Sunday, January 19, 2014

Meeting Place

 John 1:29-42

            Sometimes the most surprising thing about the gospel of Jesus is just how practical it is. 

            That is not to say that it is always mundane, familiar, comfortable.  But it is practical.  It is practicable.  Like many people, I really don’t care to hear much about a faith that is theoretical, arcane, other-worldly.  The vast majority of people whom I know and to whom I listen want their faith to connect with their daily lives.  I do too.  I mean it.  (If you think for a moment that somehow clergy don’t have a problem applying their faith every day of their lives, then once and for all let me disabuse you of that notion.)  My problem is that the gospel, as I hear and understand it, generally calls me to rethink some of my most basic assumptions.  That has something to do with daily life all right, but it certainly does not suggest that Jesus is something you can slip into a ready-made cavity with little discomfort or little change.  To the contrary, following Jesus is not just a hobby; it is a way of life.  It is specifically the life of a learner.  That is what a disciple is: essentially a learner, a student who follows a teacher in order to receive valuable, even necessary, knowledge of the most important things from that teacher. The very nature of learning is that one does not do much of it for very long without being significantly changed.  (One of the fallacies, by the way, of much so-called education in this country, is that it is often presumed to be relatively painless if it is any good.  Quite the opposite is true.  That fact is not to be confused with the deep joy that comes from growing in insight as one learns the ropes from a master.  And I’ll bet that many of you have had just that experience.)

            Today’s lesson is about lessons, and our learning is possibly about learning itself.  If we get that, then the gospel story about the first disciples that attach themselves to Jesus begins to make sense.  Not only that, but it makes sense in way that has direct application to the way we might choose to be, or to become, disciples of Jesus as well.

            The story opens as John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him.  Unlike the story in Luke’s gospel, in which John and Jesus are cousins, John does not know Jesus at all.  But God has told him that when he sees the Spirit descend on and remain with someone, that is the one who baptizes with Holy Spirit.  John goes on to say that it was precisely for that reason that he, John, came baptizing with water—just so that the one who is Messiah, Son of God, who baptizes with Holy Spirit, could be revealed to Israel.   The next day John, standing with two of his disciples (he was a teacher as well), points to Jesus who is walking by and says, “Look!  There is the Lamb of God!”  It is the second time in the narrative that John has called Jesus that.  Clearly John the Evangelist, the storyteller (as distinct from John the Baptist), knows that phrase to be one which his readers will recognize and understand to point to the divine origin of Jesus as well as to his ministry as the sacrificed Passover Lamb whose death takes away the sin of the world (and reconciles the world to God).  It is a poignant phrase, this declaration.  John’s disciples pick up on it and immediately follow Jesus. 

            Amidst all of the details of this story, some of which are on the surface much more compelling than the fact that these two anonymous disciples of John begin following Jesus, this one little thing is pregnant with all sorts of surprising insights.  To begin with, there is no record that John in any way reacts to his disciples trailing off without him.  On the contrary, in this gospel John the Baptist consistently understands that he must decrease while Jesus increases.  Once he bears witness to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world, he has done his job and disappears from the story—quite differently from the way he is presented in the other three gospels.  But perhaps more surprising is that the two disciples follow Jesus.  The word has a double meaning.  They walk behind him, sure.  But what we are about to see is that following means that they shift their allegiance to him.  When they call him “Rabbi,” they acknowledge that now he, not John the Baptist, is their Διδασκαλος (Didaskolos), their Teacher. 

            All of this takes place within the larger narrative of the calling of disciples.  In this gospel, incidentally, there is no definitive list of twelve disciples.  Some names appear as disciples that are not even mentioned on the lists in the other gospels.  Disciple is not a member of a group or a club or even necessarily an inner circle; a disciple is a learner who follows the Teacher, the master.  Jesus does not literally call these two disciples as he is said to call others.  But that does not mean that they do not have a vocation.  The issue of vocation, or calling, is the relationship the follower has to the Teacher, not the way that relationship is initiated. 

