Brother James Randall Greve, OHC
RCL - Easter 5 A - Sunday 20 April 2008
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10: 1-10
Thomas Ward, an Episcopal priest who contributed to a new anthology on centering prayer titled Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation, tells this anecdote about a moment when he was startled at the profound reality of Christian truth and our identity in it:
“Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”
Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?”
The whole, in me? Our reactions to such a statement can cover the spectrum: Some of you are thinking “of course”. Others of you are thinking “there must be a catch”, or “divine truth is completely ethereal, mysterious, inexpressible, and unattainable, we can only guess.” Or “How could Father Keating make such a statement? It is just his opinion, after all. Who does he think he is?”
Once in a question-and-answer session at a centering prayer retreat held at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, Thomas Keating said, “The whole of the holy and blessed Trinity dwells within us.” I found that statement more than I could digest, and so I asked Father Keating to say more about it. He looked at me and said, “The whole of the holy and blessed Trinity dwells within us.”
It was almost too outrageous to accept, Ward goes on to say.
We live in an age when the proclamation and defense of revealed truth which transcends our opinions and feelings is viewed with caution, even within parts of the Church. Some within the Church emphasize the complex, the gray, the unknowable at the expense of the simple and black and white and known. While there is of course mystery and complexity within Christian theology, our faithful reaction is to be more a bowing of the knee than a scratching of the head.
The Gospel of John is addressed to those who would rather be bystanders and critics than actually give their lives to believing and living truth. The Evangelist is constantly challenging us to stop and pay attention, look and listen again, knowing that what we think is real, what we believe is right, may be an illusion. The assumption is that Truth has revealed itself and St. John is making a legal argument for the authenticity of the claims of the Son of God.
For St. John, anything short of believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who gives eternal life is not merely a different point of view or an expression of diversity, it is ignorance and blindness and despair. John does not want us merely to concede the point, but to have the power of the truth of Christ break into us and revolutionize us. We are upside-downed by a Christ who declares that only when we are stood on our heads do we see the world as God sees it - as it really is - only then can we perceive the spiritual reality that we look at but don’t see. Seeing and knowing and believing are one and the same.
Paradox is the norm in this upside-down world of the Fourth Gospel: the beginning is the end, water makes you thirsty, blindness is sight, sight is blindness, being born again is growing up, death is glory, Good Friday is Easter. John is realistic about how hard this is to swallow. As Jesus begins to proclaim news of this upside-down world, we meet skeptical disciples, a skeptical Nicodemus, a skeptical woman at the well and crowds who just want their bellies filled. The encounters with Christ are intimate, personal, messy and unresolved, full of conflict, leaving us hanging - just like ours.
Above all no one - no one - is neutral. Everyone thinks they know what salvation will mean when it comes - no one at first is looking for the Jesus who shows up. Those who have too great a stake in preserving the right side up status quo will have none of this and have Jesus crucified. What appears as Messiah is so far beyond anyone’s expectations as to be incomprehensible and outrageous. The conversion that takes place in the disciples and others is a conversion from ignorance to knowing, from blindness to sight, from adequate to overwhelming as they are willing to be known and respond with faith that Jesus is the Son of God.
As we come to today’s reading, we peer into the Upper Room as Jesus goes down to wash the disciples’ feet on the last night of his life and listen in on his farewell discourse to his disciples. It is Maundy Thursday but it is already Easter. Christ is present in that room but beyond the walls of that room - already speaking to a young, struggling church. Surely these disciples, after hearing the words and seeing the miraculous signs since way back in chapter one would finally understand what’s going on, would have come to know who this person Jesus is, right? No!
Hours away from the crucifixion Thomas and Philip are still talking like they have yet to believe very much at all - and all except the beloved disciple will flee as Jesus is arrested before the night is over. Jesus reminds them all that observation does not magically produce faith. Philip’s request to “show us the Father and then we will be satisfied” reveals an exasperating ignorance of who Jesus is. Philip has merely looked but not seen.
The Lord’s question in response is perhaps the saddest in all of Holy Scripture: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” Here is the startling reality repeated throughout the Gospel: the irreconcilable conflict between the drive to have meaning on our own terms and in our own way and the way of Life which is the giving over of our own terms and our own way for the better way of the Gospel.
Philip’s request is the primary trap in the spiritual life. It is the original and most powerful temptation for all of us; to believe the lie that something beyond what we have, beyond what lives within us, beyond the whole of the blessed and holy Trinity will satisfy. Philip has succumbed to the elusive dream of satisfaction - the religion of one-moreness that holds out, like a carrot on a stick, the promise of lasting pleasure, escape from our human struggle and therefore escape from God.
Our selfish nature lusts after the mirage of satisfaction. As fallen creatures we are on the lookout for a quick fix and an easy out. We become conditioned to the instant catering of every whim, the filling of every hunger. Philip is like so much of our culture that keeps asking for just a little more show, a little more excitement, a little less faith and wonder and waiting. We want a God who gives feel-good meaning, who responds to what we believe we need, not one to whom we owe all being and life, one who gives life through sacrifice, surrender, and death to self.
At the redeemed, divine center of his being Philip’s real self wants what we all want - to know and experience our deep thirst quenched with living water, to be ravished by a God who can absorb and embrace our pain and mystery and wandering, for a quest bigger than ourselves, for truth that grips us with such power we would die before we compromised our faith. All of that is ours. All of that in Christ is sufficient. We can choose to live in the world of Philip, the right-side up world of more and more and the futile chase for satisfaction.
But as Flannery O’Connor says in The Violent Bear It Away, we would have to call that the church without Christ, where, as she says “the lame don’t walk, the blind don’t see, and what’s dead stays that way.”
Life in Christ, on the other hand, is the invitation to give our lives and wills over to God without conditions on what that giving will cost us or where it will lead us or what it will look like. We are commanded to convert the desire for satisfaction into the acceptance of sufficiency in the faithful nurturing of the relationship with Christ through the ups and downs of emotions and consolations, times of peace and fear, dryness and refreshment, dark nights and bright days. Sufficiency is the gift of seeing that we must pitch the plastic and false imitation of life and see and know Christ dwelling within us in grace, mercy, and abiding love. The whole of the holy and blessed Trinity dwells within us.