“I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you gave me is from you, because the words you gave to me I have given to them, and they accepted them and truly understood that I came from you, and they have believed that you sent me.”
At the center of the prayer that Jesus gave us when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray are the words “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In today’s passage from John 17, Jesus tells us that this is the description of his very reason for being, his mission in the world. At the end of his life, Jesus prays that now those whom God has given him realize “that everything you gave me is from you.” For those with eyes to see, Jesus is the same presence before and after the Ascension, including throughout his earthly life. For he has always been utterly transparent. All of his words and his actions have been what God has given to him to say and to do. Thus, from the spiritual perspective, we have not really lived or realized our distinctive humanity and life call until we also become transparent, until the word of God is spoken through our actions and words.
In today’s reading from Acts, Paul says, “Yet I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace.” For Paul, the fact that he may be killed is of no importance because the ministry he has received from the Lord is the manifestation of eternal life in him.
The distance between Jesus and ourselves is that for most of our lives we are busy making a life. Many years ago, one of the greatest compliments one could be paid would be to be seen as “a self-made person.” Significantly enough when this was a common expression it was “a self-made man,” presumably because in the consciousness of the times “men” could create their own lives but “women” could not. We self-create, however, in reaction to our secrets. Freud will say our character is built as reaction to our losses. This is why to really know ourselves or each other we must come to learn our secrets and mourn our losses.
The life we construct, then, is very far from transparent. The energy we exert in projecting a certain image to the world, often even in our efforts to do and be good, are thus obfuscations of God’s will being done in the world. When we are the center of attention, we are distractions from the work and presence of God. When the matter at hand is “about us,” then to that degree there is no space for God to be recognized. Is an aspect of the mystery of the “Messianic secret” in the gospels Jesus’ knowledge that he has come to manifest God, not himself?
So what does any of this mean in practice? Rowan Williams says that “we have to be the place where the question of God, the mystery of God, comes alive.” He goes on to say that what this requires of us is our “letting God be in us and showing as best we can that we’re struggling to let God be by holding back, recognizing that we are powerless to express, let alone to ‘manage’, the mystery.” Theodore James Ryken speaks of his own experience as that of suffering an experience of being put in his place and then being able to turn toward God. Our typical consciousness has ourselves at the center. We are constantly seeking, in both subtle and not so subtle ways, the respect, attention, and confirmation of others. And, given our life formation and cultural experience, we are convinced that the achieving of those things will require that we keep secret or hidden what is uncertain, confused, fearful, shameful, and ugly in us.
Yet, Williams says that who we really are is “the place where the question of God, the mystery of God, comes alive.” So, when we are put in our place we find ourselves in the truth of our uncertainty, confusion, fear, and shame. We are where we belong, face to face with the mystery of life and of God. There is a wisdom in the reaction that our “secular” culture has to certain manifestations of religious belief. While religion is really the way in which together we are called to acknowledge and conform our lives to mystery, its degraded forms often present themselves under the guise of certainty, arrogance, and smugness. Instead of shared awe and openness to all that is more than ourselves, our religious assemblies can become places where we declare the ultimacy of the gods of our own design and divine decree of our own superiority.
What is it that we are to “hold back” in order “to let God be God”? It is to restrain the striving of our own unconscious to create a world with ourselves at the center. It is, in a typical paradox of the spiritual life, to recognize that we have no idea how to express the will of God in this moment. Although we trust that God’s way will ultimately be done, we are aware of our inability to make it happen by our own knowledge and power. So, as the Eastern traditions teach, we must first practice “not doing.” We must hold back from the sense of urgency that would make us react out of habit.
Recently we have been engaged in a serious attempt to foster within our congregation a new appreciation of the need to listen deeply to each other and to God, that we might become more available as a community to God’s call to and for us. The amount of work and time expenditure required in the attempt to create the space for this to occur among us has been quite overwhelming. The work, however, has also proved deeply satisfying and rewarding. So, it becomes very easy for me, in the midst of my own combination of anxiety and enthusiasm, to “forget” to take the time in silence and stillness to “let God occur.” I readily fall prey to what Rowan Williams describes: “So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity.”
“Work” becomes a problem for us because, unlike Jesus, our work is not single-minded and single-hearted. For Jesus, work is the expression in the world and to others of God’s word and will. Jesus, in his words and deeds, allows God to be God in the moment and to the others. When Paul says that he considers his life of no importance, he is speaking of his “self-made” life. He knows his deeper life, which is “the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus.” In this time between the Ascension and Pentecost, we reflect on Jesus telling us that he must go if the Spirit is to come. So it is with us. We must silence all in us that clamors for attention if the Spirit is to do its work through us. Since our very personalities and character are created to garner attention and to cover over our sense of loss and lack, our self-emptying is never complete in this life. And so, our work will always both manifest and conceal the mystery of God.
Because our work will always call us to a greater dying to self and living for God, because our ministry will always be both a ministry of the Word and an assertion of the self, it is one of our principal ways of reformation and transformation. To die to ourselves in the gospel sense is not to refuse or deny the gift of God that we are. In fact, it is precisely the opposite. It is to receive our lives and all that is part of them with appreciation and awe of the Giver. It is to know that all we are is given by God. As we come to see ourselves not as our own possession but as God’s, then, others will come to know in our words and deeds what Jesus declares: “that everything you gave me is from you.”
We have to be to some extent, in our small way, like Jesus before the judges; we have to be the place where the question of God, the mystery of God, comes alive. It’s not that we’re saying and doing such devastatingly interesting things that we’re blazing with holiness and mysteriousness in our ordinary lives (it would be very nice but it doesn’t happen a lot). Rather, we will transmit something just by letting God be in us and showing as best we can that we’re struggling to let God be, by holding back, recognizing that we are powerless to express, let alone to ‘manage’, the mystery.
I was struck recently while reading Julian of Norwich again by how much at the very heart of her vision there is the sense that all you’ve got to do in prayer is let God be God, remembering that Christ says to her, ‘I am the ground of thy beseeching’, I am your prayer.’ That is the mystery that’s going on when we try to pause, stop, be still, be in silence, let God occur. So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity; and yet for God to communicate who and what God is, God needs our silence.
Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, pp. 97-8