Posts Tagged ‘Union with God’

One with God or with each other?

May 27, 2017

Easter 7 – 2017

John 17:1-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us into union with God, with Jesus our Saviour and with each other. Amen.

In the wrong hands the Bible – indeed any religious texts – can be dangerous. This is blatantly obvious at present as we live with the consequences of Islamic extremism. No faith is exempt from the misinterpretation or misuse of its holy texts. We have to acknowledge that over the centuries even Christian texts have been used in ways that are punitive and even abusive. Passages from the bible have at times been used to limit and oppress rather than to liberate and make whole. Witness for example, the centuries during which it was believed that the inequitable distribution of wealth was God’s design. The poor were poor because that was how God ordered the world – not because kings and nobles taxed them beyond their means. For centuries it was taught and believed (at least by some) that the bible sanctioned violence against women and that women who were beaten by their husbands should not only endure such violence, but that they should also forgive the perpetrator thereby being forced to collude in their abuse.

In the case of today’s gospel, the final half sentence: “That they may be one as we are one” was used as a weapon in the debate about the ordination of women. Those who supported such a move were accused of being divisive and of wanting to destroy the church. Indeed the insinuation was that in seeking change they were going against the express will of Jesus in John 17:11. It was both a powerful and a manipulative strategy, designed to unsettle those who supported the ordination of women, to appealing to their core beliefs and making them feel guilty for daring to suggest change. (Interestingly, the opponents of the ordination of women did not believe that by refusing to accept change it might have been they not the others who were causing division.)

John 17:11 has been used to support unity within the church and between the churches and a quick look at the website textthisweek suggests that this is the most common interpretation of this verse and the most common theme of sermons on this passage. However, if we examine the verse in its immediate context and in the context of the gospel as a whole, we will recognise that the prayer is slanted somewhat differently.

As we saw a number of weeks ago, a key theme of the Johannine gospel is that of the unity of the Father and the Son. Over and over again, the Johannine Jesus states that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. The union between Jesus and God is such that to know one is to know the other. Now we learn that Jesus is sharing with the disciples the union that exists between himself and God. Jesus prays that the lives of the disciples will be indistinguishable from that of the Father and the Son.

Chapter 17 is a part of Jesus’ farewell speech in which he prepares the disciples for his departure and for life without him. After announcing that he is going away, Jesus encourages the disciples to live in him (as branches attached to a vine) and he promises to send them the Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Now he prays – for himself and for them – beginning with an appeal to God that his role may be brought to completion. In John’s gospel the cross is not something to be avoided but to be embraced. It is on the cross that Jesus will be glorified, because it is here that his complete submission to God will be demonstrated, it here that he will be lifted up and from here that he will be able to hand over his spirit to his followers.

Death is merely the fulfillment of his mission: “Glorify me,” Jesus prays “with the glory that I had before the world existed”. As we learn in the very first verse of this gospel, Jesus and the Father have been united since before time began. Jesus continues by praying for the disciples. He prays that they union that he shares with God will not be shared with those who believe in him.

That Jesus is praying that the disciples will be one with himself (and therefore with God) is confirmed if we read to the end of the prayer. In verses 21-23 Jesus prays again: “that 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. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I 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.” The prayer concludes: “so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” If the disciples are united to God in the same way that Jesus is united to God then, God will be known through them as God was made known through Jesus.

At the end of the Farewell Speech, Jesus commissions the disciples to continue his work in the world. As God sent Jesus into the world, so now Jesus sends the disciples. As Jesus revealed the Father, so now the disciples have the responsibility of revealing both the Father and the Son. They cannot do this if they insist on asserting their individuality and on going their own way. The only way that the disciples can achieve union with God is if, like Jesus, they hand themselves over entirely to God and submit themselves completely to God’s will. By subsuming their own needs and individuality into the Godhead, they will allow God to be made known through them. Their union with God will in turn lead to unity with one another.

It’s all a matter of what we take as our starting place. If we begin by believing that God is insisting that we live in complete unity, we can end up chasing the wrong goal – focusing on ending our internal divisions rather than focusing on our union with God. If however we make it our primary goal to seek union with God, the end result will union with one another – in our Parishes, in our Dioceses and with the members of other churches.

