” the man says, seeming relieved to hear that the others in the group also struggle with understanding this Gospel. “A man has been born blind and Jesus heals him so that he can see. An amazing story that I now know is not to be taken literally but understood as a mystical sign. So what might that be?”

“Thank you for reminding all of us here as to what the story is about,” John says, “but you left out the part about the leaders of the synagogue questioning the man and his parents about his blindness. It seems these religious leaders would not believe that this man had ever been blind because they would have to admit that he was now able to see because of Jesus. Even his parents are so afraid of the synagogue leaders that they avoid committing themselves. What is happening in this story is the account of our own history with the Jewish synagogue from which we have been thrown out.”

Several people in the group exchange looks and nod their heads, obviously agreeing with John.

John continues. “For many years, we worshipped with our fellow Jews, despite our differences, until they decided they had enough of us and expelled us. We are the blind man who could not see but Jesus has opened our eyes to the truth and a new way of living. Now we see clearly. When we told the synagogue leaders about Jesus and a new consciousness and how Jesus had made it possible for us to see, some became angry with us, some were confused, and some didn’t care, but the leaders did care and they finally told us to leave and not come back. They claimed that they are disciples of Moses but we are disciples of Jesus and are corrupting the people and blaspheming God. So, we left and now meet here on the Lord’s Day instead of the Sabbath because we are no longer welcome by our fellow Jews. Even some of our own family members refuse to speak with us anymore. Like the parents in the story of the blind man they fear being expelled from the synagogue too.”

“You’re right, John,” another voice says, “My own brother and his family will no longer enter our house. They have disowned us because we believe Jesus is the Messiah. There are others among us today who have similar stories to tell. It has cost us a lot to follow Jesus.”

“I’m sorry for your losses,” John says sympathetically, “And for your pain. It is not easy to take up the cross and follow Jesus. But remember that Jesus is the good shepherd and it is only through him that we can enter into the place where Jesus lives and reigns. Our gospel tells us that Jesus will lay down his life for us, and in fact, he did just that, but that’s a story for later.”

“But is it all worth it,” a new voice says, one that had not spoken before. “I have been listening quietly to all you have said and while it sounds grand and worthwhile, I still wonder whether I’m making a mistake by abandoning my family and friends in the synagogue to stay with you. Those people who rejected us are good people for the most part and are only taking their faith seriously, as are we. How are they any different than us except for this belief that Jesus is the Messiah? What proof is there besides our writings and words? None of us have ever seen the risen Jesus, even though we claim he is alive! And if our gospel is only the work of mystics and has no literal truth in it, of what good is that to us in proving our case?”

The group stirs restlessly and a few cough nervously as they wait for John to answer. But John says nothing, appearing to be lost in deep thought.

Finally, an elderly woman says quietly, “There will never be enough external proof of what we say to convince anyone to follow Jesus. You could raise someone from the dead and that still wouldn’t be enough for people. The only proof that will hold up and last is that which comes from within.”

Murmurs of assent can be heard and then quiet to permit the woman to continue.

“We are not called to follow Jesus because our lives will be easier. We are not called to be Jesus’ disciples in the hopes that it will bring us safety, wealth, health, or power. We are not called to be his companions for any of the reasons most people follow someone. We are called to follow him because he is the gateway into God’s realm. A realm where love reigns and people live in a state of joy and peace that is impossible to live in while we are controlled by our state of self-consciousness and the need to survive. If we have not yet passed through that gateway it is because we have not yet accepted the Spirit of God within us and allowed it to transform us from selfish, self-centred individuals into unselfish, other-centred people.”

“But how do we do that?” inquires someone. “We have left the synagogue. We partake of the bread and wine each week. We have taken up our cross and followed Jesus. Yet, we struggle to change in any meaningful way. I can’t speak for the rest of you but I’m really not that much different than I was before I believed in Jesus. Maybe that makes me a poor Christian and maybe even a fraud, but I have to know – how do we become like the person you just described? Someone who lives in a state of peace and joy? Because I’m certainly not doing that now!”

Finally, John speaks again. “Thank you so much for your honesty and your courage. And I must thank our sister for responding to your questions so well when I didn’t know how. I am thinking of what she said about raising someone from the dead and how even that wouldn’t be enough to convince people that Jesus is the Messiah. There is a story of just that sort of thing happening in our Gospel of John, and I suspect that’s why our sister mentioned it and reminded me of it. I wold like to turn to that wonderful and amazing story in the Gospel next to help answer some of the questions you just asked.”