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July 26, 2012

A SERMON by Loren Bullock
Bethesda United Methodist Church
Bethesda, Maryland
August 22, 2010

Scripture Reading

John 14:4-20
[Jesus said] “You know the way I am taking.” Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” And Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. . . . If you knew me you would know my Father too. From now on, you do know him; you have seen him.” Phillip said to him, “ Lord, show us the Father; we ask no more!” Jesus answered, “Have I been with you all this time, and still you do not know me? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father [so] how can you say, “Show us the Father! Do you not believe that I am in my Father and the Father in me? I am not myself the source of the words I speak to you. It is the Father who dwells in me doing his own work! Believe me when I say that I am in my Father, and the Father in me! . . . .

I will ask the Father and he will give you another to be your advocate who will bee with you forever – the Spirit of Truth. The world . . . neither sees him or knows him, but you know him because he dwells with you and will be in you. . . . Because I live, you too will live.

Know that I am in my Father, and I in you, and you in me.

The Stories of Jesus

One of my early memories as a small boy is waking up in the morning and going into my parents bedroom and climbing into bed beside my father and saying, “Tell me a story.” And he would start, “Once upon a time . . .” A common theme in many of the stories was a boy and his little red wagon. And for a while in my imagination I was in a different place and time with images of a boy and his wagon and his adventures. That’s what stories do. A world of imagination. But stories and imagination are not just about make-believe. Stories can also be real.

It is through our stories that we can know what is real. Our stories define us. Our stories define who we are. Our stories define our relationships. Our stories define our culture. It is our stories that tell us where we came from, to whom we belong, to whom we owe loyalty. Stories guide our actions. A cookbook, for example. Each recipe is a story in itself. Or an Instruction Manual – nowadays often with just pictures and no words. Textbooks are story books, and not only fiction, but biography and history are full of stories, and even mathematics and science books are story books if you learn their language. Consider the address book on your Blackberry. As you scroll down the list of names, what are the stories that your imagination can conjure up? Stories of people and relationships. Stories of heartache. Stories of love.

And what is the Bible if not a story book? Ron Foster often adds, “And it’s a love story.” The Bible is the collection of the stories that the early Hebrews told about their encounters with God over hundreds of years. And it’s stories of God’s love for a people. But one way the Hebrews told their stories was to retell the same stories in more than one context. It gave continuity and connection to their stories. For example, the story of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea is retold later with Joshua parting the waters of the Jordan, thus emphasizing that Joshua was the new Moses, and the story was told again when Elijah and Elisha parted the Jordan waters so that now they had Moses’ authority.

And when those earliest Christians, those Jews who were known as Followers of the Way, when they told their stories of Jesus, they also used the stories of the Old Testament that they now applied to Jesus as they tried to explain and understand their own Jesus experience. Matthew for, example, uses the parting of the waters story by having Jesus split “the heavens.” In Genesis “the heavens” are described as the firmament that separates the waters above from the waters below. So in Matthew’s story Jesus is splitting not the Jordan waters, but the heavenly waters which then fall on him as the Holy Spirit. Most of Matthew’s stories of Jesus are repeats of Old Testament stories, but now applied to Jesus. The first Jewish Christians understood that. To those early worshipers it was those connections that gave continuity and meaning – that I feel we often miss when we take those stories too literally. The entire Bible is a very special story book – pointing us to what is real.

The Smithsonian Natural History Museum recently opened a new exhibit on the Origins of Life, asking the question, “What is it that makes us human?” What is it in the long process of evolution that now distinguishes us human beings compared to our primate cousins and other animals? One of the significant characteristics that sets us apart as humans is our imagination – our ability to recall images of the past and to create images of the future and to describe those images in our stories. We are distinctly human because we can tell stories.

How else do children learn? We learn from the stories told to us. It’s through our stories and our imagination that we see and hear and feel, and understand. Karen Armstrong in her book History of God writes: “The path to God [does] not lie solely through reason. . . . but through the creative imagination, the realm of the mystic. The imagination has been the cause of all our major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion. . . . Human beings are the only animal who [seems to have] the capacity to envisage something that is not present or something that does not yet exist, but what is merely possible.”

