Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John 3:14-21[1]
Many of you know that I recently took up practicing yoga. I find it to be an exercise that does it all for me: increasing strength, aerobic fitness, balance and flexibility. I also find it amusing the kinds of responses I get when I tell people I practice yoga. The most frequent one is, “Do you find it relaxing?” The truth of the matter is that yoga does wonders for relieving my stress, and it is very relaxing in that we always end with a time of quiet resting. But yoga is also one of the most rigorous forms of exercise I’ve ever tried. Most of my guy friends who’ve never tried yoga look at me like I’m crazy when I say that. But just try to take on a revolved chair pose or a half-moon pose for yourself. If you need the directions, you can find them on the internet.[2] Let me just say they take a great deal of strength!
You may find it interesting that I describe this as “practicing” yoga. That’s what yoga is—something you practice. I know that the word “practice” sounds like what you do before you’re ready to do the real thing. But in the case of yoga it’s more a matter of something you’re always learning, something that is a continual journey, something that takes constant and consistent attention. It is a discipline of the mind as well as the body. In that respect, I have found it to be a practice that helps me develop my inner strength, and my peace of mind. And perhaps even more importantly, it helps me learn to focus my intentions with clarity and determination so that I can better follow through on them.
You may be wondering what this has to do with the repentance and faith that Jesus calls us to embrace. Well, I think they are very similar. Like yoga, living out the directions that are intended to make our lives more whole, more peaceful, and more joyful, is something that we must constantly learn to do. In a very real sense, we’re on a continual journey when it comes to loving God and loving others. We’re engaged in something that takes constant and consistent attention. Becoming a person who is open to God’s loving presence and who allows that love to flow through us to others is something we must constantly practice.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we find some difficult tensions that may make it hard for us to get this message. On the one hand, we find a wonderful affirmation of the unconditional love of God—for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we might experience the wholeness that is called eternal life (Jn. 3:16).[3] But there is also a lot of talk about those who don’t believe being condemned that sounds pretty exclusive.
Background for John’s gospel was one of conflict; the Jewish Christians were very likely dealing with the pain of having been thrown out of their synagogues—having been cut off from their families, their friends, the very foundation and center of their lives.[4] When you experience that kind of painful rejection, it’s easy to fall into a way of thinking that is oppositional, that falls into looking at everybody in terms of whether they’re for us or against us. That seems to have been precisely what was going on with the people for whom John’s Gospel was written. And it led them to believe some things that may have been helpful for them in order to reinforce their sense of identity, but when transferred into our day and time can result in some pretty ugly exclusion. [5]
But we shouldn’t let that obscure the gems of truth found in this text. It clearly affirms Gods’ unconditional love for the whole world. It also tells us something about the kind of response that love calls forth in us. In John’s Gospel, it’s called “doing the truth.” Our faith, our truth, our convictions are meant to be put into practice in our lives, as we said last week.[6] But that’s not something you learn to do like riding a bike and once you learn it you’ve got it. It’s more like learning a musical instrument. If you’re really committed to it, you’re always learning how to practice faith in real life.
  I’ve been doing yoga for about nine months now. I’ve been doing it long enough that those muscles that at first were screaming at me because I’d never really used them before have gotten accustomed to the poses we do. Don’t get the wrong idea—I’m still very much a beginner. I have a long way to go. To some extent, although I’ve been practicing my faith a lot longer, I’m still continually learning what it means to love God and love others. I’m still learning how to get beyond my own selfishness so that I can truly love the people around me. I still learning how to open myself so that the life and love of God can flow through me. I’m still learning to relate to the people around me with compassion, understanding, kindness, and mercy. And I hope that I never stop practicing.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/18/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Revolved chair pose can be found at http://www.fitsugar.com/Yoga-Poses-Legs-16023419?slide=1. Half-moon pose can be found at http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/784.
[3] Cf. Gail. R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible 9:555. She says, “The God revealed in Jesus is a God whole love knows no bounds and who asks only that one receive the gift.”
[4] Cf. David Bartlett, “Inclusive or Exclusive Grace?,” The Christian Century, Feb 27, 1991, p. 227.
[5] Paul Tillich, in “Doing the Truth,” The Shaking of the Foundations, p. 117 suggests that the division is found in this gospel text is inherent in one’s response to Jesus. He says, “You cannot have opinion about the Christ after you have faced Him. You can only do the truth by following Him, or do the lie by denying Him.”
[6] Cf. Tillich, “Doing the Truth,” p. 117: “Christian theology is rooted in the concept of truth in which no cleavage between theory and practice is admitted, because this truth is saving truth.” Cf. similarly, John D. Caputo, On Religion, 115.

No comments: