It sounds like a fairy tale, if you listen to it as though for the first time. A hero comes along, we are told, born like anyone else, but we hear that he is sent by God. More, we hear that he is himself God. It is a classic second birth story, like the duckling becoming a swan, or a girl becoming a princess, or a boy learning that he is a wizard. Then, just as our man becomes the hero we know him to be, he is killed by evil rulers, but as in any good fairy tale, he comes back to life—another second birth narrative.
So why should anyone believe that this particular fairy tale is true? Should we believe Jesus was God incarnate because people told us so?
A fair number of people do believe the gospel story simply because they were told to believe it. From the time they were children, their parents or family or friends told them it was true, and so they came to believe the gospel stories the same way they might have embraced Hindu gods or Muslim teachings had they been born into a different family or culture.
Many people do not accept any religious ideas. Some of them grew up being told a religion was true, but they deconstructed their belief system as they grew older and cast it aside, disillusioned either with crude theology or with the hypocrisy of older so-called believers. Some of them were never taught any religion at all, or were taught that it is all just hocus pocus.
To put it another way, if we only believe in God because someone told us we should, is that faith? Does faith require something more than accepting what we’ve been told as though it is, well, gospel?
Of course, there is the opposite problem, recorded by the apostle Paul: “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14) The entire history of religions is one of passing knowledge, thoughts, understanding from one person and one generation to another. “For I handed on to you…what I in turn had received….” (1 Cor 15:3)
If no one tells us the story, how can we believe it? And yet, just because someone tells us a story, is that any reason to believe it?
And what does it mean if we say we believe this gospel tale? Does it mean we insist on every detail? Do we argue over how to make the story John tells match up with the different one Mark gives us? Where is the truth in knowing what Jesus did, and where, and when?
Or is the truth that sets men free something different than a factual biography of Jesus? There are plenty of things in a gospel—narratives, quotations, prayers—but the gospels are not biographies any more than Genesis is a science text.
The first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel, the sign that marks the beginning of our hero’s quest, is turning water into wine. (This is not part of the other gospels. Mark and the other two synoptic gospels have different truths to tell.) In the story as told in John, the miracle is a simple thing, an act of grace performed at his mother’s request at the wedding of friends of the family. In John’s symbology, the wine that was water is huge, a theological symbol flowing throughout the Gospel.
Changing belief into faith is like changing water into wine. We start with a story as simple and clear as water, but when we take it in, the story changes. Any great story changes those who hear it, and when they pass it on, something of everyone who has heard it and retold it is passed along as well.
We hear about cave people living thousands of years ago, their animal skin clothing and stone tools, and it is an interesting story. Stand in one of their caves, look at the beautiful simplicity of the art they have left behind, and suddenly the story changes. Hearing about it, we believe the truth of what the archaeologists and anthropologists tell us. Standing in a cave, seeing a painted antelope or human handprint made with colorful clay on the cave wall, our belief changes to something like faith in humanity reaching back through the centuries.
We may believe that lions exist, but it took faith to create paintings like the ones on the walls of Chauvet Cave. Whoever left those images for us, we know with certainty that their lives were changed by the lions they encountered. We may believe that God exists, but we begin to have faith when our lives are changed by our encounters, even if all we see of God is like firelight on the walls of a cave.
“The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me…”
Habits are powerful things, and habits of thought are among the most powerful.
Take the simple notion that it is good to get up each day and get going, to do the work at hand — it is one of the simplest ideas we can have in our lives, but in the end it is the thought that helps get us through our most difficult days.
Sometimes our thought habits get in the way. We misremember events, tilting them in one direction or another, embellishing our worth or exaggerating an injury done to us. Conversely, we seldom revise our opinions of other people, even when they deserve a downgrade or have earned better.
Our habits of thought are wickedly pernicious in matters of faith. We believe what we believe, and that is that. Of course, such devotion to a set of ideas is not faith at all: it is idolatry. Little by little, we trade faith for certainty until we leave off worshipping God and begin worshipping our own ideas about God. Once we get there, our ideas seldom change.
Closed-mindedness is the death knell of spirituality. It’s the death knell of decency, of warmth, of humanity. God may not change, but our understanding of God must — or did we think we understood everything, right from the beginning? Perceiving the divine depends upon our willingness to be surprised. Nothing gets into a closed mind, not even God.
In John’s gospel, a few tired, disillusioned disciples nearly give up. Thinking their journey with the miraculous over, they return to fishing, a way of life some of them knew before Jesus’ arrest and the fiasco of his death. Even at that point, they were still willing to be surprised, willing to experience the divine in a meal of fish and bread, served by a person they thought never to see again.
