Thursday, 30 July 2015

John's Gospel series. One - the value of spiritual encounter

We begin a series on John's Gospel this week, looking at the passages which, for some reason or another, have been left out of the three year cycle of readings.  That means you will probably never have had a sermon on them before and those of us who preach will probably have never preached on this before.

John 3:22-36

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized— John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’

The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

A philosophical conundrum...
I'd like to tell you what it's like to be me. I'd like to, but I can't. I'd like to show you what the colour green looks like to me because I truly want to know if it looks the same to you as it does to me. I'd like to but I can't. I cannot show you because you cannot be inside me and therefore cannot experience my reality.  And the same difficulty exists with the things of earth and the things of heaven. I have many friends who I would like to show these spiritual things to, this God whom I encounter, but I can't because they have no experience, no ultimate frame of reference. The only way they can find out what I'm talking about is to encounter for themselves the Ultimate Frame of Reference. And that's what this reading is about; the gap that exists between the things of earth and the things of heaven.

I think this reading probably falls into the category of difficult to understand, but once we break it down it becomes far easier to see that there is a deliberate structure to what the Gospel writer has crafted here, the way it builds on what he's already written and the point that he is trying to make, which is to do with the greater importance of spiritual things over material things.

So if we break the structure down the passage falls into three chunks. The first gives us the context of the events, the second tells us what actually took place and what John the Baptist said, and the third is the author's own commentary on the events.

At the outset we have some interesting information from John that you won't find in any of the other Gospels, that the beginning of Jesus' ministry was running concurrently with the work of John the Baptist. In fact this looks to be at odds with Mark's Gospel which seems to imply that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee after John the Baptist had been arrested.  Matthew seems to suggest the same thing, with John the Baptist's arrest triggering the movement of Jesus to Galilee and his initial message being the same as John's: 'Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.' But the author of John's Gospel suggests that there was an interim period, when they were ministering at the same time.  In fact he goes so far as to apparently link his Gospel to Mark's Gospel by making the rather over-obvious point that this was in the period before John the Baptist was arrested. So already we have learnt something new about Jesus, that for a short while he and John the Baptist were active at the same time. But the balance was changing, and as we move into the second paragraph we pick up the story that the Gospel writer is going to use to make his point.

It opens in a confusing way, that a discussion about purification arose between John's disciples and a Jew. What makes this so confusing is that the author tells us absolutely nothing about what was said in this discussion. However we can speculate that it was probably something to do with baptism and that the writer includes it here to reinforce a point he made earlier in the Gospel about the superiority of Jesus and the baptism he brings.  In the Jewish tradition one would immerse oneself in a mikvah, a bath of running water from a natural source, either as a purification rite or because one was converting to Judaism. John the Baptist was using this as a basis for his baptism of repentance; making the people clean for the coming of the Messiah.  Now it may be that the Jew who was debating with John's disciples was making a point that he felt clean and didn't need to undergo this purification ritual. Or it may have been more to do with something that Jesus and his disciples were doing concerning purification that was different from John.

I suspect that the author is leading us towards this second idea, that it is to do with something extra taking place amongst the baptism offered by Jesus and his disciples because that would be in the context of what has come so far in this Gospel. Let me remind you that when John the Baptist first appears in chapter one he declares that he baptises with water but Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit.

That narrative is followed by the wedding at Cana at which Jesus transforms water intended for purification rites into high quality wine, again giving the impression that the purification offered by Jesus is something new, something far reaching on a deeply spiritual level, that in some way he fulfils the law, Torah, in a way that we are unable to. Immediately after that story the author places Jesus in the temple, overturning the tables of the money changers, an event sometimes referred to as the purification of the temple.  Remember that the synoptic Gospels place that Temple event in the last week of Jesus' life but John uses it right at the beginning, once more, I think, as a literary device to keep his readers' awareness on this whole purification motif. And all of that has been building up to the comments that the Baptist makes in this second paragraph.

