In the course of any kind of rhetorical rapprochement or exhortation, I quite often think about the difference between scolding and inviting, and I am always trying to remember to tend toward the side of inviting rather than scolding. I notice that Jesus saves his scolding for the religious authorities like the scribes and Pharisees, but with almost everyone else he is always issuing an invitation. An invitation can still be a challenge, but a scolding is usually based on shaming and the assumption of someone’s superiority over another. A lot of what I have experienced in religion in my life alternates between these two poles––either wagging our finger at someone and telling them to go to church, scolding our culture for its materialism or relativism on the one hand; or holding up a model, an example, on the other hand, showing someone their own dignity and calling them to their best self, an invitation to be part of something great, good, and beautiful.
The first line of this particular passage from the Gospel of John (6:13) may be one of the most well known scripture verses in modern times, mainly because it appears on so many billboards and bumper stickers. It’s like a sound bite of the gospel. But I have the feeling that it is often used as a kind of a bludgeon to admonish non-believers, even as a condemnation, rather than an invitation. What I think gets left out of it often is those first words, where all this comes from: God so loves the world! That’s an invitation! And following on that, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world… In some way, God never does condemn us; we condemn ourselves by worshipping or serving something other than the Real (Who is God), and that leads us to subhuman behavior and defacing of the beautiful world that God loves so much. In doing that we relegate ourselves to a prison cell of subhuman life. And that word “subhuman” is key for me, because what it means to be fully human is to be in right relationship with the Spirit, which is what Jesus calls humanity to. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world… God sent Jesus as an invitation, an invitation to fullness of life. The Eastern Christian tradition would call this also divinization––to be fully human is to be divinized. The Western tradition starts in the right place by speaking of each of us being created in the imago Dei––the image of God, but the East sings of this end, divinization, in a way that still sounds fresh to us, and we need both. The classic formula is we move from image to likeness. And if we really understood that––that we are created in the image of God, and if we really caught a glimpse of that––of what it meant to participate in divinity, of what it meant to be divinized––who wouldn’t be attracted to that? Who wouldn’t want to respond to that invitation?
Doesn’t Paul say, too, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us? Who shall bring a charge against us?’ (Rom 8:31-33). I think it’s poignant to have this reading of the “holy jailbreak” alongside of this gospel today (Acts 5:17-26). This is not what God does nor what Jesus came to do, to put us in a prison cell of condemnation. Perhaps for us not to condemn others we have to first experience not being condemned ourselves––or not condemning ourselves––to our comfortable prison cells: the prison cell of our opinions, the prison cell of our compulsions and addictions, the prison cell of our “Disproportionate Recurring Reactions,” the prison cell of our sadness and our melodramas, the prison cell of the narrative that we have constructed that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy… As opposed to that there is the freedom of the children of God that comes from an experience of the benevolence of the Universe (‘Look at the birds of the air, learn from the flowers of the field!’), the freedom that comes from the deep seated knowledge that “The Universe is conspiring to your happiness,” (that ‘the Father is glad to give you the kingdom!’), and the freedom that comes from the deep seated experience that God so loves the world! That’s why Jesus when he was bound as a prisoner before Pilate was the only free man in the room. The spiritual life is all about that kind of freedom. If we are in a prison cell, it is often of our own choosing, having chosen to put our trust in a wealth that will not last rather than the really Real which endures.
And for our part, as ministers of the gospel or as servants and leaders of any kind, our job is to issue the invitation, to let the world know how much God loves it, that love is the very ground of being, and call each other to our dignity, not to condemn. Our job is to believe so solidly in the indestructible image of God that is the root of every human person that we never lose hope in the possibility of conversion, of light overcoming the darkness in any life (even if and when things don’t look too good). I think it’s a lot easier to condemn and to scold. (As a matter of fact one of my homiletics professors used to tell us that that’s what preachers do when they have nothing to say: they start yelling at people!) That kind of rhetoric puts people in prison cells, at least in the prison cell of shame. But to really have our hearts broken out of love for the world and compassion for what people are facing and for how often folks have a limited amount of freedom, to love the world as God loves the world, makes us want to issue the invitation instead, Come to me all who labor and are heavy burdened…
And then, like the apostles today, we look back at those prison cells from the outside and happily realize––there’s nobody on the inside!