Tag Archive | John Shelby Spong ‘The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic’

From NAZARETH!?!?

John 1:43-51

Let us pray:

Helps us to allow your words to work in us, so that we may take it home with us; so that our week may be filled with the gift your grace gives us today. Let us not forget what we have heard but rather build on it; give us the love it takes to build, let this love work in us. Remain the light of our days, become the goal of our love, and bestow on us through this homily a new life in your faith, a life that is both prayer and work in your love. Amen.

Our gospel reading today comes from John – the fourth and most mystical and philosophical of the gospels. The last of the gospels written, John is less a historical narrative of Jesus’ life and works, and more a multi-level commentary about his teachings and their meanings for our lives. John Shelby Spong describes John’s gospel as:

“a book about life, abundant life, and ultimately eternal life. . . a book to be lived as much as a volume to be mastered”.[1]

The first chapter of John completely ignores the birth stories and jumps straight into Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, and the beginning of His ministry. In our passage today, Jesus has travelled to Galilee and begun recruiting His followers and disciples. One of those selected is Nathanael, mentioned only three times in the Bible, and introduced to Jesus by Philip of Bethesda.

Let’s take a look at Nathanael for a moment. He was a friend of Philip; he must have been a good friend since Philip wanted to introduce him to the one he loved, this powerful new force in his life – Jesus. We all have close friends, ones that when we discover someone or something extra special, we want to rush out and be sure that that friend meets the new person or experiences that special thing for themselves. We can deduce that Nathanael was such a friend of Philip’s.

Philip described Jesus to Nathanael as:

the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:45)

Like many young Jewish men of that time, Philip was obviously a religious man and a student of the Torah. It is clear that Nathanael was also a religious man; we heard that he prayed for the arrival of the Messiah that would save Israel. It was interesting to me to learn that ancient Jewish writers equated ‘gathering figs’ or being ‘under the fig tree’ with a sacred place of prayer, study and meditation on the Torah, a place of longing for the Messiah to show himself as King. Jesus’ vision of Nathanael in this passage as sitting beneath a fig tree, is a clear indication that Jesus knew Nathanael was a serious student of the Torah also.

But Nathanael was not so sure about meeting this man, Jesus. Why not? Because of where He came from – Nazareth! It seems Nathanael, like most of us, tended to judge people by where they came from.

In his response to the invitation from Philip to come meet this marvelous man, it appears that Nathanael said what he thought, without any filters, when he replied:

Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?(John 1:45)

He couldn’t get past the fact that, in that time, Nazareth was considered a backwater town, a place of mud houses, low income and populated by what generally would have been considered the ‘red necks’ of the time. He couldn’t get past his prejudice of what he thought Nazareth was.

In fact, in this new year’s list of the ‘top ten best’ and ‘top ten worst’, Nathanael would have listed Nazareth and its people on the ‘top ten worst’, maybe even at the top of that list. Nathanael presupposed that anyone from Nazareth was insignificant, unworthy of attention. . . without having a basis for this prejudice. He came to that conclusion based on his personal perceptions, or as my grandmother used to say, ‘He jumped to convulsions’. He was a prejudiced and judgmental man.

Just what is prejudice? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘prejudice’

  • ‘as a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience;
  • an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge;
  • an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics.’

There is a little or a lot of prejudice in all of us. It is so hard to admit we are prejudiced. Prejudices makes us blind to things that could enrich our lives and gladden our hearts. We all have prejudices that prevent us from being our best selves, opening to new people and experiences, and fully following the teachings of Jesus.

I imagine, if we would admit it, every one of us in this sanctuary is prejudiced in some way. We all tend to group people by race, or occupation, or sexual orientation, or politics, or income, or place of origin, and then we pigeonhole individuals and judge them because they belong to one of those groups.

One of my greatest prejudices I recognized when I spent time in Salt Lake City, working for a company that was laying the Alaskan pipeline. I had grown up as an Air Force brat, and had assumed, because of the diversity in the military, that I was not prejudiced. But, was I SO wrong. I discovered that I really disliked the Mormon religion – not because of the individual members, but because of their position on women, and, particularly, unmarried women. I supervised a group of engineers in a manufacturing plant, and constantly heard from the men that I was taking food off a family’s table. I even heard it at the hardware store when I went to buy a pair of dog clippers. I was admonished by the sales clerk that because I was not married, I would not be going to the ‘real’ heaven, but only a place where I would be a handmaid to those gods and goddesses who were favored enough to gain entrance to the ‘celestial’ paradise.

