“A Coming Out Story” John 10.7-10 by Rev. Walt Weiss, Pastoral Care Minister & VITAS Chaplain That song has become the anthem of many in the LGBT community. For each of us who have our own coming out story – it makes us want to shout out for ourselves – “I am what I am!” […]
“A Coming Out Story”
by Rev. Walt Weiss, Pastoral Care Minister & VITAS Chaplain
That song has become the anthem of many in the LGBT community. For each of us who have our own coming out story – it makes us want to shout out for ourselves – “I am what I am!” Today as we look at the gospel of John, I would like to share a few coming out stories – some about myself, and another one involving Jesus. They are actually all very connected. No, this is not a sermon about the possibility of Jesus being gay – but it is a coming out story nonetheless. Coming out is really just an outward expression of an inner reality and is not exclusive to the LGBT community.
Over 35 years ago I was forced to leave seminary when someone from my church “outed” me. My faith in God was shattered, and I no longer identified myself as a Christian. It would take over 12 years before I ever set foot in a church again. Only as I sought to overcome drug and alcohol addiction, did I seek the help of “A Higher Power” and began attending an Episcopal church. I still struggled, however, with the conflict between my sexuality and my faith. It was not until I began attending Sunshine Cathedral over 8 years ago, that I had another “Coming Out” experience, as I became willing to state publicly, “I am a Gay Person of Faith.” I had been told for so long that it was not possible to be both. Now I was willing to stand up and admit this, and committed to going back to seminary. Even on my application to seminary, however, I made it very clear that, though I had a profound faith in God, I had no idea what to do about Jesus. Many of the things I had been taught about Jesus, that he was God incarnate, that the only way to God was through him, that he died for my sins and physically rose from the dead, no longer made sense to me. Even with these doubts, I struggled with the message that I first heard here at Sunshine Cathedral. It was so different from anything I had been taught, particularly about Jesus. Many of the things which I found difficult to believe came from the gospel of John, where I read the words of Jesus, “I am the Gate, anyone who goes through me will be cared for” – this is translated in the NRSV as “Whoever enters by me will be saved.” I remember going to meet with Rev. Robert Griffin, conflicted about the message I was hearing at Sunshine Cathedral. Being concerned about my salvation, I protested, “But Jesus said . . .” He only smiled at me and responded “What if it means something different than what you have been told it means?” So, when I found out I was preaching today on this passage, I was finally forced to answer the question myself – what does this really mean?
The gospel of John was probably written between 70-90 CE. Current scholarship consensus is that there were several different authors providing editing, resulting in theological complexity and an understanding of Jesus, or Christology, that took decades to develop. The book is profoundly influenced by the Jewish experience. There was a rising hostility between the followers of Jesus (who were predominantly of Jewish heritage) and the leaders of the synagogue that was exacerbated by the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. It increased until the followers of Jesus were literally expelled from the synagogue around 88 CE and began to define themselves apart from the traditional body of Judaism of which they had been a part. John Shelby Spong in his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, puts forth the idea that the followers of Jesus moved into a form of Jewish mysticism popular in the first century called Merkabah, which claimed an intimate union of the soul with God to reach a new and transcendent reality of God. This challenged the primary definition of God as an external being and shaped in a dramatic way the message of this gospel. Spong reminds us that mysticism and mystical writing expands words beyond their normal limits and therefore should never be taken literally. In fact, the gospel of John challenges literalism at every point and invites the reader into a radical, strictly non-literal encounter with Jesus. Think of some of the stories we find in John. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, Jesus tells him he must be “born from above (or again).” Nicodemus questions how this is possible, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” When Jesus encounters the woman at the well and talks about giving her “living water” she reminds Jesus that he does not have a bucket. When his disciples return and encourage Jesus to eat something, he responds that he had “food to eat that they did not know of.” They question who brought him food. In each of these situations the writer of the gospel has Jesus taking people beyond the literal meaning of the words he spoke. It was not what he said, but what he meant. So too, the author of John has Jesus making seven statements each beginning with the declaration “I am” which echoes the name God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3.13-14, “Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” and he said, “Say this to the people of Israel ‘I AM has sent me to you.”
In the gospel of John we are told Jesus said:
“I am the Bread of Life” (6:35, 41. 48-51)
“I am the Light of the World” (8:12, 9:5
“I am the Gate for the sheep” (10:7-9)
“I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11)
“I am the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25)
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (14:6)
“I am the True Vine” (15:1, 5)
In each of these statements of self-description the Greek phrase “ego eimi” is translated “I am” – The Jewish followers of Jesus would have understood this connection with the divine name. Unfortunately, in the early centuries of the Christian movement, the Greek thinking theologians had no understanding of things Jewish, and many of the statements attributed to Jesus, which then became part of our creeds and the dogma, were looked at in a dualistic way where God and human life, spiritual and material things, souls and bodies, were seen as two separate and divided, even antagonistic realities. The traditional, literal interpretation of these statements has usually drawn the conclusion that Jesus was claiming equality with God, that faith in Jesus is equivalent to faith in God. Then, these phrases have further been used to claim that Jesus implied he was the only way to God. But what if, as Robert had challenged me, it means something else? What if, as we heard from Ernest Holmes this morning, when Jesus described the “Experience of God” to be like a grain of mustard seed, that Jesus was “referring to the Tree of Life, which means the unity of God with humankind.”
