Mystery, Myth, Manifesto – Jesus’ Life as a Sacrament
The Wisdom Jesus Part 3 of 4
Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, & Mark 1:29-39
Sunday, February 4, 2018 – The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
This morning we continue with part 3 of a 4 part series, exploring the ideas in the book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming the Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault. We hope that the series might interest some in picking up the book itself and there is a small group that has been meeting Thursday mornings to discuss the ideas in more details.
Our first two instalments have focused on reading Jesus as a teacher of a wisdom path, a self-emptying or “kenotic” love, a descending path of spirituality and solidarity, that de-centres the ego operating system and invites a non-dual, unitive consciousness.
This morning’s reflection, explores the section of the book entitled “The Mysteries of Jesus” in which Bourgeault looks at how Jesus’ life (as we encounter it in the text of the Gospels in the New Testament) is itself a teaching, but beyond a teaching, how his life can also be understood as sacrament, which Bourgeault explains:
“Jesus’ life…is a sacrament: a mystery that draws us deeply into itself and, when rightly approached, conveys an actual spiritual energy empowering us to follow the path that his teachings have laid out.” (pg. 91)
I think subtlety here is important, because depending on how we read this it could sound like she is claiming that Christians have access to a spiritual energy unavailable to any other faith or non faith, which isn’t her goal at all.
Bourgeault is reading Jesus as a spiritual teacher, and a spiritual event, and therefore the spiritual path that follows from his life and teaching as unique as opposed to singular, a fine but important distinction when we seek to explore the Christian Tradition as offering universal and inclusive gifts, and being embodied fulsomely in a pluralistic context—which in itself is an interesting discussion for another time.
This section of the book looks at the events of four moments in Jesus’ story, contained in the Christianity’s major feasts —the Incarnation (Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany), The Passion and Crucifixion (Lent and Holy Week) and the Resurrection (Easter—which I always like to remind us is a season, not a single day).
If you’re familiar with the Communion Liturgy often used here at Knox-Met, you might recall the line in which we proclaim “the mystery of faith” followed by speaking or singing “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.
It’s worth taking a few moments and unpacking the term mystery before we go further.
Bourgeault wrote about “a mystery that draws us deeply into itself…and conveys a spiritual energy” which is very different than something that, by its nature (or sometimes seemingly purposefully) is hidden or obfuscated, and there are many ways that the Christian Tradition has picked things up in this way, especially when it has become tied with power and control, or set itself up as holding exclusive access to truth/salvation. In such expressions declaring something a mystery is to shroud it, and discourage deep questioning, which maintains the necessity for a priestly caste that can interpret or administrate on behalf of those who can’t.
In a wisdom understanding, mystery is accessible, not something that cannot be understood or questioned, but something, to use Richard Rohr’s explanation, that can be infinitely understood—not something that can be grasped and mastered to offer a certain person or group advanced or privileged standing—the saved, the purified or so on—but opens to anyone who will engage with it, a never ending path of contemplation, and potential transformation, because it is less about objective truth, meant to support one system over another, and instead about personal and communal transformation—it is about wonder and engagement not mastery and possession.
Bourgeault hints at this: “My hope is to move beyond…theological and critical-historical explanations in order to follow the living mystical thread that will allow us to appropriate each one of these mysteries as food for the journey.” (pg. 92)
One sermon does not give us time to explore all four, and since we are within the season of Epiphany, following from Christmas and Advent, we’ll spend some time pondering Incarnation from this perspective.
Incarnation is the Christian idea that God (Spirit) becomes flesh, particularly in Jesus of Nazareth, but also generally in all physical things.
“If you were to imagine the great world religions like the colours of a rainbow, each one witnessing in a particular way to some essential aspect of divine fullness, Christianity would [be] incarnation—the vision of God in full solidarity with the created world, fully at home within the conditions of finitude, so that form itself poses no impediment to divinity” (pg. 94)
Now it’s worth noting that despite what Bourgeault suggests, that Christianity, throughout many points in history, and in many expressions today, actually (and ironically) sets itself up as anti-physical, interested in the spirit/soul and not the body, interested in heaven not earth/matter, and interested in eternity not time/finitude.
To this, Bourgeault (and many others) will deconstruct the oft held idea that Christianity presents a solution to a problem of sin or fall of the world and the human person—maybe you’ve encountered an expression of the Tradition that holds this idea at its centre?
When Scripture declares that God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…it is read in many contexts as—the world is messed up, human sin (originally committed in a literal historical Garden of Eden by a literal/historical Adam and Eve and now hardwired into every individual) is the cause, but God still feels quite fondly about this world and so a massive PLAN B is pulled out, and Jesus (God’s literal child) is conscripted into becoming human to solve the problem of sin.
I remember being a 20 something evangelical and having a friend at University suggest to me, “it seems that your faith system, proposes a solution to a problem that only your faith system sees as issue and then judges other faiths based on not solving that particular problem—doesn’t that strike you as a bit too convenient?”
I don’t mean to be glib here, and of course certain expressions of Christianity arrived at understanding through an actual set of philosophic/theological/historical events which we don’t have time to unpack, but hopefully this offers us a place to work from.
