Posted by: smstrouse | August 20, 2018

Abiding in the Divine Milieu

A sermon for Pentecost 13, August 19, 2018

beginningI used to have a love/hate relationship with the gospel of John. On the one hand, I’ve always loved his soaring, cosmic opening: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Even if I didn’t know exactly what that meant, I knew John was telling us that Jesus was something special.

Where I ran into difficulty with John’s Jesus was in some of the “I Am” passages. Let me give you an example. Some years ago, I attended a funeral. At the church, I saw my friend Kitty from our interfaith women’s group and sat next to her. When the priest read the familiar passage from John’s gospel, I heard it through the ears of my friend Kitty, who is Jewish: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” I was God-smacked. I’d preached on that same text many times, but hearing it this time was such a powerful epiphany that I didn’t want to go up for Communion. It felt rude, exclusionary, and offensive.

Another example is the gospel today. There’s a song I used to love called “I Am the Bread of Life.” The lyrics are pretty much taken right from this passage. But the first time I heard it after my experience with Kitty at the funeral, I heard the words in a new way:                                                                                                                                                    Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man
And drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you
.

I couldn’t sing that song any longer. Then there were other experiences that confronted me as I became more involved in interfaith activities. And I developed a whole lot of questions about the exclusivity of Christianity as the only way toGod.

What About “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life?
she-likes-itshe-likes-itI also knew that many other people had the same questions. I discovered when I spoke to Christian groups about interfaith matters, the question that always came up was: What about “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life and “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you shall not have life within you.”? Which is why I wrote my book and my blog, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters.

This isn’t a plug for the book (OK, maybe it is!), but rather a way of taking us even more deeply into this 6thchapter of John’s Bread of Life chapter that we’ve been seemingly stalled in for four weeks now. And I believe that it’s an important place for us to be stalled. If the church is to be relevant in the midst of the religious diversity all around us, we need to be firmly grounded in our own understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus. How can we be unapologetically, yet non-exclusionary Christian?

This is no small question, given that John has often been used as a weapon against other religions. It’s absolutely essential for us to understand that this gospel was written in a time when Jews who were followers of Jesus were evolving from being a sect within Judaism to becoming its own religion. Scholars debate over the exact date when Christianity became fully separated from Judaism, but it’s agreed it was by the end of the 1stcentury – not at the birth of Jesus, not at the death or resurrection of Jesus. So you can imagine that in the decades of this transitioning process, there was a lot of back and forth about what it meant to be a Jew and what it meant to be a Jewish follower of Jesus. And as is the way of all church matters, there were conflicts. So you have John saying some pretty harsh things about “the Jews.” Which is why The Inclusive Bible that I use instead calls them the Temple authorities, mindful that “the Jews” has been used – even in contemporary history – to fuel anti-Semitic flames.

So – mindful that John’s community was undergoing a process of figuring out their identity as followers of Jesus in the midst of another religion, we can see the same process going on for us today as Christians in the midst of many other religions.

Betraying Jesus?
head-slap-283x300Another story. In the days after 9/11, many congregations wanted to learn about other religions. At my church, we decided to begin a study of the world’s religions and picked Hinduism to look at first. I asked if they’d be open to inviting a Hindu guest, who was willing to share her story and answer any questions, to one of our sessions. They said yes, so I invited a Hindu woman who was active in interfaith activities to come to our next meeting. The visit went well. The Christian participants were welcoming and respectful. They asked insightful questions. But after the session one of the group asked if she could talk to me about something that was bothering her. She began by saying how much she was enjoying the study. She had appreciated meeting our guest and hearing her story. But she had a big concern: “If I accept the Hindu path as equal to Christianity, I’m worried that I’m betraying Jesus.”

 As I thought about this later, I knew she’d raised a significant issue for Christians today. I ended up getting a doctoral degree on the subject and writing the book and blog – and am now working on a video series. So you can see that this is a subject near and dear to my heart, which is why I can’t shy away from these difficult words in today’s gospel. But I also can’t go on and on with all this background information – after all it took me a whole book to say it all! But one important thing I’ve learned about these passages is to avoid using them to answer questions that weren’t originally asked, and to look instead for the message the author actually is trying to convey.

One of John’s Favorite Words!
Which is why, as I was thinking about today’s reading, I was drawn to the word abide. It’s kind of an odd word; we don’t use it that often. I usually think of it in a negative sense, as in “I can’t abide Brussels sprouts!” – meaning I can’t tolerate them. Or as in telling your rowdy children that you simply “won’t abide that behavior” – as in there are consequences for breaking the rules.  Neither of these applies to John’s meaning.

