“The Mystical Way in John part 3 of 3”
August 23, Proper 16:
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Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
There’s a lot we miss when we only get fragments of a story.
We add things ourselves. We miss the nuance that is there.
We do that even when we’re paying really close attention, but when the story is scattered over weeks (or years?) and when it originated over two millennia ago…well, it’s really easy then.
The past two weeks we’ve been looking at the whole Gospel of John in order to help us contemplate Chapter 6, which we’ve heard for the past 5 weeks.
For the last two weeks we’ve heard Jesus say: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Last week, I talked about the “obnoxious discourse” that Jesus is engaging in here. Ratcheting up the stakes to force his audience into making decisions—taking a stand.
And apparently it works.
Because, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And “Because of this many of his disciples”—not just his opponents, but even some of his closest followers—“turned back and no longer went about with him.”
There is a point beyond which some cannot go.
And Jesus even asks those remaining: “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Peter replies, “”Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He could have easily said, “You are the Word of Eternal Life.”
Jesus is the Logos…the force that spoke the universe into being now made flesh…how could we not follow that?
But we don’t.
And in the very next line (left out in today’s reading) we’re reminded that even in the circle closest to Jesus—the most devout—“a devil” lurks—Judas.
This is John’s whole argument in a nutshell.
We are created by God, and yet the world—the cosmos— refuses to recognize this. The one way back is to follow the light…the Word. But we get lost, wander in the dark, and even betray those close to us.
And telling the difference between light and dark…is not easy; it’s nuanced…mystical…
What’s probably the most well-known and most quoted verse from John?
John 3:16, right?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
(That’s the KJV).
For God so loved “the world.” The bread I will give for “the world.”
Seems so obvious and straightforward, but within the Gospel of John “the world” is one of those terms that makes scholars turn into Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride: “You keep saying that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
In John, the world—the Cosmos—is a very particular term. It’s not just the whole created order.
Bill Countryman argues that “Cosmos…is John’s word for the creation in its alienation from God.” (p.113)
Remember John’s whole narrative can be read as a mystical path for working out of the problem established in the prologue.
To quote Countryman: “All things issue from the original glory of God, but the cosmos has not known and loved its creator.” We are all from God, but we don’t know that, nor do we really want to know that.
“To call the creation back, [the] creator has sent the logos, who is with God and even is God.” Because, “The creation as become the dark and sinful cosmos.” Creation is good; but something happened…we no longer live in a purely good creation; we live in the Cosmos.
It’s like the Jewish stories of the Wise Men of Chelm. Do you know these?
Chelm is an actual town in Poland, but it’s also a mythical town in many Jewish stories where people think themselves wise but are really completely ridiculous.
For example: There was once a great debate in Chelm about which was more important, the sun or the moon? This debate divided the town for weeks. Until one of the wise men weighed in. “What a silly question! The moon, of course! It shines at night when we really need it. But who needs the sun to shine when it is already broad daylight?” [http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Wise_Men_of_Chelm]
You might know you’re in Chelm when you see a man looking around desperately under a streetlamp.
“Did you lose something?” you ask.
“Yes, I lost my keys.”
So you start to help him look, but no luck.
“Where exactly did you lose them?”
“Down the street, by the temple.”
“Why are you looking here?”
“The light is better.”
When wisdom and foolishness trade places; you’ve arrived in Chelm. (The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. p. 128-9)
One final story: One of the wise men set out to visit a nearby city and the wagon driver hides him under a blanket and drives around for a few minutes and let’s him out back in the same place.
As he walks around the wise man is amazed to discover that the big city looks just like Chelm. Indeed, he concludes, the whole world is Chelm. [http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-serious-history-of-a-comical-town/]
That’s the punchline to all these stories: the whole world is Chelm. The whole world is the cosmos—alienated from the source of all wisdom
So when we hear that God so loves the world, or the bread I will give for the world, it’s not just the world that God loves…but this dark and sinful cosmos.
That’s where God sends the Word.
John is trying to train us to see this with new and enlightened eyes.
To distinguish light from dark.
So is the writer to the Ephesians when he says. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”
But the difference between darkness and light, between cosmos and creation is not neatly defined. It’s not us against them…Judas is both devil and disciple.
It’s a distinction, says Countryman, “between two ways of being: admitting God’s primacy and living out the father’s love, or asserting our own primacy and hating those who question it.” (p. 110).
We live in the dark, in the Cosmos, in Chelm.
And in John’s gospel Jesus enters this Cosmos with love to recall us to the true light.
And the way back to that light is love.
Countryman sums up John’s argument like this: “The way to that light is love: Gods’ love to us through the logos; ours to god through the logos; our to one another through the logos. This love is the divine unity, reaching out in power and in beauty to make all creation one with God. And it is freely given to us.” (p. 117)
Freely given in the sacraments and in our ministry to one another.
Remember, the sacraments for John are necessary but not sufficient. Some sort of mystical union is continually emerging, and participation in the sacraments generates that emergences and trains us in hearing and seeing and responding to the Cosmos as Jesus does.
It’s not an end in itself, because the Eucharist always points to the mystery within and beyond itself.
The monastery at SSJE bids the invitation to Communion with the words “Behold what you are, and the people respond “may we become what we receive.”
That and the similar invitation to communion I use comes from St. Augustine (writing a couple hundred years after John).
Augustine, wanting people to grasp this mystical union said: “If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith.” (Sermon 272 http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/augustine_sermon_272_eucharist.htm)
I’ve paraphrased this as “Receive what you are.” The Gifts of God for the people of God and Holy Food for Holy People are ways of reminding us that we are not only people of God, but Holy—part of and set apart from the Cosmos…
“Receive what you are” is an invitation to behold and participate in this mystery.
Be what you see; receive what you are.
We are Christ’s body, therefore when the bread and wine are consecrated it is all of us on the table. It is our own mystery we are receiving.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
We’re all still part Cosmos, dark and impenetrable. But we’re also Creation, light, life, and joy.
Everyone is a child of God, and we are children set apart to help make the light of God shine more brightly in this world so that the darkened cosmos might return to being the enlightened garden, and it all happens through Christ and with Christ and in Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.