Cana & Nick Decrypted

(This is the second week in a sermon series based on John Shelby Spong’s recent book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”)

Most of us don’t give a second thought about receiving our Biblical knowledge in sound bites on Sunday mornings. But we’d never read a regular book a few paragraphs at a time, probably not even in order, over the course of years, and believe we had a good grasp of the story. To truly understand the Gospel of John, we need to recognize that the stories don’t stand alone. Until we put them together, layer after layer, and view them through the eyes of Jewish mysticism (see last week’s post for more on this) we won’t get the full picture or the full message.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

We began last Sunday by examining the Prologue to the book of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”), and discussed how using the familiar Jewish concept of the Word of God, in a revised form of a Proverbs hymn about Wisdom,  was meant to express the mystical unity that human life can have with God. Seen through the eyes of Jewish mysticism, Jesus was the conduit of the Divine Word and Wisdom, which were eternally part of the essence of God.

Moving on, many scholars consider that Chapters 2 – 11 of the Book of John came from an independent source they call the Book of Signs. These chapters suggest that events like changing water into wine, healing the royal official’s child, and feeding the 5,000, were not simply miracles, they were signs pointing to something bigger. The author of John was laying forth a case, presenting a cohesive story leading us to discover something new.

But, it is like the exercise I did with the kids… unless we have the key, we can’t know the message.

Spong tells us that “A clue to understanding the Fourth Gospel is to recognize that this author uses literary license to create memorable personalities who become the pillars around which he relates the themes of his Jesus story. Our interpretive task will be to “read” these characters as John, their creator, intended them to be read.”

Doing this requires knowing the codes for the stories and engaging in a bit of decrypting!

Here is the code that Spong gives us to decrypt the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11):

HOUR = Jesus’ crucifixion and glorification
MARY = Israel (the faith tradition that gave birth to Christianity)
OLD WINE = Judaism
NEW WINE = Christianity
Water of purification becomes the wine of the Spirit
Note the timing happens “on the 3rd day”
150 gallons of new wine = abundance

So, if we use this key to interpret this story as the community of John may have understood it, Wine jarswe see that the old wine, the religion of Judaism, has run its course, the old answers don’t work anymore. A transformation has happened, and there is something that is much better… it is just that no one knows where it came from at this point, because the hour of revelation has not come. The water of purification, their old rituals of how to be pure and holy, have given way to the wine of the Spirit. And there is an abundance of this new wine (150 gallons of it!), an abundance of the Spirit – an abundance of new life.

The stage is set. Jesus is the conduit of the Divine Word and Wisdom, he is the one to show humanity how to achieve a deep personal connection to God. But we have a journey to take to get there and so we follow the signs. It is like going on a journey and following road signs, or seeking a buried treasure where each clue leads us to the next one.

This first sign of turning water into wine hints that something old is passing away and something new has come to take its place and offer something better. But people aren’t easily convinced. Hence, the story of with Nick at Night.

Here is the code for decrypting the story of Nicodemus (John 3:1-12)

Nicodemus = Pharisees interested in Jesus, but just couldn’t take the last step to follow
Dark = lack of understanding or knowledge
Light = New understanding of God
Place = notice it happens outside of the synagogue
Born again = born anew, or born from above into a new spiritual realm or dimension, not a new religious status called “conversion”
Born of water = maternal birth waters
Born of spirit = new dimension, mysterious, mystical experience
Better translation for kingdom is realm – to experience the realm of God one must be born anew

Interpreting this story, we discover that Nicodemus likely represents some of the Jews who were on the fence. They seemed to respect Jesus and were curious about the things he had to teach. But they just didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them and couldn’t make the leap to a new way of thinking.Nick-new-550

Jesus’ response is sort of like this: “Seriously, Nick, work with me here, you’re a teacher of Israel and you don’t get this? Yes, you have to be born from your mother’s womb, but the second birth is a spiritual enlightenment, a new consciousness. I know it is a little tricky to understand as you’re used to hard and fast laws and rules, but we follow the Spirit, and the Spirit blows like the wind and goes where she will. She isn’t hampered by those sorts of external things…”

Nick is not just one guy at one time. He represents all those who prefer ignorance to knowledge, who prefer security over change. He represents the people who relate to what is and never see what can be. I think this struggle happens in each of us to a greater and lesser degree, in all areas of our lives.

The mystical message in this story is that the community of John believed that Jesus called them outside of the walls of the synagogue, outside of the bounds of established religion. He wasn’t concerned with the 613 laws of Judaism, but with love. He knew that the true connection with God was within. To be born anew spiritually. To have a new consciousness.

