Glynn Cardy, 29th May 2022, Ascension Sunday
Many of us at St Luke’s have had experience of other churches, some more conservative, some much more conservative, churches where the Bible is used as a ruler to measure us up, seeing if we fit, approving of some bits of us, disapproving of others, sorting the wheat from the chaff. And often those of us who think differently, or love differently, or look different, ended up in the chaff basket, labelled ‘heretic’.
Of course, there are good things in many of those churches too. The message that God loves you, that you are specially chosen, and Jesus is your friend, can be very powerful when your life is in a mess, or you’re telling yourself you’re a failure, or when the messaging ‘you’re loved’ from people around is muffled or worse. And these churches often offer close-knit community. Just don’t rock the boat.
There are some Bible verses too, used in the measuring up business, that we know well, and that cause – even now – an adverse reaction in us. Some of those verses, for some of us, are in our readings today.
“‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) has been frequently used to say that Christianity, note the correct understanding of Christianity, is the way, the truth, the life, and if you want to access God then you better believe what we believe.
There’s a big billboard on the North Shore that features this verse, with no explanation.
Of course, like much in the Bible it helps to know the context. This verse was written by a mystic many decades after Jesus died (let’s call him John). And mystics, as mystics do, want to expand our thinking by using metaphors, poetry, or music to do so. So, for example, some Christian orthodoxy might say ‘God is in us’, whereas a mystic might say, ‘actually we are in God’. Mystics want to push our boundaries out, to deconstruct our assumptions, to blow our minds.
The next verse in John 14 says, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know my Father and have seen him.” Which is taken by some to prove that Jesus is God. Yes, a human being, is said to be God (aka ‘the father’).
This is a literal nonsense. Just as a literal belief in the Trinity is a literal nonsense. If God is God – for arguments sake let’s say that means all loving, all powerful, all knowledgeable – then no human, no collection of humans, can be God. So, unless Jesus is not a human, he’s not God. And no amount of theological acrobatics can get around that.
But imagine for a moment that this mystic John is trying to tell us that we are in God. That there is no separation between us and God. So, when John’s Jesus (early in his book) says ‘The Father and I are one’, its not so much a statement about Jesus being divine, but about all life being infused with divinity.
So, God is manifest in human flesh. All human flesh. And in feline and canine flesh too. (According to our cats the latter is debatable). And in all the myriad wonders of our world, our universe. We just need to pay attention, open our eyes, open our hearts. And even if we don’t, it doesn’t change the oneness of it all.
There is no separation between ourselves and that divine reality which we most experience as love, joy, and belonging. There is no divide. There is no bridge to cross over the alleged chasm between us and God. And therefore, there is no toll to pay to the religious controllers on that bridge, whether that toll be in cash, service, suspension of our intellect, or blind trust in the controllers.
Or, as is often the case, and tragically so, the toll on this bridge is striving. Continually trying to please. Continually denying who you are, what you’ve experienced, and what you think in order to fit with the toll collectors’ criteria. Which they say is God’s criteria.
This last week there were two major international news items about church. One, a good news story, is the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, our mother church, allowing ministers to conduct same-sex weddings. Of course, the backdrop to the good news is decades, centuries actually, of bad news – of denying the full humanity of queer Presbyterians in Scotland and their right to be treated like anyone else. Time and again the bridge controllers would either turn queer folk away, require them to deny their sexual identity, or repent of it. Scripture was often used as a weapon of oppression. The idea that God could be queer would be blasphemous.
The other news item comes from the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the USA. It too has some good in the news story, but mostly bad. The good being that the denomination instigated a report (researched by an independent organisation) into sexual assault and abuse in the denomination, and the bad being what they found. For decades the top Executive Committee leaders of that denomination had done everything in their power to protect the institution from liability, largely by shaming and blaming the many victims and those who dared to support them, and often using scripture to do so. What the report found has been described as systematic evil.
That’s the problem with manmade bridges and toll booths: the toll collectors acquire too much power. They start to determine what’s best for God and what’s best for us. Having survivors point out abuse and corruption is not, according to them, what’s best for God, and therefore what’s best for us all. So, survivors and their supporters get blamed and shamed. Hopefully the denomination will begin the long and hard process of not only addressing the injustices and crimes, the complicity of both leaders, elders, and bystanders in those crimes, but also the theological underpinning of the whole edifice.
For the way in this denomination, and many others too, is always over the bridge, with the chasm of sin below, always stopping at a toll gate with toll controllers that use scripture and other means to determine whether you are worthy of God, and always the paying of a toll. The truth can become what the toll controllers say it is. And the life can become obedience.
If there is, on the other hand, no separation, no chasm, no bridge, and no toll, ministers and leaders are primarily guides and coaches, fellow pilgrims and encouragers. Which is not to say that accountability, transparency, and abuse are not issues still.
When I read those ‘I am’ statements in John 14:6 I begin with the history. ‘I am who I am’ was said to be how Moses’ exodus God self-defined. In the presence of a burning bush this God had a conversation with Moses. When Moses asked the voice for a name, he didn’t get a very useful one. It wasn’t a name that said ‘I’m better than all the other Gods’. Indeed, it wasn’t a proper noun or name at all. So, later writers used a pseudonym: ‘the Lord’.
So, in John 14:6, John’s Jesus is identifying with this nameless verb-like God, saying they are one. This divine inclusive love and belonging energy, known in Jesus, is the way, truth, and life of no separation, no striving, and no salvation schemes.
Which leads us to the second reading for the day, the one about the Ascension. In the world of old cosmology theology, where God is up and we are down, and Jesus came down in order to later go up, it is a nonsense. It is separation theology. Jesus is up. With God. We are down. Without God. So how do we get up there?
At which point the controllers come to the fore with lots of ladder schemes: have faith, do good works, come to worship, repent and repent again, do some more good works, believe, honour your parents, believe in the doctrines we tell you to, obey obey obey, dress as we tell you to, don’t dance, or play cards, or smoke, or have consensual sex for fun. This paradigm has been dominant in Christianity for far far too long.
And it has been very costly. It has separated us, particularly those of us who have been told we’re different, from loving ourselves. Which makes it harder to know how to love others. It has separated us from others. From those of other cultures, sexualities, and experiences. It has separated us from other religions, other wisdom, which didn’t fit with how the controllers read the Bible and used it. It has separated us from the earth, for the needs of the earth were on the other side of the bridge from where the holy stuff was said to be. Earth, its creatures, its life, were secondary to the needs of humans, and just a backdrop to God’s desire to save our souls.
The journey back to one is what Ascension should be about. It should be about that Jesus is in God and God is in Jesus, just as each and all of us (and each and all of any ‘them’) is in God, and God is in all, through all, and all is in God. Ascension is closing the gap of separation, a proclamation that all is one, and has always been one.
At least that’s how I’d like to understand it. But then I’m a heretic.