Saturday, 5 September 2015

Using our heads, not just our hearts. John's Gospel series week seven

It is impossible to ignore the events across Northern Europe this week.  What follows is an argument about using our brains, not just our emotions, in how we respond.

John 7:37-52

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.’ Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’

Heads, not just hearts
Donald Trump is providing some unpleasant entertainment in the race for the Republican nomination for the US Presidential elections next year. He has come out with some of the most outrageous statements imaginable. The most newsworthy and controversial ones have concerned Mexican immigrants who he has referred to as, and I quote, “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people”  If you do a search for his remarks on the internet you find a string of the most outrageous untruths and downright lies that he propagates as he tries to make his points. To me he seems to be talking about all the things he hates, all the things that get in the way of the USA being the kind of country he wants it to be.  But I find myself wondering how someone can be so sure of themselves in the face of such incontrovertible evidence that they are wrong. 

And of course we are no different in this country. History records how we followed the US into war with Iraq on false information. It seems clear to many that there were ulterior motives behind the war, and that it was nothing to do with the so-called weapons of mass destruction.  Instead they were a useful invention which played on our fears in order to get the war sanctioned by the public. Throughout history, over and over again, what we find is that people will ignore the facts if they are emotional about an issue. This last week we've heard some horrendous things said about refugees from those who ought to know better. So today's message is really a very practical sermon, a call to rational argument, with a reminder of what can happen to the innocent if we ignore the facts.

Last time (week five) I shared with you the beginnings of the story of Jesus going to Jerusalem to the Feast of Tabernacles in private and the importance of how he would not be swayed by the opinions of his brothers, but instead wished to stick close to his vision for what God intended of him. We have now reached the climax of the festival which included a special rite which sets the context for us of what is taking place in this reading.

During each day of the festival, water was brought by priests from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple to be processed around the altar and then poured out as an offering, possibly incorporating prayers for the rains to come now that harvest was over, bearing in mind that this was their harvest festival.  But this was the eighth day and was treated like a Sabbath, and no water was brought to the Temple. This provides Jesus was an occasion to teach the people.

So we can see that there is a strong allusion to water and its absence being set as the context, and with that knowledge behind us we can see why Jesus proclaims, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’

This image of water and the Holy Spirit comes up over and over again throughout the Old Testament, such in Isaiah 12. What we see here is the way that Jesus is making clear that the water of life comes from him. Indeed this has been a theme that John has been building throughout his Gospel.

In chapter 2 there was the changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. In chapter 3 we see Jesus in conversation with Nicodemus and telling him that he had to be born of water and the Spirit. In chapter 4 we had Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well and telling her that he gave living water that would quench someone's thirst for ever.  In chapter 5 we met the Pagan at the pool of Bethzatha who couldn't get into the cleansing waters fast enough to be healed by them, but then Jesus offers him cleansing far more complete and healing than those waters could.  Finally in chapter 6 Jesus calmed the waters of the Sea of Galilee. So throughout there have been these references to water and Jesus' claims which here he makes explicit.  John also ties this to the giving of the Holy Spirit, something which he makes clear would not happen until after Jesus had been killed, resurrected and ascended. It's being spelt out to us that Pentecost was not possible without Calvary first.

That then is the context. The response from the people seems to be one of both excitement and confusion. Some think he is the end-time prophet; others that he is the Messiah, and then John injects some irony intended to show how little the people really knew about Jesus. He would have been known as Jesus of Nazareth and a Galilean because that's where he lived at the time.  But John, although he doesn't have a birth narrative in his Gospel, is clearly alluding to what was known about Jesus, that actually he was born in Bethlehem of Judea and was of the line of David. John doesn't spell it out for us, he just leaves us to note the irony in what is being said about Jesus when the reality was that actually he did fulfill what was said of the Messiah. They had their facts wrong. They were ignorant of the truth.

The same confusion and irony carries into the last part when the Temple police are sent to arrest Jesus, but they can't bring themselves to do so because they, too, are astounded by what they are hearing from him. But this gives us a chance to see just how intense the hatred was against Jesus from the authorities.  They were so vehement in their opposition to him, so incensed with what they were hearing, that Nicodemus, who has already come to Jesus by night and is clearly intrigued by him, has to remind them about what the law says regarding hearing a person's testimony before condemning him.  So again we have a sense of irony, that the leaders are using the law to condemn Jesus and seem to be unable to comprehend that they have let their feelings get ahead of them to such a point that they are using the law illegally!

This, then, is the nub of the matter for us in the teaching here; an observation about how we can be so emotional, or angry or upset about something that we let the matter destroy our reasoning skills. We lose the ability to step outside the situation and look at it critically on its own merits.

We can even begin to use our own religious beliefs to condemn an action, without realising that what we are actually doing is ignoring what our religion actually teaches, bearing in mind that the Bible is not always as clear as we would like because it is a library, not a single book.

This is what we see here as Jesus, a man who is entirely innocent and who clearly fulfils so many of the prophecies about him, becomes such an object of hatred by the religious leaders that they utterly lose sight of their critical ability.

And that then brings it back to us. I have watched, and participated, in the herd mentality. Someone gets angry about something and they stir it up by sharing their anger with someone else. So it can quickly spread until people turn on someone who didn't deserve it, and it happens all too often because we don't check the facts.  I see it happen repeatedly in theological or ethical arguments. I've lost count of the number of times that people who aren't Christians tell me what I believe, only to struggle to take it on board when I try and explain the real facts and beliefs about Christianity.
Often it is because of something that has happened in the past which has upset them, but rather than checking the facts they are running on emotion.

So although I often talk about the mystical side of our beliefs, from time to time I believe that it is necessary that we must also remember that informed and rational discussion in the context of Christian love is the only way in which we should ever try and solve disputes.

People sometimes say to me, why can't the church go back to the beginning when it was all love and peace and harmony between Christians. The reality is that it was only like that for a very short period at the beginning. By the time St. Paul was writing, and he pre-dates the writing of the Gospels, there was a massive dispute between Jewish and Gentile Christians over the applicability of the Jewish law to non-Jewish Christians.  There have always been disputes and disagreements. We are in the midst of several as a national church at the moment. Doubtless, as with every church, we will have our own disagreements too.

Likewise you can see the same emotive issues being fought out in the press about the refugee crisis. Note that I call them refugees, not migrants, because when we look at the facts we see a different story from the emotive ones used to defend keeping our borders closed to those in need. Our beliefs as Christians, let alone simply being decent people, mean that we need to help those in need.

The Gospel reading today comes as an important reminder that we should never make up our minds on the basis of emotions alone. Decisions and choices require knowledge and assessment of the facts.

Otherwise someone gets crucified.

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