April 17 , Fourth Sunday of Easter:
Draft text of the homily, please forgive all grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Tell us plainly. Don’t keep us in suspense. Come on. We’re tired of spin. Tired of being sold a bill of goods. We want straight talk. Authoritative talk. We want it clear and unadorned, so tell us plainly. And then he does…and they try to stone him.
Jesus concludes: “The Father and I are one.” And the very next line reads: “And they picked up stones again to stone him.”
We want straight talk…as long as we agree with it.
It’s good to hear straight talk from those on “our side.”
It’s much, much harder to hear something told plainly, clearly from another vantage point. One that we have more trouble agreeing with.
To some, gathered around Jesus, his words are just what they’ve been waiting for…what they’ve been longing to hear. Someone who can give voice to their lived experience…their lives of suffering and grief. Their lives lived at the margins of society, in the shadows of power.
To others his words are challenging, repugnant, blasphemous.
Now, we have to be careful here. Not everyone, not even all “The Jews”—that phrase that John likes to use to mean, “Those Jews who don’t follow Jesus as opposed to those Jews who do” (i.e., all of the disciples and apostles, and all the crowds). Not all Jews considered this blasphemy, but some did. [The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 179-180]
We also have to be careful because the “plain sense of scripture” always gets slightly distorted through translation…and then even further shaded looking back through centuries of Christian theology and debates about how the persons of the Trinity are (or are not) related to one another…
“The Father and I are one,” isn’t really a statement of doctrine. In the original Greek, it doesn’t mean, “The Father and I are the same person,” or even of the same substance. It means “The Father and I are united…in the work.” [New Interpreter’s Bible: the Greek word “one” isn’t masculine here but neuter.]
The work of reconciliation, of redemption. The work of renewal, and liberation, and healing. The work of love.
“If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
“I have told you…The works that I do…testify to me.”
It is the works that unite.
It is the work that unites Jesus to the Father. It is the work that unites us to God. The work of love unites us…makes us one.
But unity is not about sameness, or even necessarily about agreement.
The Father and I are one is about unity of action. Unity of intention. Unity of compassion. Unity of will.
A unity that produces a body that allows—and even promotes and privileges—diversity because it values differentiation. A unified body that privileges diversity. The hand is not the foot…the eye is not the liver, they have different functions yet are one.
E pluribus unum…out of many, one. For 174 years that was the unofficial motto of the United States. That’s a similar idea.
Unfortunately this is not the unity the world of today trumpets. But it is the unity that God still offers in the invitation to join with God and others in the work of love.
That invitation is the shepherd’s voice, calling us to be united in the work.
It is so very different from the voices we are used to hearing.
It is different from the seductive voice of advertising…which works by creating desires in us by subtly (and not so subtly) pointing out all the things we lack…your teeth aren’t bright enough, your hair isn’t shiny enough, your car isn’t cool enough, your devices are all so 2014. OMG. In our culture unity is often reduced to consumption of the same products.
It’s different from the harsh language of politics: scoring points, creating scapegoats, playing on fear, and being opposed to whatever it is…
In our political worlds unity is too frequently reduced to mere agreement. You’re on my side if you agree with me. And if you don’t agree, I will do whatever it takes to change your mind…or make sure that you fail. Anything that is except actually listen to you, because that might mean modifying my own positions…which is waffling, which is seen as weakness. In politics unity is too easily reduced to ideology.
It’s different from the voices that flourish online and in the media: the toxic comments, the snarky memes, a unity of disdain.
It’s different from the voices heard in boardrooms and courtrooms and classrooms everyday when those with power and privilege bully and demean, or simply ignore and continue to marginalize those with less power and position…
We are drowning in a sea of messages that reduce unity to consumption, and coercion and compliance.
But that’s not the Shepherd’s voice.
That’s not the invitation to participate with God—to be one with Jesus and thus with God—in the work.
That invitation is always toward greater and greater inclusion in a unity that privileges diversity…remember that multitude gathered around the throne is from every tribe, and language, and nation.
That invitation is always toward deeper listening, without fear or defensiveness, toward discovering how our differences are necessary and actually reinforce our commonality.
That invitation is always toward deeper and deeper understanding of ourselves, and others, for the purpose of creating a commonwealth that all can find life-giving, and sustaining.
The church has not always done the best job of hearing this invitation…and we often do an even worse job of actually extending this invitation, but in our world of increased polarity and entrenchment, I believe the church, at it’s best, can be a place where we can learn once again how to be one out of many.
Where we can learn how to hold our own differences…our own darkness and our own light gently and together…
Where we can create trustworthy spaces to share our own vulnerabilities and explore and discover the strengths we didn’t know we had.
Where we can learn to sit down at that table prepared for us in the midst of those who trouble us, and actually have a conversation with them about things that matter…
Where we can explore together with honesty and integrity the deep inner questions that drive us all, those inner life questions described by Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy: “Do I have gifts that the world wants and needs?” “Does my life have meaning and purpose?” “Whom and what can I trust?” “How can I rise above my fears?” “How do I deal with suffering, my own and that of my family and friends?” “How can I maintain hope?” [Palmer, Parker J. (2011-07-18). Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (p. 124). Wiley. Kindle Edition.]
That, friends, is the invitation, so let us be united in that work, for the sake of the world, and the one who, through his life, death, and resurrection has plainly shown us the way, and guides us still.