There’s a story about St. Peter standing at the Pearly Gates acting as gatekeeper. Peter’s job was to check to make sure that everyone who entered heaven merited being there. A man who had just died appeared at the gates. Peter began addressing his screening questions of the man checking off his long list of requirements before opening the gate to let the man into heaven. Just as the new recruit was being ushered through the gates he paused and said to Peter that he had expected Jesus to meet him at the gates of heaven. ‘Ah yes,’ Peter said, ‘about Jesus, he’s at the back of heaven helping people over the fence.
The excerpt from the Gospel of John that we heard today is the conclusion of the story of Nicodemus who visited Jesus at night in the cover of darkness. Nicodemus was a Pharisee – a leader of the Jewish community – who wanted to know more about Jesus but did not want his peers to know about his interest and exploration of Jesus’ teachings.
Toward the end of the story of Nicodemus, John plays on the theme of darkness and light by explaining that those who follow Jesus, the “true light”, walk in the light of God while those who do not follow Jesus walk in darkness.
To our modern United Church ears, and sensibilities, John’s sentiments sound judgmental and exclusive. We, who see Jesus’ ministry as being inclusive, justice-seeking and loving, have difficulties with the exclusive nature of many of the claims in John’s Gospel. However, it is important for us to remember that when John recorded his account of the life and ministry of Jesus that his community of faith was in “survival mode”, facing hardship and persecution for being followers of Jesus.
Loren Mead, author of the book, The Once and Future Church, says,
“The early church was conscious of itself as a faithful people surrounded by an hostile environment to which each member was called to witness to God’s love in Christ. They were called to be evangelists, in the biblical sense of the word – those who bear good news. Their task was to carry into a hostile world the good news of healing, love and salvation.” (Alban Institute Publication, pg. 10, 1991)
A commentary that I read this week by the Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm says the:
“Background for John’s gospel was one of conflict; the Jewish Christians were very likely dealing with the pain of having been thrown out of their synagogues – having been cut off from their families, their friends, the very foundation and center of their lives. When you experience that kind of painful rejection, it’s easy to fall into a way of thinking that is oppositional, that falls into looking at everybody in terms of whether they are for us or against us. That seems to have been precisely what was going on with the people for whom John’s Gospel was written. And it led them to believe some things that may have been helpful for them in order to reinforce their sense of identity, but when transferred into our day and time can result in some pretty ugly exclusion. But we shouldn’t let that obscure the gems of truth found in this text. It clearly affirms God’s unconditional love for the whole world.” (http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.ca/2012/03/practicing-john-313-21-1-many-of-you.html)
If we can look beyond the judgmental tone, found in some places in John’s Gospel, we can easily see many stories of welcome and inclusivity. A couple of these stories that come easily to mind are Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well and Jesus Feeding the Multitude. In the latter story, Jesus didn’t ask if the people in the crowd were Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor – he simply fed them food for the body and for their hungering spirits. And, if we look beneath the judgmental tone of today’s gospel reading we can see themes of light and love that are essential and recurrent in John’s account. John emphasizes that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love in the world. Jesus is the light of God’s love that illuminates the world and sets people free of prejudice and oppressive forces. These two themes of light and love are inextricably linked in the Gospel of John.
It is Jesus who encourages others to see beyond the human constructs of cultural, religious and economic divisions to an inclusive vision of God’s commonwealth. Love, as exemplified by Jesus, means facing the real-life challenges of everyday life with an attitude that proclaims that we’re all in this life together – lets make sure that everyone is included and valued. Old divisions and hatreds are discarded and love is the new standard that will govern people’s lives. This kind of love, according to Jesus, is rooted and grounded in God. In essence, Jesus said that all we have to remember to live in God’s way is to:“…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12: 30-31)
As Christians, we’ve heard these words so often that it’s easy to miss how radical and transformative this kind of barrier breaking love can be and what a difference it can make in the lives of individuals and in the world.
This past week I’ve been reminded of people of faith who have been motivated by love to act in ways that improve the lives of others at the risk of their own health and safety. The first that comes to mind is Kailash Satyarthi, a Hindu man in India whose mission it is to work for children’s rights and the eradication of the exploitation of children. Many years ago Satyarthi denounced the caste system that relegates some to poverty and untouchable status and some to elite status. He discarded his last name that gave him social status and chose the name Satyarthi which means “truth-teller”. Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay, were co-recipients of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for their advocacy for children.
Jean Vanier is another person I was reminded of because of an article from the Canadian Press that was printed in the Daily Bulletin this past week (March 12, 2015). In 1964, Jean Vanier created the first L’Arche community in France where he lives to this day. Vanier will be presented with the Templeton Prize this coming May. The Templeton Prize “honours a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works.” In an official statement in response to being chosen for this honour Vanier said,
“Before being Christians or Jews or Muslims, before being Americans or Russians or Africans, before being generals or priests, rabbis or imams, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are all human beings with hearts capable of loving.”
Authentic love that breaks down barriers is transformative and life-changing. Even in the darkest of places and experiences, love can offer light to guide the way to a different way of being. The most powerful example of this that I have personally witnessed happened when I was working on the social ministry component of my theological education. Practical experience in a social ministry setting was a requirement and I spent one afternoon a week for eight months with the chaplain’s office at the Nanaimo Correctional Centre. The people I met, and the experiences I had, during that time opened my eyes to aspects of life that I had never experienced in my own sheltered life. One young aboriginal man, whom I’ll call John, stands out in my memory because of his intense anger and cynicism. I soon learned that John had good reason to be angry. John had grown up in poverty with alcoholic parents. He’d suffered physical abuse and had experienced the traumatic effects racism as a daily reality. I don’t know why John wanted to meet with me and I certainly found it challenging to be in a small room with someone who exuded so much anger. John did not have anything good to say about any of the prison guards. According to him the guards were all cruel and hateful tormentors who treated the inmates like the scum of the earth. I had met a few guards who seemed to have that kind of attitude but it seemed to me that most were genuinely caring individuals who wanted the prisoners to succeed and turn their lives around in a positive way. I gently mentioned to John that surely there were a few good people who were prison guards. His first reaction was to emphatically say, “NO!” and then with a slight hesitation he said, “Yes, there is one” and he proceeded to tell me about a female guard who was consistently nice to him; always smiling and friendly. He said incredulously, “It doesn’t matter how much attitude I throw at her she always treats me with kindness and respect.” I paused for a moment taking that information to heart and then I told John that I believe that love is stronger that hatred. A look of complete skepticism came over his face and I half expected him to tell me where to go and how to get there but after a long moment of silence he said, “I think you’re right.” I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised when he said this but in that brief moment I saw hope for a different reality for John. I know that John had a lot of challenges to overcome but in the eight months I knew him it seemed as if something within him was coming alive and that he was being transformed by the power of love and hope.
Sometimes, in our ordinary every day lives, and in the exceptional challenges that we face as individuals and as people of faith, we are reminded of the light of God’s love in simple, persistent and profound ways.
And so we pray…
O Shining Light, we give thanks for the light of this day, for the light of eternal love, and for the light of your grace in our lives. Shine through us, we pray, that we may share the light of your love with others. Amen
(Living the Christ Life, pg. 90, by Mangan, Wyse, and Farr, Wood Lake Books, 2001)