Shuck and Jive

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I'm In the Milk and the Milk's In Me--A Sermon

I’m In the Milk and the Milk’s In Me
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
March 18, 2012

John 17: 1-26 (Scholars’ Version)

The scene is that Jesus is just about to be arrested and he is offering his last words. It is a prayer. After he says this prayer, he marches his disciples across the Kidron valley to a garden where he knows all what will happen. As John writes the story, Jesus is in control even of his own arrest. There is no agony in this prayer.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus pleads that God take away the cup. Some manuscripts in Luke read that Jesus’ agony was so intense that he sweated blood. This is from Mark:
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’
This is the anguish of the poem, Hamlet, by Boris Paternak that I included in the liturgy:
But the order of acts has been arranged
And the end cannot be forestalled.
I’m alone. All else, sunk to the Pharisee.
To live one’s life is no stroll in the park.
Certainly not.

The rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, does a great job with this scene. Jesus fights with God and finally gives in to God’s overwhelming will.
Not my will, but thine be done.
How do you say those words on stage? With casual indifference? C’est la vie? No. With resignation? Maybe. Defeat? Now you are getting closer. Defiance? “Fine then, kill me, see what I care!” 

Whatever nuance you bring to it, it is agony and doubt. It is a clash of wills, “not mine but thine”. It makes for great drama.

But none of that with John’s Jesus. John’s Jesus is cool, confident, and in control. "I and the Father are one."  The tone of his speech is not the tone of a person who knows he is likely to be tortured and executed. It is the tone of someone going to receive a Nobel Prize.
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son my glorify you…”
When he is on trial he has philosophical debates with Pilate over truth and power. On the cross, while dying he arranges his familial affairs. "Take care of my mother", he says to the beloved disciple. He says he is thirsty, not because he is really thirsty, but because he fulfills scripture, then after he has finished his script, he says, “It is finished.” He bows his head politely, and gives up his spirit.

None of the torment of Mark’s Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” 

That would be heresy for John’s Jesus. John’s Jesus is a complete opposite of Mark’s Jesus.

Historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan, in his latest book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus, Crossan writes:
“The Jesus of Mark dies in human agony. The Jesus of John dies in divine radiance.” P. 233
What does all this mean?

A couple of things.

First, that when we read the gospels, the parables about Jesus, to use Crossan’s designation, we are reading conflicting and divergent views of Jesus. The gospel writers are not of one mind.

Second, these gospels are not biographies of Jesus. They are creative fictions or parables in which Jesus is a character in the story and he functions in different ways in each gospel. There are a small minority of scholars who think that the gospels are total fictions and that Jesus is a complete fiction. Most scholars would say there is an historical person in Jesus and we can know some things about him and speculate about other things. Even then, as a whole, the documents we have about him, namely the gospels, are creative parables that serve the interests of the writers.

Third, the gospels have both continuity and discontinuity with the historical person of Jesus. I personally find Dominic Crossan’s Jesus most compelling. This Jesus by telling parables challenged people to participate in God’s advent of distributive justice.

This is the kingdom of God that comes as a mustard seed becomes a weed. As leaven contaminates bread, so does peace through justice contaminate and thwart the dehumanizing violence of empire. Empire hates disorder. Therefore, be disorderly.

Be a weed. Be leaven.
Empire wants a place for everyone and everyone in her place.
Get out of place.
That is the message of Jesus.

By the time we get to the fourth century and the Nicene Creed, we have nearly total discontinuity between the historical Jesus and the Jesus as icon of empire. In the Nicene Creed, Jesus blesses the very system that oppresses. He becomes an otherworldly fantasy. The focus is not on what Jesus did or said, and certainly not about distributive justice, but about him as a gear in the church’s salvation machine. Worship Jesus. Recite the creed. Obey the emperor. You’ll escape hell and get to heaven.

The gospels have begun that journey toward the fourth century, but they have a long way to go and they still retain that message of Jesus, even as it begins to shift and take a different shape. Even in the earliest gospel, Mark, Jesus becomes the good news rather than someone who tells the good news.

However, there is still continuity between the gospels and the historical Jesus, even in John’s gospel. This continuity comes across in John’s use of the word cosmos, which is translated world. A better English rendering might be system as in domination system.

The domination system is that network of dehumanizing forces that include economic exploitation, racism, sexism, heterosexism, militarism, all enforced by legalized violence and legitimated by religious institutions.

“It is the way the world works,” we say.