 

Finding in Jesus all that we desire

July 25, 2015

Pentecost 9

John 6:1-21 (Matt 14:13f, Mark 6:32f, Lk 9:10f)

Marian Free

In the name of God who provides for us more abundantly than we can imagine and more generously than we deserve. Amen.

I always approach the sixth chapter of John with a sense of trepidation bordering on dread. This is not because I find it particularly difficult to unpack or that there are themes within the chapter that jar or disturb. The reason John 6 fills me with a sense of disquiet is that we will spend the next five weeks working our way through it – all 75 verses of it! For the next five weeks (allowing for some literary license) I will be lying awake at night wondering whether there is yet another way that I can speak about bread or help to make sense of eating flesh.

Fortunately, John’s gospel has timeless appeal and is sufficiently complex that it warrants regular rereading and rewards a more detailed examination. So let us take a close look at today’s gospel – a well-known story that we hear today from a Johannine perspective.

The first thing of note is that the account of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story that is found in all four gospels. We know it so well that we have probably only paid attention to the elements that are familiar – the crowds who have followed Jesus, the concern shown for the hungry crowd, the worry that five loaves will not provide enough to go around, Jesus’ giving thanks, the sharing of what little is available and that not only is everyone satisfied but also that no less than twelve baskets of fragments are gathered afterwards.

So far so good, but I wonder if you noticed there are a number of significant differences in the telling of the story that alert us to the fact that John has a particular reason for recording this miracle. To begin at the beginning, John does not tell us that the hour is getting late as do Matthew, Mark and John. Instead John sets the scene by saying that the Passover is near. This detail is significant, as the remainder of the chapter will make clear. The author of John’s gospel wants the reader to understand that Jesus has supplanted not only the Passover Feast, but all the Jewish Festivals. They have been made redundant because in his own person Jesus is the light of the world, the living water, the bread of life and so on[1].

Another difference is that it is Jesus who takes the initiative in John’s gospel. It is he (not the disciples) who is concerned about the hunger of the crowds and he who asks how they might be fed. Further, Jesus doesn’t engage with the disciples as a group, but specifically with two of them – Philip and Andrew. It is Philip to whom Jesus addresses the question about the bread and Andrew who identifies the boy who has brought the barley loaves and dried fish.

These and other differences tell us that John has a specific reason for recording this particular miracle. Unlike the Synoptics writers who emphasise Jesus’ compassion and welcome in their accounts, John’s purpose in recording the feeding is to emphasise Jesus’ foreknowledge and power and to set the scene for the discussion and discourse that is to follow. The discussion will allow Jesus to reveal something of himself, his relationship with God and his purpose on earth. In this instance the story provides the author of the gospel with the opportunity to introduce a number of topics – Jesus as the bread of life, the bread that has come down from heaven. Unlike the manna in the wilderness, this bread will not perish and those who eat of it will live forever. Those who come to Jesus the true bread, the living bread – will never hunger or thirst because the bread that Jesus will give is his flesh – his life, his very self. Those who eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood will be raised on the last day.

This is a lot to absorb, which is why it takes 75 verses and why we take five weeks to explore it. It is important to note at the start that at the heart of the argument (and at the heart of the gospel) is the Johannine idea that Jesus and the Father are one and that discipleship consists of nothing more and nothing less than having a relationship with Jesus that is the same as Jesus’ relationship with God. According to this view, discipleship results in a complete dependence on God that stems from an understanding that in and through Jesus all our needs can and will be met. The miracle of the feeding is the vehicle that enables John to explore this theme and to make it clear that intimacy/union with Jesus puts an end to all our desires and all our striving because in and through our relationship with Jesus we will discover that we have all that we require and more besides.

Yes, it is extraordinary that five thousand are fed with just two small fish and five small loaves, but it is just as extraordinary to recognise that the discipleship that results in eternal life does not depend so much on what we do, but what we don’t do. By allowing Jesus to be our primary source of sustenance and our sole reason for being, we will discover that union with God that provides a sense of fulfillment and well-being such that the world can never supply.

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:15-19)

[1] The Festival of Booths celebrated water and light and a central element of the Passover was bread.


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