“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. There is one need: Mary has chosen the better portion, and it will not be taken from her.” In the evangelist Luke’s story, Mary was “sitting at the LORD’s feet and listening to his word” (Luke 10:38-42).
What is the one thing needful? Or is there one In the context of Luke’s story, what is necessary is not serving food, but placing oneself close to Christ and “listening to his word.” To be “in Christ Jesus” means, among other things, that one draws near to God and “listens to his word.” To be a disciple of Christ, first and foremost, one must be attentive to his word; for “Christ is the Teacher; the rest are learners (disciples).”
The one thing necessary is not “being a Christian” in the exterior sense of belonging to a church, or calling oneself “a Christian.” It is not necessary that one be an active member of a religious community, of the priesthood, of an institutional church. According to the passage in St. Luke’s gospel, one must draw near and listen to Christ. Period All the rest can be a distraction, acts of avoidance, trying to “game God,” if you will.
But is the evangelist Luke right to say this? If there is truly “one thing needful” for a human being to do, what is it? “What must I do to be saved?” “How does one enter into life?” “LORD, what would you have me do?” Are these good questions, or misleading ones?
The word that resounds in my mind, as I ask such questions, returns again and again to the simple, straight-forward words of Jesus, for one: “Seek and you will find…” Seek, and do not pretend to find, do not assume you have found, but keep seeking. Seek what? “Seek first the reign of God, and his righteousness,” as Matthew has Jesus speak in the famous “Sermon on the Mount” (MT chapters 5-7). In the background one hears the prophets: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” In a phrase: seek the presence of God.
To seek to enter into the divine presence is, I submit, one way of expressing the one thing needful for every human being to become truly happy and fulfilled. Because we are bodily creatures, we must also seek shelter, food, clothing, companionship. As Matthew also lets his version of Christ tell us, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Seek first his reign, his way of righteousness, and all of these other things will be added to you.” Or not, perhaps. What does it mean to “seek God’s kingdom, God’s reign”? Not what the chattering voices in churches often tell us: to be members of the church; to put donations in the plate; to “build the city of God;” to work to establish some organization, community, way of life on earth. These are all secondary—as secondary as the churches are themselves. Secondary at best. What does it mean to “seek the Kingdom?” It means to seek to enter into the Presence—“not tomorrow, not today, but now,” borrowing a phrase from Dr. M. L. King, who was speaking then of social action. I am speaking of pre-social action, non-social action: spiritual action.
And what does it mean to seek to enter into the Presence? This seeking is the one thing necessary, the one thing needful. Not church attendance, not giving money, not spending all of one’s time and resources “doing good for others,” however good and beautiful and needful such actions are. Most necessary because utterly foundational for a human life is that a man, woman, or child turn his or her inner heart in the direction of that which is called “God.” Or one can call it “nirvana,” or “inner peace.” All such experiences can be truly clarified only by one who engages in the activity. Do not begin with speculation, and surely not with arguing about that which one ought to seek with the inner heart. Just do it. Whether you begin by calling it “You,” or “God,” or “Peace,” or “holy Mother,” truly does not matter. “Spirit,” “YHWH,” “Krishna,” “Tao.” It does not matter, for it is not confined or limited in any way, and not by any name we little ones wish to give it. Be wary of anyone who tells you, “You must do it my way, using my words.” Baloney. It knows no barriers, no formulations, no doctrinal fixations.
The Christianity of the churches (especially the Protestant and Catholic churches, but probably Orthodox churches as well) have for too long been content to play church, to “get people involved,” to try to organize for action in some way, or just to get folks to “attend the services.” All of these promotions by the churches are secondary at best, and often another form of distraction, a derailment from a genuine life. “For what does it profit a human being to gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process?” What does it profit one to get involved in churchy activities (including liturgies, sacramental, committees, etc) if one neglects to “sit at the LORD’s feet and listen to His word”? What gain is there in any exterior activities called “religious” unless one first and foremost keeps seeking to redirect the heart within: in a phrase, to seek God?