            And that is where this story intersects with your story.  Few of you here do not have somewhere between mild interest and consuming passion around the issue of vocation.  What is your work?  What is your life calling?  What is your job?  Or, if you don’t have a job, how can you get one?  If we are lucky enough to get past the level of job as a means of livelihood, we begin wanting that job to have significance.  Even if it is not a job out in the work force—say, you are a stay-at-home parent, for example—you want some assurance that the work you are doing, the stuff of your life, is meaningful. 

            Is what you do your life?  Parker Palmer, an educator, says

I was in my early thirties when I began, literally to wake up to questions about my vocation.  By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances.  Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own.  Fearful that I was doing just that—but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach—I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling.

Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, ‘Let your life speak.’  I found those words encouraging, and I thought I understood what they meant:  ‘ Let the highest truths and values guide you.  Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.’  Because I had heroes at the time who seemed to be doing exactly that, this exhortation had incarnate meaning for me—it meant living a life like that of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks or Mahatma Ghandi or Dorothy Day, a life of high purpose.[1]

            Palmer goes on to say in this book called Let Your Life Speak that he set out to achieve lofty ideals, but found that trying to live more nobly a life that was not his own left him imitating heroes rather than listening to his heart.

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.  Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.[2]

            I want to suggest with considerable verve that listening to the deep truth within you is where vocation begins.  It is where discipleship begins.  And, if Jesus is your Teacher, I believe that he teaches just that.  In fact, I’ll go further.  I believe that Christ is an image of your truest and most perfect self, not a person or a master to be imitated, but whose example of being absolutely true to his deepest Self is worth yours and my following.  Did you get that?  Let me say it again.  If you follow Jesus, really and truly, you will be following your deepest and truest self.  And if you are listening quietly and deeply to your truest life, you will be following Jesus.  You will indeed be letting your life speak.  “The place God calls you to,” in Frederick Buechner’s oft-quoted phrase, is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[3]  But you won’t get there by imagining that following Jesus equates with playing church or turning yourself into something that is at odds with what your own life is trying to tell you.  You won’t get there if you collect a lot of so-called “spiritual qualities,” like praying without ceasing, speaking in tongues, working your fingers to the bone for justice, demonstrating for peace, receiving every sacrament in the book.  None of those things is bad and I wouldn’t discourage any of them.  But that is not your life unless it is your life.  It is the work of the soul to bring into alignment your deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger.

            Parker Palmer’s heroes that he set out to imitate included Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we pause to celebrate this weekend.  The message of King is not that you need to be ordained like him or to speak like him or even to lead change like him.  The message of Martin Luther King, like Ghandi and Rosa Parks and St. Francis and Martin Luther, is that you listen to your own life and you live to the fullest what your life speaks to you and through you.  And the world’s deepest hunger is for you to do just that. 

            I do not know whether Andrew and the other disciple that followed Jesus that day somewhere near Aenon in the vicinity of Jericho would have put it this way.  Maybe their understanding of discipleship and vocation belonged too much to the habits and thought-forms of another age for me to suggest that they would put it the way Buechner does or the way I do.  But I am convinced that the most amazing thing about our Rabbi Jesus is that he demonstrated what it is to listen to your deep truth.  When we say that he is the Lamb of God, I think that that is the heart of what we mean.  He found his vocation not by imitating the prophets or the priests or the heroes of Israel, but by being himself. 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2000), Kindle version, loc. 49-59 of 1031. 
[2] Ibid., loc. 59 of 1031.
[3] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking:  A Theological ABC (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1973), quotation online at, accessed January 18, 2014.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Decision Overturned

Acts 10:34-43

            Talk about surprises. 

            Peter was a good Jew.  And good Jews had at least a five hundred, if not a thousand-year-old script for what to think about Gentiles.  We didn’t hear the background story today as Acts was being read, but it is worth recounting.   As Luke tells it, sometime after Jesus was raised from the dead, there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort. Cornelius had not adopted the Jewish religion, but worshiped the God of Israel.  One afternoon about three o’clock, Cornelius had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and calling him by name, “Cornelius.” 

