Shuck and Jive

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Baptized With Spirit--A Sermon

Baptized With Spirit
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 8th, 2012

 “Let me tell you this:  you’ll see the sky split open and God’s messengers 
ascending and descending on the Human One.”  
John 1:51 Scholars' Version

During the season of Winter we are going to explore the Gospel of John.     When the Jesus Seminar combed through the gospels to determine what sayings and deeds might have gone back to the historical person of Jesus and what were later traditions created by the gospel writers, they found virtually nothing in the Gospel of John that went back to the historical Jesus.    That can be deceptive.  That does not mean that John is not important.  It does not mean that John’s gospel did not capture the impulse or the spirit of the historical Jesus.  I think the gospel did do that in its own way.

In the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus speaks in parable and aphorism.  In John’s gospel Jesus speaks in long discourses.  In the synoptics, Jesus speaks about the “kingdom of God.”  In John, Jesus's favorite topic seems to be himself.   But that can be deceptive too.  It isn’t Jesus for the sake of Jesus, but as a human being that we all can become.

Jesus has a mystical quality in John.  He floats through reality.   It is as though he is saying to followers and opponents alike,

“You can’t touch this.”  
“You don’t crucify me.  I lay down my own life and take it up again.” 
“You are from below.  I am from above.” 
“I and the Father are one.” 
“Before Abraham was, I am.” 

 And, he promises his followers that they will soon see that,

“I am in the Father, and that you are in me and that I am in you.”

I think John is a fascinating and important gospel and with the assistance of biblical scholar Walter Wink, and particularly his book, The Human Being:  Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, we are going to explore what this gospel might say to us about what it means to be human.

The passage I read today concludes with a strange image:

“Let me tell you this:  you’ll see the sky split open and God’s messengers ascending and descending on the Human One.” 

Part of our exploration of John will be what the phrase translated here as the Human One means.   A more literal translation of the phrase in Greek is the awkward, “the son of the man.”  That is Jesus’ favorite title for himself.  Not messiah or christ, not son of god, not second person of the trinity, but “the son of the man.”   The human being.

That is the phrase that Wink discusses at length in his fascinating and important book, The Human Being:  Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man.   Wink was a participant in the Jesus Seminar, although his conclusions directed him on a different path than that of the majority of the Fellows.   Wink writes in his book that the quest for the historical Jesus is more than an academic, historical study.  It was he says the search for the human Jesus.  That is for a Jesus who matters.   It is a search for a Jesus we can believe in.   The search is for the myth of the human.    

Wink sees in the phrase that Jesus used for himself more than any other, “the son of the man”, the archetypal human being.   That is the human being that we are invited and empowered to be.   Wink writes:

Lo, I tell you a mystery:
God is Human,
and we are to become,
like God.    P. 257

The Gospel of John is fiction.  The character Jesus in John is a product of the imagination of the author.   It is not made up of whole cloth, of course.    Somewhere in there was a real person who did and said things.   John’s Jesus is an interpretation, a parable, a presentation, or a symbolic representation.   

If what I just said sounds scandalous and heretical it is only because we have been bullied by the church and its dogmas, creeds, and theological sophistry.     Jesus is not the property of the church.   He is both a figure of history and a product of imaginative creation.     

The author of the Gospel of John wanted to show us something.  He saw in the person of Jesus something empowering.    He told a story of Jesus that made sense to him and that empowered him to embrace life and not be afraid of the powers of this world.  

Another important word for John is world or cosmos.    Depending on the context, it can mean earthly existence, life, or more often than not, it is a word for what Wink calls the “domination system.”    Jesus says, “I am not of this world.”  What does he mean?   I do not think he is saying that he is from another planet or from another place like heaven, or that he is of another spiritual incarnation or some spooky notion like that.   It means that he does not conform to the values of the dominant system.     What is this dominant system, this world?

Here is an illustration.  The late Thomas Berry, described the values of the domination system, what the Gospel of John calls world in two sentences.  

“The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress.”

I can’t think of a more succinct expression of “the world” than that.  Thomas Berry encapsulated the death and insanity of industrial civilization and its handmaiden, infinite economic growth, with those two sentences.  It is so true, I’ll read it again:

“The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress.”

You wonder why “the world” is blowing the tops off of mountains?   Over 500 in Appalachia so far and the Cumberlands in Tennessee are next.   If that isn’t enough, we will simply mine Canada and “process“ its tar sands.   It is a foreign country.  Nobody lives in Alberta.    Or we’ll frack the gas.   Don’t worry about what it might do to the water.   Gas is more important than water anyway, right?   If that isn’t enough to live up to our ideals, we can start a skirmish with another middle eastern country in hopes that that will somehow keep the oil flowing.  

