Transformative Church

17 May 2015
Seventh Sunday of Easter
The Sunday after the Ascension
Easter 7B (RCL)
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

When clergy read scripture, particularly in lectionary study groups, they often read first for “preachable themes.” This is understandable, given the weekly task of coming up with something to say. But to my mind, the impulse is based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of the sermon; and also a misunderstanding of the “word” of God. The need to have “something to say” conceives the sermon as a passive reception of the “word” by the congregation gathered. The preacher may indeed aim at eliciting a response, a conversion either of individual lives or the life of the community. But that conversion is received from the preaching.

In that mode, this week’s reading from the Gospel of John offers little in the way of “preachable themes;” there is no snappy line or memorable piece of narrative. It is rather heavily discursive. I think, however, a re-translation (quelle surprise) of one of John’s major themes might help shift our focus. If one translates logos as “conversation” rather than “word,” a new way of reading immediately opens (this re-translation is not mine, but Richard Valantasis’). “I have made known your name to those you gave me from the world . . . and they have kept your conversation.” And the word for “kept” means something like “held as valuable.” Set this along side a retranslation of the Prologue: In the beginning was the conversation, and the conversation was with God, and the conversation was divine. . . . And the conversation became flesh and dwelt among us.”

This makes a congregation’s encounter with Scripture an active, ongoing process. Now this passage from John begins to describe a way of life and a high calling. We, Jesus’ community, were God’s and God gave us to Jesus, who held us, and was glorified in us. Now, he is praying that God consecrate us in truth, in the same way Jesus has consecrated himself for us. We are to be set aside for God’s purposes in the world, in the same way Jesus set himself aside for God’s purposes. We are to be in the world, but not of it. The world will hate us, but Jesus will protect us from evil.

Above all, we will be sanctified in truth. John’s Gospel never lays out this truth for us, and leaves Pilate’s question to Jesus open: what is truth? But that truth will emerge from the divine conversation (the Holy Spirit will lead us in to all truth, if we hold Jesus’ conversation). And all of this leads to the vocation of the community to forgive sins. In his appearance to his disciples on the evening of the first Easter, Jesus tells his disciples, “Just as the father has sent me, so I send you,” then breathes on them and says, “receive Holy Spirit. The sins of whoever you forgive are forgiven them; the sins of whoever you retain are retained.” Precisely this authority and power makes possible the formation of community. We have the authority and power to gather in to the community of Jesus whomever we will. This may not be a preachable theme, but it is certainly an important way of life.

The Pew Research Center has just released its latest study of religious trends in America. The blogosphere is full of hand-wringing. Why are young people not coming to church? Several blogs I’ve seen suggest that they find church boring; they see church the way it is usually done as sitting passively and receiving content — preachable themes. Many, of course, identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” I suspect that people are hungry for meaningful spiritual practices. The difficulty in our age is that so many of those practices, as presented by the church, are not communal. Spiritual direction has become all too often just another therapy. Lectio divina, the Jesus prayer, walking the labyrinth — all may be personally satisfying, but they don’t seem (at first blush) world-changing.

John’s Gospel invites us to the discipline of divine conversation, which leads ultimately to the formation of the divine community, the tabernacle in which the divine word dwells: The conversation became flesh and tabernacled among us. How do we make church as world-changing, indeed as cosmic, as John calls us to be?

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