When they expected never to hear the living voice of Jesus, he called to them across the water. Having watched him die, they opened their minds to the divine reality of seeing him alive.
God may be in the explosions of stars, the expanse of space. John’s gospel says that we may also find God in the smallness of a loaf of bread, if our minds are open to the possibility.
Imagine, communion with the divine.
Here is another version of the story from John’s Gospel, as I retold it for the opening chapter of I,John. Sometimes just hearing a story told differently can change the way we think about it. I hope you enjoy it.
The morning that we found Jesus on the beach stays in my mind. I have never understood why. It was not the most impressive day in my memory, but it has become one of the most persistent. Finding him on that beach was miraculous, or so we thought at the time. Now it haunts me.
I see angels, and I see other things that are not angels. At least I see and hear beings who are not like us but who think and act and move, without bodies like ours. A few of them are brilliant and astonishing. Some are dark and fearful. I think that they are different beings, but they might be differing versions of the same kind of thing. And there is Adriel, whom I have heard and seen every day since we found that empty tomb.
Seeing creatures and hearing voices doesn’t mean they are real. A great many people have seen things that did not exist outside their minds. Of course, even if I couldn’t see these beings, couldn’t hear their voices, it wouldn’t mean that they weren’t there.
In the beginning was the word. That is how it began, just words and a man who walked down the shore and found us in our father’s boat. That’s the truth of it. He walked around talking to anyone who would listen, and he found us. Why we got up and followed him, I wonder.
Look where it got us. Look where it got him.
My father’s boat—we spent so much of our childhood in it. I can barely remember what he looked like, my father, but I do remember his beard, his hands. And I remember his eyes, looking at me when Jesus called us to follow him—my father was staring at me like he was gauging the strength of a net. He nodded, I thought, at least it seemed to me later that he had nodded, had offered us that small blessing with the quick understanding of a father. He could read water, read the sky, read the fish swimming, and he read my brother and I, though he was looking at me. My brother James was always like a fish jumping for a light, holding back just for me and for our father to decide. James was the oldest, but while he often walked ahead of me, he somehow always seemed to be following me.
So our father, Zebedee, looked at me and nodded, and James and I put down the nets and walked away with Jesus. It was never the same afterward. Maybe that is why I remembered that moment. Something in me knew that it was important, that it marked a change. There are moments in our lives that matter, not that there are moments without value. It is just that some moments are like a point when we are touched by God. We are brought into contact with something greater than ourselves, outside ourselves, that resonates with the spirit within us. We never returned, not really, not to stay. Our father’s boats were finally given to the servants, and sometimes I felt regret and doubt for leaving that life. We had not understood when we walked away with Jesus that day that we would never return. I don’t know whether my father knew it, but we did not.
Maybe that is why I agreed to look after Mary in the end. I was an irresponsible son who walked away from my father and our family business, and looking after her offered me a sense of redemption. Not that I had any choice. He had found the strength to speak while hanging on that cross. “Behold your mother!” What was I going to say? No, thank you, I have other obligations? Maybe that was the reason he said it, made that effort as he hung there to place Mary in my care and me in hers. It was a gift, something that would heal the sense of guilt inside me that he knew I carried, though I never spoke of it. Perhaps he had known how much I missed my father just from my voice, or from the way I sometimes spoke to James, or perhaps Jesus simply knew.
I loved her, of course. Who could not love Mary? If James and I were marred by what we saw that day, watching him suffer, watching him die, then she was more so.
And he was certainly dead.
I am left remembering all of it, at least I am left remembering those days. They are in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it is the same. Some moments stand out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. You would think that the crucifixion might be my most vivid memory, but it is not. Oh, I remember that day, certainly, but it is not what haunts my dreams or creeps into my waking thoughts. I remember blind men, and Mary. I remember Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remember the bread that Jesus gave us.
Most of all, I dream of that morning at the shore.
Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.
No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.
Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.
“Friends, have you got any fish?”
I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.
No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.
“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”
All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.
The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.
“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.
There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.
Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed, the women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.
“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.
In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.
It was only wine and water, nothing unexpected at a wedding, nothing to grab your attention. The first great sign, the first astounding miracle Jesus performs, at least according to the gospel story as John tells it, is done with such ordinary things, changing water into wine, and for an audience who have already drunk enough to make their testimony unreliable.
Of course, nothing is ordinary. And ask any good defense attorney whether party people make good witnesses, or whether a jury will believe a mother testifying for her son.
Still, in telling the simple story of a wedding, this Gospel opens our minds to the idea of God — the God of “Let there be light”— at work in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves. Thought about long enough, it is a little odd, a little unsettling. And none of us is ordinary.
Why do we get this story? Why all these stories at all, instead of just a list of assertions, ideas about God, rules about living, that sort of thing — believe these things, do these things? What is it about telling stories, even all these short stories stitched together, that makes the gospels so compelling?
