One day last week I am sitting in a crowded cafe. I am waiting for a friend who is a few minutes late. Why is it that I always think it’s no big deal if I am a few minutes late, yet it feels so inconsiderate when others keep me waiting? Seated a little way from me is a couple having that kind of sotto-voce intense conversation that immediately arouses my curiosity. I can’t really hear what they are saying. However, I am curious about the atmosphere of emotional intensity enveloping them. I try not to listen. Yet, at the same time I’m curious about the conversation. As I sit there the Gospel reading for this morning which, I have been pondering for several days, comes to mind. Maybe you think that a little odd?
For me the connection between two apparently dissimilar events is actually one of familiarity. What is familiar to me is an experience of being drawn to the intensity of someone else’s conversation while not having the foggiest idea what the conversation is about. My experiences in the cafe and reading John’s Gospel share the similarity that both are like eaves-dropping-in on someone else’s conversation the origin of which, I am not privy to. I have this experience a lot reading Paul’s letters. It is also a familiar experience when encountering the long Jesus discourses in John’s Gospel.
If I approach the text of this morning’s Gospel with the same curiosity I felt in the cafe, what stands-out for me in this segment?
Most obvious to me is Jesus’ continuation on the theme I am the bread of life. He goes further in likening his flesh to the bread that is given for the life of the world. As Catholic Christians, Episcopalians hear this as a reference to the Eucharist, although for John it is more likely a reference to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Yet, its not John’s theological point that arouses my curiosity here. I am more curious about the intensity of the discussion! Jesus’ interlocutors clearly don’t understand him. Like most of us they are incapsulated by the limitations of their imaginations. At first they dismiss Jesus as simply the son of Mary and Joseph. Then they go a little deeper into their collective memory and connect Jesus’ words with Moses and the Mana in the wilderness.
Now here’s a curious thing. When I am trying to explain something and others appear not to comprehend I take more trouble to explain. This usually requires controlling my irritation and appearing to be tolerant and reasonable. Here, Jesus does the opposite. He becomes more extreme in his comments, infuriating his hearers to greater indignation. We will see more of that in next week’s continuation.
As eavesdroppers on this conversation one of the things we don’t know is that John is probably projecting his issues into the conversation. John was writing for a small Jewish Christian community, at the end of the 1st century, in Jerusalem. John’s community found itself sharply at odds with the Jewish authorities. This is reason enough for John to closely identify his experience with that of Jesus. John uses the phrase the Jews clearly as an insult. Consequently in our own time many have accused John’s Gospel of laying the foundations for AntiSemitism.
Again, what we don’t automatically know from the text is that the word John uses really refers not to Jews per se but to Judeans in distinction to Galileans or possibly even Samaritans. All are Jews but some are Republicans, and some are Democrats, and frankly, some are beyond the pale. I leave it to you to decide which is which. Jesus, like John himself, is being confronted by the Judean faction. As we see from their conversation this is a faction assured of their superior claims to religious orthodoxy and racial purity.
Yet, what really draws my attention and arouses my curiosity comes in the passage where Jesus says:
Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me … .
The implications of this statement go to the heart of the struggle between two approaches to faith currently dominating the American Christian scene. This is the struggle currently played out between mainstream Christianity, in both its conservative and progressive wings, and what I term American popularist Christianity.
Mainstream Christianity is represented by Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, Moravians, some Baptists and Episcopalians. Despite the many things might divide them they all officially teach that it is God who draws us to through Jesus. Yet, our culture is deeply influenced by a popularist Christianity which many Baptist, Neo-Calvinist, Pentecostal and Nondenominational Churches embrace. In these Churches one hears little about God other than in formulaic references. The primary focus is on our coming to Jesus. Their image of Jesus is startling to me. They see Jesus as a kind of Son of God super hero guy who will be your buddy if you ask him. While at the grass roots level many mainstream Churches can also become infiltrated by popularist tendencies this is not often the case in the Episcopal Church.
I spent my final year of seminary education as the Oxford exchange student at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, which is an Episcopal Seminary and part of the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California, Berkeley. Here I was introduced to a joke some of the more waggish students used with each other when someone suddenly grasped an understanding that opened up fresh and new possibilities. Someone would say: “oh, so and so has had a come to Jesus moment”.
Like good Episcopalians we were being ironic. For come to Jesus is the battle cry of popularist American Christianity.
At Trinity Cathedral, the pulpit towers somewhat above the congregation. As I survey the congregation sitting before me from my lofty perch seven feet above contradiction, I am often struck by how diverse a community we are.
I see traditional life-long Episcopalians, faithful sons but mostly daughters of the Church, for whom the prospect of a personal relationship with Jesus has hardly ever crossed their minds. In my everyday encounters I listen to these parishioners speak about their faith largely in the language of service to others. I often note an instinctive humility in them which prevents them from thinking that they are special enough for a personal relationship with Jesus. They understand themselves to be religious yet, not necessarily, spiritual.
I notice others for whom a highly educated theology makes such a popularist sentiment as come to Jesus or personal relationship with Jesus seem – well – too sentimental.
I notice many newer members and enquirers who may have once embraced the popularist stereotype of a personal relationship with Jesus, but now, find it like a suit of clothes that they have long grown out of. They are searching for something deeper.
I see others who may not be very clear about why they are here. I hear them openly confess that they don’t know who God is let alone what relationship with Jesus might mean. I hear them express to me a surprise that they are even in a church. Yet, intuitively they know, one might say, they are being drawn by a need for something that will bring deeper meaning to their experience of life.
The one group I do not see is those who are seeking black and white, true and false answers to help them steer through the bewildering anxieties of modern life. The Episcopal Church is dismissed by these people as too easy a religion. In fact, however, this attitude masks the reality that a tradition that does not give simple answers to complex problems is actually too hard – too difficult a religion to tolerate.
The broad groupings I have identified have something in common, traversing and containing our diversity. Everyone in some shape or form experiences themselves being drawn. Some are clearer than others about their feeling of being drawn and the identity of that to which they feel drawn.
Next Sunday the Annual Renewal Program Group meets for the first time. This is a group of persons who have kindly consented to my call to meet together to plan our annual stewardship renewal process. During the months of September and October culminating in the first week of November I will invite us all to enter into a more intentional learning conversation which takes seriously Jesus’s words: No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me …
At the heart of this conversation lie a series of questions.What does it mean to be Christian in the Anglican Tradition? Who is God for us? How do we conceive of, and experience this God? How, and what, does it mean to be drawn into relationship with Jesus Christ? How might relationship with Christ differ from populist images of come to Jesus?
In Jesus’ words: no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me, I take some comfort.I invite others to do so as well. I don’t necessarily know what these words mean for me at any given moment of time. Yet, I am comforted to know that the drawing closer is God’s work in me and not my work for God. For once I do not have to take the initiative. Only one thing is required of me and I suggest of all of us. It is to be open to that which has yet to become known in our lives. So that through that opening, God may draw us more and more deeply into that realization for which our hearts most deeply desire.