John’s Jesus says of his disciples:
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” 17:16
The “world” does not mean physical reality, Earth, life, the world we know, as opposed to some spiritual or supernatural existence. That understanding comes later as Jesus becomes co-opted by empire and the institutional church. In the first century, including John’s gospel, the universe is of one piece and what happens here is what is real.

The “world” as John uses the term is the way of domination and injustice. It is an ideology en-fleshed in the various empires and their institutions. Its values include but are not limited to:

Peace by force. Peace by force is reinforced by the myth of redemptive violence. That is the lie that violence saves. If Jesus were told that he needs to thank a soldier for his freedom, Jesus would say, “No thanks. That is the freedom of this world or system. That is not true freedom.” Who should he thank by the way, the soldier who crucified him?

Another value of this world is that the order of the system is more important than those who suffer from the system. We are told that we must do everything to uphold Wall Street because the banks are too big to fail. We must keep our economic system growing even if it means destroying our home and causing suffering to the most in need. Making a primary commitment to housing, food, and healthcare for everyone would hurt the system. The system is more important than people.

You hear this kind of argument in the church. Well, if we allow those people in the church, what will people think? They might not give money to the church. Really? If the survival of your institution depends on pandering to discrimination, then your institution is probably not worth saving. Your church has become “the world.”

When Jesus says in John:
“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…” 17:16
…that isn’t religious talk. That isn’t spiritual talk in the sense that we normally think of religion and spirituality. It is real stuff. He is saying in effect in modern idiom,
“I do not share the values of this system of violence, exclusion, and inequality. The values I share are non-violence, inclusion, and distributive justice.”
That is the continuity between the historical Jesus and John. John’s conflict with his sibling Judaism that he puts on the lips of Jesus is not continuous with the historical Jesus. Obviously, Jesus was a Jew. Listen to this, when Jesus says to Pilate:
“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Certainly the reference to “the Jews” is discontinuous with the historical Jesus. But what does Jesus mean when he says my kingdom is not from this world? He doesn’t mean that his kingdom is in heaven above or in heaven after or as an internal spiritual escape. His kingdom is right here and now. And it is seen in the way we treat one another.

That way is not returning violence with violence.
That way is valuing people over the system.
That way is hospitality and welcome to everyone.

This is what I think is being said to Pilate:
“If my values and the values of my followers were the same as yours, Pilate, they would be fighting for me with the weapons of violence. But their values and mine are not those values. Let it be clear. That is why you are executing me. The world (your system) cannot handle my values.”
Before Jesus is arrested, John has Jesus offer this prayer.   It isn’t really a prayer, though.   It certainly is not a prayer born of anguish as is the prayer in Mark’s gospel.  

In John it is more of a sermon, a statement.

In this sermon he says something that I take home:
“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me….”
It is that verse that got me thinking of the children’s book by Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen. A little boy, Mickey, has a fantastic night journey, kind of surreal, like the Gospel of John, really. Under Mickey’s house is a bakery. The bakers are making breakfast cakes. Mickey almost gets baked in the oven.   He gets out.   The book is scary and funny at the same time. There is a playfulness about it as it addresses real things that children experience. As the bakers in Mickey’s dream are baking the cakes, Mickey falls into the milk and realizes,
“I am in the milk and the milk’s in me! God bless milk and God bless me!”
There is a playfulness and a confidence in the Gospel of John as well. Amidst all of this stuff that I just said about the world, the violence and the injustice that was true in the time of Jesus as it is now, it is also overcome as one participates in life in a different way. Jesus in John is confident as the day is long. He is arrested by 600 troops and they bow down before him. He carries his own cross. He decides when to breathe his last. He announces,
“I and the Father are one. I am in you and I am in them.”
“I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me.”
What I take from this, is that this way of being, this way of following a vision in opposition to the powers of violence and injustice in favor of non-violence and justice is agonizing and frustrating. And it appears that the good loses more than it wins. Says Jesus in Mark:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
But the sheer, brazen, fantastic confidence of John needs to be heard, too. This is the message that the victory has been won. The way of justice, joy, love, and peace has already defeated the world. The world doesn’t know it, yet. But it will. In the meantime, we live those values, confident that we are not alone. Confident also that these values were established before creation itself when the Word was with God and the Word was God.

And that Word is in you.



  1. At this rate you can take Easter Sunday off!

  2. Matthew has Jesus saying the first line of Psalm 22...a surprising number of parallels between this Psalm and the crucifixion story.