If you tell people what you think, they can agree, or disagree, or perhaps ignore you altogether and forget about it. On the other hand, if you tell them a story, the story gets into their heads, and they are stuck with it.
Stories we hear, whether we believe them or not, have a way of getting past the firewalls of our minds. It’s what we’re hardwired for — ever since the first fires in the first caves, we’ve listened to stories, and we’ve retold them over and over, sometimes to other people, sometimes to ourselves.
So for this week, I’m going to cheat. Instead of writing a post, I’m going to tell you a story. In fact, I’m going to tell you the same story, just tell it a little differently from the way it comes out in the Gospel of John.
Here it is, from my novel I,John. I hope you enjoy it.
I did not know the family, but we had been invited. We were gathered in the courtyard, a group within the group, although Peter was going around talking and laughing, his great shaggy head easy to spot. I was sitting near Jesus in the shade of a fig bush just tall enough to offer a screen from the sun, and I saw Mary making her way toward him before he saw her, although I was never sure what Jesus knew about his surroundings. He picked people from the crowd when I had not seen them, ignored others who were standing in front of him.
Mary could not be ignored. She waved at people across the courtyard and smiled at them, then came and knelt beside Jesus. She reached up and rubbed his shoulder, and I supposed she was happy to see her son. That’s when I noticed two servants had followed her from within the house.
“They are running out of wine,” she said.
“What do you want me to do about that?” he said. “It is not my party, and it is not my time. This is their day. Their party.”
Mary ignored him and waved the servants over.
“Do what he tells you,” she said. Jesus just sighed again, looking around the courtyard. It was only a little theatrical, enough to say, ‘See how much I love her, even when she annoys me.’
He pointed at some large stone jars standing at the wall of the house.
“Go and fill them with water,” he told them. It was not a small task. Each jar would hold a number of buckets of water, and the process would be tiresome in the heat. The servants looked at him, then at Mary. She nodded and shooed them with her hand.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Do what he told you.”
They did not look happy, but they hurried over to a well and began pulling up buckets of water and carrying them to the stone jars. It was warm enough in the courtyard that the sound of the water was welcome. When they had filled all of the jars, they stood waiting to see what idiotic task they would have next. I knew that if this ended badly, we would be leaving quickly, but things never ended badly around Jesus, at least not until that very last thing. I sat still and quiet, waiting like the servants.
Jesus appeared to be lost in thought. Mary nudged him in the side, and he turned to look at the stone jars, wet with the water splashed on the sides and along the tiles near them.
“Draw some out, and take it to your steward,” he said.
They stood with backs straight, looking first at Jesus then across the courtyard at the head servant who already appeared displeased with all the water carrying. Then, dour and resigned, one of them took a dipper and filled it from a jar. Drops fell dark on the ground. With round eyes he stared at the liquid all the while that he walked across the courtyard. The head servant took it and tasted it, the disgust on his face shifting to surprise.
Quickly he sent the man back and told them both to draw more from the jars and to serve it to the guests. Some of them had been watching as well, and the rest certainly noticed when they began to drink the new wine. We would not be leaving quickly after all, it seemed. Mary was enormously pleased and went off to talk to someone, probably to say that she was the mother of the one who had brought the wine they were now tasting.
As I said, things tended not to end badly with Jesus, not until that very bad ending itself. That was a different sort of event anyway, more something that Jesus endured than something he did. This was like the people at the pool, the blind man who stared at my face in amazement. It was a sign, a sign for us, for Mary, and for as many of the people who realized what had happened. At the same time, it was ordinary, just wine being served at a wedding. What was miraculous about that? It was only a miracle if one saw it as a miracle.
Of course, that was always the case, I thought. Maybe those crippled men who got up and walked out of that pool weren’t really crippled, maybe they had been pretending for the sake of being able to beg money from those who worked for a living. It was possible that the blind man was the same, pretending, and when Jesus caught him in his pretense, he had to abandon it. Of course, that would have been a sort of miracle, some would argue, just not one that required the power of God. I think that changing the behavior of men like that would require more power, be the greater miracle. Changing the mind is a greater sign than healing the body.
But I saw that blind man, saw his eyes when he could not see me. And I saw the amazement on his face when he could see me, when I was suddenly the most beautiful thing in his world. I knew things that the people sitting here drinking wine did not know, and even when we told them, some would never believe.
I got up and walked along the row of jars, and I saw my face reflected in the new dark wine.
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Bread and Stone
I wrote this post while visiting the mountains of North Carolina with my daughter. Twice we hiked along trails on Mt Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. The first day was cold, and the mountain was covered in clouds, making the trails quiet and secretive. The second day was warmer, sunlight streaming through the forest, so that the same stones and trees were sometimes hard to recognize as the ones we had found the day before.