What does it mean to seek God? What does it mean to “seek to enter into the divine Presence?” First of all, it means to let go of the exterior—all things and persons—and to move the mind in silence towards that which is not seen, felt, heard, known. “The Tao that can be expressed is not the Tao,” and the god that can be imagined or even imaged in one’s mind is not truly God, or that which simply is. The God one imagines is not God. To seek God is to become simply present to that which presents itself now: a voice out of a flaming fire, as to Moses “the man of God”; a still small voice, as to Elijah the prophet; “the drawing of this Love and the voice of this calling…”
Ever begin afresh. That which one seeks is like the sun of Herakleitos: it is “new every day.” And what is most necessary, what is seeking the divine Presence? To keep responding to the unknown which is moving you to seek it now. Live a life, here and now, attending and stretching into the unimagined. What can be named is only a name; let it go. What can be imagined is a mere image; let it go. What you have heard said, is a mere reporting, suspend. What you remember, is fading. You—attend now. You are being drawn. Will you respond? Or do you prefer to play doctrinal, liturgical, sacramental, churchy games? Let them all go. You, attend now. For you, as you truly are, are being moved into that which truly is.
And what does this mean? It means not describing in words, but being-doing in practice: No one can fully or adequately explain to another what to be, what to do, for each is being drawn as one is, not as another is. It has its own ways, apparently, with moving each into it—into the unnamed, unspoken, into the abyss of dark stillness. Just do it. No one else can do it for you. You are a unique being, and that means that you must respond as it moves you to respond: making no excuses, clinging to nothing, hiding behind no churches (like Adam hiding from the divine Presence in the garden).
Mary responded as It presented itself to her: she sat at the the feet of Jesus and listened to his words. She was stirred, and she dropped down at his feet, enthralled by his words. This woman became utterly absorbed in what Christ was saying to her. Nothing else mattered to her at that time. She became one with Christ speaking to her. Martha was not even fully engaged in serving food, for she was “anxious and troubled about many things.” Martha was a model of the hyper-active Christian or social do-gooder. Mary is a model of genuine divine service, of true worship. “God is Spirit, and those who worship must do so in spirit and in truth.” Mary, this character in St. Luke’s brief story, is worshiping in spirit and in truth: she is being who she most truly is, doing right now what matters for her genuine life: being in the presence of the LORD, and listening. Mary and the word become one. And ever again, “the word was made flesh,” here and now in Mary, listening.
“Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” For many of us: it is so hard to listen in churches because of so much noise and commotion. “You have made this place a den of thieves,” as Christ says. Much of the training in Christianity received in the churches is precisely how not to be a true seeker of God. The training in churches is to be a busy-body among busy-bodies, embodied in the man who cannot sit still, but who looks around for someone else to watch. So much time wasted in the churches, by the churches. Better to turn the lights down low, and teach the faithful how to sit still and listen to the silent voice. Perhaps we need to suspend our ritualistic services, take out cushions, and just sit still.
And that is what I must do, and will do, right now. “The rest is silence.”
06 Feb 2019
The following letter is part of a dialogue with a young Catholic father who is strongly concerned with the lack of spiritual nourishment in the Church today.
20 June 2018
Dear friend in Christ,
As I wrote in my last memo to parishioners, one’s “spiritual life,” or mental-spiritual development, depends on the efforts a human being makes as trusting in the presence and creative power of God. It does not depend on attending Mass or on the Sacraments, in and of themselves. What the churches offer may invite those present to “participate worthily,” that is, to be attentive and eagerly desire God, and lovingly surrender to the ever-present One, putting His “will” into practice. Put concretely: what happens or does not happen in the mind / “heart” of the participant is what matters in religious services, and not what happens in space-time (externally). What matters is utterly simple: either one is turning towards God, or away from God. All life is either conversion or diversion, epistrophe or apostrophe, using the technical terms developed by the Stoics. As St. Augustine lamented in his Confessions: “Behold, You were within, but I was without….” External worship encourages one to linger “without,” rather than to be present within—present to and with the Presence that we by long tradition call “God.”
