Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Not long ago I went to a show called `White Spirit` as part of the Festival of Perth. Led by the haunting voice of Noureddine Khourchid, the son of a Syrian Sufi sheik, seven singers performed invocations, songs of praise and Sufi poems as three Whirling Dervishes from Damascus hypnotically spun on the stage. This was made even more vivid with illuminated calligraphy painted by Tunisian street artist Shoof.
My friend and I stayed on afterwards to hear Noureddine and one of the dancers being interviewed by a journalist with a translator. When asked what he was experiencing, what it meant for him to be twirling for so long, and whether he was in a trance state, he seemed to imply No - I think he took the word trance to mean `not conscious` whereas he experienced being `fully aware`. Because he went on to say that in his dancing he felt a sense of unity with God, a connection that all was one - you me everyone was included in that. And I sat there thinking that`s not so far off how I see God - as an endless energy, holding the universe as one whole, yet expressed in a myriad of ways.
As many of you know I have a great wariness of the prescriptiveness of Islamic religion, indeed of any religion. And yet Islam also has beautiful expressions in architecture and poetry and the Sufi mystic side. And then it occurred to me that all three monotheistic religions (Judaism. Christianity and Islam) have both their dogmatic and their mystic sides. The problem is that whilst dogma in the form of absolute principles can be written down and shared with anyone, experiencing divine mystery cannot - because it has to be felt or encountered. I think that is what the writer of John`s gospel is struggling to do as he tries to express Jesus`s sense of the mystery of God.
By way of contrast in today`s reading from Jeremiah we hear about a valuing of God`s new covenant as laws needing to be written on the heart. Israel was facing annihilation by the Babylonians. Six centuries or so earlier the first Moses covenant had arisen out of the mystical experiences by a burning bush and on a mountain top in an era of suffering produced by great social injustice and upheaval.
The problem is that by Jesus`s time, six centuries after Jeremiah, such a valuing had become absolutes with drastic penalties fuelling even more social injustice on top of Roman oppression. Interestingly Christianity emerges from this suffering time to follow a very similar pattern. A few hundred years after his death, Jesus` and the disciples` dynamic experiences were being set in the concrete of credal statements. This in turn became the absolutes that fuelled the inquisition, witch hunts and persecutions in Europe from medieval times.
And the same process has happened in Islam. The mystical cave experiences of Mohammed during a time of tribal warfare led him to create a unifying value system based on monotheistic teachings preached previously by Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets. At this time of political disorder in the early 7th century Saudi Arabia, it also helped him to gain power through building up followers.
And therein lies the problem with all religions in that there will always be those who seek power. And having religious absolutes becomes a great tool for those who seek to control others. I found it fascinating as I was writing this to see a pattern emerging in each tradition of approximately twelve hundred years from fresh theological understandings happening within social upheaval through to seeming absolutism.
It would seem we are due for something new to emerge for I am certain the spiritual mystic side of life will continue to find fresh ways of expression. And so I conclude by sharing the poem Bill Loader wrote as a reflection on this passage from John`s gospel.
The seed has fallen.
For a moment I saw it lying upon the earth,
But now it is gone,
Disappeared in the dark earth,
Hidden from view,
Invisible in the depths,
As though swallowed up
Under the trampled earth,
Let it go.
It is but a seed,
Irrecoverable in the silence of death,
The silence of death which lies beneath our feet.
And if I wait or return to this place,
It may come again with angels,
Pressing upward to embrace the light
And smile new beginnings to the sky.
And from my feet
I would feel the new life rising up
Through my body,
Filling my heart,
Giving life to my breathing,
Turning my mind to peace and love,
Rising beyond me to celebrate hope,
To push aside the powers of injustice,
To proffer the birds a shelter,
A place of renewal,
A place of feeding,
Nourished with new seed,
The mystery of grace.
`Sir, we wish to see Jesus.`
By William Loader