Our class last Wednesday night talked about what this new consciousness looks like, and we came up with this:

  • Less “worshippy”
  • Experiential
  • Interior
  • Without rules, ritual
  • Outside of religion (they are meeting outside of the synagogue)
  • Psycho-therapeutic

The churches have never wanted to encourage interior journeys, because then what would we need the churches for? But it was the interior journey that Jesus was pointing to… will we risk, step out of our spiritual comfort zones, explore, and open to the experience? Or will we be hanging with Nick.

Love & Light!


Our Muslim Neighbors

We were blessed yesterday to have Ms. Janan Najeeb, President of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, Jananspeak to us about “Our Muslim Neighbors… What Everyone Should Know.” Her talk was filled with wonderful information about the history and practices of religion of Islam, the current world situation, and many other things. We are grateful that she shared her time, her experiences and her knowledge with us.

For the full audio, you can listen here. Our Muslim Neighbors…what everyone should know

Ms. Najeeb has been a spokeswoman for Milwaukee’s Muslim community to media outlets, government officials, interfaith leaders, academic institutions, hospitals, and a wide range of community groups.  A microbiologist by profession, Ms. Najeeb left her career because of the tremendous need to bridge the gap between the erroneous perception of Islam and Muslims in society and the actual beliefs and practices of the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims.  Ms. Najeeb serves on many committees and community boards, including the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration.  She is a frequent lecturer at many area colleges and universities and has served as adjunct professor at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, teaching the Religious Culture of Islam.  In addition, Ms. Najeeb directs the new Islamic Resource Center on the south side of Milwaukee, which hosts Wisconsin’s first Islamic public lending library. In 2015, Ms. Najeeb founded the first Milwaukee Muslim Film Festival.

Janan Najeeb is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions including the International Institute of Janan2Wisconsin’s World Citizen Award, CAIR’s (Council on American Islamic Relations) national award for activism, ACLU’s Special Recognition Award, UW-Milwaukee’s Scholar in Residence award, Dr. King, Jr. Celebration award, The Women of Honor award presented by six women’s organizations including the American Association of University Women, the League of Women Voters, and the Unitarian Society’s Womanspirit Group.

Jesus: Word & Wisdom

For the next six weeks we’ll be exploring the book of John with the help of John Shelby Spong’s book, fourth gospel“The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.” There is a great deal of compelling, though perhaps in some cases downright controversial, information in Spong’s book, and I believe it can give us a whole different perspective on early Christianity and the person of Jesus. As always, you are free to take or leave this information as your head and heart decide.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

Basically, Spong believes that the Book of John can not be understood by taking the stories literally, but by understanding the Jewish mystical tradition which the authors used to inform their experience of Jesus.

To begin, here are some things that Spong says may SHOCK you about the Gospel of John:

  • Written in different layers by different authors over 30 years
  • Can’t possibly be taken literally; the gospel itself even makes fun of literalism
  • The sayings attributed to Jesus probably were not spoken by him
  • None of the miracles (“signs”) ever happened
  • Most of the characters were fictional
  • Language of “incarnation” has been misconstrued

This alone may be enough to send some of you into apoplectic shock. For those of you who are comfortable with reading the stories of the Bible as myth and metaphor, you’ll have less problem with this series. You can understand that, in the same way we take Buddhist stories, Aesop’s Fables, and Harry Potter as stories with a moral, but know they didn’t happen, the stories of Jesus have no less import simply because they didn’t happen.

To understand the Gospel of John, we need to understand the context out of which it was written, and the intent of the author. If we place ourselves in the early Johannine community, we find that it was a deeply Jewish community in conflict and turmoil because some of the members have started following Jesus.

Perhaps you have been in a congregation where there has been conflict over theological issues, or monetary issues, or social-political issues, and eventually one group either decides they need to leave and start their own church, or they are kicked out. This is what happened to the Jews in John’s community. If we don’t understand this, we miss some of the purpose and messages within John.

The last editing of the Gospel of John most likely took place after the Jewish followers of Jesus were excommunicated from the synagogue. These Jews turned to Jewish mysticism to understand the reality of God they found in Jesus. The Prologue of John (Jn 1:1-14) gives us a heads up right away that Jesus is seen through mystical eyes.

John 1:1, 3a (masculine Word – logos in Greek)
In the beginning
There was the Word;
The Word was in God’s presence,
And the Word was God.
Through the Word
All things came into being…

In later Christian thought (which informed the creeds), Jesus became the Divine Word, pre-existent with God. However, seen through the eyes of Jewish mysticism, Jesus was the conduit of the Divine Word and Wisdom, which were eternally part of the essence of God. Word has always been part of Jewish thought in the speaking of creation, in the word given to Moses on the mountain (Moses’ gazing on God is an important story in Jewish mysticism), in the words of the Torah and the Law, and in the words of the Prophets.