George Bernard Shaw in his play, St Joan, has this dialogue between Joan and the Captain of the local garrison, named Robert:Joan says: “God speaks to me.” and Robert replies: “That’s all in your imagination,” to which Joan replies: “Of course. That’s how God speaks to me.”

Imagination is essential to being human. How else can we relate to a God who is beyond words, beyond space and time? And the stories in the Bible are full of descriptions of God – but using very human, anthropomorphic terms. We talk of God’s face, his hands, his voice, his heart. That’s part of the imagery of our stories. It’s because we have this marvelous gift of imagination that we can even begin to see God, to feel God, and – along with Joan of Arc – to hear God speak.

But the stories in the Bible were written when the universe was described as having three tiers or levels: a heaven just up above the dome of the sky – not very far away – up where all the gods lived. Then there was the earth where humans and animals lived, and then there was the underworld beneath. That was the cosmology of that time, and the Bible is full of the descriptive words of that cosmology. It talks of God “up there.” And the stories of Jesus in the Bible talk of Jesus “coming down from heaven to dwell on earth” This was the natural way to describe the experience of God and Jesus in the cosmology of that time.

But where do we place God today with our new cosmology of an expanding universe of stars and galaxies, of evolving life on this small planet? Where is God now? To say “up there” or even “out there” is no longer literally consistent with our present knowledge and understanding.

But the poets and mystics have been telling us all along where God is. God is within us. A 14th Century mystic and priest named Meister Eckhart wrote, “God’s being is my being and is the being of all beings. My ME is God. . . . Between a person and God there is no distinction. They are one. . . . The same eye with which I look at God is the eye with which God looks at me.”

Or on a 10th Century gravestone in a Swedish churchyard were engraved these words (as poetically translated into English):
“God within me, God without
How shall I ever be in doubt?
There is no place where I may go
And not there see God’s face, not know
I am God’s vision and God’s ears
So through the harvest of God’s years
I am the Sower and the Sown
God’s self-unfolding, and God’s own.”

Where is God? In the scripture reading this morning, the Gospel writer of John has Jesus say, “Know that I am in my Father, and I in you, and you in me.” John 14:20. In the simplest of words: God is within me! The Jesus experience – that the earliest disciples called resurrection – was the experience of Jesus within them. God is within each of us. That’s my understanding and acceptance of the liturgical phrase, “Christ is risen!” And it is Jesus who shows us how fully human we can become. Liturgically we say, “Christ will come again.” To me I now understand that as a current happening – today and each day as I strive to become fully human.

What do I mean when I talk about becoming fully human? Am I not human now? We must recognize that in the long evolutionary development of life, we humans are still very early in our own evolutionary development. We’ve just gotten started. We are still very close to our animal ancestors with our instinct for self preservation. Just look at the headlines every day to see how humans are treating other humans. As Walter Wink, a theologian in New York City says, “Human beings have only a vague idea of what it means to be human. . . . . We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness; we can dream of what a more humane existence would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness.  .  . When I work to become human, is it not God in me that is striving to become human?” [Walter Wink The Human Being, Jesus and The Son of Man 2001 p.26ff]

Striving to become human. Striving to become fully human. Striving to move beyond our animal survival instincts. And how do we do that? We already know how to do that. It is to LOVE. To love. It’s that simple, isn’t it. To love! That’s why we’re here. To love. Or even more strongly, to love extravagantly, as Peterson says it in his
I Corinthians chapter 13, or to love wastefully, as Bishop Spong likes to describe it. To love! To allow God inside me to express himself through me, “doing his own work,” as the Scripture reading this morning added.

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

Every time we take communion, is that not what we are reaffirming? It’s why the Eucharist has been absolutely central to our Christian liturgy right from the very beginning. The act of taking bread and wine into our own bodies – as the body and blood of Jesus, as the imagery describes it – is simply a reaffirmation that God is already a part of our humanness. As an affirmation of that, some people as they come forward to take communion, respond verbally with a YES or an AMEN when they take the bread and again when they take the wine. It’s reaffirming that wonderful mystery of God within me. And that’s what the stories of Jesus are all about!

“Know that I am in my Father and I in you and you in me.”


The quotations of Meister Eckert and from the Swedish gravestone are from
Eternal Life: A New Vision  by John Shelby Spong, Harper One, 2010.

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