The serious problem with Christianity, far beyond clerical abuses of various kinds, is clerical neglect: the failure to help nourish parishioners with healthy, wholesome intellectual-spiritual formation and guidance. One way to put this is simple: Consider your own life, and imagine what your spiritual life would be without the efforts you made to study philosophy (and perhaps theology). I consider my own example, known from within: My family attended religious services weekly as I was growing up, but I am not aware of having received much spiritual or intellectual nourishment through them. The same is true today: other than some “consolation” people may get from attending religious services (and that consolation is of limited value), the benefits that I have seen have come to those men and women who took their own spiritual life seriously, who made a deliberate and conscious effort to study, pray, turn from evil, and do good; very little benefit accrues to those who passively attend any kind of service, whether evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on.
The real problem facing human beings is how to become truly awake and alive in one’s lifetime. Meditation and study, linked with personal discipline, as in the Christian and Buddhist traditions, does far more good than fairly mindless, passive sharing in any religious ceremonies. The example, goodness, love from men and women who happen to be Christian of one sort or another has been highly helpful to me, but such goodness is not directly linked to attending services, or “reading the bible,” as in evangelical traditions. Furthermore, much of the good that can be offered to persons in religious services is lost on social programs and the “social gospel,” which is indeed “no gospel at all.” Clergy have often neglected to assist in the spiritual formation of their people, probably in large part because “one cannot give what one does not have.” From what I hear from parishioners who attend Masses elsewhere when they travel or are away from home, they find little intellectual-spiritual meat in the preaching / teaching, but rather see emphases on outward forms of worship, entertaining music, social action programs, and the like. In the case of Catholic clergy, many do not even struggle to prepare homilies, but download canned “homilies” off the internet, or take them from “homily helps.” Unless the priest or minister is speaking “from faith to faith” (Romans 1), he or she is not “preaching Christ,” and helping to form the hearer, but just amusing, entertaining, perhaps chastising. The word that forms the hearer must grow out of a spirit alive in the now to the presence of God. Otherwise, it is not the “word of God,” but mere human words of more or less mindless chatter. If and only if the one preaching is immediately present to divine Presence is one in truth a “minister of the Word.” In the words of the Apostle, “the written text kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Had I not studied philosophy and sought to practice meditation as a Benedictine monk, and not been blessed to have some truly good examples of right living and practical wisdom in my life, I think that I would have received very little spiritual-intellectual nourishment as a Catholic Christian. What do the churches have to offer to human beings? One often must seek God, loving and doing the truth, despite what is being done in and by the churches. Neither the educational establishments in our society, nor the religious institutions, are now offering human beings much that is truly beneficial. Or to put the matter differently: unless one struggles to learn, and works hard to grow morally, intellectually, and spiritually, one will be unformed, deformed, malnourished. Our schools, universities, churches have largely been failing to do what they ought to do, and generally pretend to do, at considerable expense.
What is a person’s “spiritual life”? What does it mean to be “spiritually alive,” or “awake in one’s lifetime?” I ask the question believing that spiritual life is not only good, but ought to be one’s highest priority. And I ask it now because it is important for each of us to understand a basic truth: you are responsible for you. Another human being can guide you towards the right path, the way of life, but you yourself must make the effort, and you yourself must reject false paths and steadily seek and do the truth. No other human being can live your life for you, cleanse you, “save you.” Not even God Almighty can “save” you, cleanse your inner person, renew your spirit, unless you freely choose to share in what God freely offers from moment to moment.You did not create yourself, but you cannot be whole or happy or truly blessed, unless you develop habits of rejecting evil and doing good, unless you truly seek to know and to do the will of God. To better understand the dynamics of the spiritual life of a human being, let’s suspend for a few moments “God talk,” and examine the human reality in light of the truth of experience.
