Sunday, April 14, 2013

Nothing To Brag About: An Ordinary Love For An Ordinary Life

Today’s gospel lesson is hands down my favorite
         resurrection appearance in the Bible.
Partly, it’s the context.
John has the appearance to Mary Magdalene,
         then to all the disciples,
         then to doubting Thomas.
And there it stops with Thomas’ conversion.

We have the thrilling conclusion – a conversion from doubt to belief.
John explains the purpose of the book and says “the end.”
The curtain comes down. The credits are rolling.
Then John runs back on stage and says
         “Wait! Wait! There’s something else!”
Then we have this story added on like an afterthought.

Here’s what’s going on:
In John, we don’t see much of the human side of Jesus.
Someone said, in John’s gospel, Jesus’ feet never quite
         touch the ground.
The religion in John is about believing your way into a mystical union
--believing in something too mysterious to express.
Only near the end, in Jesus’ farewell discourse, does love come up.
And the love Jesus commands is “agape” – a spiritual love
         that is absolutely unconditional 
-- which I would be entirely for
– if only I were capable of it.
My capacity for love is more humanly flawed.
People have to be pretty lovable for me to even put up with them.

In a word, it’s a pretty lofty religion we got going in John.
If you want spiritual, this is spirituality on steroids.
John’s community practiced that mystical brand of Christianity
         in Ephesus for several decades.

But reality kept tripping up their spirituality.
They had problems aplenty – mostly internal strife.
They fought like cats and dogs while preaching agape,
         unconditional love all the while.

So how do we make sense of a faith
         when the people practicing it persist in being
 all too human?
As John’s community  struggled with their failures
in the art of spiritual love,
         they remembered one of the old stories.
They remembered another appearance of the Risen Lord
         that hadn’t seemed important before – because it didn’t fit.
But now, it became so important,
         they added a chapter to their gospel.
They added this story.

In the previous Resurrection Appearances,
         Jesus was even more elevated and spiritual
         than he had been before Good Friday.
He walked through walls.
He invoked the Holy Spirit on the disciples.
He told Thomas his belief might be good enough
but it was still second rate.
He was loftier than ever – and he was always pretty lofty.
But this last appearance is different. Jesus is different.
He shows up unassumingly on the beach.
From his manner of speech and actions,
he seems like a grizzled old fisherman.
I suspect that’s why they don’t’ recognize him.
He offers fishing advice as fisherman do.

The disciples finally recognizes him and rushed to shore
to worship their Lord.
But instead of doing something spiritual,
         Jesus has built a charcoal fire.
Instead of saying something profound
         about “I live in God so if you live in me you will live in God
                  and God will live in you and will all be one as the Father
                  and I are one” or some such thing, he says,
         “Let’s cook up some of those fish and have breakfast.”

This is a very human Jesus – a Christ of the ordinary.
This disconcertingly normal appearance of Jesus cooking breakfast
         over a charcoal fire as poor people do all over this earth
         is where we get our Anglican sense of “the sacred ordinary.”

In his classic essay, The Anglican Way, Dean James Fenhagen
         described our pedestrian spirituality as “holy worldliness”
         and “worldly holiness.”
The father of Humanistic Psychology, Abraham Maslow, said:
         “The sacred is in the ordinary . . . . It is to be found
         in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, one’s friends and family,
         in one’s own backyard.”

Much of what goes by the name “spirituality” these days
         is not like that at all.
It is pretentious.
The “spiritual” people are better than the ordinary clods,
         way better than the ordinary religious clods in churches.

Much of what goes by the name of “spirituality” these days
         is escapist.
Do a special technique taught by an exotic person with an accent
         and imagine you are in some pristine place of peace and solace.
It will take your mind off the messiness of reality.
You won’t have to think about unpleasant things
         like hunger in Haiti, gang violence in America,
                  or the loneliness of elderly people in Las Vegas.

But Anglican spirituality is the spirituality of today’s lesson.
It is pedestrian spirituality.
It cooks breakfast.
It even washes the dishes.

One of the great classics in Christian spirituality
         is The Practice of the Presence of God
         by Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite monk
         whose monastery job was cook, waiter, and bus boy.
He practiced the presence of God while keeping house.

This pedestrian spirituality of ours does not make us better
         than anyone else.
It is too ordinary.
It calls for an ordinary way of life – nothing to brag about.
It is a religion lived out in ordinary relationships
         like the relationship between Jesus and Peter.

After breakfast, Jesus took Peter aside.
They needed a little reconciling after Peter had denied Jesus
         three times in Caiaphas’s courtyard.
So Jesus said,
         “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
But the word he used for love was agape.
It meant, “Simon do you have the most unconditional,
highly spiritual love for me of any of the disciples?”
But Peter when replied, “Lord you know that I love you.”
He used the word phileo. It was an ordinary word, not so spiritual.
“I love you as a friend.”
Jesus said, “Ok, then feed my lambs.”

Then Jesus gave Peter another chance.
He asked again, “Simon do you agape me?”
But again Peter failed to rise to the spiritual challenge.
He said, “Lord you know that I phileo you.”
So Jesus said, “Alright, tend my sheep.”

The third time, Jesus changed the question.
He met Peter on his own human level.
         “Simon, do you phileo me?”
All he asked now was a human love,
         a human friendship, the kind of thing
         an ordinary bloke like Peter or I
                  might be able to achieve.
And Peter said, “Yes, Lord, you know I phileo you.
I love you as a common man loves his friend.
I am not an enlightened saint but I can do that.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

The good news is that an ordinary, fallible human love
         is all we have to do.
The bad news is the sheep and lambs part.
An ordinary human love won’t elevate us to a higher plane
than ordinary people.
Quite the opposite:
it will get us mixed up with all those other ordinary people
         in the world who need us as sheep need shepherds.

Someone said,
“The problem with inviting Jesus into your life
         is that he brings his friends.”
And so it is.
Loving Jesus in our little human way
         doesn’t make us the least bit special
but it will entangle our lives with an odd lot of other folks.
Jesus will get us mixed up with all the wrong kind
         of people.
Worse yet, we may even wind up caring about th