Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Battle Within

A reflection for Easter 7B on :John 17:6-19
"I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth

A few years ago I read Elaine Pagels book, The Origin of Satan. In this book Pagels examines the human tendency to create communities with clear boundaries defining who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “acceptable” and who is “not,” in other words: “us” and “them.” Human communities have created these boundaries for eons. For example, the ancient Egyptian word for “Egyptian” translates to mean “human” – in other words anyone who was not an Egyptian was not human. The Greek word for someone who is not Greek is barbarian.

The same is true of the ancient Hebrew tradition. In most of the ancient world, the god one worshiped was the god of that particular community, if you moved you would learn to worship a new set of gods. But the Hebrews were different. They worshiped a God who went with them, wherever they went. And they established rules; laws to help them live faithfully with their God and not assimilate the religious rituals of the local community. This enabled the Hebrews to draw a clear boundary that identified them as a people of their God.

The first century Hebrew communities included both traditional Jewish people and the emerging subgroup of Jesus followers who would eventually be known as Christians - and as a result they faced a unique challenge of identity. For a generation or so these two groups lived together and worshipped together. But in the year 72 there was a brutal Roman Jewish war, which nearly annihilated all the Jewish people and destroyed their temple. The temple was the primary place of Jewish identity – the temple was where God resided. Without the temple as the locus of their faith, people were wondering where God was and how they would now know God in their lives.

Some chose to follow God in the law, the torah. Others chose to follow God as expressed in the person of Jesus, who they saw as the fulfillment of the law and torah. And, as I said, for a time these two groups were able to live in the same small communities and worship in the same home synagogues and churches.

But with increased persecution from Rome and the threat of death, each group began to define itself in distinct ways, each gained clarity in who they were, and defined their particular way of knowing God. Thus, feelings between these two groups, the emerging Christian group and redefining Jewish group, became very tense. Eventually, the larger group - the redefining Jewish faction, who were those following the torah - forced the smaller, emerging Jesus following Christian group out.

Between the violence of the Roman Jewish war, the persecutions by the Roman Emperor, and the violence that probably ensued between the redefining Jewish group and the emerging Christian group, each community forged clear boundaries of who was in and who was out. Add to this the influence of Gnosticism, a religious philosophical perspective that believed that the world and everything in it were temporary shadow figures of what was really real. The really real things existed ONLY in heaven, the things on earth were only shadow images of the real things in heaven. So, from this multi-layered violence and the influence of Gnosticism the emerging Christians came to view life as a cosmic battle between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, between good and evil, between spirit and flesh, between us and them, between the really real of heaven and the shadow of what was real as that which was on earth – and thus, everyone who was a Christian following Jesus was considered good, and everyone else was considered bad. It was this kind of apocalyptic, end of the world thinking that created the Book of Revelation and to some degree influenced the Gospel of John.

So, this is the backdrop to the Johannine community in which the Gospel we heard this morning was written. And according to Pagels, this started a process in which Christianity began to demonize “the other.” The sad reality is we’ve seen Christian communities do this through history, always with devastating effect: the crusades, slavery, the Holocaust….

Today’s Gospel highlights what has become known as dualism – and as I’ve just, said, in Christianity dualism is about light/dark, day/ night, spirit/flesh, above/below, and, to use the language of this Gospel: of this world/not of this world. In this dualistic perspective of John the things of this world are evil and things of the world to come are good. All of life is viewed as a cosmic battle between God, who is not of this world, and of Satan, who is of this world. Some early Christians believed deeply that they were literally in a battle between God and Satan for good or for evil. Some Christians today believe this same thing, two thousand years later.

Curiously enough our Gospel reading this morning is a prayer. Jesus is praying for the disciples, and through them, for us. His prayer is not intended to be one that divides human beings, one from another. Rather his prayer is one that calls us together. We are called to become united together in God’s love given to us through Christ. And we are called to live that love out in deep ways. Even in the midst of conflict the Gospel points us to see that Jesus is calling us to live as one, to live with love.

Gail Ramshaw in her book, “Treasures Old and New” states that much of the battle imagery that we hear in scripture, from Jacob wrestling with the angel to Jesus dying on the cross, is really a battle about faith. It is a battle that rages within our own inner selves as we struggle to know God in our lives and in our world. We do battle against principalities and powers that would pull us away from God, and if pretend otherwise we open ourselves up to those powers, and unwittingly allow them to rule us.

Living into the prayer that Jesus prays for us and through us points us to another aspect of the Judeo-Christian belief – we, all human beings, are made in the image of God. As such, God is everyone. The Orthodox Church acknowledges this when the priest, using incense, censes not only the icons but the members of the congregation. The incense, the presence of the Holy Spirit, salutes the image of God in everyone, and then rises up to God with that salute. Having the image of God in us does not make us God, it makes us vessels of God, the means through which God is active and alive in this world. Jesus reminds us that the battle we wage is within us, our ability or inability to allow God to work in and through us. Jesus reminds us that the way we win this battle is not through anger, hate, or excluding others, but through love.


Sherry said...

Oh just beautifully said Mompriest. Sadly, we seem to carry this kind of thinking down to the present, with our inability to heal our inter-Christian issues. There is such anomosity between faith traditions. Everyone is sure they are the "true" church and others are not. Yet I suspect most of us, the rank and file, don't waste much time on this business. Thanks for putting a historical context to our wars of good and evil in the church.

Barbara B. said...

Yes, it's good to put things in historical context. (I really like Elaine Pagels by the way!)

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