I did have an interesting encounter with another aspect of abide last Easter. I happened934984_10200507251937105_301113930_n to notice the sign on a bar I always passed on my way to work that said “The Dude Abides.” I actually took a picture of it because I thought it was a great Easter message. It wasn’t until I posted it on Facebook that I discovered the line was from the cult classic movie The Big Lebowski. Evidently, at the end of the movie, after the Dude’s been through all kinds of escapades, he sums up his philosophy of life, “the Dude abides,” meaning that he’ll continue on just fine. Not quite the Easter message I was looking for – or what John is talking about.

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I abide in them.” Now if abiding isn’t about not tolerating nasty-tasting vegetables, or about enforcing rules, or about being a slacker like the Dude, what does it mean? I decided to do a search of the New Testament and found that in the New Revised Standard Version, the Greek word μένω is translated as abide 38 times: 13 times in John’s gospel and 24 times in I John. Turns out it’s one of John’s favorite words! The only other place is “now faith, hope, and love abide; the greatest of these is love” in I Corinthians. Nowhere else. So we can see that ‘abiding’ is a major theme for John; it’s his primary way of characterizing what discipleship is.

Living in the Divine Milieu
9781903900581To abide in Christ is to recognize that we live within the Mystery of Divine life – or as the philosopher/priest/scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called it – the Divine Milieu, the body of God in which we live and move and have our being, as St Paul described it..

Here’s one description of it: “A milieu is as penetrating and omnipresent as the air we breathe; yet we mostly take it for granted. We simply forget about the atmosphere, even though we are dependent upon it at every moment. As soon as we are deprived of oxygen to breathe, we quickly become aware of our need for it. Fish live in a milieu of water yet are unaware of its importance until they are taken out of it. The most important spiritual fact of our existence is that at every minute you and I are swimming in a divine sea. Fortunately we can’t be taken out of it. At every moment we are inhaling and exhaling the divine life. In the divine milieu we live and move and have our being. While it is true that God is always “in heaven” (transcendent) and also always “within us” (immanent), the more important fact is that we are always living and moving (we could say abiding) within the divine milieu.”[1]

This is not some abstract philosophical discourse. There are implications for our daily lives. We’re reminded that in this milieu, we’re all connected – as Jesus said in another “I Am” saying: “I am the Vine and you are the branches.” Organic, interdependent. Abiding in Christ is never an individualistic matter.  The more we’re open to a way of experiencing ourselves, everyone else, and in fact, all of creation in this way, the more we will naturally want to care for one another – following the example of our Teacher, Jesus.

Bread of Life
The Last SupperFor John, abiding is deeply sacramental. In this Bread of Life chapter, the language of Holy Communion abounds. I’ve spoken about that in previous weeks. This table is one of the primary ways we open ourselves to the experience of Divine Presence. But the more we can realize how pervasive this Presence is, we can carry the mystic sweetness of Communion with us into all aspects of our daily lives – the easy parts as well as the challenges. We can also carry this Presence with us in all of our encounters with those of other religious traditions – abiding in Christ and being Christ in compassionate, diverse, inclusive relationships – in the name of the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  

Amen

John 6:51-58
Jesus said:

“I myself am the living bread
come down from heaven.
If any eat this bread,
they will live forever;
the bread I will give
for the life of the world
is my flesh.”
The Temple authorities then began to argue with one another. “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus replied,
“The truth of the matter is,
if you don’t eat the flesh
and drink the blood of the Chosen One,
you will not have life in you.
Those who do eat my flesh and drink my blood
have eternal life,
and I will raise them up on the last day.
For my flesh is true food
and my blood is true drink.
Everyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood
abides in me, and I abide in them.
Just as the living Abba God sent me
and I have life because of Abba God,
so those who feed on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
It is not the kind of bread your ancestors ate,
for they died.
Whoever eats this kind of bread
will live forever.”  

[1]Louis M. Savary,The Divine MilieuExplained, Paulist Press , 2007.

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. I read some interesting commentary on the “I Am” passages in John relatively recently. Apparently some scholars have pointed out that in the synoptic gospels, Jesus almost always avoids drawing attention to himself, and typically keeps his messiahship secret (e.g., Matthew 16:20). This seems to contrast strongly with the bold and relatively unambiguous claims written in John. I think the argument is that John might have added those “I Am” statements to counter theological doubts of Jesus’ messiahship, divinity, etc. Whether it’s accurate or not, it at least sounds plausible enough that I want to look into it more.

    Liked by 1 person


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