            He looked at the being, terror-struck, and stammered, “What is it, Lord?” 

            The angel answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.   Here’s what you are to do.  Send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter, who is lodging with another Simon, a tanner.”  So Cornelius did just that.

            As they were journeying to Joppa, about noon the next day, Peter went up on the roof of Simon’s house to pray.  He became hungry, and food was being prepared for him.  As he waited for lunch, Peter fell into a trance.  He saw heaven opened and something like a large bed sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners.  In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds.  A voice said, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

            But Peter said, “No way, Lord.  I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  Two more times this voice repeated the command, and then suddenly the sheet was taken up into heaven.  Peter had no idea of what to make of it.  About that time the men sent by Cornelius appeared, asking the whereabouts of Peter. 

            The Spirit said to Peter, “Three men are searching for you.  Get up, go down, and go with them without hesitating.  I have sent them.”  So after spending the night and inviting Cornelius’ party to do so, Peter journeyed to Caesarea, met Cornelius, found out about the vision the centurion had experienced several days before, and responded to Cornelius’s bidding that Peter share with him and his company, including family and close friends, what Peter had to say.

            That is where Peter begins to say what you heard in the second lesson a few minutes ago.  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  A case could be made for saying that that one sentence is perhaps the most important one ever spoken by a Christian tongue.  Do you have any idea what a huge change that signaled?  We speak of the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion, and the Church sets aside the 7th of February as a feast day to celebrate that.  But it could as easily be spoken of as the Conversion of Peter the Apostle.  This was truly a conversion, a transformative event.  And it pegs an enormous change in thinking, a radical shift in perceptions that is nearly impossible to describe.  The fledgling Church was to have a series of challenges and disputes about the incorporation of Gentiles into the Christian community before things got all ironed out, but the response of Peter to Cornelius was the beginning of the earthquake. 

            Now what Peter proceeds to tell Cornelius and his company is a synopsis of Jesus’ ministry.  Most scholars say that what Peter says and what we heard is the kerygmatic outline, a summation of the gospel that was preached from the earliest days of the Christian movement.  And what was the effect?  A rather surprising one, you might say.  For as Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.  And there you have it.  God simply does not follow the rules that people lay out neatly for God to follow.  It should have been little surprise to Peter’s colleagues, who might have known Jesus himself.  If they did, they must have had some inkling that God disobeyed many a rule, hard as that might be to swallow.  Ripping off grain from somebody else’s cornfield on the Sabbath; healing whomever, whenever, however, wherever; keeping table fellowship with those who were ritually unclean, not to mention categorically immoral; saying outrageous things about the wealthy and taking up unconscionably big chunks of time with the dispossessed and the poor; displaying concerns for those nobody else cared for; making despised Samaritans exemplary heroes of some of his stories:  none of that is standard religious stuff. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.  Try flouting custom and authority in the average parish that has Jesus all boxed up in the Tabernacle with a candle glowing in his honor.  Try suggesting that Jesus, not to mention God, might not find disgusting what human beings often do.  Invite somebody smelling of stale urine and cheap wine into many a Christian congregation of whatever stripe.  You will find out fast how the example of Jesus is something that still does not quite register with hosts of people who are dead sure that they are going to “get to heaven” while whole nations and groups and non-conformists are headed to hell.  But, you’d think, Peter and his companions should have known.  Maybe they did.  Maybe they did.

            Peter, witnessing the marks of the Holy Spirit on these new Gentile converts, asked, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  Too bad that our story today stopped before it got to that, which is in some ways the best part.  The infant Church had not yet regularized and institutionalized the order of Christian initiation.  Here is an example in Acts of the order being wrong by later standards.  First you are supposed to be baptized—that is the rule—and then you can get the Holy Spirit.  Whoever heard tell of an unbaptized person being full of God?  Imagine.  Later on there are other accounts of people who were baptized but who had not yet manifested the marks of the Spirit.  Again, very strange.  Not by the rules did they play.  And if there is one thing that drives human beings nuts it is to play without consistent rules.  “Not fair!” are two of the first words that at least English-speaking kids learn.  We want rules.  And as much as we would like to think that God just loves to give commandments and ordinances, apparently there are some (witness Jesus again) which we love a lot more than God appears to.

