Sermon for Sunday 7th June
Readings: John 17.1-11; Psalm 150
May these words and the mediation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord
As the Covid-19 Lockdown eases, many of us will be re-evaluating the way we live. The way we interact with others, the way we shop, the impact our lifestyle has on the environment, the way nations connect with each other – so much of what passed for ‘normal’ has been shaken up over the past few months. Living through a pandemic might also have nudged us, as Christians, towards a re-examination of our relationship with God. And it would be odd if friends, family and neighbours who don’t or can’t or only half believe in Christ’s message are not also mulling over things metaphysical as a result of this crisis.
We have just read part of John’s record of what Jesus said to his disciples during The Last Supper. This is perhaps the closest we ever get to hearing Jesus’ actual words (albeit in translation) because everyone at that meal would have pooled their recollections of the Master’s words on the last occasion Jesus was with them for any length of time.
As Christians, it can be comforting to let Jesus’ words – which are a prayer to his Father – wash over us. We can identify with the disciples (those ‘entrusted’ to Jesus) and be caught up in the bargain that Jesus seems to be striking with God. That is to say, in return for the way that Jesus has glorified his father by finishing the work on earth he had been given to do, he will use his power over all humanity to give eternal life to his followers. The whole passage seems to be swirling with a wonderful sense of unity between the Father, his Son and his Son’s followers. For a believer, reading these words might have the same effect as being carried away by a stirring symphony…it’s all gloriously affirming!
But how might a non-believer respond to this passage? In my opinion, it’s important we try to answer this question to prevent Jesus’ words being only accessible to a shrinking few. I also think that putting ourselves in the shoes of non-Christians (let’s call them ‘Sam’ – it’s fashionably gender-neutral) when we read the Bible helps stop the words becoming so familiar we cease to tease out their full meaning.
Sam is not unsympathetic to Christianity while having some serious reservations about the Church and the way, over the centuries, it has politicised and institutionalised Christ’s message. Sam reckons that any enquiry into what Jesus is all about ought to start with his actual words. Consequently, Sam has been dipping in and out of John’s gospel and has settled on this passage from Chapter 17, chosen by the Church of England as a key passage for this time of year.
Sam notes that Jesus is addressing God directly as ‘Father’. But, despite this intimate start, feels that there is a degree of tension running through all Jesus says. Jesus seems to be distinguishing between ‘the world’, on the one hand, and, on the other, those on earth entrusted to him by God. Jesus describes these people as those whom his Father “took from the world to give me”. He prays “not for the world” but “for those you have given me”. Then, while Jesus says that he is no longer in the world (he is speaking, after all, the day before his crucifixion), these others nevertheless are still in the world.
Presumably, thinks Sam, these others (Jesus’ disciples both then and now) are going to have to find some way to reconcile this tension between themselves and ‘the world’.
It would appear that Jesus is saying that being in or of the world indicates a degree of separation from God. This worries Sam. If Christians believe that God created the world then why this separation? The extraordinarily complex chemical and social processes through which life-forms are sustained and interact with each other (and Sam does see these as awesome) must surely reflect the nature of God. But Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is no innate consciousness in humankind of this divine connection. “Interesting…” thinks Sam.
Sam reads a little more closely and picks up the fact that the apostles’ understanding is of a different order from other people’s. It seems they have actually realised that it is Jesus who is the conduit through which the people of the world might understand something of their relationship with their creator. This is what makes the apostles special.
And according to Jesus, just knowing the one, true God and Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world is – eternal life!
Sam checks a range of Bibles in case the translations vary but they all say the same, as near as makes no difference: “And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and jesus Christ whom you have sent.” [Jerusalem Bible]
‘Eternal life’! It’s an oxymoron. As tangled in meaning as ‘dry water’ or ‘fertile barrenness’. Our whole understanding of life is that it is transient. Everything that lives, dies. Mortality is quintessential to life. And although, as any gardener knows, decay provides the nutrients for new life, this only proves that life on earth has continuity. Sam is reminded of the story of Tithonus, a Prince of Troy beloved by the Goddess of the Dawn. She could not bear to think of her lover subjected to mortality so begged Zeus to grant him eternal life. Which he did. What she forgot to ask for, in addition, was eternal youth.
If life is lived for eternity, then it cannot be, Sam thinks, life as we understand it. ‘Eternal Life’ cannot be a phenomenon for this world. Apart from everything else, eternal life on earth would show God up as massively contradictory, breaking the physical laws which bind the universe he has created.
So, wonders Sam, is this heaven-talk? Is Jesus simply saying is there is a different dimension to inhabit after death, if you are a believer?
For a non-believer like Sam, referencing heaven is for losers. It is a step too far into the fantastical, a throw-back to a sort of primitive wish-fulfilment. It is beyond imagination. “And,” huffs Sam, “telling me to live my life in the here-and-now, based around the possibility of some inexplicable happening following my death, is not going to win my vote.”
