In The Proverbs, a central feature of Judeo-Christian Wisdom Literature, we read, among many wisdoms, the following depiction of wisdom itself:
…when purpose first unfolded
before the oldest of works
from everlasting, I was firmly set,
from the beginning, before earth came into being.
The deep water was not, when I was born.
There was no spring to gush with water.
Before the mountains were settled
before the hills, I came to birth….
I was at God’s side, a master craftsman
delighting in God day after day
ever at play in God’s presence,
at play everywhere in the world,
delighting to be among humanity.
Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
And it’s actually helpful, as we seek to ever more clearly live our call as God’s agents in the world – helpful to think in terms of sharing, in some way, in an expression of pre-existing wisdom.
Because sharing in that wisdom, conceptually, brings comfort, let’s consider for a few moments how it might unfold for us and for God.
We can start by noticing that wisdom is, decidedly, not knowledge. Knowledge may be power in worldly terms, but it’s not wisdom. And today’s gospel lesson highlights that truth in Jesus’ inimitable style.
You see, we’re in the midst of one of those discussions that appear with some frequency in John’s gospel – think of Nicodemus and the question of being re-born, or the Woman at the Well and the notion of living water, or any number of encounters with the disciples – including the sprawling Great Discourse after the Last Supper – think on these and you will find Jesus doing very nearly the same thing as he is doing in this exchange in chapter 6, as he makes increasingly confusing references to himself as bread.
Jesus seems to like stating theological metaphors – birth, water, bread. In this setting, he’d begun by talking about “the bread from heaven”, and he was misunderstood. He goes on, hardly making it easier on his questioners. He “explains” by making a statement that, while clearer in some ways, winds up being even more offensive. “I am the bread of life”, he says. This gets the crowd grumbling and complaining, because ordinarily, the response in the face of confusion is to soften, to make more gentle and more acceptable a response, to offer a response less open to objection. That’s what we do with each other as humans. Not Jesus. At each stage in the discourse he makes his initial claim even more bold and provoking until, at the end, when he defines the bread that he will give as his own flesh, the people wind up becoming very concerned about what following Jesus may involve.
Theologian L. William Countryman, author of “The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel” likes to describe these kinds of exchanges as “the obnoxious discourses”. I can’t dispute him.
Jesus doesn’t seem interested in making things easier to swallow. He’s certainly not interested in affirming what the Judeans – or we, for that matter – think is concrete knowledge of him, ourselves and of circumstances.
It’s as if he’s trying to tell us that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and even more – that, ultimately, all we can bring into our identity and purpose as God’s agents, is a little knowledge.
It soon begins to seem, in these obnoxious discourses, like Jesus purposefully places confusion in our paths. To find out what he means – which is always the object of his questioners – we are met with profound confusion. Like Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman and the Jews in today’s lesson, our default impulse is to employ our best skills in terms of knowledge. And Jesus baffles us in order that we might let go of what we think we know – let go of our thinking, even – and dwell in our hearts in order to meet him there.
Make no mistake, however, this counter-cultural process of intentionally letting go of our impulse to frame everything in our lives in terms of thought, or rationalizing, or somehow containing with intellect – letting go of that is not only counter-cultural, it’s difficult! And it’s difficult even when everything seems to be going our way, let alone when we happen to be in a moment in our lives when confusion seems to reign.
Can that be the reign of God?
Can our confusion – our thinking in our self-involved way that we’ve stumbled randomly or created a situation ourselves – can the revelation of such confusion in our lives even in this very day and age – can this be Jesus’ attempt to draw us, through obnoxious discourse, into our own hearts?
How, then, do we discern trust that, in such places, God is doing something new which objects and circumstances cannot undermine or negate? How do we learn to submit everything – even our highest-stakes issues and our most pressing concerns – to Jesus? How do we find comfort less in what we do, and more in opening our hearts to what God is doing?
How do we do this when, honestly, we know God not to speak up, let alone step up? Leaving everything to God may seem naïve, if not ridiculous. We’ve had enough of silly church-talk. We just know too much for it to be true.
A little knowledge. Knowledge may be power, but it isn’t wisdom.
And yet God uses our knowledge to give purpose – to shape a journey – to help provide direction.
Whatever the details of this journey are for us, its purpose is to draw us into life as part of God’s reign – a reign characterized as “already/not-yet” – a reign in which human-made conditions cannot damage or even contradict.
Matthew Fox, author of “Original Blessing” and much more, has done a good deal of research on the 14th century German mystic Meister Eckhart. And percolating up through Eckhart’s substantial writings floats an idea that may be helpful in the subject matter at hand.
Eckhart affirms that we are called to be God’s agents in the world – to be, as he puts it, “other Christs” or “sons and daughters of God”. And he is drawn toward how it is we might, as it is said in The Proverbs, get about being “ever at play in God’s presence”. This kind of blessedness, he submits, is to be in touch with nothingness – not by a lot of ascetic practices, not by penitences and external practices which cling to the selfish “I”. Rather, it happens by our learning to let go. And Eckhart’s genius is that the gentle letting go is the first in a two-fold process – the twin strands of which are exquisitely intertwined.
This letting go of part of our nature – letting go of knowledge and intellect, even as it applies to how we “know” God (Eckhart is a radical) – letting go of God, for God’s sake – this is essential in order that God fully have the freedom to move in our lives – in order that God may shine in ALL things – that ALL things may have divine savor and God may become visible in all things anew.
In fact, letting go in this way allows us to see the divinity behind the divine in all things. And this invites us to move from regarding objects and events in terms of their usefulness, and accepting them as they are, in their autonomy.
Which brings us to the second part of the two-fold process. You see, the ultimate experience of letting go, is letting be. Which is different. Which begins to move us from release or relinquishment, and into openness and receptivity – into true reverence, a reverence that, rather than directing us away from things and events, requires us to return to them and see them newly.
In good times and amid confusions, make your intention as “other Christs” – intend the highest good – and then let go – let be – and begin to look for clues as to how God may be speaking up and stepping up in what may seem very unlikely ways in your life. Speaking up and stepping up in God’s way.
Yes. The risk of setting out on this journey is that, even when we think we may have a map or a plan, we don’t really know where we’re going or where we’ll end up.
But the good news is that Jesus – confusing as he can be in scripture and in life – rather than being linked with our knowledge and understanding, is the source of our calling and the source of our strength. In those moments when we’ve, understandably, had enough of this life and cannot trust Jesus, Jesus has not had enough of us.
Letting go and letting be are about a return to creation, not a flight from it. They are our way of seeing creation newly – with wisdom – which actually means the way it is, the way it originally was, and the way it was always intended to be, namely in God.
We become, by letting go and letting be, eternally in God’s presence, at play – at play everywhere in the world – delighting to be among humanity.