            Oh, this Holy Spirit that Jesus experienced descending upon him all dove-like as he came up out of that muddy Jordan, its water running out of his ears, is the Spirit that fell on Cornelius and company.  Was it real?  Apparently so.  What, then, might we expect to have happened?  I would argue that the biggest surprise might have been that Cornelius actually did not change all that much.  How do I know?  I don’t.  But the story tells us that he was already devout, that he prayed constantly, and that he gave generously to people.  In fact, the job of Peter was to facilitate a connection between what Cornelius had already been doing and the guts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.  It was not that Cornelius did not know anything about living a life of faith.  He simply did not know about Jesus.  It was not that he needed to be changed inside and out.  He simply needed to know not how to live but who was already living in him.  Perhaps some of Cornelius’s relatives and friends had some reforming to do, some radical changes to make.  And maybe Cornelius did too, on some levels.  Yet the issue is that the Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus is not for Jesus only but for all those, Jews, Gentiles, men, women, children, of all shapes, sizes, nations, and races who give their hearts to Jesus and make him their model, their pattern, and thus their Savior.

            Like a great many things, baptism got started as a simple thing, an outward sign of an inner change.  (That is why people have a hard time understanding why Jesus was baptized in the first place. Why should the sinless one come to Jordan to be baptized?  Matthew’s gospel depicts John the Baptizer as reluctant to baptize Jesus at all, but finally relenting in order to “fulfill all righteousness.”)  But baptism does not stay stuck as a simple ritual bath.  It takes on deeper and deeper significance.  It morphs into a ritual death and resurrection, as people go down under the water and come back up again, imitating, as it were, the journey of Jesus from cross to tomb to hell and back, and thence to exaltation.  Baptism becomes for generations after Cornelius and his cohort a way of life, the way of giving, the way of forgiving.

            The good news is that this surprising turn of events is not an ancient story that is at best an intriguing fable that might catch your fleeting attention.  It is as real today as it was for Peter that day in Joppa or two days later in Caesarea.  The Spirit who breaks into the lives of and rearranges the thinking of first century Jews, the Spirit who is at work in a Roman centurion is sniffing around your heels at this very instant.  The graceful, dove-like flight of that Spirit at Jesus’ baptism attesting that he is the Son of God is replicated in your life over and over again.  You but have to recognize it.  But not even your recognition is anything that makes that Spirit any more present or real than it already is.  If you have not already decided to open yourself to the Presence of that Spirit, you might be aware that, should you do so, you will likely find that Spirit overturning some of your best and most cherished ideas, plowing up and rearranging some of your best-laid schemes.   Some of your pet projects may turn out to be laughably inadequate when compared to divine creativity that can flow through you.  And some of your prejudices will no doubt bite the dust.

            Some lines from a song by Peter Yarrow run through my mind as once more the Paschal Candle burns, like the hearts warmed by Peter’s sermon.  It is oddly what this surprising thing called baptism boils down to.  The nubbin of it is that the Spirit descends for the sake of raising us to share the life of Christ.

A single flame fills all the earth
A single sun fills all the blue
A single death, a single birth
Suffice us not.  Let me with you
Discover if there be a way
Separate from that path, above
The plains of earth; the high gods say,
There is a way, the way of love.[1]

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

[1] Peter Yarrow and E. Mezzetti, “Plato’s Song,” after Victor Neuberg, “Plato’s Love-Song,” online at, accessed January 11, 2014; cf. the original of Neuberg’s poem, “Plato’s Love-Song,” from Songs of The Groves, Records of the Ancient World, online at, accessed January 11, 2014.