March 5 2023 “In the Beginning was the Conversation”
Today’s reading from John’s gospel is perhaps one of the most well-known of scripture, and for many people it comes with difficult associations. Once when we were discussing this passage in a church group, a new person said that when she heard this passage she felt her stomach clench, because she had so often heard it interpreted to mean that unless people believed a very particular subset of doctrines about Jesus one could not go to heaven, and she wanted to run screaming if that was what our church believed. Her whole body had a visceral reaction to hearing it that for her was indicative of religious trauma.
Here at St. John’s, we understand the great Mystery we call God to be the very essence of love, and that Jesus shows us what this love looks like. We believe God is always seeking to share blessing, love and life with us, regardless of what our theology might be. So how can we understand this passage in a way that is healing and life-giving?
In John’s gospel, Jesus constantly refers to abiding with God, being together with God. For scripture scholar Karoline Lewis, when Jesus talks about the “kingdom of God” in John’s gospel, it is:
a synonym for being in relationship with God… [The kingdom of God] is the abiding place for God and Jesus and the believer. Jesus’ kingdom is not necessarily an alternate empire to that of Roman control but…the place and space of belonging.
Belonging is the second great value of St. John’s after sacredness. In the value sacredness we affirm original blessing—that God made everything, blessed all of creation including people and called us all good. Our second value, belonging, is about the kinship of all things. Perhaps instead of referring to Jesus’ kingdom we ought to refer to Jesus’ “kin-dom”—the realm in which we are all kin, all relatives of one another, ourselves with ants and woodpeckers and elders and babies and refugees and people experiencing homelessness and you and me.
In order to recognize this kin-dom, this place where we truly belong, we must be born from above, says Jesus. He says that we must be born of water and the Spirit. The first chapter of the Bible describes the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, like a mother in labor who gives birth to all of creation. In both Hebrew and Greek the word spirit also means breath and wind. God breathes the breath of life, the spirit of life, into the first person’s nostrils, and the man becomes a living soul. So when Jesus says we must be born of the spirit, Jesus is evoking the incredible power of creation itself, which was not a one-time event at the dawn of time but a constant event meant to refer to you and me and all that is continually being born. Jesus is saying, you are being born right now, you are being made new at this moment and can be made new in every moment, receiving the breath of God each time you yourself take breath.
But it’s more than that.
Bear with me, I’m going to geek out about language some more, but trust me that it is all going somewhere. It turns out that English and Greek are both object or noun-based languages. Only 30% of the words in English are verbs. The paradigm of reality that our language presents to us is that the universe is made of objects that act. Although physicists tell us that at the quantum level, subatomic particles are both matter and energy, our language conceives of everything as matter.
But there are some languages, including Hebrew and the language Jesus spoke, Aramaic, and also many Indigenous languages, that are verb based. Try to follow along with me here. They would not see you as a thing, but as a happening that is constantly flowing and changing. You are a verb. The first name God gives to Godself in Hebrew is Yahweh, which means something like I am becoming what I will become. God is a verb. This implies that everything exists in an interconnected web of happening, that everything is impacting everything else. There are no isolated, static, unmoving things or persons out there.
John’s gospel begins with words that are usually translated as follows: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Greek word logos is today being translated as word. But it means much more than a single Word. In Mandarin, this same word is translated as Tao, the organizing flow of reality. According to author Victoria Loorz, until the 4th century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, the word logos was translated into the Latin word for conversation. In the beginning was the conversation, and the conversation was with God, and the conversation was God. The word conversation implies a dynamic and divine relationship at the heart of reality that is not just between humans, and not just between God and humans, but between all life, all that exists. Robin Kimmerer, a Native American biologist and author, calls this sacred reciprocity. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this the web of interbeing.
What I’m trying to say is that what you are made of matters. Where you come from, your origin, matters. And in this passage Jesus is evoking the power of creation, the most basic organizing principle of the universe, which is not of isolated individuals but of a sacred interaction of giving and receiving, knowing and being known, eating and giving oneself for the nourishment of others. This is where you come from: the web of belonging that you are a part of along with everything else, that is always in communication, if only we have ears to hear it.
This is why in my Ash Wednesday sermon, the Native American elder I quoted could say that he understood what the birds were saying, because he had listened deeply to them for years and knew himself to be in relationship with them and all else. This is why we need never feel alone, because we are never alone. This is also why we can never see other people or life as objects, or here only for our use, as “resources.” There is a sacred, shimmering God-presence that is the origin of all things and that is speaking and giving, listening and receiving, among us all. It turns out by the way that even in our spoken language, only 5% of communication is words. The rest is tone and body language. All creation is speaking this 95% of communication all the time. Can you listen for it? Can you hear it?
How does one experience all this in practice?
On Friday I picked my daughter Carly up from school, and we went straight to the chocolate store, because obviously. Then we went to Rice Creek Regional Park, and we engaged a practice from something called Church of the Wild, that we at St. John’s are going to begin experimenting with. In Church of the Wild, people go out into the natural world to spend deeply respectful time listening to and interacting with some specific more-than-human being in the natural world, and then coming together and talking about it. Part of Wild Church’s out-in-nature “church service” is to gently ask permission before one approaches another being like a tree or a bird or a rock. So when Carly and I got to Rice Creek Regional Park and decided to go off the trail, we imagined a shimmering border of energy we were about to pass, like the front door of the house of the wild creatures we were seeking to enter. We internally asked permission to come in, and re-oriented our awareness from our internal chatter to being gentle and respectful and open, perceiving the wholeness and the web of life all around us that we belonged to. We trudged through the snow and spent some time on our own, picking sacred spots where we could sit on tree trunks to watch the sun getting low, to hear the ducks flying and woodpeckers chirping, and to see the rabbit tracks in the snow. We saw the fresh bite marks of a beaver around the trunk of a small tree near the creek. Afterward Carly told me she really liked our time there and that she wanted to come back often. There was a sense of wholeness and belonging that I suspect many of you have had in the woods, that was refreshing and that changed us and made us want to care well for this beautiful creation that is home for us and all our relatives.
In the beginning was the conversation, and the conversation was with God, and the conversation was God. You are part of a sacred reciprocity with all things. You can not ever be alone. You are born of Spirit, of energy that is constantly changing and will one day become something else when your body dies and nourishes the rest of creation as all things do when they die. Can you see this kin-dom of God you belong to?
This week, consider getting up a bit earlier so that you can put on your hat and warmest coat and boots and step outside. Consider asking permission to enter the home of your relatives the more-than-human beings out there, and then greet the tree people and your human kin and the Spirit-breath of God shimmering in all things. As I said in my Ash Wednesday sermon, seek to cultivate a profound inner quiet so that you can listen to the conversation happening all around you that includes you. You are born of belonging and the Spirit of God. You are being made new. You are part of the sacred conversation all life is having with God and each other. Amen.
 Karoline Lewis, John (Fortress Press, 2014) at 47.
 Victoria Loorz, Church of the Wild (Broadleaf Books, 2021), chapter 6.