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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Better Off Without Me--A Sermon

Better Off Without Me
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 11th, 2012
Third Sunday in Lent

John 16:1-33 (Scholars' Version)

This section in John’s gospel is called The Farewell Discourse. In John, Jesus takes a long time to say goodbye. Over the course of the Winter we have been working our way through John. John was written about 60-70 years after the death of Jesus, sometime in the 90s. That is a best guess. John appears to be not an historical account of the life of Jesus, but a theological proclamation about Jesus. 

Jesus in John is more of a literary character than an historical person. Jesus is used by John to deal with problems in John’s time.

Jesus begins chapter 16 by saying,
“They are going to throw you out of their congregations. But the time is coming when those who kill you will think they are offering devotion to God. They are going to do these things because they never knew the Father or me. Yet I have told you all this so, when the time comes, you’ll recall that I told you about them.”
This is happening in John’s time. John writes his gospel by having Jesus predict the future which is John’s present. This is not uncommon. The book of Daniel is presented as a prophecy of the future. Yet scholars now realize that it was written in the time of the events it “predicts”.

Who is throwing them out of the congregations and according to John even killing them? It appears to be a sibling community. The Gospel of John is one side of a sibling rivalry between the community that eventually became the church and the community that eventually became modern Judaism. This is the most difficult aspect to read because we know of the legacy of antisemitism that has resulted. We have no idea how much to trust John. We are reading one side of the story.

John’s gospel is addressed to a community that sees itself under siege. Under siege from its sibling and under siege from what it calls the “world”. The gospel is written to comfort and encourage this community to hang in there and to discover peace in Jesus. Jesus is presented in John as the incarnation of the Word, the divine dabar that was with God from the beginning. Jesus knows everything. Nothing happens to him that he is not aware of happening. He knows where he is going. He knows where he is been. He knows what people are thinking. He and the Father are one. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is I Am. He is IT. He is the Man.

He has conquered the “world”. Hang with him and with the community that follows him and you will conquer the world too. One way to encourage a community is to remind the community of its founding story and to tell the community that the troubles it is experiencing have been anticipated by the founders themselves and will be overcome.

The challenge for the community is that there is no more Jesus. He isn’t around. They are alone. They are scattered. They are grieving. The way John handles this is that he has Jesus tell them that they are not alone, but they have the advocate. After Jesus is resurrected and he is alone with the disciples he breathes on them and they receive the spirit, the advocate.

From John’s perspective, they are not alone. They have Spirit with them. While the community might think it would have been easier or better to be with Jesus, Jesus tells them,
“…you’ll be better off if I leave. You see, if I don’t leave, the advocate can’t come to you. But if I go, I’ll send the advocate to you.”
When read in community, the Gospel of John is a constant reminder that the advocate is with them, teaches them truth, gives them encouragement, and will enable them to conquer the world as Jesus conquered the world. It is not really a surprise that John ends up becoming the centerpiece in many respects of the Christian faith.

When you go through a struggle, it is comforting and encouraging to speak to someone who has been there and who was able to make it through and who can offer authentic and honest encouragement and hope from the inside.

The story is that the founder, Jesus, even though executed by the powers, by the world, from John’s perspective conquered the world. Even though the world persecutes and kills you, you still conquer. That is martyrdom talk. That is the gospel from a siege mentality. The New Testament as a whole comes from various communities that see themselves under siege.

When we see today contemporary American Christians who by the standards of the world are at the top pinnacle of wealth and power, yet see themselves as under attack or under siege, you can see from whence that attitude comes. It comes from the Bible. John’s gospel is about how to survive being a victim.

One of the challenges for contemporary people and for contemporary faith is to figure out how to read ourselves into these stories. When we listen to sermons or read the scriptures we read ourselves into the stories. We look for a place to hang our experience. When the literature is primarily victim literature, we can read our own present experience that way, even when we are not victims. That is not a healthy thing to do. It is not healthy for us or for others.

I could preach a sermon on this text that paints greedy coal companies as the “world”. The “world” is intent on destroying our mountains for its own profit. Jesus, the Victim Divine, is on our side and conquers the “world”. That would be true. But it wouldn’t be the whole truth. It is more complex and much more messy than that.

Truth be told, we are the “world” as much as victims of the “world”. I drive cars and I turn on the lights and I eat from the top of the food chain. I am one of the average North Americans who if the world consumed like me, we would need four planets of resources. I had my coffee this morning from McDonald’s and I don’t think it was fair trade. Somebody and probably a lot of somebodies is not getting theirs as I get mine.

That doesn’t mean I am going to stop talking about saving our mountains. By no means. But there is no way I can ever think of myself as righteous about this. I am not only a victim of the world. I am not merely hated by the world. I am also the world.

John has Jesus say to the disciples:
 “In the world you are going to face persecution.”
That was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth. As the history of the church has shown, and certainly in our own time, the disciples and followers of Jesus have persecuted others at least as much as they have been persecuted. We need to take care as we read and appropriate these texts that we are honest about them and ourselves.