You say, “I am hungry,” so you feed yourself. You say, “I have toothache,” so you go to a dentist. Now, suppose one feels confused, depressed, anxious? All too often, one wants a quick cure, an immediate solution. Mental and spiritual problems—confusion, sorrow, worry, hatred, ignorance—did not just happen at one time. By various situations, and by many choices, many actions, one becomes what one is, and what one feels inside. A person who squanders much time in entertainment or mindless activities or in drug abuse, who does not discipline himself to rise early, to work hard, to do one’s proper tasks, to spend time in quiet and meditation will, over time, becomes confused, dull of spirit, listless, troubled, anxious, depressed. With the right concentration of one’s energies on such spiritual tasks as doing one’s daily duties, working for the good of others, eating and drinking healthy foods in moderation, getting proper exercise, sitting still in the presence of God or of “no-god,” then one becomes sane, balanced, and more alert. No one can keep eating junk food, abusing alcohol or drugs, not exercising, not nourishing the inner person through disciplined meditation and study and expect to be spiritually alive, awake, and mentally healthy. You become what you do.
Christians have often neglected to develop a proper spiritual-mental life, because they thought it would just happen, or the Church or Bible or God would do it for them. The Church is here to assist you on your path into God; you yourself must make the effort, trusting in the supportive presence of God (called “grace”). Not even the Eucharist works automatically; if you do not truly desire oneness with God even at the cost of dying to your own fleeting desires, how do you expect to “grow in grace,” to “receive the Holy Spirit,” to become truly blessed and happy? Good things in life nearly never happen without much effort. Unless you yourself strive to attune yourself to the all-good mind and will, to refresh yourself in Beauty, why should you expect to be happy and in peace?
May we have the good sense and discipline to listen to God and to obey regardless of the cost. “Through much suffering one enters the Kingdom of God,” that is, lives in the peace and freedom of God. And Christ Jesus assures us: “Know that I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Perhaps the most accessible truth of the Christian faith to discuss intelligently is the Holy Spirit. Let’s begin with the words themselves. The words “Holy Spirit” or “Spirit of God,” or “the Spirit,” are symbols in our English language for the Hebrew ruach (breath; spirit), and the Greek word pneuma (breath, spirit). The connection between breath and spirit is still found in English words. Consider, for examples, “inspire” and “expire.” To “inspire” literally means “to breathe [life] into” someone, or to help bring the Spirit of God into another’s mind or heart. The word “expire” means both “to breath out,” and “to breath one’s last,” that is, “to give up the ghost,” to give up the spirit, to die. Where there is life, where there is breath, there is the creative Spirit of God. “The Spirit gives life,” life eternally.
What do discerning Christians mean when they speak of “the Holy Spirit?” They are not talking dogmatically, although there is the dogma of the Holy Trinity in the background, which we respect. When Christians speak of “the Holy Spirit” or “the Spirit,” they typically mean an experience of the presence of God in their soul or mind. The Spirit is the direct presence of the world-transcendent God, the One who brings all things into being. In the New Testament documents, the “Spirit” is used especially by three authors: the Apostle Paul; the evangelist Luke; and the evangelist John. (“Holy Spirit” or equivalents occur throughout the New Testament to a lesser degree.) As I have often explained, in the usage of New Testament authors, when they wish to communicate the experience of God as personal, they symbolize the experiences as “Christ,” or “Christ Jesus,” or “the Risen One,” and so on. When they write about their experiences of God as impersonal—as that which enlivens, enlightens, or cleanses, heals, teaches, guides, forgives, comforts, gives peace, and so on—they usually use the term “holy Spirit,” or equivalent. But we know from the Gospel accounts that while the LORD was embodied as Jesus, He is often credited as the source of enlightenment, healing, peace, forgiveness and so on. After Christ’s death and Resurrection appearances, the impersonal experiences of God are credited to “the holy Spirit.” So the distinction is approximate, not complete: Christ is personal—“I love you,” “I have chosen you,” and the Spirit is impersonal: “I was lifted up in the Spirit,” “it is the Spirit who gives life,” and so on. As for “the Father,” the symbol reminds the believer that there is always far more reality to the depth of divinity than anyone could ever experience, no matter how life-changing the conversion or manifestation of “the Spirit,” or of “the Risen Christ.” God remains ever beyond human grasp and comprehension. Self-enclosed experiences are gnostic, not Christian.