So too, in these self descriptive phrases, the writers were trying to convey that mystical understanding of God that the Jewish followers of Jesus had realized. I believe that the Johannine mystical tradition did not see Jesus as an invader from another realm – but as the defining human life bringing together into oneness the human with the divine. They understood the divine as a permeating presence that opened its recipients to a new dimension of consciousness.
“Jesus was not being portrayed in John’s [gospel] as related to God in the same way that Clark Kent is related to Superman, in other words, God in disguise as a human being. . . . The author was trying to express the mystical unity that human life can have with God and asserting that this, in fact, was the unique thing about Jesus of Nazareth. It is that life-expanding oneness with God to which the author of the Fourth gospel believed that Jesus was calling us.”
“[The gospel] is about the divine appearing in the human and calling the human to a new understanding of what divinity means.”
This is Jesus expressing outwardly his realization of divinity within. This indeed is a coming out story – Robert Goss in the “Queer Bible Commentary” believes that central to John’s gospel is the theme of God’s coming out in Jesus. Rev. Elder Mona West describes coming out as a “break-in moment in our spiritual growth.” Break-in moments are those moments of invitation that happen throughout our life in which we catch a glimpse of something more, something bigger in which we participate. The gospel of John describes the early followers of Jesus understanding of Jesus coming out as the embodied Word of God. As he stood up against the religious establishment, it seemed that he really did understand the bigger picture. The fact that God was perceived as present in Jesus of Nazareth does not mean that the God above the sky had become incarnate in Jesus as later creeds would suggest. It rather means that the special presence we call God permeated the Universe being audible from time to time in a particular person in whom the “word of God” is heard to be speaking and visible in that life. We are invited in the words attributed to Jesus to catch a glimpse of something more, something bigger in which we also participate – our unity with the divine.
To me, this makes sense with the concluding statement of today’s gospel.
“I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”
The NRSV translates this “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Greek word used in this phrase can be translated “bursting at the seams” and I think aptly describes what life is like when we understand our oneness with the divine. To understand that to be human is to be part of who and what God is and in the oneness of this God presence to find that our understanding of life is enhanced and all human barriers fall into insignificance.
In a recent Spirit and Truth, our Senior Pastor, Rev. Durrell Watkins quotes New Zealand theologian James Veitch
“God has become for many progressives an ‘inner voice’, a ‘presence within the human consciousness’ that underpins life and enables humans to live well, justly and compassionately.”
“God is the word I use for ultimate reality, beauty, mystery, infinite love, the energy of life, “a presence within the human consciousness.” And when I am focused on the many aspects I name with the single word “God”, I am praying and such prayer often leads me to discover, create, attract, or move toward amazing blessings in life.”
When I look at the gospel of John this way, I have a whole different understanding of who Jesus was, what it means to be a person of faith, and YES, what it means to be a Christian. Today, I do know “what to do with Jesus” and today, I am coming out spiritually as a Progressive Christian, acknowledging that I find the unity and sacredness of all life by following the path of Jesus; and learning to value the teachings attributed to Jesus, while also finding value from other sources of wisdom. No longer will I allow ecclesiastical hierarchy to define my image of the divine, no longer will I allow the religious right to claim authority to interpret the Bible in a narrow, selectively literal way and rob me of the joy and blessings I can receive from its pages, or from other sources of wisdom. “I AM WHAT I AM, AND WHAT I AM NEEDS NO EXCUSES!”
As I look out into the congregation this morning, I am very much aware that we each come from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds. Not all of us believe the same thing, and what we do believe will most likely change. That is the wonderful thing about Sunshine Cathedral. It is a place where you can explore your journey in safety and without judgment. As we are reminded at the invitation “with whatever your beliefs or doubts might be” you are welcome. Please hear me, I am not telling you that you have to agree with everything I said this morning, I am not telling you what you must believe, and I have no problem if you choose not ever to identify yourself as a Progressive Christian, as I have. I would challenge each of you this morning, however, to understand what it is that you believe or don’t believe for yourselves. Many times I hear people say about the message they hear at Sunshine Cathedral, “It is so different from what I heard in my church growing up.” Sometimes that makes people very uncomfortable – that certainly was my reaction at first. But I would like to encourage you to move beyond your understanding of the past, beyond being uncomfortable with that which is unfamiliar, and see what possibilities the future might hold. You will not ever be told from this pulpit what you must believe, but rather be encouraged to seek out what is true for you. For here at Sunshine Cathedral we affirm the variety and depth of human experience and the richness of each person’s search for meaning, and we encourage the use of sound scholarship. . and all intellectual powers to understand the presence of God in human life.”
There are upcoming classes of the Samaritan Institute, including one in which we will look at another book by John Shelby Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, there are multiple sources of information on the Cathedral’s website to assist you in your faith journey. Whatever it takes to move you along on your spiritual path, so that you get “a glimpse of something more, something bigger in which we participate,” I encourage you to seek it out. “Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.” Don’t be content to let others tell you what you should believe, but rather determine what is true for yourself. Your search will produce results and you will know what it means to live an abundant life, a life better than you ever dreamed of.
And this, is the Good News.
I AM A PERSON OF FAITH
ONLY I CHOOSE WHAT IS TRUE FOR ME
I LIVE AN ABUNDANT LIFE