Rector’s Reflection – May 3, 2015
[Somebody asked me the other day if I had given up Reflections for Easter instead of the usual giving up something for Lent. I immediately decided this was a veiled request to return to Reflections, so here it is! If that’s not what the questioner meant, sorry .]
I couldn’t resist preaching on Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, but I just couldn’t let today’s gospel go unnoticed, if for no other reason than its placement during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. You’d expect some sort of Resurrection appearance for starters, but no… this is the last night of Jesus’ life. Hours later he will be arrested, tried, and executed. He has relieved the disciples of any hope they had for earthly glory and power. He has washed all of their smelly, dirty feet… to their initial horror… as an example of the way they are to live. Jesus is saying good-bye in a speech that stretches over five chapters.
You would think, viewed through the lens of our pragmatic, get-it-done world, that Jesus would have given them a lot of straight talk… “Andrew, you do this”; “James, you do that”; “Peter, make sure you keep all the guys in line when I’m gone.”
But he doesn’t do this. He stays with the symbolic as he has throughout his ministry, at least according to John. To John the Baptist, he had been the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the bread of life and the light of the world and the good shepherd. There were many word pictures used by Jesus to indicate his relationship to the world. And this morning we hear another one: I am the true vine.
Now personally, I love these metaphors Jesus uses, but I can’t help but wonder what true Biblical literalists do with them. “I am the true vine”? Does this mean that Jesus lived his life trailing across the ground supported by little forked sticks? Did he twine himself around trees, or grow on poles? Was he trained to spread on walls or trellises? Was the Incarnation simply a divine grafting?
Like looking at a crack or a smudge on the windshield instead of gazing into the vista beyond, the problem with literalism is that it robs us of true spiritual insight. It can become absurd and trivialized. If Jesus is the “lamb of God,” does that mean he ate grass and shed wool? When he claimed, “I am the bread of life,” was his life essence pumpernickel or sourdough?
The metaphorical, as well as the literal, therefore, plays a significant role in our understanding of Scripture;. The I am sayings are useful at every level and, at their cores, they are stand-alone proclamations of the nature and the purpose of God in the Incarnation. However, whether through literalism or simply through the human propensity for making things harder than they need to be, the genius and the genuineness of Jesus’ words can be lost. When we try too hard… when we over-think… our message often becomes confused.
This confusion was caught quite succinctly by a writer a few years back who bemoaned how inarticulate our story has become. He summed up the Christian witness as he understood it as: “Jesus taught that we must become like children as small as mustard seeds that grow up and give away all their fruit to the poor until they fit through the eye of a needle so that their father will graciously welcome them home and kill the fatted goat that has been separated from the sheep which the good shepherd went looking for but was unable to find among the lost sheep of Israel and so he found a coin which he paid to the innkeeper and so there was great rejoicing in heaven for the lawyer who loved God and his neighbor and had faith the size of a camel.”