A Provocation: The Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 21, 2017: John 14:15-21

John 14:15-21
14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

14:17 This 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 you.

14:18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

14:19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

14:20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

14:21 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.”

A Question or Two:

  • What do love and keeping commandments have to do with each other?
  • Aren’t we supposed to think that commandments can only kill?
  • Or did we misunderstand that one?

Some Longer Reflections:

There is much to love in this scene, just as there is much to love in the gospel as a whole.  It is not for nothing that John was my mother’s favorite gospel.  There are sweeping statements of love that sweep all of Time, all of Creation, into God’s promise of restoration and hope.

And there are jagged shards of sayings that puncture the tenderest stories.

This scene is one of the punctured stories.  In the midst of words about love and welcome and support, words intrude that split Christians off from the κόσμος.  The word is translated as “world” and Christians have become so accustomed to theologies that urge resisting “the world” that we don’t stop to ask what is meant by all of this.  “The world” has become religious code for the powers of Empire that oppose God, so it seems natural and normal that “the world” would be unable to receive the spirit of truth.

But the word is κόσμος, Cosmos, and it refers, not to Empire but to the whole beautifully ordered Creation that God “so loved” back in the third chapter.  The notion of beautiful, orderly creation is essential to the word κόσμος (which is the root of the English word, cosmetology).  The word reveals that biblical understandings of Creation don’t picture God as a distant, disinterested creator.  Neither is God a slap-dash rough carpenter who lacks the skills of a real carpenter.  God is a cosmetologist, skilled at arranging hair and makeup in ways that would never occur to people who lack the skill and patience such work requires.  I work with actors.  I have witnessed what a skilled makeup artist can do.  It is rather remarkable.  Using the word κόσμος for the Creation implies that God does hair and makeup, not stopping until the Universe is not just functional but beautiful.

But this scene is punctured by a theology that seems blind to beauty, seems to imagine that the real point of religion is to escape the world.

It is time that we were clear: any theology that cuts itself off from the Creation is wrong and should be resisted, even if it is put into the mouth of Jesus.  And it is not just tree-hugging post-hippies that think such things.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the same thing in his Ethics.  Our responsibility is not the members of our own sect, our own club, our own co-religionists, our own faith.  Following the lead of Christ, our responsibility is to the world that God entered in the Incarnation.  God did not become Incarnate as an Evangelical in order to save Evangelicals.  God did not become Incarnate as a Lutheran in order to save (the right kind of) Lutherans.  God did not even become Incarnate as a Christian.

Jesus is Jewish, after all.

But Bonhoeffer makes it clear that the Incarnation was an act of joining the world as it is, the real world, the world that remains the world (no matter how much we might wish it otherwise).  And we are answerable to (and for) that same whole world.  We will perform our responsibilities more faithfully if we cease separating ourselves off into pure little enclaves, little spiritual retreats that allow us to enjoy ourselves (a revealing phrase, it seems).

“Is not this the fast that I choose,” asks the prophet Isaiah (58:6), “to loose the bonds of injustice, to  undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”  It is a good question, but it is not one that can be answered if we imagine that Jesus, and the Spirit of Truth, came only for us and for those Christians who are extremely similar to us.  If we read this little scene in John and emerge glad that we are free from paying attention to the κόσμος, we are sure to fail at “breaking EVERY yoke.”  The vision of God is bigger than ours.

Sara Miles (in her fascinating book, the City of God: Faith in the Streets) says it clearly:

But there is no area of life from which God is shut out, and the “proper form” can’t be contained in a manual, limited to the actions of official priests, or contained in a service inside a sanctuary.  The blessing, as my neighbors and my neighborhood keep showing me, has been set loose: God has left the building.

It is time to open all the doors.

 

 

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