Curiosity is Next to Godliness

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.

Passing through the Veil of Illusion

John 6:24-35

My conversation with God is very often bedeviled  by the kind of miscommunication taking place between the crowds and Jesus in this Gospel passage. In my experience seeking God involves a process of peeling back the layers of my expectations. It is only at the end of this circuitous and lengthy process of identifying and confronting my own expectations that I am anywhere near ready to hear something other that what I have been anticipating hearing.

In the ancient prayer known as the Regina Coeli or prayer to Mary Queen of Heaven there is a passage which in the traditional translation of the prayer  goes something like this:

to thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we sigh,  mourning and weeping, passing through this vale of sorrows.

Now this prayer is very close to my heart. It is one of the two constants, the other being the Lord’s Prayer which form the bedrock of my daily conversations with God. My love of the Regina Coeli  dates back to my days as a spiritually enthusiastic youth. In those days I was what in the Church of England  is referred to as a brain-dead Anglo-Catholic. In my late teens and early twenties the label brain-dead Anglo-Catholic fairly summed up what I appeared to be.

Alas, the enthusiasms and idealism based on certainty  which marked this phase of my spiritual journey have long since dimmed. The current label that might better apply to me is brain-alive Anglo-Catholic. This is a more difficult space to inhabit. Nevertheless, despite the increasing use of my brain in my spiritual life, I continue to cherish the Regina Coeli prayer, no longer  however, in its traditional rather florid translation. The increasing use of my brain in my spiritual life has led me to personalize the prayer’s wording. I have replaced:

to thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we sigh, mourning and weeping, passing through this vale of sorrows, 


to you do we cry, children of Eve in exile, mourning and weeping, passing through this veil of illusions. 

Illusion operates to allow us to only see what we expect to see. For the battle to expose my illusions forms the terrain upon which my spirituality is daily worked out. This change in wording reflects my growing awareness that in my conversation with God, its my expectation of what I want or need to hear and to have that forms a veil of illusion. Trapped behind this veil of illusion my experience of being a child of Eve in exile is only strengthened.

I am acutely aware that the way I experience and see the world is highly colored by this veil of illusion. In my seeking God, the place I need to start from over and over again is in the recognition that what maintains my experience of exile from God is my veil of illusion. A veil formed and endlessly maintained  through the projection of my fear of deprivation and my craving for satiation.

A veil of illusion separates the crowds from Jesus throughout John’ Gospel. The passage we heard today typifies this and gives us a clear sense of there being two conversations going on simultaneously. The crowds having been wowed by his feeding of the 5000 demand to know from Jesus  “Who are you? Are you the celebrity who can meet our needs?”  Jesus’ response to them is to ask in turn “What have you come for?” And so the two conversations unfold along parallel lines. The crowd talks about their craving to be endlessly fed with free bread, motivated by the perpetual fear of being hungry. To their questions Jesus responds with God’s invitation to become truly satisfied by bread that does so much more than fill the belly. It’s the bread that gives life. And what is more Jesus identifies himself as that bread. Eventually this frustrates the crowds so much they turn on him and we will hear more of that next week.

Are we able to use this passage to reflect upon how our own fears and cravings drive our desire for relationship with God and our membership of the Church?  As people shaped by an American culture entering the first phase of the 21st Century it should not surprise us to discover  that at one level there is little that differentiates us from the crowds following Jesus in John’s late 1st Century Palestine. At this level human nature remains remarkably consistent across the flow of history. However, the themes that universally echo across generations in specific historical and cultural contexts take on particular intensity in our time.

It has been an interesting week in which we have witnessed the Chic-fil-A fiasco, a rather unpleasant reminder that we are a society where Christian faith continues to be perverted into perpetuating hostility towards expressions of difference. We also witnessed the death of Gore Vidal, that great apostle for the toleration of difference. Gore Vidal provoked enormous hostility from the political Establishment all his life. He was a particular kind of prophet hated by establishment classes everywhere, i.e. an insider, one of them who exposed their corruption and hypocrisy. Strangely enough, a common theme links these two events.  In the week of Gore’s death we yet again have been witness to a dramatic example of the use of executive power and the corrupting power of money to promote the prejudicial dynamics of exclusion and violence, dynamics against which Gore protested all his life.

Perhaps the core characteristic which marks the current operation of American culture is the intensity of two particular illusions. Why is it that in the midst of the most prosperous society the world has known the illusion of scarcity  increasingly drives our fears? We have religious leaders who present salvation as something rationed to the professing elect as if there is not enough to go around.  Why is it that those who are so sure they are saved cannot feel secure in their salvation unless they can identify those who are to them clearly not saved? Girardian ideas of scapegoating and sacrificial victims come to my mind.

We continue to vote for politicians who promise us what can’t be delivered thus reenforcing a specter of scarcity and using it to frighten us into keeping them in power. If there is not enough to go around then I need to vote for the politician who promises to either deliver more to me and my kind or allow me  and mine the means to grab what I need before others take it away from me.

One illusion inevitably gives rise to a second and in some ways its counterpoint. Going hand in hand with the illusion of scarcity is the illusion that our needs require to be satiated. This results not from the experience of having enough of what we need, but from the belief that we need more and more and more of what we need – hence there is never enough. This is a dynamic I will explore further in the Fall.

The illusion of scarcity is a fear. The illusion of satiation is a craving. Both projections hide God’s invitation. Both perpetuate our experience as children of Eve in fearful exile in a world of sorrow. These illusions are mine and they are yours. If we can begin to explore our  illusions and peel their layers away one by one, perhaps then we can become open to God’s promise.

The promise is contingent on our courage to faith. To faith is what it says in the Greek. This sounds odd in English where we speak of faith as possession, something to have or not have rather than an action, something one does. Perhaps the Greek comes closer to the English sense of trust. Trust is something we have the courage to do or pull back from doing through lack of courage.

Jesus identifying himself as the bread of life is God’s invitation for us to trust, rather than fear. If we truly begin to hear this then we discover that satisfaction results when we can give up the illusion that what we need is to be satiated. Freed from the illusion of living in a world of scarcity we begin to discover that there is not only enough for all, but what we are promised by God will be sufficient for us.

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