Sunday, May 12, 2013

News flash! You're not the center of the Universe

Ah, the wisdom mothers feel compelled to share with their children. (Not that those children asked.) There are things we say to our kids so often that they almost become our mantra. Things like, “Eat your supper; there are children starving in India” or “I don’t care what everybody else is doing. If everybody else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” When my son Ben was growing up, my favorite wisdom saying went like this: “I’ve got a news flash for you, Ben. You are not the center of the Universe.” Even to this day, when I’m with my now 32-year-old son, I will sometimes say to him, “I’ve got a news flash for you, Ben.” And he’ll roll his eyes and finish saying it for me, “I know. I’m not the center of the Universe.” I still don’t know if he believes it, but at least the concept has been drummed into his head.

You are not the center of the Universe. I suppose we all know this in our heads, but it’s hard to feel it in our hearts. Because, from our perspective, we ARE the center of the universe. We see everything with our own eyes and we process it with our own brains. Our primary concern is self-preservation. Every one of us is self-absorbed. Some, moreso than others, of course. And it can be hard to get beyond that, particularly in our American culture where we’re all about proving our self-worth by comparing and competing and dominating everyone and everything around us. But, you know, there are also parts of the world where community is valued above individualism. For example, in Africa a core value is what they call ubuntu, which means, I am who I am because of who we are together.

Well, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to us that the teachings of Jesus reflect more of an African mindset than an American one. And in John 17 we see a good example of that. Here’s the context. Jesus gathers with his disciples in an upper room. He washes their feet and shares a Passover meal with them. He knows the end is almost here, so he gives them some final instructions, including the new commandment that they love one another in the same way he has loved them. And then he has a private conversation with God. This is right before he is arrested. John doesn’t give us anything about Jesus praying while his disciples dose off. We don’t read about his pleas before God to spare him of the ordeal that is before him. Instead, we read about Jesus praying while his disciples eavesdrop. And
he is not praying for himself. He’s praying for THEM. And not just them. He’s also praying for US.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”

Father Richard Rohr writes that there is a perennial philosophy that recognizes again and again in different religions and in different ways and with different words “that 1) there is a Divine Reality substantial to the world of things, 2) there is an inner compatibility and coherence between humans and God, and 3) the goal of human existence is quite simply union with that (Divine) Reality.”

So, unity with God is a big thing for all religions. And that’s what Jesus is praying for here. But he puts a different twist on the finding-unity-with-God theme. He describes the oneness that he has with the Father, and prays for that same oneness with his followers and himself. And with his followers and the Father. And with his followers and one another. It’s not all about me and God.

It reminds me of something that I always talk about when I explain the meaning of Holy Communion. When we participate in this holy meal, there is a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension to what we’re doing. The vertical - we are experiencing oneness with God. The horizontal – we are experiencing oneness with one another. When you put the two together, the vertical and the horizontal, you get a cross. That’s a wonderful visual image of what’s happening at Holy Communion, and for the sake of simple clarity, it works. But it’s also very two-dimensional, and the oneness we experience through Holy Communion is a lot more complicated than that. As is the oneness we experience with God in our lives. There is a mystical depth to it that I can’t begin to get my head around.

But here’s what I can grab onto. And that’s that in many places in the gospels, and in many ways, Jesus saw an organic connection between the unity we have with God and the unity we have with one another. Love of God,love of self, and love of others are interwoven so closely that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Of course, that’s challenging thinking for self-absorbed people.

What? You mean, Jesus is not my personal Savior? I can’t tuck Jesus into my pocket and take him to work with me?  You mean God hasn’t been created in my image and God doesn’t hate all the same people I hate? You mean, God isn’t just sitting around waiting to hear me tell him what I want him to do for me, like a genie in a bottle? You mean, the universe doesn’t revolve around me?

Part of what it means to be created in the image of God is to be created for relationship. To be created for oneness with something outside ourselves. Faith is about relationship. Relationship with God, yes. And Jesus teaches us that our relationship with God includes our relationship with all who are in relationship with God. And relationship with all that was created by God. Because God is in all and through all. And God is a God of relationship. Just as there is a oneness between the persons of the Trinity, there is a oneness with us.

Sometimes, we can see evidence of the unity Christ prayed that the world would have. This past week, on the radio I heard a woman in Richmond, Virginia named Martha Mullen. When she learned that not one cemetery in Massachusetts or its surrounding states would allow the body of the Boston bomber to be buried there, she took a bold step. In an act of great compassion, she went to work and found a place for the body to be laid to rest. Of course, the entire nation seems to be furious with her, especially the people who live in the little community in Virginia where the small cemetery is located. Whatever was she thinking? When she was interviewed on the phone, she explained that she wasn’t the only person who helped with the arrangements. “It was an interfaith effort,” she said. “Basically because Jesus says love your enemies.”

That’s where the unity that Jesus prays for will get you! You’ll start to do all kinds of crazy, compassionate things in the world. And the world will hate you for it. That may be one of the reasons why we have a natural inclination to resist it so much.  

Because, let’s be honest, Christians have had problems with unity from the very beginning. The testimony we have from those who wrote the New Testament repeatedly tells us about disruptions, arguments and factions within the Church. And we know that’s still true for the Church today.  

Once a church council was divided about if they should stand in honor of the Gospel or sit in humility. So the pastor went to the nursing home in town to ask the oldest member. He asked "Is it traditional for us to stand for the Gospel?" and the old man said , "No." The pastor said "Then sitting must be our tradition" and the old man said, "Nope." The frustrated pastor asked "Then what is it? We have been fighting about this for so long." And the old man replied, "Ah yes, now there is our tradition."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about this reality in his book, Life Together. He says that Christian community is a “wish dream.” The harmony we long for is impossible. And we shouldn’t become disillusioned when the reality of the faith community doesn’t match our expectations. But instead, it’s the reality of our resentments and our bickering and our failures that helps us to see more clearly what Christ has done for us. Christ died for us, with all our wants, our struggles, our hurts, even when we hurt one another. In our differences, the glory of God that Jesus prays about in John 17 truly shines, because God’s glory shows itself most completely through forgiveness. His glory is best experienced among those who can face their own faults and recognize their need for the God of unconditional love and mercy. It follows that they will extend that same forgiveness to others. And is there anything that strengthens our bonds with one another like giving and receiving forgiveness? When you look at it that way, you may even wonder if God didn’t make the Christian Church cantankerous by design.

Maybe when Jesus prays for the unity of his people in every time and place, he’s not praying that we all put our arms around each other in a big circle and sing “Kum Ba Ya.” And maybe he’s not praying that we work really hard at getting along so that some day we might achieve the unity he’s praying about. For these words of Jesus are not a part of his final instructions to his disciples. That speech is over. Here he’s not telling us to make it happen; he’s asking God to make it happen. And I have to believe that God honored his prayer. That the unity Jesus prayed for is already here. It’s God’s gift to us, a gift we celebrate every time we gather around the altar for the meal of Christ’s body and blood. Our unity with God and one another and all creation may not look the way we expected it to. We may not even recognize it when it is in, with, and under everything we experience. But we’re a part of it. Unity was Christ’s prayer for us, and unity is God’s gift to us. We can devote a lot of time and energy toward undermining it or we can live into the gift that is ours. Perhaps the first step is the hardest. That’s acknowledging that the Universe does not revolve around you.

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