Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1).
1. “What are you looking for?” These are the first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Another way to put this would be to ask, “what is the meaning and purpose of your life.” This question of Jesus echoes the words of the ancient Hebrew philosopher Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) in his treatise “The Worse Attacks the Better.”i
Philo’s essay suggests that an authentic self in each of us seeks meaning and may find it in self-mastery, courage, piety, virtue or in other forms of goodness. But to realize truth this self has to overcome forces of illusion, distraction and fear. In short, we have to overcome the demands of our ego to have a meaningful life.
This naturally leads to another related question. What holds you back from experiencing your life as a child of God? Perhaps you are just too busy. Work demands so much more from us than it did a generation ago in the days before cell phones. Maybe you just cannot believe in a personal God who cares about you especially when you see the enormity of suffering and evil in the world. Perhaps you are afraid of being taken in or that because of what you did, you do not deserve to be God’s child.
On our Tuesday night Forum I interviewed the Buddhist teacher Timber Hawkeye. He has a little experiment for church audiences. He asks them to raise their hands if they believe in God. Then he asks them to raise their hands if they ever worry. He exclaims how can you both believe in God and worry. In my head I thought it is very easy for me to do both, even at the same time. Sometimes my words and actions clearly show that I am not believing in God very much.
The question of meaning lies at the heart of a 2022 film called Everything Everywhere All at Once. The first scene introduces us to Evelyn a constantly working Chinese immigrant who lives above her laundromat and is overwhelmed by the demands of her disapproving father’s visit, a complicated relationship with her teenaged daughter Joy and a looming tax audit.ii
Evelyn has no time for her silly husband Waymond who desperately seeks to get her attention. She has no idea that their relationship is at risk. Then at the IRS offices Evelyn discovers a connection to the multiverse. The multiverse is the fantastical idea that at every decision point in our lives the universe effectively splits in two. For instance, when Evelyn decided to marry Waymond against her father’s wishes, there came into existence a family of worlds in which she did not marry him and one in which she did.
In this scheme billions of other versions of you exist in the other universes. People in the alpha universe discovered how to switch consciousness with your other selves so that you can briefly make use of their talents in your world.
An alternate universe version of her husband tells Evelyn that out of all the other Evelyns she is the worst failure. But in the end she realizes the power of overcoming our tendency to judge and criticize so that we can continually repair and cultivate relationships. This is the meaning of our life.
2. The Gospel of John begins with a hymn about how Christ is present at the very beginning of all things, and that darkness will never overcome this light. It then describes the baptism of Jesus. The next day John tells his friends, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1). The baptizer says he knows this because he saw the spirit remain on him.
According to this account Jesus does not die as a sacrifice in our place to satisfy God (lambs were not sacrificial animals). Instead the Greek word that we translate as taking away sin is airō. It means to raise, lift up, remove and is the same word John uses for taking away the stone blocking the tomb (Jn. 20), or taking up one’s cross.
To explain who Jesus is, John does not refer to sacrifices but to the Exodus, when the Israelites were protected from the destructive powers of God by putting lamb’s blood on their doorways. They are saved so that they can be set free. God frees us from chains that prevent us from being with God and each other.
The word sin (hamartia) is singular not plural. Sin is not primarily about sex or private morality. When we say Jesus takes away sin, we mean that sin is a disease. It keeps us from caring for each other and ultimately finding fulfillment. Sin is prejudice, fear of scarcity, competition for attention, confusing people for enemies, ignoring the needs of others, not seeing the value in our own uniqueness, asserting our identity in ways that put us at odds with others, thinking we are separated from the well-being of others.
Social theorist bell hooks describes sin as the failure of love. She says, “Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs our decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise.”iii
God made us this way, with this longing. And Jesus believes in love’s promise. He invites Andrew to spend the day with him. Quickly Andrew becomes convinced Jesus is the messiah. Andrew’s brother Simon reaches the same conclusion because Jesus so thoroughly understands him. Philip responds immediately to Jesus’ invitation. Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree and Nathanael instantly reveres him.
The point is that Jesus does not present an argument for believing. Instead he offers a question, “what are you looking for?” and an invitation, “come and see.” We can do the same thing. The theologian Karl Barth writes that according to John, “the whole meaning and purpose of the mission of Jesus is to bring joy” (Jn. 16:30ff).iv We too can live in this joy but it requires that we embrace a new way of life.
3. Karl Barth also writes, “Faith is not obedience, but as obedience is not obedience without faith, faith is not faith without obedience.”v I am going to close with two remarkable stories about Christians who answered the call to come and see.
Before a huge gathering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assistant told him that there were credible threats on his life. As part of his speech that night King spoke about his own death, how he wanted no one to respond with violence. Afterwards his friend Ralph Abernathy asked if he was okay, and could not comfort him. King found himself wishing for “an honorable way out without injuring the cause.”vi
One night he came home late and slipped into bed quietly. The phone rang and an ugly voice said, “if you aren’t out of this town in three days, I’m gonna blow your brains out and blow up your house,” and hung up. King went downstairs brewed a cup of coffee and paced as he thought about all the philosophy and theology he had studied. He considered quitting. Then he sat at the kitchen table and prayed saying, “Lord I’m down here trying to do what’s right… but I’m weak now. I’m afraid. People are looking to me for leadership… [and] I have nothing left.”
Then with tears in his eyes, he felt a “presence stirring in himself.” An inner voice seemed to speak with quiet assurance saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the world. It was the voice of Jesus promising to never leave him. His trembling stopped and he felt an inner calm that he had never known before. God stopped being a kind of metaphysical category. King felt God profoundly near to him.
At Grace Cathedral we have been offering bystander training to equip ourselves to know how to confront injustice and unkindness out in the world. Alma Robinson strongly recommends these sessions. One day after the opera she was near Costco. She was calling an uber and out of the corner of her eye she could see a woman coming toward her. Alma thought she might be trying to ask for money. Since Alma did not have any, at first she tried to avoid her.
But then Alma remembered her bystander training and the instruction to lean into her discomfort. She approached the woman who asked for her phone. Instead Alma said that she would dial the number and that the woman could talk on the speaker. The woman called her mother in Minnesota. The mother felt desperately relieved to hear from her missing daughter. She asked Alma to get her medical help right away. Alma dialed 911. The ambulance arrived just as her uber got there.
The next day the woman’s mother called Alma back and told her that her daughter had been suffering from mental illness and had thrown her cell phone into the Bay, that she had been so worried about her child living on the streets but could not do anything about it until Alma had helped. She thanked Alma as a fellow mother.
What are you looking for? And what stands in the way of experiencing yourself as a child of God? In this universe we are busy, judgmental, preoccupied with failure. We sometimes feel afraid of being taken in, not always sure that we deserve good things. We believe in God and worry at the same time.
And yet Jesus promises that we can be healed of the disease that separates us from what we should love, that he can free us from the power of sin.
Perhaps we think too much about the meaning of our life. The meaning of Jesus’ life is to bring joy. He does not give us an argument for believing but an invitation to come and see.