Fairly long post this week, and TWO readings! Apologies for that but felt that the first one would potentially provoke some debate.
New Testament reading
1 John 4:1-12
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
John 4: 43-54
When the two days were over, Jesus went from that place to Galilee (for Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honour in the prophet’s own country). When he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival.
Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.’ The official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my little boy dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.’ The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ So he himself believed, along with his whole household. Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee.
So who should we listen to, and why?
Some of us were watching with great interest the information coming out from NASA about the New Horizons probe which has just flown past Pluto. New Horizons was the fastest probe we have ever launched from earth yet it still took nine and a half years, and some gravity assistance from Jupiter to speed it up, before it finally arrived at Pluto, travelling at 9 miles per second. Now that sounds quite quick until we remember that light travels at 186,000 miles per second. That's why, despite still being well within the boundaries of our solar system, information from New Horizons currently takes four and a half hours to get to us. It helps us to come to terms with just how big our solar system is compared to the earth, or even just to our villages and towns. And when we expand that out to how large our universe is, well light from our observable horizon has been travelling for 13.7 billion years and we have absolutely no idea what lies on the other side of that horizon, although scientists tell us it's probably more of the same; galaxies filled with stars and planets.
It is a very big universe, way beyond our comprehension, or so they tell us. Why do we believe 'them'? It's because we believe the people who are experienced in these things to tell us the truth to the best of their ability, and who have proven themselves capable of good research. We believe them despite the fact that most of us have experienced only the tiniest fraction of the reality of the size of the universe.
I wonder what it would be like if we said we wouldn't believe it unless we experienced it?
I wonder how well NASA would do if its scientists said, 'We don't really believe Pluto is there because no one has ever been there and experienced it for themselves before coming back to tell us about it'?
I wonder how science would progress if everyone said, 'I won't believe your experiment until I have done it for myself'?
Thankfully, for the most part, sensible people are happy to accept the truth from the people that we trust to tell us the truth to the best of their ability regarding what they have researched. We rely on other people who have proven their expertise by their results.
However, it's interesting that when it comes to religious matters it all changes. I often talk about the experience of God and of how, for me, that sometimes occurs in the reflective times. I wonder, then, how Christian belief would look if we refused to accept anything unless we had proof by our own experience?
In order to believe in God, do we need proof? Do we need miracles? Do we need something unexplainable to happen to us?
Why is religion subjective truth when science seems to be objective truth? I'm not sure I can give a complete answer to that, but I hope I can at least show what I think is the yardstick by which we can make a judgement as to whether we should listen or not. It seems to me that it is this issue that John seeks to deal with in the above Gospel reading as we continue our series on the parts of John's Gospel that don't appear in the regular lectionary.
First we need to explore the passage in front of us a little. John has a particular way of constructing his narrative so that each section seems to build on the previous one. That means that today's story is developed from the encounters that Jesus has had over the last few chapters, and its foundation is found in the prologue of the Gospel's first chapter where John tells us that The Word of God came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.
John illustrates this in chapter 3 with the encounter with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who, although he knows there is something special about Jesus, seems unable to accept him as Messiah at this point (although intriguingly he seems to later.) The second encounter John shows us is with a Samaritan woman who, after some debate, does accept him. To understand the significance of that we need to remember that Samaritans were thought of as being a mixed race by the Jews of that period. So they were not quite Jewish, and it is amongst them that John records Jesus receiving a slightly better welcome than he did from a Jewish leader. Our passage picks up from Jesus having spent two days with them in a Samaritan village before he moved on to Galilee.
So to build his narrative John portrays a Jewish leader as not very welcoming and a Samaritan woman as a little more welcoming once she understood more about him. What happens when he moves even further away from Jerusalem and encounters someone who was in all probability a Gentile, a non-Jew?
Now I should add that it's possible some confusion may arise here because this phrase about a prophet having no honour in their own country appears in the synoptic Gospels but there it is used of Jesus in Nazareth, the village where he was brought up. In John's Gospel the same phrase is used but is applied to Jesus moving steadily further north, away from Jerusalem, and has nothing to do with Nazareth. This is because, from John's perspective, the Messiah's true home is Jerusalem, but he receives no honour there, no acceptance from those who lead, and so he steadily moves further away until we meet the royal official.
One of the reasons this passage doesn't make it into the lectionary is because there are some strong similarities to the healing of the centurion's slave found in the other Gospels, so much so that many commentators think it's the same story only told differently. What John does here, though, is to give it a place in an ongoing and developing narrative rather than a place for a simple miracle.
On the assumption, then, that this is the same story as the one found in the synoptics but told in a different way, what makes this so interesting for us is that, in this progression from Jewish leader to Samaritan to a man who is a Gentile, John appears to be taking great pains to suggest that the further away he goes from Jerusalem, the more of a welcome Jesus receives. Given that John was himself a Jew, we should NOT read this as anti-Jewish rhetoric. He may simply have spent some of his time wondering why Jesus, a Jew, was rejected by the Jewish authorities. Bear in mind that John's Gospel was an evangelistic text and there is a body of opinion that it was written especially for Jews who no longer lived in Judea. Personally I wonder whether John was someone who was deeply dissatisfied by the way his country had been run and so a part of his reasons for writing in this way was to express that.
But the point John seems to be making in all of this is that the message of Jesus is not just for Jews and, whilst in the synoptic Gospels evangelism is limited mainly to Jews, in John right from the beginning the author is showing its acceptance away from Jerusalem, the centre of Judaism.
