The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Inextricable Community (or, You are Not Alone)

Easter 6A
John 14:15-21


In the name of God. Amen.

It’s an ongoing joke among preachers who occasionally give “children’s sermons”, that if you ask any question during the course of a children’s sermon - no matter the question - the answer you are likely to receive will be “God”, “Jesus”, or “love”. The funny thing about this reality of the life of the preacher is that it’s very often correct. The problem only comes up when you’re looking for something else: who built the ark? Why did Judas betray Jesus? Who helped the Israelites cross the Red Sea? Sometimes we’re just not looking for God, Jesus, or love!

But the thing is, very often, kids seem to have gotten it right. Perhaps we’re teaching them something in Sunday School after all!

When you’re faced with a question about the Bible or about our life as Christians - particularly about God and Jesus - the answer is, very often, love. That’s the message of Jesus in the gospel lesson for today. And not just love, but love in community.

I was laughing with a friend earlier this week about the writing in John’s gospel. Sometimes its poetry is simply so moving. But then there are those other times… Sometimes John seems so wrapped up in making a logical argument that it’s hard to cut through the web of words - as if he’s so trying to cover all possibilities so much that hardly a shred of clarity of what he means can slip through!

Like today for example: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They 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.”

It’s like John is trying to cover all the possibilities. But in leaving no relationship unmentioned, he almost muddies it all!

But what is John talking about? I am in the Father and the Father is in me and I am in you? The description sound like those Russian nesting dolls, but as if they were nesting both ways - the larger dolls nesting inside the smaller!

And that’s kind of what it is, I suppose.

The message of Jesus in John’s gospel is the message of inextricable community. The communal nature of God lives in the community of God’s followers. And the loving nature of God lives in the love of the community of God’s people.

The message of Jesus is a message of community.

One of the challenges of this text in the English language is that there is no grammatically correct translation of the plural “you”. Of course, in the South, we have “y’all”, which better conveys what John’s Jesus is talking about here, but among most English speakers, “you” can be either singular or plural.

The problem with that is, it leaves a pretty essential part of the message to interpretation.

When I was in seminary Bishop Croneberger taught a course on Episcopal polity to the Episcopal students at Drew University. Early in the course he asked us what we thought the “central unit” of the Episcopal Church was. Most people guessed that it was the parish - are we not a collection of parishes? A few people guessed that it was the General Convention - the source of our laws and governance. But Bishop Croneberger taught that the central unit of the Episcopal Church is the diocese. As a church, we are essentially a collection of dioceses. It is the dioceses that make up the General Convention and the dioceses that create the parishes.

Similarly, we might ask ourselves, “What is the central unit of Christianity?”

I think Jesus would say that it’s “you” - but the plural variety. More accurately, “Y’all”.

The problem is, our culture has trained us away from any inclination toward hearing “you” in its plural form. We have been conditioned to think individualistically. We have been conditioned away from community. When we hear “Christ is in you,” we tend to hear it more as “Christ is in me,” not “Christ is in us.”

It’s true that Christ is in each of us. But the fullness of Christ can’t be understood that way. Our only hope of approaching an understanding of the fullness of Christ is in understanding it through community - through the aspects of Christ that are beyond ourselves, and complementary to the bits of truth that each of us brings.

One of my favorite shows on television is “Good Eats” on the Food Network. In it, Alton Brown, the show’s host, explains the science behind why cooking works the way it does. On a episode that I watched recently he explained why salty and sweet flavors go so well together. It’s really amazing - very often, sweet flavors naturally come with bitter flavors. One answer to this dilemma is to make something sweeter - to try to mask the bitterness. But, he explained, salt has the ability to block the bitter receptors in the tongue. As such, a little salt hides the bitterness making sweet flavors stand out all the more. Neither salt alone nor sugar alone can create a flavor as complex and satisfying as the two paired together.

That’s the way it is in community. Together we create a complexity that more closely mirrors the reality of God than any of us could alone. Our sweetness and our savory-ness, and yes, sometimes even our bitterness, all come together. They work together and they complement one another and sometimes even counteract one another.

Christ does not leave us orphaned - we are not alone. The Spirit of truth lives in us. Amen.


2 comments:

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It's always amazing to me where the Spirit leads in a sermon - from children to food shows and always round back again to God, Jesus and love.

Ms. Conroy wanted to know if I gave you my wood sculpture from Ghana. I told her that you had gone there yourself. "Oh, right," she said.

A mind is a terrible thing to lose.

Jon M. Richardson said...

Yeah - sometimes it's a bit of a gumbo, eh? :)

My love to Ms. Conroy :)