Holy Trinity Cathedral
Ten years ago this April, I moved into the San Francisco Zen Centre, a Buddhist Temple, for a four month period of residency. I was there as a long-time student and occasional teacher of the life and teachings of Thomas Merton, a Christian contemplative monk and scholar. Now Merton had spent many years looking at the practice of silent meditation and prayer in both Buddhism and Christianity and found a shared ground of experience and practice. Note that I am not talking about shared doctrine or dogma, but a common or similar experience of daily life; so not the way we talk about our belief, but how we act it out, live it out, maybe even dance it out in our daily duties and relationships as well as the deepest places in our devotions; So not so much a doctrine as a choreography: how what we believe works, take place, takes time, bears fruit in the places where we live and move and have our being.
And what I found at the Zen Centre was a silent place where, for me at least, the word that was from the beginning, the word that was with God and was God, spoke out with a special intensity and simplicity, yet with the same compassion and consistency and clarity that was there from the beginning. And in that silence I learned something more of what it meant to abide with God.
In the beginning of John’s Gospel we are told that God has come to dwell with us (and the Greek actually says something closer to “The Word has come to pitch his tent with us”) in the midst of the human journey, in the centre of our everyday existence in a world with so many contradictions, so much busyness, so much noise, as Thomas Merton describes our world:
Mysterious, demanding, frustrating confused existence in which almost nothing is really predictable, in which most definitions explanations and justifications become incredible before they are uttered, in which people suffer together and are sometimes incredibly beautiful, at other times impossibly pathetic... In which there is at the same time an immense ground of personal authenticity that is right there and so obvious that no one can talk about it and most cannot even believe that it is there.
And that is where Jesus has come to pitch his tent and where, in the 15th chapter of the Gospel of John, he invites us to abide in Him, dwell with him, share our daily living and dying with him, and where, as a friend in this strange and wonderful world, he will take us along with him on his journey to the Father. And my question is how, in this noisy world, can we come to understand this offer, and how can we respond?
It is certainly not a straightforward proposition. And maybe that has to do with the spiral motion that is evident in reading through the Gospel of John. The Baptist looks forward to the one who is greater than he and rejoices in the coming of Jesus. Jesus looks forward to his return to the Father and, further, he tells his disciples to welcomes the coming of the Spirit who will not come unless he goes away. Each chapter, each crisis, each corner in John’s Gospel opens up to a new and greater view of how big the world can be as well as how close God can come. It is a dance of separation and return, a spiral where what you thought you wanted and where you thought you were going turns in a new direction and takes you in a new way, into being a new person, with a new and greater understanding and a deeper participation in the daily life, death and resurrection of God in the world.
So the only way you can get there is to walk along the way of faith, to live into it, abide into it; maybe even dance along in a way you can never get your head around. That’s what happens to the disciples in John’s Gospel and that is what, I think, happens to us.
For willing to move forward into a greater understanding and participation in God’s love takes us places we can never foresee. Abiding as a friend of Christ spirals us into greater life, filled with love and abundance, in a way we can only follow by faith. We cannot prepare for it, nor do we need even take it too seriously. For Christ has done that for us.
That’s what Lent is about, what the journey is, to make us aware that Christ is taking us seriously and asking us to join with Him both in the desert and the city, in coming up against the corners and the conflicts, the powers and principalities, in seeing the liveliest man done to death on the cross, and even in seeing our old understanding of death die. That’s where it happens. On the other, unspeakable side of Good Friday, where taking the offer of abiding friendship, with Jesus saves us, makes us whole, keeps us moving with him on way beyond death. But, again, it doesn’t depend on us, so we don’t take ourselves that seriously in the process!
Commenting on Merton’s writings, Rowan Williams writes:
“a proper theology of the death of Christ tells me I'm not serious: God is serious; my condition is serious; sin is serious; the Cross is serious. But somehow, out of all this comes the miracle, the 'unbearable lightness of being' as you might say: the recognition that my reality rests 'like a feather on the breath of God'. It is because God speaks, because God loves and it is for no other reason. And if we want to know what it is to say that I am, the only answer is 'I am because of the love of God'.
We are created, redeemed and made holy by the love of God. That is the deep ground of our friendship with God and that is where our freedom abides. We sit here in silence here at a Sunday Evensong or in an early morning Buddhist Temple or alone in bed at three in the morning when the big questions come and the easy answers are nowhere to be found; and in all those places we abide in Christ. In all those times we learn to lean into him like a child leans into the body of a beloved parent, we lean into his invitation to be our friend and by grace, surprisingly he will take us seriously, take us to places we could never have foreseen, have never planned for, and, as the collect says, bring us home at the last.
So being a friend of Jesus is quite easy. Lay down your life as a right and take it up as a gift, saving nothing.
Again Rowan Williams, “when I seek to justify, defend or systematize what I am, I become 'serious'. I cease to be a feather on the breath of God and gravity draws me down into darkness.”
So take it lightly and give it all away. It’s that simple. Be friends of Jesus, share the tent, take the journey, eat the food offered, follow him past the desert and the city into the heart of the mystery of love. Abide in Christ. It is that unspeakably simple and sometimes scary and usually wonderful.
Because Jesus calls your name and calls you friend and asks you to follow, here and now, in the middle of the world, the world where God abides, to be born into the new reality where we love one another for God’s sake and bear fruit that will last forever.
In the name of Christ, Amen