Thursday, May 29, 2014

The In-ness of God

Scripture for the 6th Sunday in Easter includes Acts; 17:22-31; I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

“I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

Can you call up from your photo file a set of matryoshka dolls that fit one inside another? (If you can’t, I can’t go on with this sermon!) The largest outer doll is often in the dress of a Russian peasant girl, and within her are several progressively smaller dolls, some female, some male, until the last, the innermost, is in the form of an infant.

I can’t help thinking of that image as I hear St. John capturing the gist of this intimate teaching Jesus gives his disciples. The biggest among these inter-related identities is God the Father, so that would be the first and outer figure. Within that is the next figure, representing Jesus. The next, within that, is us—okay, one at a time, you first, then me—and within that figure is another, Jesus again.

What’s fun about this admittedly peculiar image is that the outermost matryoshka is a peasant woman. Put that in the pipe of the commonplace long-bearded robed male representation of God and smoke it.

But even more playful is that innermost figure of Jesus Christ, the infant. Or, wait, maybe it’s the next-to-last doll that represents him and we are the infant within him, to whom he gives birth in the new creation launched by his rising from the grave.

Okay, I’ll stop—you may be wondering what I’ve been smoking, and all I can say is that we got our warning in today’s opening collect, where we acknowledged to God the plain truth that the good things God has for us surpass our understanding. They make us reach for metaphors. The arithmetic of grace doesn’t figure the way the world does its math, so we stretch to find figures of speech that suggest the deep reality of God.

Stay with that collect a moment. Hear its language again:

“O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good
things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such
love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above
all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we
can desire…”

Does this mean that these surpassingly good things that exceed all we can desire come to us only if we keep the commandments Jesus speaks of to his disciples? Only if we have that good conscience mentioned by the apostle Peter? Is that the Good News: that we have to earn our way into the heart of God by moral purity and existential success? There’s nothing new about that message, is there? And not much that’s good about it. I mean, whatever became of unconditional love?

Well, you’ll find it in that First Letter of Peter. It flits by in just a single sentence, easy to miss but wow, does it ever challenge the script of Noah the Movie! The apostle makes his case that Jesus Christ the righteous one suffered for the sake of the unrighteous, in order to bring us all to God. And when man’s inhumanity to man had done to Jesus the very worst it could do, God made him alive in the spirit: not as a resuscitated corpse, but as a person transformed from dependence upon flesh into the full freedom of spirit. In that spirit, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark…”

Catch this claim of Peter’s: The very first appearance of the risen Christ is not to Mary Magdalene or Peter or Thomas or those disciples on the road to Emmaus. He goes to the deep freeze, the place of departed spirits, and breathes the Word of New Life onto those same rebellious resistant hard-hearted hard-headed mockers and scorners who ridiculed Noah, both in the Bible and in the Movie, and got not one single like on their Facebook pages—and met a miserable end. These, says Peter, are the ones the risen Jesus, in full freedom of spirit, goes to free.

Neither the authors of Genesis nor the movie moguls in Hollywood could have expected or welcomed that outcome, by far too sweetly generous an ending to make a good story. In both those scripts, it was necessary that Noah’s neighbors become victims of retributive justice so that we, the readers or viewers, might feel secure on our side of that boundary, feel good in sharp contrast to those bad guys.

I’ve recently read the essays of James Alison, a Roman Catholic theologian who truly deserves to be called progressive. He titles his four short volumes “Jesus the Forgiving Victim.” He maintains that in order to manufacture a sense of goodness that bestows a kind of security, human beings inherently create sharp boundaries between themselves and others, between “us” and “them”, between our own in- group and “those out- groups whom we are not.” This is, he says, “sunk in the bedrock of distinctively human culture.”

He’s not praising it, or recommending it. He’s analyzing why the nightly news is what it is, for this world is more in the mold of “Lord of the Flies” than we like to think, at least by morning light. And it’s a short step or two from this cultural victimizing of people to what Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently called, “the unchecked human need for control that arises out of fear of a chaotic and unsafe world.” Addressing a group of 33 American Episcopal bishops (one of whom was our own) gathered to strategize approaches to gun violence, Welby spoke of the addiction to violence and how we become hardened by it. He referred to the pattern of nations at war: “At first we fought like humans, then we fought like animals and finally we fought like demons.” What apt commentary on the nightly news.

What theologian James Alison does praise and recommend is the alternative that seeks us out in Jesus Christ. Jesus’s alternative released by his resurrection is honest awareness that we do manufacture a bogus goodness by our exclusion of certain others whom we make into victims. This is the position Jesus himself willingly entered in order to supplant it with a fresh alternative: to find ourselves being made good by moving towards actual victims, embracing the other whom we’ve by custom excluded. Here is how Alison puts it:

“When we talk about what Jesus came to do, did and is doing in our midst, we are talking about what comes upon us as an alteration of the axis of Creation rather than as a resolution of a moral problem. Our being brought close into the life of God by Jesus living out being a forgiving victim in our midst has this as its effect: that we perceive simultaneously where we used to be heading, into an ever-shrinking world run by revenge, envy and death; and where we are instead finding ourselves drawn: into being forgiven, forgiving, and thus being opened up into true, insider knowledge of creation as it unfolds dynamically.”

Deep within the matryoshka of God is the baby, the new creation, what God is doing in and through us. And before that stage where the new life works through us, first, the gift of that new life to each of us, the baptismal gift, undeserved grace, unconditional in-ness (“I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you”).

Alison, again, in his own words: “What it looks like to be on the inside of the life of God is to be stretched towards God with every faculty of your being, and the form this takes is being stretched towards your neighbor… our only access to finding ourselves loved is through our learning to love someone else.”

Our collect of the day helps us recognize that true goodness surpasses our understanding, requires our being open to change, a transformation that is made possible for us through the pouring of the love of God into our leaky hearts—and this transformation may be painful. As Alison says, “Since the more any of us loves, the more any of us is given a heart of flesh, the more alive that heart becomes. And the more alive it becomes, the more raw and painful the world comes to seem, even if also much, much richer and more interesting.”

By Alison’s analysis, Christian morality is less about what we do, and more about recognizing what has been done for us. However, it’s mighty tempting to say, “I don’t have the time or the temperament for all that being-loved business: Simply tell me what to do.”

But that’s not how the new creation operates. That’s how the old one worked, but the new one released by the resurrection gives us a new commandment (in that upper room on Maundy Thursday, as he washed his disciples’ feet): that we love with the same wide embrace that is his. While this may be a raising of the bar, it is more importantly a giving us the way, the truth, the life that constitutes goodness, the setting in motion a power that equips humanity to reproduce such love, the very gift we need, the world needs.

The gift you and I need: to be transformed from dependence upon flesh into the full freedom of spirit.

(Quotations are from James Alison’s fourth volume, “Unexpected Insiders”, in his essay series “Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice”, Doers Publishing, 2013.)