And the connection to Wisdom is clear as the Prologue of John echoes the description in Proverbs 8.

Proverbs 8:22-23, 29b-30a (speaking of feminine Wisdom – hokmah in Hebrew, sophia in Greek)
“YHWH gave birth to me at the beginning,
before the first acts of creation.
I have been from everlasting,
in the beginning, before the world began…
When the foundation of the earth was laid out,
I was the skilled artisan standing next to the Almighty.

 Wisdom literature and tradition, born after the Babylonian exile (circa 587 BCE) when the temple was destroyed, the kings were gone, and the concept of Wisdom as the immanent aspect of God took hold, marked the advent of Jewish mysticism.

In Spong’s understanding, “God’s self-revelation, the “word,” was part of the external God from the beginning of the universe. God, experienced as immanent in the creation, however, was “wisdom.” These are brought together in the Prologue to John as experienced in Jesus. Spong suggests, “The author of John’s gospel, in his prologue, is either using or creating an early Christian hymn based on a hymn to wisdom in the book of Proverbs to express the mystical unity that human life can have with God and asserting that this was in fact the unique thing about Jesus of Nazareth. It is that life-expanding oneness with God to which the author of the Fourth Gospel believed that Jesus was calling us.” (p. 57)

Over and over we hear this theme echoed in the book of John.

However, the church has literalized the Gospel of John and turned Jesus into an untouchable Divine being who had supernatural powers, who could read people’s minds, who felt no anxiety about his impending death, and who didn’t suffer when he was crucified.

If what Spong, and others, suggest about the Gospel of John is true, then we need to look with mystical eyes at the scripture to see and hear the message that the authors of John truly wanted to express. The community experienced an amazing power in their understanding of Jesus. He was their example, their way to the divine, their truth that unity with God was possible for everyone.






Powerful Glimpses

Mystical experiences… we all have them (or so I believe). I think many people have the habit of brushing them
off as “nothing” or “just coincidence.” And that is really too bad, as they provide essential spiritual nourishment for this crazy journey we call life.

Psychologist Dr. William James identified five characteristics of mystical experiences:

  1. Ineffable – the experience cannot be described by ordinary language.
  2. Transient – the experience is brief, not permanent.
  3. Passive – it happens to us, we don’t make it happen.
  4. Noetic – it involves a deep inner “knowing” or “assurance” of the sacred.
  5. Transformative – very simply, it changes us.

On the Sunday before Lent we always hear the story of the mystical experience of the transfiguration.  transfigurationIf we put this in the greater context of the Book of Luke, we find that things have been getting a bit tougher for Jesus and he has begun to talk about his suffering and death. Now, Jesus often went away from the crowds to pray, to rejuvenate, to gain sustenance for the journey… this time he took Peter, James and John with him. Perhaps he thought they needed sustenance, too. As he prays, the disciples fall asleep and upon awakening see Jesus’ “glory”, his face changed, his clothes turned white, and Elijah and Moses talking with him. The vision fades and the disciples hear a voice saying “This is my Chosen One, listen to him.”(Luke 9:28-36, also found in Mark and Matthew).

For the disciples this is a direct mystical experience of the divine – ineffable, transient (no building tents to stay here), they received it, they felt a “knowing” about Jesus and God, and it would change them.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

However, I think the real power in this story is who was with Jesus…it wasn’t royalty… it wasn’t King David who appeared. It was Moses, the one who dared to confront the powers of his time, challenged the Pharaoh, and saved the people from oppression in Egypt. And Elijah, one of the greatest Jewish prophets who constantly challenged the kings of his day to reform religion and turn to God.  King Ahab declared Elijah to be the “trouble of Israel.”

Jesus was consorting with the great prophets, reformers, and freedom-seekers because he walked the same path. He and his disciples received strength for the journey from this mystical mountaintop experience.Then they went back down the mountain to the people who were hurting, to the unbelieving officials, to the ineffective institutions.

I believe we’re all given mountaintop experiences meant to carry us through our own individual journeys. Geez, we really want them to last, but they are fleeting, a momentary glimpse and deep assurance meant to hold us up in the days to come – whether we’re facing grief, struggling for social justice, seeking freedom from something or someone who is holding us back, overwhelmed with life, facing illness, or a myriad of other challenges life throws at us.