What is the Holy Spirit? That is the question that slipped from my lips during a discussion with one of the greatest philosophers of the past century, whom I was questioning as I worked on my doctorate on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy.” To my question “What is the Holy Spirit?,” the philosopher answered with a question that penetrated my heart: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” As a member of a doctrinal Christian church, I had been told that asking questions showed “doubt,” or “a lack of faith.” On the contrary: to ask spiritual questions, life questions, real questions, is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of a human being; not to question shows a lack of faith. What a relief to hear this insight, which served to release me from doctrinal imprisonment. The hallmarks of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, self-control, and so on; and if one encounters an open mind, someone searching for truth about God and human being, then one is meeting a foremost activity of the Holy Spirit: asking the right questions.
When young people ask us questions that are genuine questions, and not mere quibbling or game-playing, do we realize that they are moved by the Holy Spirit? Or when you say to God, “Do you love me?,” do you wonder, “Am I asking this question of God, or is God asking it of me? Or both at once?” If you ask God in prayer, “LORD, what would you have me do?,” you are motivated by the holy Spirit. If you think you have God figured out, or that the Bible or the Church has “all the answers,” and you refuse to question and to search, then you are thwarting the liberating action of the Holy Spirit in your life. Are you living by the Spirit, or by the flesh—that is, by trusting in God’s presence, or by your own fleeting desires? The Spirit ever draws one beyond the bounds of a self-contained, self-centered existence into “the freedom of the children of God,” into ever expanding horizons. Life without self-imposed boundaries is the realm of the Holy Spirit. To enter into it is to enter into “heaven,” the Kingdom of God, eternal happiness. Amen!
Is Jesus Christ present or absent? If present, in what way(s) is Christ present? If absent, where is he? Where has Christ gone? Does he live “up in the sky with the angels,” or somewhere in the abyss of space, on a strange planet? These questions are those of a child or of a fundamentalist, not of someone mature in Christ. But the question, “How is Christ present, while being absent in body?” is indeed a good and fruitful question. “Seek and you will find.”
The oldest Christian documents (the letters of the Apostle Paul, the Gospels, other NT epistles) do not ask these questions directly or as boldly. Rather, they begin with real experiences, and express their experiences of God in Christ in the symbolic language of the New Testament. There is no way to speak of non-physical, non-existent reality except in symbols; and one without experience of their truth may misunderstand the symbolic meaning or consider them to be “meaningless.” In fact, the symbolic language of spiritual experience is precise within its own kind, and is highly meaningful, as generations of the faithful will attest based on their own faith and love in Christ Jesus.
Here are some typical symbolic formulations about the murdered and living Christ: “This Jesus whom you crucified is not here [in the tomb]; He is risen.” “Jesus Christ is Lord of the dead and of the living.” Or in words attributed to the Resurrected, “Behold, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.” The expressions of faith in Christ as risen from the dead, as God’s means of ruling over human beings (hence, called “Lord” or Ruler), and as present with his disciples are abundantly found in the earliest Christian writings, long before doctrines had been formulated and fixed, as in the Nicene Creed (321). “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.”
The fundamental experience of the risen Christ is always paradoxical: for Christ is both absent and present at the same time. He is absent physically, so that one cannot see a body or hear his voice with one’s ears; but He is present in spirit in the depths of the believer, who has opened himself up to the presence of the living God. The presence of the Risen Christ is variously symbolized as the “I AM with you,” as “Christ is in you,” or in the more impersonal symbol of “the Spirit of Christ is in you.” In other words, although Jesus is not physically present, He is very much spiritually present and active in the hearts and minds of the faithful who open their hearts to the LORD’s presence. Indeed, this opening of the mind and heart to Christ is what is meant by “conversion,” by “coming to faith.” Faith is not a belief about Jesus, but fundamentally a loving surrender right now to His presence. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens the door [of the heart], I will come in and commune with him, and he with me.” The faithful also understand Christ to be sacramentally present in the proclaimed word and in the Eucharist. “Take and eat; this is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of Me.”
