(This is the fifth week in a sermon series based on John Shelby Spong’s recent book, “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”)
During all these weeks studying the Gospel of John have we ever seen Jesus proclaiming the accolades of religion? Telling people to just follow the laws of Judaism? Or encouraging people to start a new, better religion and maybe name it Christianity, after him, of course? No. Not once.
That’s because it was never about religion for Jesus, it was about relationships. Relationships with all other people – Samaritans, Gentiles, Jews, Romans, rich, poor, men, and women alike – and a relationship with God. And the two were intimately tied together. If one said they loved God, but did not show love, compassion and caring for other people – no matter who they were – then they clearly had no clue what it really meant to experience and share the love of the Divine.
Yesterday was Palm Sunday, but that story is merely a blip on John’s radar screen. The much bigger story is the scene John sets the night that Jesus is betrayed. Unlike the other three gospels, there is no Last Supper, no pleading with God in the Garden of Gethsemane to “take this cup away,” and no disciples falling asleep. What we have instead is a beautiful story of Jesus washing the disciples feet.
There is no record of the foot washing incident anywhere other than John. Like the other stories unique to the fourth gospel, scholars believe it was not a factual event, but that it had deep symbolic meaning and “truth” for the author and its intended audience. Remember the last editing of the Gospel of John was written around the year 90 after a group of Jewish followers of Jesus were finally banished from their synagogue for their beliefs. Presumably they had been trying to reform their synagogue and religion from within for a number of decades, but the many who would not believe, and did not want their traditions and religion to change, had finally had enough. It was time for these heretics to go.
The parallel between the original disciples and those outcast followers is striking. All of them would most likely have lost family and friends in their decision to follow Jesus. The first disciples left businesses and homes, had no stable place to lay their head and subsisted on the generosity of people who believed in Jesus and his message as they traveled from place to place. The thought of losing their leader would have been devastating. When the Johannine followers were kicked out of the synagogue, it made them unclean and an anathema to talk with, work with or perhaps even deal with on a business level. Plus they lost their place of worship and followers of Jesus were openly persecuted. What would their future look like now? How would they go on?
So, the scene of the foot washing and the farewell discourses that follow, use the story of Jesus to inform the issues of this exiled group.
In the finely crafted story of the foot washing (John 13), Jesus helps prepare the disciples for his “going away” by bringing all of his teachings together in one powerful act. As the “one who will betray him” is also a recipient of his humble act of service, so they are reminded of Jesus’ policy of inclusion of all people. As Jesus serves those who have considered him their “Rabbi,” the disciples are shown once again that all boundaries need to be brought down. Status, worthiness, laws, gender… none of these exist when one lives in oneness with God. Most importantly, Jesus gives them a stunning example of what it really means to love as God loves – unconditionally, without limits, wastefully (as John Shelby Spong says).
The relationship with God was not a passive “believing” it was an active participation in love.
Over and over in this gospel, we’ve heard the message that we should strive to be one with God as Jesus was one with God. I found myself looking for further instruction about this within the book of John. Is there a process? A procedure to follow? Is there a perfect prayer or way to worship that will achieve this? Basically, no. The answer is much simpler, and much harder, than any of these. To love, as Jesus loved, without limits or reservation, is to be One with God. We need to get our prejudices, fears, negativity and judgments out of the way.
And there’s a flip side. Not only do we need to love without limits, we need to accept love.
Remember how Peter tried to get out of Jesus washing his feet? Perhaps he felt he wasn’t worthy, or it wasn’t his place to be served by his mentor, or maybe he had ugly feet and felt a little embarrassed and vulnerable about that. Regardless, Jesus made it clear, “If you don’t let me wash you, then you have no part in me.”
Have you ever tried to give someone a gift and had them reject it? It feels awful doesn’t it, like your very being has been rejected? I figure this is how Jesus felt. Jesus was essentially saying to Peter, “I’m giving you my very being, my love, which is God’s love (as we are One). I know who you are and I love you without judgment or qualification. But unless you receive my love, we can’t be one, and then you can’t be one with the Divine, either.”
As John Shelby Spong put it, “Love is the power that binds us to God and to one another” – giving and receiving.
The gospel of John leads us to understand that God permeates all things, including ourselves. The Divine is within. But it is almost as if we’ve got God handcuffed and locked in a deep dark closet of our souls unless we release God by tapping on the power of unconditional love.
If we want to be One with God, it is not about saying the sinners prayer and inviting Jesus into our hearts. It is consciously accepting God’s love for us (as imperfect as we are) and then choosing to do and be the loving thing (as imperfect as everyone else is)!
It is about letting go of the negativity. It is about not judging. It is about dealing with our own anger, fear, insecurities, and triggers, so we don’t take our stuff out on someone else. It is about not taking things personally, and not bashing others for their opinions. It is about doing the most loving thing we can do in any situation.
The more we live in love and offer love – wastefully – the more we are one with the Divine.