In fact, I am wondering if we ought to use this victim literature sparingly. It appears that everyone claims to be a victim. Christians are victims. Muslims are victims. Jews are victims. Republicans are victims. Democrats are victims. We all claim persecution. Rarely do we see ourselves as persecutors.

Victim language tends to divide as it hides our own dark side. We are a mixed bunch with mixed motives. Much of the time what others experience as persecution was not intended as such by those accused of persecution. I am not saying that there is no such thing as persecution and that there are not victims of persecution. I am suggesting that this language be used sparingly, accurately, appropriately, and with the recognition that few of us have clean hands.

The Gospel of John was written to and for a community that saw itself as under siege. It is apocalyptic literature. That means there are two kinds of people in this world, light and dark, above and below, us and them, good and evil. You are good. You will conquer the evil. That is dangerous language. It is great for rousing up a crowd and for starting a holy war but it is not so good for the messy, complicated, humbling, and carefully engaging, long-term work of peacemaking and justice-making.

That is the kind of work we need on Earth today.

There are many problems and many conflicting ideas and agendas for solving them. These ideas and agendas are motivated often by fear and self-interest to be sure. But there is wisdom and love out there and within us as well.

Even as John’s gospel is written to a community under siege, it yet has wisdom and truth. I turn to John’s understanding of the advocate. This is the spirit who is with the community in the place of Jesus. The advocate is the spirit of truth. Jesus tells them that it is better for them if he goes so that the spirit of truth can come.

Why would that be better? Why is the spirit better than the real guy?

I think it is the difference between having an external authority who gives you all the answers and having an internal moral compass. It is the difference between relying on your parents for deciding where to go and what to do and growing up and making your own decisions. It is the difference between relying on an authority figure such as a teacher or preacher for the answers and for seeking answers yourself.

The famous Zen koan says, 
“If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
The point is that if you see the Buddha you have externalized enlightenment whereas true enlightenment is within. Killing the Buddha is a metaphorical way of realizing that you are the Buddha.

In a similar but not exact way, the spirit or the advocate is the Christ within. Not just within in a personal sense, but among in an interpersonal sense. The wisdom, the spirit of truth, is among and within all of us. This spirit of truth is within all of humanity, in fact, within all of Earth’s life. That is the recognition that we are moving toward.

My critique, if I can be so bold as to critique holy scripture, is that the spirit, the advocate, is within those we regard as persecutors as well, or the “world”.

We are not simply good or evil, light or dark, above or below. We are a massive mess of mixed motives.

Our salvation is in recognizing that truth and bringing everyone, including those who have been without voice to the table. This spirit of truth is at work all over in many places. As Buddhist Joanna Macy assures us, the truth is in all beings.

Joanna Macy speaks of the work of the spirit as “The Great Turning”:
“A revolution is underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world. We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools, and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water, and meet rational energy needs. Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.”
We are part of an exciting time.

As tempting as it might be to see ourselves as under siege, or see ourselves as being persecuted by the forces of darkness, it is likely more wise, to recognize that the spirit of truth is larger than us and is found in unexpected places and is at work in our enemies as much as in our friends.

Amen.

4 comments:

Michael_SC said...

You should get a medal for this kind of preaching. True to the time-bound historical situation but really suggests some meaning for today.

I think you can find the victim mentality even as far back as the Psalms. Everyone's a victim (like the Tea-Party rich Christians!) but of course no one's a victimizer - not. This is a de-stabilizing and true point - thanks.

Sea Raven, D.Min. said...

Victim Literature -- great phrase. I'm going to steal it. . . . (crediting my favorite heretic, of course!)

Hal said...

I thank you for this series on John. This has always been the most uncomfortable Gospel for me. Jesus in John always seemed like a comic book character. You can almost see the little box in the corner of the panel, "...but, of course, He was just testing them...."

In the passion you can almost picture Him smirking on the cross.

I wonder if you follow or have read any of John Michael Greer's work. I have recently finished Apocalypse Not, and followed the blog series he took it from. He would probably classify some of your language toward the end of this week's sermon as itself being a bit apocalyptic.

He sees the "better world coming" language as a type of apocalypticism that he traces, in it's modern form, to Hegel, and the idea that history has replaced theology as the basis for understanding why things are as they are. I have not studied Hegel enough to have an opinion on the matter, but it has helped me reconcile the last 30 years.

While I have long considered myself a "progressive," I have for some time been moving from the idea of social progress as the inevitable endpoint to which history is headed, to the idea that social progress is... well, a good idea. Something to be worked toward with the understanding that there is nothing guaranteeing we are headed that way, and indeed, the likelihood that we are not.That, like the Stoics, you do what is right just because it is right, not in anticipation of a reward, here or in the hereafter.

I would love to hear or read a discussion between you and Greer on this topic.

John Shuck said...

I would like to speak with John Michael Greer. I am going to see if I can't get him to speak with me on my radio program.