So his disciples come to John declaring, 'That man about whom you testified; everyone is going to him.' The implication at the end of that sentence is, '...and not us.' The ministry of John the Baptist seems to be winding down and his followers are worried about it. Are they perhaps even jealous? A new preacher comes to town who seems better than the old one and so everyone follows him instead.
But John, in an act of humility that illustrates the depth of his spirituality, declares that this is exactly right. He knows that he was sent to get things ready for Jesus and that now Jesus has begun, his own ministry should decrease. The story of the bridegroom, the bride and the delight shown by the friend of the bridegroom, or best-man as we would call him, is a very touching one.

There are several suggestions given as to what the Baptist means when he declares how the best man rejoices at the sound of the bridegroom's voice. It could be that sense of deep happiness that a best friend feels for his intimate friend as he listens to him make his wedding vows. It could be simply hearing his voice as he arrives for the ceremony. It could even have been the exultant joy that he would hear from the wedding chamber after he leads the couple to it following the ceremony for the consummation! Remember, this was a very different society from ours. But whichever way we look at it this is John making it clear that he plays second fiddle to Jesus, and that now the groom has arrived on the scene it's getting near the time for the best man, having completed his role, to vanish.

The third paragraph marks a subtle but important change. When you hear it read you assume that it is the Baptist continuing in his thoughts about Jesus, but actually, even though there is no punctuation in the original, most commentators and translators are convinced that this last part is the words of the author of the Gospel as he explains to us, his readers, what this all means.

It's clear that he is harking back to the account of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus just before today's narrative. You may remember that Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born from above, born a second time; born of the Spirit.  So the Gospel writer begins by asserting once more that if someone is of the earth then they can speak only of earthly things, but that Jesus is from heaven and so he can speak of heavenly things from his own experience. He can bring to us a spirituality which we cannot find here because it is not derived from here.

And actually this shouldn't come as any surprise to us, if, like me, you get frustrated with the kind of things we hear from the so-called 'New Atheists' such as Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins et al. They speak with an earthly logic which currently seems to depend on a rationalism that has no room for, and consequently no understanding or comprehension of the spiritual.  It seems to me that they must surely be utterly ignorant on a deep level about what it is we celebrate. I don't blame them for this, but I get upset that they can use logic to explain away the mystery they haven't experienced and which I can't even begin to put into words.

The Gospel writer is just telling us what we know, that once we have encountered Christ for ourselves we can see the colossal gulf between earthly and heavenly reality. I think this is one of the reasons why we can rarely reason someone into the Kingdom of Heaven. C. S. Lewis is among a handful of people who became believers after weighing all the evidence and making a choice.

That wasn't my way. I encountered Christ first and was left in no doubt by the experience that this was who I should follow. Subsequently I went on to develop a deeper understanding and theology, but it began with an encounter with the one who, as the Gospel writer puts it, is above all things.  It's a little like the first time you meet your soul-mate.  You can't explain why, you just know there is something special about them.  In time you discover more about them, but to begin with there is just *something* that you long to be near.  Then we get this giving of the Spirit without any limits which is also my experience, that the more I open myself to the things of the Spirit, the deeper I can go. There comes no time when God seems to say, 'Nope, that's your lot.' It always seems to be a beckoning deeper that I encounter. 'Come this way; there is more.'

Now I admit that I am uncomfortable with the last verse but I also think it's important that I state that this is not the last word on judgement. The writer only offers two categories; those who believe in Christ and those who disobey him. There is a vast array of other spiritual conditions between those two positions that are simply not dealt with here.

What, then, does this reading mean for us? I think it asks us a question about the focus we have on life. What do we put our energies into? Where are we seeking the answers to our spiritual questions? Is it through rational argument? Well there's no problem with that provided we realise that it can only go so far.  Our beliefs and theologies are useful because they frame for us some of what we can and should expect to find in God. We learn about the character and nature of God, about goodness, perfection, love and light. All of these things are good. But they pale in comparison with an encounter with God, and that, therefore, should be the aim of our spiritual practice.

How will you do that? Well at least a part of it is in meeting together, but  I suspect that the best place is in silence where there are no words, just an invitation of our hearts which says something like, 'Come Lord Jesus and reveal to me who you are.'  May we find the time in our busy schedules for dedicated waiting, stillness and silence; of time to listen and receive.

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