Allison Chubb’s sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent
A couple weeks ago, I decided I should become more acquainted with all that’s been happening with ISIS and the Islamic caliphate in northern Iraq. As I read through story after story, I was surprised by the large numbers of young Canadians and Brits heading overseas to join the fight, not in opposition to ISIS, but in support of it. In addition to fighters, there are young women who don’t go to fight but to cook, clean, and raise children for the Islamic militants.
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The CBC and the BBC explain that these young men and women, often about 20 years old, are experiencing a combination of two things: the draw to adventure and the pull of fundamentalism. I was reminded of myself at 20, idealistic and full of hope, ready to make whatever sacrifice necessary, in even an attempt to make the world a better place.
So what do the pull of adventure and the pull of fundamentalism have in common? In essence, these young men and women are seeking something more. They are experiencing a deep longing for life abundant, for belonging and community and hope. They are acting on an urge which all of us have: the search for the kingdom. The tragedy of their stories is not their idealist sense of hope or their search for a better world. It is the place where their search has taken them.
In our Gospel reading today, we find Jesus addressing this search for the kingdom and the places where it can take us. He compares us to the children of Israel, wandering in the desert and afflicted by diseases, desperate for healing but unable to find God on their own. Jesus explains that it is precisely because of this longing that he has come. He is not here to condemn us for all the misguided ways we attempt to find the kingdom- he is here to show us the kingdom in himself.
There are two ways to do life, Jesus tells us: the way of light and the way of darkness. “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light,” he explains, “so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
The early Church tended to focus a great deal on the difference between the way of light and the way of darkness. One early Church document, called the “Didache” or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”, contains a treatise entitled “The Two Ways.” It begins, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways.”
When I first studied this document in seminary, it sounded like the same old interpretation of the faith where some belong and some do not. If you had been in my Sunday School, you would have learned about the two ways in this song: “There’s one door and only one, and yet its sides are two; I’m on the inside, on which side are you?” The way of darkness and the way of light became an easy “us” and “them”, the ones bound for life after death and the ones bound for punishment.
The language of insider and outsider continued when I memorized my first Sunday School verse, found at the centre of our Gospel reading today, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” The verse became so rote that by the time I was eight years old it was like the answer to every Sunday School question: “Jesus!” “John 3:16!”
My grandmother, who liked to up the ante a little for everything I learned in Sunday School, taught me that this verse was the centre of the Christian faith: choose Jesus, you become an insider, and you will live forever when you die. Don’t choose Jesus, you become an outsider… Simple enough.
But at six and eight years old, I struggled to make sense of a faith that was primarily centred around what would happen at my death. “Eternal life” became some idealized, disembodied, philosophical truth that had little bearing on my lived reality.
As we find this verse in its context today, I think we need to back up a little and explore what the early Church is actually saying here about eternal life and what it means for the way of light and the way of darkness. Jesus is visiting with Nicodemus in the night, explaining how to enter God’s kingdom. He speaks about the way of darkness and the way of light as ways to do life, today, not as future realities.
Now the Gospel of John is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke because it was written to a particular community in the early Church, one which seems to have had a greater bent toward mysticism. John’s language about the kingdom is often shrouded with mystery and other-worldliness. In fact, the phrase “eternal life” is almost exclusively used by John. He loves this phrase.
The Greek word which is translated as “eternal life” in our bibles is a term which means “God’s life” or “life with God.” It is not primarily about something in the future, but refers to abundant life in God, lived in any age. When John speaks about “eternal life”, then, we could also use the term, “kingdom life”, which refers to our lives together today as well as into the future. Set in the context of darkness and light, then, our favourite verse could be rephrased, “God sent his Son so that we can live in the kingdom light instead of darkness.” In other words, Jesus isn’t here to show us how badly we’ve screwing up by living the way of darkness; there were plenty of Pharisees around for that. Jesus is here to demonstrate for us the way of light, the eternal life or kingdom life we’re invited into. For Jesus, it was always language of welcome, not coercion.
On the farm where I grew up, there stood a massive oak tree in the middle of the corn field behind the house. One summer, during a particularly fierce thunderstorm, the oak tree was split right down the middle by lightening and we were afraid it was going to die. Amazingly, the next summer, as one half looked more and more dead, losing all its little branches and eventually even its bark, the other side began to sprout and was soon covered with beautiful green leaves. For years, the oak tree was split right down the middle: living on one side and dead on the other.
My experience of the two ways has often been like the big oak tree- both light and darkness coexisting together. This is because kingdom life isn’t an easy “us” and “them,” not to Jesus nor for us. God’s kingdom is not a club that I can walk through a door and suddenly belong to. It is a reality, one we see happening all over the place, one we sometimes participate in and sometimes do not. It is a way of life we’re invited into day after day and in our interactions with one another.
Jesus explains why we sometimes stay away from the way of light: we want to hide in the darkness. We don’t want others to see our sickness and our wounds. We “hate the light”, as Jesus says, because we are afraid. Healing is long and difficult and painful.
Coming into the light means allowing it to penetrate our cuts and bruises as it begins to heal them. It means we begin to encounter others just like ourselves, folks who are also dirty and wounded.
Jesus has come into the world so that we can participate in Kingdom life, but it is not magic. There is no secret door that we can walk through into eternal life, leaving all of our fears and wounds behind. Kingdom life is about taking our fear and wounds with us, choosing an audacious hope in the face of all odds. It is about closing our eyes, stepping out into that bright and terrifying light of God’s goodness, and allowing ourselves to become healed, renewed, and transformed.
As one of my seminary professors, John Bowen, writes, there are some people who will choose not to step into the way of light because being in God’s presence is just too painful. The way of light- the way of the kingdom- involves difficult things like forgiveness and hospitality and self-sacrifice. This kind of self-emptying is the life of God. It involves emptying ourselves of all of those things that keep us hiding in the darkness: our fear, our shame, our selfishness, and our insatiable consumerism.
In this season of Lent, we are not called to force ourselves into the way of light, to be better people, or to try harder. Lent is simply a season for truth-telling. In Lent, we say, I am broken and tired and selfish, hiding in the darkness. I need Jesus to come and walk beside me into the way of light, even though it will expose all of my dirt and wounds.
In Lent, we tell the truth that, like our young brothers and sisters who have gone overseas to join ISIS, we have often looked for the way of light in some outrageous and dark places. And, like them, we are desperate for the kingdom to be born among us. As Holy Week approaches, we risk together to step out into the way of light with Jesus, allowing ourselves to be transformed and healed in kingdom life. Amen.