These are the issues at stake in the symbolization of Christ’s “Ascension:” not only is Christ risen and alive, but He is active as the presence of the living God who liberates, sanctifies, guides, heals, challenges, rules over those who obey Him. Do not look for a body floating around in space, or for the “Son of God” living on a planet somewhere. These childish beliefs serve to keep God away, to live an autonomous life without the indwelling God. Rather, listen for the “still small voice” of the One who communes, heart to heart, with a trusting and loving human being. It is really that simple. Visual arts portray Jesus as a body disappearing behind clouds, but visual arts must use the physical to disclose the spiritual. Music is less hindered by physical representation. In the music of Schütz or J. S. Bach, for example, one encounters the risen and glorified Christ directly in sound, without being masked by clouds. In their glorious compositions, they directly communicate Jesus Christ. “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” And Christ most surely does enter into the mind that is still seeking, who knows it does not know, and longs for a deeper communion. The Risen Christ does indeed come to “the poor in spirit,” to those who question, seek, stay awake, are attentive, listen. Or Christ can ask, “Have I been with you for so long, and yet you do now know me?”
REVISED from April 21, 2018
The ancient Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”) provide rich symbols for the Reign of God over His people: God is “the King,” in the sense of the rightful ruler by whom all human rulers are measured, and found wanting; God is “the Holy One of Israel,” the true standard, fulfillment, and joy of His people, who liberates from evil and sin; and God is the Good Shepherd, who guides and nourishes His people, even as He punishes and destroys those who betray and mislead His people. In chapter 10 of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus applies the symbol of “the Good Shepherd” to Himself, as He works for God, under God, with God, and is in truth the embodiment of God in humanity: “I AM the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep.” Good shepherding is personally costly; otherwise, it is spurious.
Any one who goes by the name of “pastor” or “shepherd,” working in Christ’s body, and particularly in the churches, must seek to “shepherd My people rightly,” seeking their spiritual well-being, and not “fleecing” them for money or for benefits, as the prophet Ezekiel strongly warns. What is it that keeps a pastor or shepherd from fulfilling God’s will and the divine assignment to “shepherd My people”? A pastoral letters attributed to the Apostle Paul warns, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” And we should add to that: the love of power, the desire to dominate others, utterly betrays genuine pastoral ministry in the Church. Examples of such betrayals can readily be found in the history of the various churches, and are usually not hard to find—even as “evil loves to hide,” and is often shamelessly covered up by those in high places. To any priest or minister who has fleeced Christ’s people, rather than diligently sought to build them up in faith, hope, and love, the biblical warnings are strong. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus most sternly warns: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” False shepherds, fake pastors, parents or teachers who betray their sacred trust, all stand warned by Jesus Christ Himself. And this warning to those who work under Christ for the well-being of His people is an essential part of Christ as the Good Shepherd. For the Good Shepherd shows most of us to have been less than good shepherds, and often as derelict of duties, fleecers, abusers, even destroyers of human beings.
The Good Shepherd is the just Judge: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Cor 5:10). Because the Good Shepherd is the measure of humanity, each of us must ever examine himself or herself in light of Christ. We must not presume that we will be let off lightly because we were “ordained,” or called “priest” while on earth—or granted the gift to be a parent or teacher. On the contrary, Christ warns us: “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). Woe to me if I have lead anyone in our parishes astray. It will not go well with me in eternity if I have chosen ill-begotten gain and the lust to dominate others, or to use others for my benefit, rather than continually and faithfully seek the spiritual well-being of those entrusted to my care.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd remains the model and the measure of the Church. When we spend ourselves in lovingkindness for others, when we seek the genuine well-being of ourselves and of each other, when we speak the truth regardless of the cost to us personally, when we restrain ourselves from evil and do good, then Christ’s rule as Good Shepherd is effective in and through us. But when we in the Church deceive people, and lie, and steal from parishioners, or cover up crimes, or neglect the spiritual welfare of those in our care because we are too much “in love with the world,” then we must know and understand with shocking clarity that the “day of the LORD will suddenly overtake us,” and we risk having Christ declare: “Get away from me, you evil-doer, into the everlasting fire” (cf. Matthew 7:23). Brothers and sisters, each of us stands warned. And this warning is part of the role of “shepherding my people rightly.” Despite churchianity, it is not all sweetness and flowers.