Along the trails I thought about the way Jesus used bread as a metaphor for life. The stones rising around us and the forest growing from them began to take on the same meaning.
The mountains of Appalachia are old. These mountains are not as tall as the Rockies or the Himalayas, and there is none of the astonishing grandeur of those jagged peaks. The Appalachians have been worn down by time, covered by trees and moss, until like Grandfather mountain and Graybeard and Mitchell, one is left gazing at a chain of old men and women, moss ridden, home to birds and squirrels and bears.
Hiking through these hills, there is also the constant reminder of the stone beneath one’s feet. The landscape may be softened by trees, moss and mushrooms, but the stone is always there, just beneath, supporting the life above. These mountains were here when the plants came into being. These stones rose up long before the dinosaur ancestors of ravens clawed and squawked across the rocks.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the peculiar claim that he is living bread, come down from heaven. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he tells his neighbors in Capernaum.
They are appalled. Why wouldn’t they be?
A man they have known for years tells them that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is life itself, and they are supposed to understand that he is anything but insane? They were not a people given to metaphor.
We might restate the idea for them, and for us, something like this–God is in the bread we eat, the stones beneath our feet, the stars across our sky. God is in all that sustains our lives.
There is a popular notion that rational people should reject everything that cannot be expressed or explained in scientific terms. According to this way of thinking, anyone supposing the existence of God is at best ignorant, at worst delusional.
God is not the only such idea. We cannot explain a great deal.
Why do we love? Why do we mourn? Perhaps the long developmental period of humans and apes provides a basis for our devotion to our children. Lizards, in contrast, lay the eggs and walk away from their young, or perhaps eat them. Even granting the power of evolutionary forces to explain our initial bond, how does that explain love?
Anyone not knowing that love is more than biological compulsion and obligation is missing a great deal. No, he is missing everything worth knowing.
Science is wonderful. Through science our lives are better, our scope of thought is widened, our pursuit of our potential is less limited. Science can explain attraction and the biological basis of our compulsions. It has not quite explained our minds, as differing from our brains. And it has failed altogether to explain love, that which the ancients called agape.
Faith is not delusion, nor is it in antipathy to science. The idea that one must either accept science or faith is a false dichotomy. It is the task and joy of science to explain how things are. It is the joy and the task of faith to explore what may be. I suspect that faith and science are a double spiral that one day will join in a point of understanding, transcending our ideas and ways of thinking.
Meanwhile, we have metaphor instead of explanation.
Eat the bread, drink the water. We may find God in the stones beneath our feet.
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Bread. Water. These are the central images in the Gospel of John. Did you ever wonder why?
Commonplace things are easy to overlook. They are also the things that give us life.
The most striking thing about the elements composing our bodies is how common they are. We are life forms based on carbon, scientists tell us. Here on earth, carbon is everywhere. It’s the dust of the universe. Nature builds with what is on hand, what is abundant.
We should not be surprised that our lives are housed in the commonplace.
Some carbon is special, like the compressed chunks we call diamonds. We treasure these bits of hard shiny crystal, but a diamond has no real value to organic life. The carbon trapped in a diamond no longer combines in any of the myriad ways that support life on our planet.
It is ironic that we have come to value things so rare that they cannot help to sustain our lives, but we’re not consistent in our treatment of common things. If we find something that we agree is valuable, like a diamond, we’re glad. If we see something common, though we are made of it and it keeps us alive, we are not impressed. If only we measured ideas the same way, but in our thinking we treasure the commonplace, and we reject rarities of insight. We would rather be right in our closed minds than have the clamshell of our thoughts pried open by the rare and unexpected.
The audience in this Gospel’s story were angry with Jesus. They were in the synagogue of Capernaum, the place where Jesus made his home, and he was commonplace to them. They saw him on the street. They knew his family. So long as he walked their streets and did not disturb their commonplace thoughts, they accepted him. When he made the claim that he brought them something of God, they scoffed and grumbled and grew angry.
We would do the same.
In fact, we are doing the same. We walk past the commonplace landscape, breathe the commonplace air, taste the commonplace bread of our meals, drink the commonplace water, and we do not appreciate the value in them. We do not appreciate that these are the things that sustain us. We would trade away the common things in our lives, only to be left with the cold sparkle of crystallized carbon, a handful of diamonds that we cannot eat or drink or breathe.
If we would see something of great value, we need only look around us. Life is in the taste of bread, the sparkle of water.
In this Gospel, we hear that Jesus raised the commonplace to the divine, and that he brought the divine into the commonplace. God is in the stardust at our feet.