“The Mystical Way in John part 1 of 3”
August 9; Proper 14:
Other Texts: The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over into God, by L. William Countryman
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
In our Sunday lectionary readings, we never get a consistent run of the Gospel according to John.
Our lectionary is set up on a three year cycle to ensure that we get through most of the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).
We spent much of year A (last year) going through Matthew.
We’ll spend much of next year (Year C) going through Luke.
And for most of this year we’re going through Mark.
For most of the year…except for these five weeks in the summer.
From Proper 12 through Proper 16 (that’s the last Sunday in July through the last Sunday in August) we—for some reason, that is not entirely clear to me— go through, not select highlights of John’s gospel, but the whole of chapter 6.
Just chapter 6.
The rest of John’s narrative is reserved for Holy Week, Easter, select other Holy Days and a few random Sundays.
This smattering of John might be one of the reasons why people find his narrative so difficult…so hard to relate to.
People like Luke…lot of great stories in Luke—the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son & the Generous Father, plus that awesome Christmas story.
Matthew has the Beatitudes and some pretty cool miracles and all that Great Commission stuff—“Go and make disciples”—sheep and goats and all that.
Mark is sometimes just one healing story after another.
And John is…
Well, in the immortal words of Monty Python… John is, “something completely different.”
John is completely different from the synoptics.
John has his own order for things—Jesus goes to Jerusalem three times in John, instead of just once, and throws the money changers out of the temple on the first go.
Spends more time talking than doing…
Talking to Nicodemus at night; talking to the Samaritan woman at the well at midday.
Talking to the disciples…Four chapters—chapters 14-17 are known as the Farewell Discourse, but it’s mostly the farewell monologue.
John is full of language and images that are hard to parse and tricky to understand.
Jesus seems more “otherworldly” in John.
Knows everything before it happens.
Does things “in order that the scriptures might be fulfilled”—like he’s just following a script.
Makes a lot more statements like “I am the bread of life.”
“I am the vine. The gate. The good shepherd.”
“I am the resurrection, the way, the truth, and the life.”
A lot of statements that are hard for us to digest.
“no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”
“Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
A lot of statements that make us respond, just as Nicodemus does early on in Chapter 3, “How can these things be?”
John is a difficult narrative, and we don’t get a sustained engagement with it on Sundays.
Except for these 5 weeks in the summer of year B.
So I’m going to do something (maybe not completely different but) a little different.
I’m going to try to give us some aids in understanding what is going on in the whole of John that might give us some understanding of what is going on during these weeks when we’re focused on chapter 6.
Because I have to ask: why chapter 6?
Clearly something is going on in this chapter that the compilers of the lectionary thought was pretty essential.
But it mostly seems to be about bread…which it is…but it’s also clearly about…the Eucharist.
Which, I think we’d all agree, is pretty central and essential.
So here’s the plan: this week I’ll give an overview of John’s Gospel.
Next week we’ll focus in on chapter 6 and talk about the Eucharist and early Eucharistic practices…why John treats it in the way he does.
And the week of August 23rd I’ll wrap it up by talking about what John’s ultimate aim is…what the whole of his narrative seems to be pointing toward and leading us into…a mystical union with the creator of all life.
I’ll confess at the outset that I’ve been deeply influenced by my teacher Bill Countryman whose work “The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel: Crossing Over Into God” opened my mind and completely transformed the way I looked at and read John’s gospel.
The outline I’m using comes from there.
John’s narrative—the whole point and direction of the narrative— is a mystical path.
It can be read as a map of Christian experience from conversion, through baptism, receiving the Eucharist, and on to mystical experience and union.
John does this by combining the biographical basics of Jesus’ life, with a believer’s path toward mystical union, wraps it all in a theology that makes sense of the two.
Remember this gospel was most-likely composed towards the end of the first century of the common era, probably between 85-95 CE, but possibly later, at a time when numerous communities were trying to make sense of how to be a Jew, or a Jewish-Christian, in the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70.
John’s community was staking its whole identity on the belief that how we responded to the historical person of Jesus is of decisive importance in our relationship with God.
So the whole Gospel is less about the historical actions of Jesus of Nazareth (although those are in there), and more about how an individual believer—you and me—can come to be reunited with the One who speaks creation into being.
He makes this clear in the prologue we’re all familiar with: “In the beginning was the Word (the logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
The prologue sets the theological stage for all that is to come: Christ is the divine Word made flesh, the creative force through which all things—you, me, everything—came to be.
The problem is that the created cosmos does not know nor does it accept it’s own maker. The only hope, says John, is through one being only—this same Christ-Logos—The Word—now enfleshed in Jesus—and our task is to become reunited to God through mystical union with him.
And the first step toward reunion is conversion, which the rest of chapter 1 and chapter 2 are focused on.
First the conversion of Andrew and Phillip and Nathaniel, which are portrayed as more typical conversions… if you remember the stories they are told Jesus is the messiah and they follow without much thought, and with very little evidence. Nathaniel even jokes about it (“can anything good come out of Nazareth?”). These conversations are more like “lucky stabs in the dark.” A Pascal’s wager of conversion…and how many of us have had the same?
Come to the faith because we were brought up in it, or because we figure…we’ll it’s better than the alternative.
John contrasts this with the next story, the wedding in Cana. Where Jesus turns water into wine at the request of his mother.
Mary is the one who already believes…who doesn’t need a fancy show—signs—…but many others do.
My own mother was like that…didn’t need “proof” of anything having to do with God. Just had a bone-deep faith.
I’ll bet every person in here falls somewhere on that conversion spectrum, from Mary’s bone-deep faith to Nathaniel’s joking wager.
We’re all on this particular road.
Chapters 3 through 5 focus on baptism.
From Nicodemus coming to him in darkness and having a discussion about being born of water and of Spirit…
to the plea of the Samaritan woman at the well to “give me this living water, so that I may never be thirsty”…
to the healing of the man ill for thirty-eight years near the pool of Beth-zatha, or Bethesda)…
The focus of these chapters is the various experiences of baptism.
Then we come to chapter 6 which is all about Eucharist. John doesn’t tell the story of the institution of the Last Supper in the way the others do. Instead he puts a long discussion of the meaning of the Eucharist in the sequence of how believer’s experience it…1st we convert (perhaps only partially), then we’re baptized, then we receive Communion (the traditional order, and still the order that is canonically required in the Episcopal Church).
It’s at this point that we begin to move into the more intangible realms of Enlightenment, and New Life. In the Enlightenment chapters John has Jesus teach about being light, and that we are called to be children of light, and when the focus shifts to New Life Jesus shifts metaphors to entering the gate into the sheepfold and following the Good Shepherd and finally there is the story of Lazarus…the unmistakable sign of new life emerging from the depths of the tombs—a foreshadowing of all that is to come.
The rest of the gospel, Chapters 12 through 20 focus on a deepening mystical union with Christ…this is where we get the metaphor of “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”
But we’re not there yet. Today, just remember that we’ve been through conversion, and baptism and we’re living into the mysteries of the Eucharist…which we’ll talk about next week…