May the all-good God have mercy on us, and help us genuinely to repent, change our ways, and seek the spiritual and human well-being of one another. The Good Shepherd demands this action of us.
“For God so loved the world that He gave…” How often are these words quoted? Even at football games, banners with “John 3:14” appear in the stadium. Popular preachers often fall back on these familiar words to communicate to the faithful when they do not know what else to say. What is often used and over-used is rarely heard any more. Minds are numbed by mindless repetition, thinking stops, and one may just wallow in the warmth of the familiar—perhaps like a sow in mud. Others become bored or even antagonistic at the staleness of preachers who fall back on clichés and over-worked quotations—as if they no longer can think for themselves, but parrot supposedly comforting words. Parrots become tedious in their repetitions, eh?
Long have we noticed that virtually never does anyone quoting John 3:14 continue with the rest of the passage, even though what follows develops what has been said, and grounds the words in real human experience. Consider how St. John continues: “… Whoever does not believe in Christ has already been condemned.” Now we are getting closer to the evangelist’s intention, and now the words are sounding more true to us—who live in a “culture of death” that considers human life so cheap and expendable that we load ourselves up on drugs, and even kill pre-born infants for the sake of “convenience,” or to assert “a right to choose” to kill, if one so wishes. What gods we make ourselves.
That St. John had in mind spiritual and moral corruption such as we experience daily, consider his words that follow immediately after “God so loved the world….” “Now is the Judgment: the Light came into the world, but human beings preferred darkness to light, because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does wicked things hates the light, and does not come into the light, so that his deeds might not be exposed.” Those who quote John 3:16 so glibly seem blind to these words, which are among the most acute analyses of good and evil we find in the entire New Testament. Those who do evil hate the light, they resist the truth of God, they prefer their evil deeds to the hard work of personal conversion and actually doing good. How many Americans want to be told that we have dabbled in evil by ignoring God, by removing the awareness of God from schools, by allowing and even promoting the killing of infants in the womb, by destroying our minds and bodies by drug and alcohol abuse, by distorting minds by hardened and poisonous ideologies? Resistance to the light of God and God’s truth is far more common in our midst, in our communities, in our society than virtually anyone admits. In the words of Jesus to his own people: “How often I would have gathered you up, as a mother hen gathers her chicks, and yet you refused.”
Wallowing in our wicked ways, or are we drawn to the light? The evangelist John continues: “Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds may be clearly seen as done in God.” If and when we Americans really learn to do good, and reject our evil ways, then we will “come to the light” of God, and then and only then can we be “a shining city on the hill.” There is nothing shining about evil, self-deception, or self-destruction. Goodness and mercy; deeds of justice; protecting human life from the moment of conception to natural death; nourishing our youth with truth, rather than poisoning their minds with mindless pop culture and rigid ideological non-thinking—these are deeds that will shine forth, and show that we are indeed drawn to the Light of God, and coming clean in His eternal presence, faithfully doing His will, and not our own.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son….” And now you know the rest of the story.
