This is the text of a Bible Study which I shared at the Lincoln Diocesan Clergy Conference in May 2008
John 12: 44-50
Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’
It can only be through an act of divine serendipity that on the first day of a conference entitled “Have we got Good News for you!” the gospel reading should be this passage from St John. A passage which marks the end of Jesus’ public ministry in the fourth Gospel, drawing together the ministry began with the testimony of John the Baptist and which concludes with the triumphal entry in into Jerusalem and Jesus predicting his death.
All that public engagement drawn together in the words “whoever sees me sees him who sent me” and “what I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me”. These six verses draw together the themes which the evangelist has been exploring in the first 12 chapters – namely the salvation and judgement which are to be found in the contrast between the light of knowing God which has come into the world through Jesus and the darkness which comes by shutting God out through unbelief. From chapter 13 onwards the gospel concentrates on Jesus’ intimate teaching to the disciples, his arrest, his trial, crucifixion and then resurrection.
In the verses immediately prior to the passage we are considering, that is in verses 37 – 43, we encounter the continued unbelief of the Pharisees – even in the face of the miraculous signs which had been part and parcel of Jesus’ public ministry. We need to remember that this unbelief comes not from a sceptical, secular society but from a group who were looking for religious purity to ensure that they would be right with God and in being right with God their future would be secure.
In response (verse 44) Jesus emphasises his identity which comes through his oneness with the Father. The purity they seek can be found in seeing and hearing the one who has come from God, ” what I speak, I speak just as the father has told me “. The Pharisees are so determined to be right that they cannot recognize the true glory of God which is being revealed in Jesus ” He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn — and I would heal them” verse 40 as Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:10.
The contrast between those who opened themselves to the light with those who remain in darkness is laid before us in this passage. To live in darkness is to refuse to become drawn into an intimacy with Jesus’ identity and a refusal to engage with the activity of the one has come to save the world. The dynamic of God’s love is that he comes to be full engaged in saving the world – it isn’t a vicarious act of salvation but the direct involvement of the source of the true light – and such is the quality of this light that the darkness is very clear and stark, so clear and so stark that it brings judgement on those who live in it. The next time the crowds will see Jesus he will be a prisoner – from changing water into wine to the raising of Lazurus they have seen the signs – how will they interpret the immediate future of this man Jesus, what will be their choices for the future having seen him and heard him – light or darkness.
There is a little-known and slightly obscure branch of sociology known as the sociology of secrets. Basically what this branch of the social sciences explores is the way in which relationships are enabled by secrets – not the salacious News the World exposés – but the private information about ourselves through which we can reveal our true nature and enable the nature of our relationship with each other to develop – Moving from generality and supposition, to intimacy and vulnerability. The sociologist Kees Boole suggests that we all practice some form of information control within our families, groups, organisations or governments as adaptive strategies to give a structure to our relationship.
We know those who are inside and those who are outside of our group by how much we have moved them from the generality of knowing us towards the truth of our real self, as we draw them into our secrets. Unfortunately time does not allow us to explore this area of sociology and its theological implications, but if we use it briefly as a lens to understand something of the passage we are considering today, then we can begin to understand that the invitation coming from the Word made Flesh is for those who receive him to be drawn into the inner life of the Trinity – “to have seen me is to see the Father” which we cannot avoid relating to the prologue to the forth gospel – “to those who receive him he gives the right to become children of God”. The divine activity in the incarnation is to draw us into the inner – the secret life of the Trinity and judgement is to exclude oneself from that precious invitation.
In the following chapter we read how the disciples discover that the secret life of the Trinity is to be experienced as their feet are washed, as they are privileged to hear Jesus’ prayer to the Father and then on the evening of the first day of the next week, when the disciples are together with the door locked for fear of the Jews, the Holy Spirit is breathed upon them. Such are the dynamics of being drawn into the secret life of the Trinity and through his public ministry Jesus extends that invitation not to the few, nor to a privileged elite, but to those will open themselves to the light that has come into the world. It is the future that Jesus is concerned about – how should we discover and shape the future. So in verse 35 and 36 of Chapter 12 we hear “The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light”
In these verses before us, responding as they do to the unbelief which Jesus encounters, it is his identity which he offers and claims as his authority to take people into the future: verses 49 & 50: “for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life”.
In Chapter 12 of St John’s Gospel we encounter the incarnate word facing the future and rejecting the negativity of the Pharisees, because he is secure in his identity. “To have seen me is to have seen the Father” In the verses following our Gospel reading today we read in Chapter 13 verse 3 “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;” . His memory is secure he had come from God and so he has the confidence to engage with the challenges of the future. He exhibits what modern psychologists would describe as personal continuity or personal persistence to have confidence in himself and in his mission. “I am the way…..” “I am the light…” Such personal continuity and identity is dependent on a healthy memory. He knows the truth of where he has come from, the truth about his ministry and so he moves into the uncertainty of the future with the confidence to say “Do not let your hearts be troubled “Trust in God, trust also in me”.
This ‘personal continuity’ lies at the heart of the Gospel story. It is the stuff of a healthy memory and a healthy memory is an essential human attribute which enables us to not only engage with the future, but to engage creatively with the future. Those who study memory suggest that it has been our ability to link past and present to address the future which has been a key feature of the human ability to adapt to the changes which have been part and parcel of our evolutionary history.
There can be few of us here today, either through our ministry or in our personal lives, who have not encounter the de- humanising effect of dementia. In its various forms it robs us of a healthy memory. In its heartrending progress dementia strips away a key ingredient of our humanity – that is our ability to give context and interpretation to our memories. They become disjointed episodes which drift through conversation offering no reference points for an engagement with the future. In a recent BBC Horizon programme on memory they described it as ‘being increasing held captive in the present’ for an unhealthy memory leaves us with no continuity about the past and therefore no resources to engage with the changes which are part and parcel of the future. Those of us who care for members of our families through a power of Attorney will know how difficult it is to help someone with an unhealthy memory to engage with their affairs. A constant challenge is not to treat the person you care for as irrelevant – but in truth, as the memory becomes increasingly unhealthy the ability to construct the future becomes so limited that, however much you love and care for them, their contribution to engaging with the future becomes increasingly irrelevant – I realise that I am touching on difficult things for some and I share that discomfort.
But a healthy memory is fundamental to us being able to prepare for the future, not just by learning from the past, but by placing the memories of the past within their context and then adjusting or planning for the future not locked into an eternal repetition of past actions and responses, but adapting our actions and re-actions to a new context. This is the evolutionary attribute which has given the human race such an amazing ability to adapt and survive. A healthy memory is not just recalling events, but giving those events a context and an interpretation of those events in the light of that context and its is not just about individuals – it lies at the heart of all successful enterprises whether they be businesses, clubs or institutions. Enduring success and contribution lies in the ability to engage with future because the memory of the past is healthy – it is adaptive and the response is flexible.
For a church for a drawn into the secret life of God and with a commission to share that secret, attracting people to live within the light of participating with God, it will be a healthy memory which will enable us to not only engage with the future but be relevant in that future. We were not called to be trapped in our memories of being the people of God, but to draw on those memories to adapt to the changing landscape for our mission. In verse 45 we encounter what is at the heat of our association with God “whoever sees me sees him who sent me” – it is only as we allow ourselves to be increasingly drawn into the secret life of God that we will know whether our God is trapped within his past, or vibrantly engaged with the present and the future. The fruits of what we discover will surely shape our attitude to what lies ahead.