Readings: Isaiah 56:1-8, John 12:20-33, Secrets of Heaven #679 (see below)
See also on YouTube at https://youtu.be/AWOyCgVZY_U
During the past year, one particular thing has not been available to us as it once had been: gathering together. We willingly relinquished this pleasure out of a concern for our fellow human beings; we sacrificed something important to us for the sake of love. Though very hard, it was and continues to be, a beautiful offering.
Now, as vaccination numbers increase, we are starting to be able to see each other in person again, albeit in small and careful ways. We are starting to entertain plans for the future that have been on hold. We are anticipating being able to gather again. For The Church of the Holy City, we will do our best to be thoughtful and diligent with any plans to return in person, including the question of how our folks who live at a distance might continue to join our worship.
How appropriate then, that this week’s lectionary speaks of Jesus drawing people together towards himself. The gospel text harkens back to the prophets, such as Isaiah in chapter 56, who would often speak of the nations gathering in Jerusalem. So, as we imagine our future togetherness, I thought it might be appropriate to think about gathering in theological terms.
In many places, the Old Testament is clear that, even though it is primarily the story of God’s relationship with one people, the Children of Israel, that God’s provision and concern extends beyond that relationship to the whole world. We see examples of God being on speaking terms with kings of other nations, references to what seems to be a pre-existing relationships with people of other nations, and most prominently, prophecies of a future time when people of all nations would stream into Jerusalem.
Isaiah 56 joins that tradition, and as well as specifically speaking into the post-exilic world of Israel. At the time of its writing, many of those who were in exile in Babylon have returned to their homeland. Many of those who stayed in Israel have intermarried with people of other nations. And now both groups are grappling with how to define themselves as a community and a people once they are all back together. They are wondering: Who is included? What marks inclusion? Of particular interest is the mention of eunuchs. We might wonder how they fit in to this particular context. Some scholars think that to become a eunuch furthered advancement in the Persian and Babylonian courts.(1) Now, eunuchs returning to Israel might worry about how they fit into the covenant, the narrative anchored as it has always been so firmly in the language of progeny and descendants. Additionally, those who have inter-married are also wondering how they might fit in. Into this anxiety, God speaks inclusion. All those who value and hold fast to the covenant will be included. Israel’s God is a gathering god.
As we fast forward to gospel of John, we find that Jesus fulfills the spirit of God’s promises spoken in Isaiah 56. Our text today begins with outsiders, Greeks, coming to see Jesus and Jesus sharing his essential mission with them. Indeed, it was becoming quite the concern to the authorities, to quote the verse right before our text (12:19) “So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” Jesus continued a tradition of inclusion throughout his ministry. When viewed with a broad lens, the upshot is this: those we think shouldn’t be included, and those who believe themselves unworthy of being included, always are.
Now, as we turn to our Swedenborgian lens, I’m sure you can guess that we will be exploring a more internal level. As we heard in our reading, in a deeper sense, gathering also refers to the goods and truths that are gathered within our hearts and minds. As we go through our lives, we pick things up and we squirrel them away. A new piece of information or a new perspective. A truism with which we resonate. The joy of making a difference. The memory of a kindness. A story that communicates something hopeful, truthful, or poignant. We gather true things and good things that stay with us, and start to coalesce into a worldview, an approach to life. God uses these things to regenerate us, to help us grow and mature spiritually on our journey.
But of course, the quality and character of those things that we have gathered in our hearts and minds affects how effectively God *can* regenerate us. What if we have gathered to ourselves the conviction that we are superior to others? That power and money make us worthy? What if we have never experienced the satisfaction of making a difference in someone else’s life, or have been taught that such an effort is weakness? What if we have experienced nothing but derision or lack of safety? What if all we’ve been able to gather for ourselves is fear, or ambition or grievance? This makes it much more difficult for God to lead and guide us.
Clearly, what we have gathered unto ourselves during our lives is a complex mix of what we choose to see and confirm, what have been exposed to, and what we are willing to learn. A complex mix of what we choose to open ourselves to and what has been offered to us.
Here we find the notion of gathering to be a powerful nexus point. In body, when we gather, we have an opportunity to model God’s compassion and inclusion and care, which then contributes powerfully to the gathering of spiritual good and truth in the hearts and minds of those gathered and included. As always in the Swedenborgian worldview, we find multiple levels operating simultaneously in an interconnected way. When we gather together in body, we multiply and intensify the gathering of internal goods and truths in each individual, the sum of us creating an opportunity that is not available to us on our own. This can be incredibly joyful, healing and connective. But we see conversely how the opposite can work as well. On one hand, how powerfully exclusion communicates and intensifies unworthiness to those on the outside, and on the other hand, how it communicates superiority to those on the inside.
For certainly, we can gather in a nefarious ways. In our own hearts and minds, we can gather knowledge and experience and information for selfish purposes. In the body, we can gather in ways that serve to create exclusion, group think, dominance, violence. Any time there is a gate keeper, power and supremacy are at play.
But we must remember that Jesus makes a crucial distinction in our text. The way that he would draw people to himself, the way the in-gathering of the world was to occur, was through his death, through sacrifice. He could have located the significance and promise of “gathering” with his triumphal entry just accomplished, with people waving palms and yelling praise, for there certainly was a crowd. But the promise inherent in drawing the world to himself is more than just a question of numbers, more than the power such numbers suggest to the earthly mind. Instead, he talks of a seed shedding its own limited existence in order to create many more seeds, to create fruit. “…unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (12:24) The in-gathering must be anchored in sacrifice, for that is the only thing that can make fertile soil for the growth that is to come.
So, what that means for us, as we consider the theme of gathering? It is the opportunity to ask ourselves question like:
For what do we gather, either internally or in-person? Are we gathering to serve our own selfhood? Or, are we focused on gathering to ourselves good things that will make a fertile soil for a growing heart and mind? A fertile soil for expansive and welcoming spaces? What motivates us? The inherent generativity of God’s heavenly kingdom or the way gathering bolsters our identity? Are we willing to sacrifice the single seed of our selfhood, so that the new open space might produce a living plant with leaves, flowers, fruit and many many more seeds? Asking these questions can help us clear away what needs to be cleared away, so that new growth can occur, much like the spring garden clean-ups we might be doing now that the weather has started to warm.
So, even as we have been prevented this year from gathering in-person, let us meditate upon what has been gathered within us due to the sacrifice we have made. Resilience, new skills, compassion, care and concern, gratitude. These things came out of giving up what we didn’t want to give up. And as we imagine our return to in-person community, in all kinds of ways, let us meditate upon how our physical spaces, our houses of worship and other places, can be more than just wood and stone and glass, but can be spaces that honor the way being present to one another supports everyone’s spiritual growth, that gathering in body supports what is gathered to our hearts and minds.
(1) The New Interpreter’s Bible, p513.
1 This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. 2 Blessed is the one who does this— the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” 3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— 7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” 8 The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
Secrets of Heaven #679
'He was to gather them for himself' means truths. This is clear from what has been stated above, for 'gathering' has reference to the things that are in a person's memory, where they have been gathered together. It embodies in addition the point that the former and the latter - goods and truths - need to be gathered together in [a person] before regeneration takes place. Indeed unless goods and truths have been gathered together to serve as means through which the Lord may do His work, a person cannot possibly be regenerated…