That, then, is the background to this reading. What takes place is that the official's son is ill. The official acts, having heard about Jesus, by coming to beg him to heal his son. Jesus responds initially quite abruptly by saying 'Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.' That response is quite important. Firstly it mirrors the kind of abruptness that Jesus greets his mother's request to help at the wedding at Cana in chapter 2 when they ran out of wine. Secondly, 'Signs and wonders', is a term that comes up a lot in the Old Testament when describing the ways God has dealt with the Israelites, and thirdly the word 'you' in that sentence is plural, so we might translate it as Jesus saying, 'You people won't respond unless you see signs and wonders.'
The official's response is not one of desiring a sign or a miraculous wonder. He just wants his son to be made well. He puts his faith in Jesus by ignoring the test and urging him to come. Jesus responds by telling him to go because his son will live. What happens next is crucial for us because, quite simply, the official takes Jesus at his word and responds by going home where he finds that, indeed, his son has recovered, and began to do so at the time Jesus had sent him on his way. In other words the man acts on faith, not requiring a sign. He simply believes what Jesus tells him to believe. He doesn't have to experience anything to trust Jesus and the words he speaks. He responds to Jesus in much the same way that we respond to today's scientists, by simply believing him.
And that seems to me to be a perfect example of what faith actually looks like.
He has never seen Jesus before. He has never met Jesus for himself. But he has heard what others have been saying about him and so he responds to their testimony by putting his faith in Jesus. This is a man who has not been tarnished by cynicism.
I wonder how that compares to us. What do we look for when we're trying to decide whether we believe someone else when they tell us about something spiritual? For me, by and large, I want to see if it has had a positive impact on who they are. Have they become someone I trust? Has their faith meant that this is someone who I could tell anything to in the knowledge that it would go no further? Is this a person whose spiritual experiences have transformed them so that their whole outlook on life is gradually being transformed from inward facing and their own needs, to outward facing and serving the needs of others? Is true, real, selflessly giving love something that seems to be growing in the depths of their being? To me, that seems to be the mark of someone who has touched the hand of God.
But I have to admit that, especially in my younger days, signs and wonders were a big part of whether I would put my faith in what was being said. If I witnessed someone apparently being healed, or felt caught up in some warm feelings inside by stirring worship, then I was apt to listen to what was being said. I liked being convinced by signs and wonders, yet Jesus, despite being the most amazing miracle worker, disparages them. Why?
I suspect that the problem with a faith that depends on signs and wonders is the ease with which we can be misled. Now I can point to a number of key spiritual or mystical experiences in my life which have been important, but they just kind of happened. In the times when God has seemed distant they have been helpful to fall back on, but they shouldn't be the foundation stones for what I believe.
However, for some people the proof of whether something is real is whether it is also dynamic and lively. Do things 'happen'? For those who feel influenced by the Christian charismatic movement, and I count myself within that, have we judged whether a leader or a church is spiritual enough by whether there is speaking in tongues or whether people are healed? I know I used to.
Yet here Jesus make it pretty crystal clear that we should not be reliant on those things as being solid indicators of truth. In fact I would go so far as to say we can be very easily misled if we do. For example, a few years back there was a very influential movement in charismatic circles which came out of the Vineyard church at Toronto and which became known as the Toronto Blessing. At its height people were flying from all over the world to go there and receive the blessing and then to bring it back to their own churches.
Initially it seemed like something very special but after a while I became steadily more cynical because it became the next 'in-thing', the next mark of being a true believer. Commentators seem fairly sure that this did at least begin as a work of God, but, that maybe, in a sense, we got in the way. The intriguing thing for me, having spent some time researching some of the Pagan pathways, is that at least some of the hallmarks of the Toronto Blessing bore remarkably close resemblances to some of the known characteristics of Shamanic practice together with similarities to a few psychotherapeutic practices.
Now we can make of that as we will. I'm not going to condemn Shamanism in this and I have a couple of good friends who are practising Shamans, but they have, on the whole, a very different set of religious beliefs from Christian ones. However, if we decide to use signs and wonders as proof of whether an experience is genuine then we can find ourselves in a strange place where Christians uncritically adopt a form of behaviour that they would criticize in a different religion.
Christians need to recognise that there are numerous religions which have signs and wonders attached to them and so they are not a proof that something is Christian. For example I know of people who are Wiccan who have engaged in a ritual called 'Drawing Down the Moon' in which the priestess invites the Goddess to enter her, and of whom some have testified that when it did happen the Priestess glowed with an inner light.
I have known of someone who converted to a Pagan religion because of an encounter in which they felt deeply loved by the Goddess on a spiritual level in a way they had never before experienced. Yet these experiences are founded on different beliefs from our own. Signs and wonders are not the exclusive preserve of Christianity.
I think this is why Jesus tried to make the point that we should not demand signs and wonders as proof that makes us believe. What then should we look for?
I think we should we be looking for changed lives. If someone is genuinely being touched by God, by whatever name we or they may use, then there should be a movement within their lives to being more loving, more giving of themselves. This is also what we find in the first letter of John, that love is the mark of someone who is touched by God.
No one is expected to be perfect, but if it is God who motivates us then that kind of transformation should be evident to everyone and should be the factor by which we should judge whether to listen and take note of what is being said or written. Remember that later on in John's Gospel, in chapter 15, Jesus says that 'Greater love has no one than to lay down their life for their friends.'
So with our modern scientists, we listen to the ones whose research has a good track record of producing reliable results. Likewise with our religious people we should listen and trust in those who seem to be on the road to love.
Love is the yardstick by which we decide whether to listen, and may the Spirit of God so change us that love becomes the yardstick by which others see the truth revealed in the ways in which we live our lives. It's unlikely we'll reach the heady heights of perfection, but let love be revealed as that which is at the heart of the One who dwells within us.