The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 10, 2012
The Reverend Susan Mann Flanders, Adjunct Clergy
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve taken liberties this morning with the readings. First of all, I’ve done something I’ve long wished we’d do more regularly. That is to listen for God’s word in sources beyond the Bible. The first reading is from a 1992 essay by John Snow, then retired professor of Pastoral Theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. I had the opportunity to meet him back then at a dinner, and I have found this passage to be so helpful to my own thinking about Jesus, about what it means to be a disciple. I have chosen it to go along with the Gospel reading for May 20 – three weeks ago – a second departure from standard practice but certainly not unknown here at St. Mark’s. Whether or not the passage was read on May 20, it was not part of the sermon, as the theme for that morning had to do with class differences, and several people spoke of their own experiences about this. So I’ve chosen to revisit this gospel, also in connection with the theme of discipleship.
As John Snow indicates, and as the gospel further proclaims, Christian discipleship is something serious, something radical, both in Jesus’ time and now. To examine it’s radicality, let’s examine the gospel passage more fully. These verses are part of a very long prayer that John has Jesus praying to God on his last night, after the supper and the foot-washing. He has spoken at length to his disciples, but now he turns to God in this deep extended prayer. The prayer is a tongue-twister to read: I in you and you in me, mine are yours; yours are mine; that they may be one as we are one. It is long, seemingly repetitive, and it seems confusing – at least it has to me over all the years I’ve wrestled with it.
But you know what? This time, this year, as I’ve read and re-read it, I see it as an absolutely profound, sweeping statement of exactly what I believe about God and Jesus and us! It lays out exactly what true discipleship is, exactly how we are connected to God through Jesus. It’s basically saying God is in Jesus and in us too, in the same way. It’s saying that as disciples, we too, just like Jesus, are to be that presence of God that was in Jesus and is in us too. To be that presence. Jesus got this. Everything he had from God, all of us have too – we are just like him in our humanity and we are just like him in the way God is in us – all of us. It’s just a matter of degree and of how far we’re prepared to go.
Now this is indeed a radical, perhaps even heretical claim. I’m claiming that we are ontologically connected with Jesus, that we differ from him quantitatively but not qualitatively, not in our essence. Like Jesus, we are children of God, bearing within each of us, God’s presence and power. Some would say this robs Jesus of something or arrogates something to us, that it downplays his so-called divinity. But I persist in my conviction. I want to sign on as a disciple who is committed to doing and being the best I can to be an agent of compassion and transformation in this world, to incarnate, myself, God’s presence in this world. It’s a bold hope, but my faith is that God will work through me and use me as God did with Jesus and can with all of us, if only we are open to this call. I would further add that even, sometimes, when we feel ourselves unlikely or unwilling to be such instruments, God can use us. There is a blessing in the PB that always reminds me: “God’s power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
When I was a young an inexperienced priest, I would approach pastoral encounters with fear and trembling. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know what to say, that I wouldn’t be able to help. I would drive to hospitals or homes with a knot in my stomach, worrying about how I could convey something of God’s presence and love, or just even answer a few desperate questions. What I began to realize, over the years, is that my showing up, my groping for words that could help, did, in many cases actually help. People would thank me for what I had said, or just for coming. There is a woman to this day at St. John’s church who claims that what I said to her and prayed with her one day in the sacristy when depression was bringing her down to the depths changed her life - changed her life – forever! I have no idea what I said. That’s the grace of it. It is in all of us to be God’s presence to one another – that’s what we mean when we talk about being Christ’s to one another, or about being part of Christ’s body. We can be healers and comforters and creators and so much more! Each of you, each of us, has God’s power in us, part of us – just like Jesus.
This kind of discipleship is open to every one of us, in all sorts of ways. But it’s a choice and a claim about how much we really are like Jesus as human sons and daughters of God. We could claim the opposite – that Jesus is essentially different, divine, sinless, and that we are nothing like him. If so, we can be cautious and limited in what we even try to do – the occasional good deed, kindness to our friends, going to church, praying, receiving the Body of Christ as a ritual, rather than living as the Body of Christ in the world – because, in this way of thinking, we’re not Jesus, we’re only human, we’re different, essentially different from Jesus. If only he is the incarnation of God in the world, not us, then we’re off the hook. It is much safer and easier to worship Jesus from afar, to protect ourselves from similarity.
But what if we are, as I think Jesus lays out in this amazing prayer, and as I have come to believe, what if we are a lot like Jesus? That’s the question John Snow poses in the passage we heard, and this question has been with me ever since. If we are a lot like Jesus, then what if we behaved as if that were so? Following Jesus in the belief that he really was and is, a lot like us except for the matter of degree is a bold and perhaps scary thing to do. But if we do make this claim – God in Jesus, Jesus in us, all of us one in God, all of God’s gifts to Jesus given to us as well….well, then, our whole life must be our response.
Our whole life – this is radical commitment, not the tepid Christian devotion of too many of us, not the bland discipleship too many churches put up with. As the pews continue to empty in so many of our churches, we wonder what it would take to draw people back, particularly young people, to Christian faith. Perhaps over the centuries, Christianity has become too easy, too boring, too irrelevant. Maybe radical discipleship of the sort Jesus both models and holds out to his followers is what is needed to save our foundering church. And maybe that radical discipleship is what is going on in some of the places around the world where Christianity is growing.
I’ve just finished reading a book by Robin Meyers, a UCC minister and peace activist. It’s titled The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive way of Jesus. Meyers reminds us that the early church was indeed subversive and hence dangerous, that it was countercultural, pacifist and passionate about social justice. He lays out the kind of discipleship I’m describing where we actually try to incarnate in our own lives and in our faith communities the same ethos and spirit of the early church, adapted, of course, for our own time. At the end, Meyers offers a manifesto of how such a church would look, and I was happy to notice that St. Mark’s actually has some of the elements of this kind of subversive community. We value practice over doctrinal belief; we try to offer diverse forms of worship and music; we try to offer radical hospitality and always be open to the stranger and the other; I think we mostly try to be loving rather than right. Justi is even pursuing getting involved in the Washington Interaith Network and community organizing again, and I hope many of us will be with her. Meyers goes much further than we do here in the direction of economic subversion and pacifism, but his ideas are bold, and I commend them to you.
Personally, I struggle mightily, probably more so since my retirement, with how Christianity can work and flourish and about how I can best practice this faith. I find so much to criticize, so much that grates on my soul. And yet I still love Church, and particular churches, and in them I find many committed, thoughtful, loving disciples. I particularly am delighted by our new Bishop Mariann. I think she believes fiercely that churches need to change and come alive, that we Christians need to wake up to the fullness of all that Jesus meant and start living that fullness. Jesus wasn’t just God with us, sent long ago for one lifetime. Jesus means God in us always, just as God was in Jesus. When Jesus prayed so intensely to God on the night before he died, he was praying not just for the motley assembly of the eleven disciples, but for all of us down through the ages, all who would ever call ourselves disciples, the Body of Christ. We’re it – we continue the incarnation, each of us in our own unique way. This is serious business, discipleship, and I pray we can embrace it with all the courage and grit and strength we’ve got. I pray our churches will begin to hold out for no less than this radical, committed faith, and that, in so doing, we will be active agents for love and justice in God’s world. Amen.