From St. Mark’s Gospel appointed to be read this Sunday, we hear the following summary statement: “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God. `This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”
This statement by the evangelist includes a most simple, clear, complete presentation of the basic gospel of Christ. Note at the outset that St. Mark has Jesus’ ministry begin only after John the Baptizer was arrested. It was the kairos, the critical and opportune time for Jesus to act. He acts by preaching the gospel. St. Mark assures us that Jesus begin his ministry in his home territory of Galilee, where he would no doubt have relatives and friends, and where he “knows the territory.” Also note that the phrase “proclaiming the gospel of God” is not usual; it occurs here and once in the wirings of the Apostle Paul (Romans 15:16), but otherwise, is not found in the New Testament. The phrase usually found is “the gospel of Christ,” meaning not what Jesus taught, but rather the story of what God has done for all of humankind in Jesus Christ, and especially through the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ. “The Gospel of God” brings out the origin of this good news for humankind: it comes from the unknown God, and has as its purpose the plan to bring all of humankind into a full and eternal union with God. Ultimately, the gospel is about God, although as we can see in the New Testament, no writer presumes to speak directly on who or what God is. Symbolic language is employed, and actions, to display the character of the God of the gospel. As an example of symbolic language, call to mind the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the evangelist Luke portrays God as the all-loving, merciful Father, who never gives up on either of his sons. As an example of symbolic action displaying the character of God, the outstanding case by far is the suffering and death of Jesus out of love for his fellow human beings, to bring us to God. In his suffering and death, fulfilled in the Resurrection, Christ demonstrates at once the infinite and unfailing love of God with mercy and patience for us sinners, and the power of God’s Life over sin and even death itself. In the gospel, God triumphs in human beings.
Next we briefly consider the content of Jesus’ initial proclamation, worth our time, for it contains a complete gospel in miniature: “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” If understood properly, that is sufficient to communicate the message of Jesus Christ. Nothing elaborate, no gnostic speculation on God, no rigid “do’s and don’ts,” no ideological nonsense. Just KISS: “Keep it simple, stupid.” What follows is not, I hope, simplistic, but simple clear, true, and to the point.
“This is the time of fulfillment” is literally, from the Greek, “The Kairos is fulfilled.” Kairosmeans the critical time, the time for decision and action. “NOW is the right Moment!” The Apostle Paul refers to the same insight frequently: “But NOW is Christ risen…” By genuine, simple faith, one lives NOW, in the now, in this precise moment God gives you. God is not in the past, or in some imagined future. Rather, God is always now and only now--the eternal Now. And the Now of God is the moment for human beings to be attentive, to make critical choices, to act on them. In other terms: the law and the prophets--including John the Baptizer--were all preparation. NOW God is acting in the most decisive, complete way in and through Jesus.
“The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Indeed it is, for “Jesus is himself the Kingdom,” as the early church Father Origen wrote. In the person, deeds, and words of Jesus Christ, God is fully present, acting, accomplishing His will for each and for all. God’s Kingdom is not some earthly ordering of affairs, not a place to go, not a political or imagined “kingdom” at all--and not the institutional Church, either. Rather, God’s Kingdom is God’s Presence in Christ, which is liberating, forgiving, healing, triumphing over evil, and above all, “reconciling the world to Himself.” In the Kingdom, God and man are made one here and now, and forever. God’s Kingdom is light, love, joy, and peace, for all who enter. Want to see the Kingdom? See, love, obey Christ. And how does one enter the Kingdom?”
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” “Repent” translates the Greek word metanoeite, which literally means, “change your mind, your heart,” or in plain language, “get a new attitude.” But even better: the Greek for “repent” translates the Hebrew word meaning “Turn around!” It is that simple and direct. “Stop going in the direction you are heading, turn back towards God, and enter the Kingdom of his Presence, for it is all good, true, beautiful.” “Believe in the gospel” does not mean “believe the writings of a book,” but far more simply and profoundly: “Trust this message of life, true life!” This means, in effect, “rejoice and be glad,” “enter into God with rejoicing,” and “cast all your cares on God, who cares for you” (I Peter). This message is not negative at all, and should not be cheapened into such a message as “Give up candy and sex, and you will enter the kingdom of God,” or any such thing. The words of Jesus are completely positive, uplifting, life-affirming. Christ is utterly convinced that God is all good, and so entering into His Presence brings one happiness, fulfillment, peace, energy, and a joy that nothing in the world could destroy. “Rejoice, dear friends, for God’s love and life are NOW.”
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