These glimpses are powerful!! Can you think of a time when you had a mystical moment?  Maybe it wasn’t visions and voices in the clouds. Perhaps it was simply a still small voice, or a sign that only you would recognize, or a deep feeling of peace. Whatever happened, it was a moment where you knew, beyond reason, that there was something more. Hold onto those precious moments, conjure them when you need strength, courage, comfort and hope. Let it remind you that you are never alone, but that the Divine is with you, within you and all around you.

Love & Light!


Reclaiming the “Wedding” Passage

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. heartinhandsIt does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

This passage about love has become almost as worn out as the word “love” itself.  We’ve heard it over and over again at weddings… which is fine. It is a beautiful passage and certainly beats the woman-came-from-man-and-must-therefore-obey-him passage. Not to mention the fact that almost no one knows that it had nothing to do with a marriage relationship in the first place. And, I wonder if, like the Lord’s Prayer, it gets used so often that we don’t really hear it anymore.

(For the full audio version, click here.)

So, let’s put this “wedding” passage in the context of the situation in Corinth as well as how it fits with 1 Corinthians 12 and our discussions over the last two weeks (you may want to take a peek at those blogs if you’ve forgotten).

First, do you remember what the situation was like in Corinth? There was a lot of tension and stress due to different opinions on whose preaching and teaching to follow, what was the “best” spiritual gift to have, what could women really do in the church community, could they use meat dedicated to pagan gods, and more. Frankly, it sounds like it was fairly chaotic and there was a lot of in-fighting going on.

Second, do you remember what Paul was trying to get across to the people of Corinth regarding spiritual gifts? Everyone has spiritual gifts and the Spirit bestows gifts as she chooses. We are all part of the metaphorical body of Christ. Not one part of the body, nor one gift, nor one person is better than another. All have equal value and worth. And finally, Paul urged people not to fall into the traps of feeling less than others, or believing that some people are innately better than others.

OK… so, if the folks actually got that far, Paul now gets even more intense. He just told them that there is no gift better than another, then says, “But now I will show you the way which surpasses all the others.” And that way is LOVE.

If Paul were talking to people today, he’d essentially be saying, “Look, all these gifts are great… you can play music and sing rock ‘n roll, and give legal advice, and fix cars, and paint pretty pictures. You can treat people’s illness, or an animal’s illness, or build a house, or balance numbers… you can preach or teach, prophecy or speak in tongues… but if you don’t have love you have nothing.”

Why? Because love is the ultimate connection to the Divine. To love unconditionally (as the Greek word agape connotes here) is a remembering of who you are at the core of your being.

What is this love thing? Paul draws us into agape love and describes it as much by what it is not as by what it is:

  • It is not arrogant, jealous, snobbish, rude, self-seeking, angry or irritable
  • It is patient, kind, truthful. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things endures all things.

Paul even suggests that as he has grown and matured in his faith, he has learned and chosen to put away childish ways (read: all of those things love is not) .

Here is the kicker for today… LOVE is a choice.

Fr. John Powell, in his book Seasons of the Heart tells the story of visiting a prisoner at the Illinois State Penitentiary. While he was being admitted with the other visitors he found himself walking next to an elderly black lady who was exuding love and greeting everyone around her. Anyway, this dear lady was doing her best to make the dismal atmosphere of the prison seem cheerful. Fr. John finally said to her, “I think that you must spread a great amount of cheer in this world. You really like people, don’t you?” She replied, “Oh, thank you. You know, there are no strangers in my world. There are just brothers and sisters, some of whom I haven’t yet met.” He kept watching her. She really meant that. In her deepest self she really meant that. No wonder she was happy and loving.

It is a choice to live in a loving space…or not. We forget that, and oftentimes allow ourselves to be controlled by our anger, fear, hurt, guilt or shame. We make assumptions and judgments, which is also a decision. But we also have the ability to make self-loving decisions, and decisions for the greatest good and happiness of another.

Fr. Powell shared another story about a time when he was in seminary and went to the infirmary for some medicine for a head cold. While he was waiting, he watched a Brother tucking in two old, bedridden priests for the night. As he tucked the blanket of the first man under his chin, the old fellow snarled, “Oh, get your face out of mine. What do you think this is?” But when the Brother went into the next room, and did the very same thing for the second old priest, the old man said, “Oh brother, you are so good to us. Before I fall asleep tonight, I’m going to say a very special prayer just for you.”  As a young seminarian, Fr. Powell stood there suddenly realizing that one day he would be one of those two old men. Which one? In addition, he said it also seemed clear that we didn’t make those decisions in old age. We are making those decisions right now. Over the course of time, the way we perceive the world, and the way we act in the world become habit.

What will we choose?

Love & Light!