Anyone who knows anything about me can imagine how that sat in my craw. I was furious that my worth would only be measured by marriage and the number of children I could produce! I had to admit to myself that I was

PREJUDICED. . .

BIGOTED . . .

JUDGMENTAL!

Boy, was that a shock to my psyche!

But, eventually, I came to admire many aspects of the Mormon religion, as I saw numerous acts of kindness and generosity lived out by the Mormon people to those not of their faith.

And the good news is that God, through the people we come in contact with, and experiences we may have, can break down our prejudices, . . if we will allow it. Because of Nathanael’s relationship with Philip, despite his conviction that

“nothing good can come from Nazareth” (John 1:45),

Nathanael went with Philip to meet Jesus, a man he had never met. But, Nathanael was not unknown to Jesus – we hear later in the Gospel:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” (John 1:47)

Even though Nathanael was wary of people from Nazareth, and therefore – Jesus, Jesus recognized the goodness deep within Nathanael. Just as he sees the goodness within each of us! It didn’t take Nathanael long to realize that his prejudice was misplaced; that he had, indeed, found the Messiah.

As we now know, something good DID come out of Nazareth! Jesus came from that little backwater town to teach us the most valuable lesson there is –  everlasting, eternal love!

So, if we put our prejudices aside and follow Philip’s advice to Nathanael to

“come and see” (John 1:46)

we will see who Jesus really is, what following His way can do for us, and we will know that the best is yet to come. How many opportunities for new love, growth, inspiration and joy can be ours if we put our prejudices aside each day and become open to people, ideas and experiences that we may have formerly shunned.

So, let’s take time this week to reflect on what prejudices we each may have – and vow to work hard on changing these thoughts. . . and be ready and willing to

“come and see” (John 1:46)

Let us be ready to meet Jesus anew in the face of every person we encounter and every challenge we face.

Let us pray:

Holy God, ignorant, hurtful, hateful words churn in our hearts; they wound or distract us from your love. We are called to contradict those words and prejudices within us; it’s a lot to ask of us. Remind us, and then remind us again: Your Word is life. Your Word is light. Your Word is full of grace, full of truth. Whatever words we hear, whatever words tumble through our thoughts, let yours be the Word we speak. Let yours be the Word we live. Amen.
 
[1] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperOne, New York, 2014; p 9
 

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church of Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 14 January 2018

An Unexamined Belief Is Not Worth Having

John 20:19-31

Today’s gospel reading is one of the best-known Eastertide gospels – that of “Doubting Thomas”. We almost never hear the name of this disciple without the label of “Doubting”. Most people, no matter how non-religious, have heard about “Doubting Thomas”.

You may be interested to know that in the first three gospels we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas. He is just a name in a list of the disciples (Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:15), a faceless man among the twelve. It is in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then there are only 155 words about him. Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, that the writer of John created Thomas as a metaphor with a unique personality of “doubting”. His story has entered the vocabulary of the world and is even used in common conversation. People who doubt or question the status quo are called “Doubting Thomas”.[1]

Jesus admonished Thomas:

“Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27)

Jesus told Thomas to believe and accept His resurrection as true – to have “faith”.

What then is this “faith” we are supposed to have? Faith is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. It is, from a religious standpoint, a strong belief in God or certain doctrines based on spiritual apprehension, rather than proof. Jesus goes on to tell Thomas

“blessed are those who believe and have not seen”. (John 20:29)

In fact, not only Christians, but all human beings, really, live every day by faith.

  • We go to sleep assuming by faith that we will wake up.
  • We kiss our loved ones goodbye, having faith that we will see them again.
  • We drive to the grocery store with the faith that we will return home safely with our groceries.
  • We plant our gardens in the fall with faith that they will blossom in the spring.

And most crucially, we live every day knowing at some point that we will die, and that somehow it will be alright. But we cannot prove that, nor can we understand what really happens. These are all elements of “having faith”.

But does faith mean we do not doubt?

No, surely faith does not preclude doubt. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that they are troubled from time to time with doubts about what they they’ve been taught is true. Even the Saint Mother Teresa wrote of her doubts in her diaries, saying:

“[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak “

Even this holy woman had doubts, yet her faith was strong.

Doubt is defined as: ‘a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction; a hesitancy to believe; not being certain about something, especially about how good or true it is.’