Sam, however, does not shut the Bible with disappointment but goes back to what Jesus says. Unfortunately, it gets worse. ‘Eternal life’ is tangled up with something called glorification. What, on earth, does ‘glorification’ mean? This is another of those religious words like ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ and ‘sacred’ that really have no point of reference for a 21st century adult, reared in the post-Christian era, who has never stepped foot inside a church and whose Religious Education lessons at school were all taught by student teachers or supply staff.
It’s as this point that a card-carrying Christian might need to step in before Sam turns away from Christ for another decade, muttering that it all smacks of mumbo-jumbo.
“Hang, on!” we might say. “Let’s unpack that word. Substitute the verb ‘glorify’ with the phrase ‘transform into something more wonderful’. And just keep at the back of your mind a feeling of ecstasy: literally, being lifted out of your static existence. Isn’t there something exciting there worth pursuing?”
“Here or in heaven?” asks Sam. “Remember, I’m an earthling. Mortal and proud of it.”
“Here on earth,” can be the Christian’s confident answer. (If is happens in heaven as well, so be it; that’s a mystery to tackle another day.)
Jesus clearly makes a connection between glorification, eternal life and knowing God. They are inextricably entwined. We note that his disciples who ‘know God’ still remain ‘in the world’. So if ‘eternal life’ is ‘knowing God’ (as Jesus says), this is not just something for an after-life. Glorification is also something which Jesus says he has done on earth by finishing the work God had given him to do. He also goes on to say that he himself is glorified through his disciples, those entrusted to him, whom he is leaving in the world.
It would appear, therefore, that the tension between the world and those in the world who have recognised God can be reconciled. And it’s done through the transformational process of glorification.
People like Sam may well be unique in the history of humankind. It is only comparatively recently that religion of one sort or another has not touched the lives of millions of people in Europe. In previous eras, Christians have always had the language of another faith at their disposal, to help translate the Good News into words that potential converts could understand. It’s one reason why Easter carries the name of a Celtic fertility goddess. For Sam, the whole spiritual dimension is as alien as the concept of colour to a blind man. Those of us who do have a grasp of the spiritual meta-language (the jargon of Belief) must help translate it.
I think Psalm 150 can help de-mystify ‘glorification’. The verb ‘praise’ dominates this psalm and this can bring its own difficulties as ‘praise’ here does not mean ‘pat on the back’ so much as exalt – and that’s verging into the spiritual!. But, in Psalm 150, the mechanics of praise is music. The psalmist is calling for a massive outburst of sound from trumpets, harps, lyres, strings and pipes and various types of cymbal. He wants Big Noise, at least as impressive as something rousing on the last night of The Proms.
At last! We have found common ground with Sam. We can start with music.
Music is not cacophony. It is not random noise. To be pleasing to the ear, music has to follow certain rules based on physical principles relating to sound waves and frequencies. I do not think it is too fanciful to talk about music being discovered rather than invented. Music is an art-form (it is ‘of the world’), which exploits the physics of sound (which transcend the world, having universal relevance) to communicate. Music can absolutely transform the mood of the listener. We can describe its power using a wide range of verbs, one of which might be ‘glorify’. If we can describe a piece of music as ‘glorious’ then we have been glorified by it.
If we are looking for a means by which those disciples, entrusted to Jesus and who (don’t forget!) remain in the world, can bridge the gulf which separates the creator from his human creatures, music could do it. And, of course, it already has. I do not just mean explicitly Christian music, all those oratorios and masses and requiems and hymns. Any music that lifts, that has an ecstatic quality provides a rung on the spiritual ladder.
I would argue that all Art (painting, sculpture, dance, poetry etc) does this, although we may need to be guided towards appreciating some of it. All Art has the potential to take us out of ourselves. And, provided the experience is positive, enriching or enhancing, being taken out of ourselves surely leads us towards God.
During lock-down, a lot has been said about the restorative powers of nature. Many people have rediscovered an appreciation of natural beauty. There is not a great deal in The Bible about the connection between God and beauty. We know that at every stage of its coming into being the created world was deemed good. We know King David’s musicianship is significant. But there’s not much more. It may be that an appreciation of beauty is too subjective or too tangled up with human sexuality to make it a safe topic when talking about God. But I think that exploring the way that beauty conceived through Art leads us out of ourselves does have a role to play when attempting to make words like ‘praise’ and ‘glorify’ accessible to people like Sam.
Jesus promised his followers an eternal life which comes from knowing God. It is impossible to fathom what that really means but we do know that it is a glorious destination which all human-beings can aspire to. Unfortunately, for countless thousands it is supremely difficult even to face in the right direction to get started. Men and women with the highest integrity can stumble along the way because the very language of faith is as impenetrable as a foreign tongue. It’s not their fault. History and geography have conspired against them.
On the first Pentecost, the crowds in Jerusalem heard the words of the apostles in their own language. Twenty-one centuries later, it is surely for us to find a new common language so we can speak to all those people who struggle with the basic vocabulary of Faith.