The "world" has to live its ideal.  In the "world", you are not a human being.  You are a consumer.  You role is to consume everything in sight until Earth is a wasteland.    That is normal.  That is progress.  That is the domination system.  That is what the author of John’s gospel calls “the world”.    Obviously, in John’s time and in Jesus’s time, they weren’t talking about modern industrial civilization, but they were talking about the unsustainable dominant civilization of its time, one whose mode of operation was to divide, destroy, conquer and grow.  

Lest there be any doubt, when I care about Jesus or about the Gospel of John it is not because I care about heaven or hell or reincarnation or resurrected corpses or supernaturalism or any of that stuff.  I think all of that is a distortion of the original impulse of Jesus and of those who caught what he was saying and doing.   We have literalized first century symbolism and thus distorted it.

The historical Jesus and the imaginative creation by John’s Gospel  is an invitation and an exhortation to respond to the "world" by becoming a human being.     I don’t want to be anything less or more than a human being.    Being a human being means that we expose the values of “this world” for what they are—death values.     

I respect everyone's freedom to explore their religion.  My personal religion is Earth-based.  I am an Earthling.   I am a human being.   From Earth I was born and to Earth I shall return.  If by chance, I am completely wrong and the whole point of this exercise of life was to get to heaven or to be reincarnated, then at my death, I will say to whatever supernatural magician who offers these prizes the following:

“No thank you.  I have lived my life.  There is nothing more I need.   You can have your afterlife. I don’t want it.   Instead, if you have the power, provide for my children and their children and the creatures of Earth.  Give them a chance to live on Earth.   Can you make it so the waters will be pure, and the mountains covered with trees?”   

To me, religion is about being a human being.  It is about living a life that matters.    

We are going to be ordaining elders and deacons later in the service.  We will ask of them to say, “Yes” to a number of questions.    Those questions for me, at least, need to be interpreted.    I see them as the willingness to honor and to wrestle with the tradition and to serve with integrity.    One of the questions I don’t have to reinterpret in my mind when I say, “Yes” that I can regard at face value is this one:

“Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

Where do I wish to put my energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?  Is it for an afterlife?  Do I want to live for that?  Not me.   I would argue that neither Jesus nor the gospel writers were about that either.     No, my energy, intelligence, imagination, and love needs to be at the service of life on Earth as it is and for our children that they may have the opportunity to breathe clean air, grow and eat healthy food, and drink clean water.   

Part of saying “Yes” to our descendants and saying “Yes” to Earth is to say “No” to “the world” and its values of domination.   The issue I have with much contemporary spirituality is that it allows us to escape into spiritualism rather than to be baptized by Spirit.     

John the Baptist says that Jesus is the one to baptize by Spirit.   He is the one who shows us what it means to be a human being.    Being a human being requires us to stand up and to resist the powers.    The promise of John’s gospel is that we can do it.    

Jesus says to Nathaniel, you think the parlor trick, the little psychic trick of me seeing you under the tree was interesting?  You ain’t seen nothing yet.       

“Let me tell you this:  you’ll see the sky split open and God’s messengers ascending and descending on the Human One.”

That is symbolic language of course.  It has to do with the dignity of humanity.   Human beings are not slaves, or cogs on an assembly line, or consumers, or cannon fodder.     

And you stop being those things when you start being a human being now.   

When we wake up and when we stand up and when we speak up for the dignity of life we become transcendent.    The angels ascend and descend upon us.

To recap and conclude with something to take home:

The Gospel of John’s Jesus is a human being.  He is the archetype of Human Being.  He is the Human One.   The Human One is who we really are as opposed to what “the world” or the domination system says we are.   This is not spiritually spooky stuff nor is it elitist.  It is for anyone.   We can all be human in our own contexts.    It requires the choice on our end to decide to live a life that matters.    

A life that matters is not big, or is it the same as someone else.   A life that matters is saying,

I matter. 
I don’t matter more than anyone else or any less.  
I count. 
I am not a consumer. 
I am not a cog on the industrial gear. 
I am not collateral damage. 
I am not a problem to be solved. 
I am not who “the world” says I am.
I am a human being.  
I am creative. 
I can live with intention and with integrity.  
I choose to be compassionate. 
I choose to be happy.
I choose to be hopeful.
I can find a way to bring compassion, joy, and hope, into my life and into the lives of others.  
I can care about something. 
I want Earth to be here for my descendants.
I can fight for it. 
I can expose the lies of the powers and speak my truth. 
I am baptized by Spirit.
I am a human being.
We human beings can start a revolution.
We human beings can change this world.


  1. "Jesus is not the property of the church." But the church acts as if it were the exclusive definer, owner, and distributor of Jesus. An important insight - thanks.

  2. you are far and away my favorite heretic. I'm sending links to this to my "atheist" friends who think "christians" are a bunch of snake handlers . . .

    I am still thinking of "blogging John," but I'll be using your work as a resource. It's hard to find contemporary stuff. I haven't read Walter Wink -- but will.