The writer, Frederick Buechner, put it this way, “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.”[2] Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for producing mighty men and women of faith.

I submit to you that being a “Doubting Thomas” and questioning life, especially its major events or problems, is not a bad thing. We should do it. When we ask ourselves difficult questions, we get answers that can deepen our faith and provide us with the tools we need to move to a more purposeful life and a closer relationship with God.

Indeed, we can learn a valuable lesson from Thomas: We must doubt and then move beyond doubt to faith. It is all right to doubt, but we must move beyond doubt.

Jesus told Thomas that those

who believe even if they have not seen are blessed.” (John 29:29)

Certain Christian doctrines and biblical stories simply seem illogical and flawed. They confound all reason and go against much of what we now know for sure, through science and experience.

So, what if we find ourselves with serious doubts. What should we do?

  • We can accept that doubt is normal and healthy for human beings. All Christians, sometime during our lives, have doubts, questions and skepticisms. That is the way that God made us: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort things out.
  • As I mentioned, doubts, questions and skepticism often lead to a greater faith. Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe. Christians of his era were using and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus doubted the validity of those peoples’ interpretation and his doubting of their interpretation of the Bible led him to a larger and deeper understanding of our place in the world and the wonders of God’s creation. Galileo took this further to his own excommunication from the church, but a strengthened faith in God. Doubt often leads to deeper faith.

So, when we doubt, we begin to examine our lives to determine what is true, what is right, what is good for us. That is the human process – it leads to a better understanding of ourselves, our world, and our relationship with eternity. And each one of us must travel that journey at their own pace and in their own time.

So, is there a real purpose for doubt in our Christian faith? ABSOLUTELY!

Doubt is what enables our faith to grow. Today’s gospel passage tells us this. In the beginning of the text Jesus has appeared to the disciples and they believed. They had to share it with others. Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, and when he heard what happened, he did not believe what they were saying. Thomas had little faith in what the disciples were saying because it was, frankly, unbelievable, and he needed more proof. Jesus was dead – he had seen him brutally tortured and murdered, he saw his lifeless body buried in a tomb.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the others when Jesus appeared. But surely, he was despairing – the one in whom he had put all his faith was dead. Yet, today we should be glad for his doubt, for we, like Thomas, did not see Jesus appear resurrected, and our doubt is much like his.

When Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time, however, Thomas was there and declared for all to hear,

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and place my finger where the nails where, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.“ (John 20:25)

Did Jesus chastise Thomas for his unbelief? No! He understood the reason for his doubts and said:

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27)

And Thomas believed!

Doubting Thomas was very much like each of us, wanting to believe and still unsure that Jesus has actually risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to assure himself that it was really true – Jesus was alive and had overcome death. Just as Thomas doubted, we feel compelled in our doubts to see for ourselves. Just as Thomas wanted tangible proof, we, in our complex and cruel world, need to be reassured that what Jesus promised us is true – that life is eternal – that to live as He did, to follow His example of love, compassion, service, and forgiveness – this leads us to true life, here on earth and beyond – and that where He is eternally, there we will be also. Like Thomas, we all must seek, experience, meditate, and question until we come to understand, through confidence in the word of Jesus, that He is true, His promise is true, and we can believe in Him with all our hearts and minds.

I leave you with this poem, “Thomas, Undone”, by Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

The un-ease you feel is not doubt.
It is hunger to go deeper.
You are not done yet.

Learn from Thomas,
who, when Jesus planned to go to Bethany
where they had tried to stone him,
said, “Let us go die with him.”

You want to see the scar of your betrayal
and how love bears it.

You want to touch the wounds
and enter the heart of The One
Who Suffers for the World
and lives.

Now, more than before,
you are ready to come and die with him,
let love undo you and begin again.

Don’t belittle your restlessness.
Let it lead you.
Reach out.

Even now he is saying your name. [3]

Let us pray:

Almighty and ever living God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: grant us the faith to truly and deeply believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found doubting. Empower us to be carriers of that faith to others. Give us the ability to share it so others can know the grace of your salvation, your gracious gift of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 
 
Christ with Saint Thomas, Andrea de Verrocchio, Orsanmichele, Florence (1467-1483)
[1]    John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperOne, 2014
[2]    Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (Harper One, 1973)
[3]   Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Thomas, Undone”, Unfolding Light

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 23 April 2017