Is Not this Jesus? | A Sermon on Skepticism and Risk
My final sermon preached for the St. Michael's community in Arlington, Virginia, on August 12, 2018.
John 6:35, 41-51
I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon recently with a small group of friends from seminary. We gathered to discuss creating a colleague group that might offer us support in the year to come as we discern where we might end up after graduation.
We sat together in my friend’s home around a loaf of fresh baked bread. One of my friends, you see, is a baker. It’s not why we’re friends. But, it is a great perk. She bakes the most lovely loaves of bread - sourdough being her speciality. And, she had baked one for us. Fragrant and warm, it sat between us as we discussed futures quickly becoming present - how to stay true to our hopes, passions and visions even as we navigate the seemingly treacherous waters of transition.
You see, the transition from seminary to the land of (hopefully) paid ministry is not immune from the type of anxiety that plagues most liminal spaces. I don’t know about you, but I’ve met basically no one who enjoys hanging out in the “in between.” It feels a lot like waiting. And, waiting is, after all, counter-cultural. It looks too much like, “doing nothing.” It is, sometimes, not knowing what comes next. It is, most of the time, out of our control. Because, could we control it, we would. We’d be there all ready. And, we’d sure as heck know where there is.
There is great risk when approaching a threshold or a transition. We all feel it. It makes us very nervous. And, this risk is of more consequence than it appears to us in our fear, because we don’t see it. We think we see the risk. We see the risk of change. The risk of the unknown. We focus our eyes and energies on these and open ourselves up to an even greater risk. It is this: To avoid discomfort we allow ourselves to be trapped in normalcy, resting easy in the status quo, residents of a comfortable land with a well-worn motto, “but this is how we’ve always done it.” We stay at the threshold to reduce anxiety never crossing over. Never taking the risk.
Or, alternatively, to alleviate our discomfort we plunge headlong into the next thing. The better thing. The obvious thing. We leap over the liminal space to the familiar. We spend little time or energy in the unknown, seeking instead order, stability and certainty through our own planning and quick decision making.
If this is the risk, then here’s the rub. Regardless of how fond, or not, we are of transition, of the in-between, of life’s liminal spaces, the Biblical God is always leading us towards them. Because, says theologian Richard Rohr, “there alone - in the transition - is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. . . . It is the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.”
Jesus as written in the Gospel of John works most profoundly in liminal space. He’s calming the waters from a boat in the middle of a sea that separates one land and people from another land and people. He’s sitting in the place between hunger and plenty as he creates much from little. He’s existing in our world while also occupying another, one that is more mysterious and more real than we can imagine. The ministry of Jesus is necessarily transitional. What is old has passed away. What will come is completely unknown. Something is shifting. Nothing will ever be the same.
Of course, we know this given our vantage point. But, those who encountered Jesus in his own time felt it too. From his most committed followers to those who remained skeptical, we see few, if any, unaffected by the risk of his transitional presence in their midst.
In today’s Gospel reading, we meet people skeptical of Jesus because they could not immediately characterize him in a way that made sense: Is not this Jesus, they asked, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’
Is not this Jesus? I can only imagine their confusion at seeing one they believed they knew existing at the threshold of something mysterious, something utterly new. And, not only is he existing at this threshold, he is calling to them from it. This is a frightening invitation, and although I’d like to believe that, had I been there, I would have accepted it without hesitation, following Jesus bravely into this new world, the way I order my life now suggests that I would not have dared so greatly.
Instead, I may have been a skeptic. Is not this Jesus? Skepticism is one way - and it happens to be one of my favorite ways - to stall. It is a way to self-protect. To look engaged while standing apart, refusing to truly cross the threshold. Now, before you start wondering if Im suggesting that questions aren’t okay, know this: skepticism is a far cry from discernment. And, discernment is always about the questions: where is God in this? what would God have me do? what am I afraid of? The difference between these questions and questions of skepticism? The former truly desire an answer. The latter, the skeptics, don’t. Is not this Jesus? This is a question asked by someone who thinks they know the answer already. They don’t need, or want, to know anything else. Their question is not one of curiosity or openness. It holds no risk. No vulnerability.
I’ll admit that I fall into this pattern a lot more than I’d like. No risk. No vulnerability. Somewhere in my growing up, I got the idea that it was far preferable to point out where an idea would most certainly fail, than to open myself to the risk of an idea actually failing. That it was far preferable to miss a learning opportunity than to admit that I didn’t know something. That it was far preferable to people please than to risk people knowing me and not liking me. Of course, I know now that none of these things are preferable. And, yet, if I’m not careful, I slip into this old pattern without even noticing. And, I refused an invitation into transformational space.
Which brings me back to my friend’s living room. The companionship. The fragrance of fresh bread. The admission of fears and the open-ended questions. The dependence on others. I’ve only recently dared to live this way. It’s actually really hard for me. But in that room, on that day, I refused to think about why this group probably wouldn’t work out. I refused to self-protect by keeping my fears about the transition to come - from seminary to real world - to myself. I refused to do that thing I sometimes do - playing it cool, as if I have it all figured out. The truth is, I don’t. None of us do. And, isn’t that a gift.
St. Michael’s. I have been with you for eight weeks. And, in eight weeks time, I have met curious people. Kind people. Open people. People asking questions with their whole hearts. People acknowledging their fears. People laughing loudly and often while doing the hard work of living in community. St. Michael’s, you are living in liminal space. Congratulations. You are risk takers. Thanks be to God.
The painting above is Christ at the Sea of Galilee, Tintoretto.