What if, Bourgeault suggests, incarnation is not about fixing an issue of sin/fallenness: “instead of a cosmic course-correction, this other approach envisions the steady and increasingly intimate revelation of divine love along a trajectory that was there from the beginning…our created universe is a vast mirror, or ornament, through which divine potentiality —beautiful fathomless, endlessly creative—projects itself into form in order to realize fully the depths of divine love” (pg. 95)
What if, Incarnation is suggesting, and inviting us into a deep, contemplative experience of understanding and experiencing the world/universe/time/the human body, and mortality, not as the setting for a theological drama, and not as a shadow of a truer reality that exists on another plane, and not in need of fundamental redemption in and of itself, but that the world/universe/time/the human body, and our mortality are in fact divine potentiality projected into form to realize fully the depths of divine love.
Again, as I have been saying throughout this series, this is not a suggestion of moral relativism, but I believe there is a deep ethical call in here, and an acknowledgement at once of fundamental goodness, while naming and confronting, personal and societal, and even pan-social acts of destruction and degradation of the planet and species, and of human communities and individual bodies, through violence, and economic/social exploitation (which we can explore more fully another time), in fact this imagining of Incarnation calls for a deep ethic of interconnectivity because here Jesus is not the only incarnate one, but polluted ecosystems and impoverished communities, villages bombed to rubble and human bodies shouted at and beaten are all divine potentiality projected into form to realize fully the depths of divine love.
This plane of reality then isn’t a training ground for a heavenly eternity, and it’s not a shadowy expression of a purer reality, and if we take the lead of physics and mystic religion, it’s also not nihilism, because if, to massively over simplify theoretical physics, matter is condensed energy, isn’t this also a declaration of Incarnation?
But instead of there being a veil between one realm and the next, we’re talking about a matter of density, and at the level of density where we exist, we bump into tables, stub our toes, but also, human bodies degrade over time, decisions are made and we cannot unmake them, some paths are chosen, others are not.
All of this is countered in the idea of eternity which to many Christian paths is the goal or the truer, truth. But what is Incarnation is suggesting that it isn’t.
Bourgeault uses the term constriction, gravity, mortality, time, and she writes:
“I believe that this constriction is a sacrament and we have been offered a divine invitation to participate in it.
In order to become known to another, we must take the risk of living that person, and this includes the real possibility of rejection and the even more painful prospect of heartbreak if the beloved is lost to us. It is difficult to risk love in a world so fragile and contingent. And yet, the greater the gamble of self-disclosure, the more powerful the intimacy and the more profound the quality of devotion revealed.
Could it be like this for God as well?
Could it be that this earthly realm, no in spite of but because of its very density and jagged edges, offers precisely the conditions for the expression of divine love that could become real in no other way?” (pg. 99)
In the United Church’s Song of Faith there is a line:
We can accept our mortality and finitude, not as a curse,
but as a challenge to make our lives and choices matter.
Bourgeault builds on this:
“Right here and now we are in the process of speaking into being the revelation of God’s most hidden and intimate name…the most productive orientation for our time here is not to focus on how quickly we can get back to our spiritual homeland, but to give ourselves fully to the divine intimacy being ventured here and now” (pg. 101)
So then every moment is Incarnation, and we are invited to join a process of speaking into being divine potentiality.
Acts of beauty, compassion and justice, profoundly beautiful art and music, then is not revealing some other realm that we hope we might one day inhabit, but about speaking into being the divine potential of this realm.
To close then, a super quick analysis of our reading of Mark—Jesus healing Peter’s Mother-in-law, is not a story of a singular Incarnate one, sent from heaven, walking among fallen humans, but the whole story is Incarnation.
The mercy and compassion, shown between the characters just as much as miraculous healing, is a speaking into being of divine potential of divine love.
It’s also worth mentioning that when Peter’s Mother-in-law is healed and the text states that the fever left her, and she began to serve them, we might imagine this as an unfair moment in which she is not given a moment to convalesce, but hops up and makes the boys sandwiches.
The timeline of the book of Mark is dense and compressed, and likely is meant to be read slightly more spaciously, but also the phrase “serve them” needs to be unpacked, “them” isn’t really there in the Greek versions this translated from, this is an assumption of those who publish English version of the Bible, and “serve” is in Greek from diakonia from which we get Deacon or Diaconal, a form of Minister, which connoted leadership in the emerging community when Mark is written.
She began to be a minister, likely not serving Peter and his pals some snacks, but remember how the next portion sees scores of sick and inflicted people come looking for healing, her ministry is perhaps the administration of this, and perhaps when Jesus and his band leaves, she goes with them, a leader in their fledgling community, or stays and continues this ministry to the sick that began in her home.
This is one of the first of many hints throughout Mark that it was the women of Galilee who would be the leaders in the first decades after Jesus’ death in this movement that will eventually push them to the periphery—but that is a discussion for another day.
We’ve covered a lot of ground here some of it quite complex, maybe mysterious, hopefully in the sense of inviting further engagement and not obfuscating. As always I am always up for deeper discussion, questions and pushback whether in person over coffee or at the Thursday morning group, or in response to the sermon on Facebook or via email. We end this series next week exploring practices through which this wisdom path is embodied and engaged, individually and communally.
We can accept our mortality and finitude, not as a curse, but as a challenge to make our lives and choices matter.
We are divine potentiality projected into form to realize fully the depths of divine love, in the process of speaking into being the revelation of God’s most hidden and intimate name.
And in life, in death, in life beyond death. God is with us. We are not alone.