I preached the following sermon on Sunday March 18th, 2012. It speaks I think to the centrality of the mystical element in the gospel of St. John. There are references to contraction, the sacrifice of the self, what precisely is heaven, and Bill Cosby (yes that Bill Cosby).
The sermon is based on The Gospel of John, Chapter 3 verses 1-21. You can read the biblical text I'm preaching from, here. I suggest reading it first.
Click for the audio of the sermon.
The text of the sermon follows:
Our gospel reading this morning begins in the middle of a very important passage–the whole passage and story is really necessary to grasp what is going on this reading. So let’s step back a second and set the scene. Our overall story starts at the beginning of Chapter 3 in John’s Gospel. A teacher named Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Now in John’s Gospel characters who are introduced at night are living in a state of not only physical darkness but also spiritual darkness. Conversely characters who arrive during the daytime in John’s Gospel are ones who are going to have the lightbulb go off above their heads. So since Nicodemus comes at night, we know he is set up from the beginning as someone who is not going to get it.
Jesus says to Nicodemus (verse 3): “Truly I tell you, no can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born?”
So Jesus is talking about spiritual rebirth and Nicodemus asks about literal second physical birth. Jesus is speaking at a transcendental level and Nicodemus hears at a gross level and therefore he misunderstands completely that which Jesus is pointing towards.
Noticing the subtle interplay of these two levels is a key act to entering the world of the Gospel of John. In this story we have a fundamental duality: delusion (or ignorance) versus Enlightenment.
No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
Jesus is clear-we need to be reborn in order to be in the kingdom of God. But how is this rebirth supposed to take place?
Jesus goes on to say:
What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Notice again the two levels. Flesh and Spirit.
Being born from above and being born of the Spirit are used interchangeably by Jesus. This is an extremely important point. Heaven is not a place. Heaven is a state of being in John’s gospel. It is a way of being, a state of reality one can be in this life.
If one is born of the Spirit in this life, then one is in heaven. One will see the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Heaven is the reality of God not a place. So being born “from above” (i.e. “from heaven”) does not literally mean a physical place up above us. Being born “from above” is a symbol for mystical awakening. Above means transcendent not literally up.
Something that is transcendent cannot be understood by the dualistic rational mind. The only way to see the transcendent is to have our the little ‘s‘ spirit within us birthed by The Spirit (Capital S). The Holy Spirit of God.
No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
Seeing the kingdom of God is another name for Enlightenment–for total Conscious Awakening. Seeing the kingdom is experiencing the kingdom.
The Kingdom is that which transcends and yet includes all of arising reality. To see the kingdom is the state of Conscious Awakening into the Eternal Reality of God, ever-present.
Now it may seem at first like saying what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit is a tautology. It doesn’t seem to be saying anything. But if we keep in mind this two layer effect in John’s Gospel we see that Jesus is talking about two different worlds: the world of flesh and the world of Spirit.
Now historically that division between the world of flesh and the world of Spirit has been misunderstood to be a duality between body (flesh, considered evil) and the soul (spiritual and non-bodily). And that mistake has caused great pain to be people by emphasizing anti-bodily spiritualities.
So don’t hear the flesh in John as the body. The flesh is the body/mind/heart/being contracted or lost in duality. The spirit is the body/mind/heart/being open in God.
What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
These are two different worlds. They have different languages, different experiences, and different worlds of seeing. And you can’t translate from one to the other. If we are in the world of the flesh we cannot see or understand the world of Spirit.
And Jesus will take this discourse one step further. Verse 13:
“No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
I said that heaven is not a place but a state, a reality in John’s Gospel. Here we see why. John’s Gospel yet again plays this trick, this reversal on us. Heaven is assumed to be upwards. But Jesus says (in his paradoxical wisdom), that they only way “up to heaven” is to “descend from heaven”. The only way ‘up’ is by going ‘down’.
The only way to eternal life is by death.
And then we finally come to our gospel reading this morning. As Bill Cosby once said “I told you that story so I could tell you this one.”
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
Jesus is here talking about his coming crucifixion.
The way to ascend into the reality of heaven, of God’s transcendental Loving Being, is by dying, is by the sacrifice of the self. In the Christian tradition this is known as Kenosis–the loving submission of Christ to embrace the fullness of the human condition: fear, death, abandonment, joy, relationship, sorrow. God in Christ has felt all of these. None of them can separate us from God.
We must descend into the human condition in order to ascend, in order to transcend.
This is God’s Love. This is the Christian path.
Then we get the famous (infamous?) John 3:16
For God so loved the world that God gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
I hope it’s clearer now why we had to look so much at the Nicodemus story to understand this passage. It’s the direct flow through of the conversation with Nicodemus about being reborn, about what truly is heaven, particularly since the verse is so often treated in isolation.
Jesus says we have to be born, or reborn, from above in order to enter the Kingdom. Nicodemus asks how we can re-enter our mother’s womb and be reborn. And Jesus replies that the way to be reborn is to die.
None of this makes any sense from the level of the rational mind (remember: that which is born from the flesh is flesh, that which is born from the Spirit is spirit–and never the twain shall meet.)
The only way to make any sense of any of this is from the level of the Spirit. From the transcendental mind and heart. In that realm, we see clearly and perfectly the absolute wisdom of what Jesus is saying. Eternal Life comes through Death. We die to the illusory, delusional self, we rise to the Spirit.
And then continuing with the passage, verse 17:
Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him…But this is the judgment: that light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.
Light has come into the world but people have loved the darkness rather than light.
And here we come to the Beautiful Tragedy of the Gospel of John. We feel here the Divine Sorrow of The Deity. God desires to Save the world (not to condemn it). God enters the story and accepts fully the human condition. And it is that very act that reveals the hearts of all. What is not designed as an act of condemnation becomes nevertheless the revelation of what is. A Judgment.
This world is not as it should be. There is cruelty, apathy, injustice, hatred, prejudice. The poor cry out. The earth cries out. We know this and it kills our souls.
And yet there is also the possibility of awakening fully, bodily, to the Reality of Heaven while alive in this life, which is pure joy and peace, total freedom and liberation.
So we come again to these two levels: the Light and the Darkness, The Flesh and the Spirit, The Heavenly and The Hellish.
And what are we supposed to do with these two worlds?
Many traditions, including certain strains of Christianity, advocate fleeing the world for the safety of the Transcendental. While it might be easy to put such groups down, it would be better to be honest about how tempting and seductive that way really is.
The Christian path instead argues that from the heavenly state of wakefulness we must embrace the entirety of earthly existence. All of these must be enlightened, they must be loved into the light. For by themselves, as the reading says will try to hide,
“because they hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (verse 20)
This is the path Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John lays out.
1) We must be born from above or we are forever lost in the darkness
2) That birth happens not through an escape hatch out of this world but rather through the descent into the full embrace of the human condition.
3) In so doing we will come up against all of the forces–within us and outside in the world–that do not want to be brought into the Light.
4) We must descend, with love, even further still into those resistant areas.
5) Then we will be from the Spirit.