Pruning Enlightenment (John 15:1-8, 5th Sunday of Easter)

My yard calls me outside every weekend with its tangle of lush, wild growth. It’s spring, just as it’s spring in the joy of the fifty-day Festival of Easter. Does that mean it’s time to spring into action? Not yet. It’s time to BE – to be embedded in the great miracle and mystery of the oneness we share in the living vine of Christ and to allow God to do the necessary tending of the body we are together. The I AM is expressed in the well-pruned we are of the one body.

Contrary to how ‘enlightenment’ is  often seen in modern American culture – an achievement signaling arrival at the pinnacle – this  new dawning of light simply signals another season of growth. Awakening to our essential unity and gifting for the work of God in the world does not mean we are ready to enact it. The old ways of seeing and being still lie close at hand, something like the phantom limbs in the body  memory of an amputee.  It takes times for the new reality to penetrate our life together. Without that time, we run the risk of pouring the new energy and perception into old forms that serve the small self.

Rather than being purified into enlightenment, our enlightenment needs purification. In the same way a living grapevine needs pruning over and over again throughout its productive life, so does our common life. That’s the wisdom of the great, repeating cycle of Quadratos. The annual practice of praying Lent as our communal story opens into Easter, awakening and reawakening us to the essential unity we already are. In the words of Thomas Merton, “We are already one.  But we imagine that we are not.  And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we already are.” (The Asian Journal).

The practices of the journey plant us in the soil of ongoing life in which we touch and retouch that deep truth. To bear fruit out of this truth, we need a master gardener who knows well the art of pruning. Growth is to be disciplined (the same root as the word disciple) rather than being left to its own natural state. Not all shoots are equal; the question is which ones will bear the most fruit and the fruit of highest quality in a particular environment. Why? The new life given is not merely for our own building up but is fuel for eventual service in a hungry world. First, our enlightenment needs pruning.

Rather like steps 6 and 7 step of the 12 step process, the work of pruning is God’s work, not ours. It is the nature of our personal and communal life that we are unable to assess what has ultimate value. The annoying shoot we would lop off may be what is most needed for the eventual health and productivity of the Body in a changing world. Following honest self examination and confession of how it is with us (something like the work of the annual Lenten retreat), the 6th step says simply “Were entirely ready to have God remove our defects of character.” This is followed by step 7, “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.” Our part is to allow ourselves to be acted upon by BEING ready and then asking God for the necessary pruning.

Our primary work in this season of Easter joy is to abide, a word that appears eight times in four verses. Throughout the Festival season, we are to dwell in the Gift we have received, trusting the pruning of the Spirit to reveal what in us is gift and what needs to be let go or refined. Trust is key; there is no need for hyper-vigilance. The pruning is not a radical rooting out as much as attentiveness to creative purpose: “You have already been cleansed [pruned] by the word [Logos] that I have spoken to you.” The Logos is a living word that creates afresh with us for good beyond what we can now see. What we can ‘do’ in the meantime is to abide in our essential and newly reclaimed unity. Definitions of the word abide (μένω or menō in Greek) all resonate with the need to remain, to tarry, to continue to be. Most especially in this season we are to remain as one, not to become another or different oneness.” (Strong’s G3306)

What a charge! In this season, brothers and sisters in the One Body, let us stay, tarry, remain, BE who we already are, trusting the loving hand of the Gardener to shape us together toward a greater fruitfulness than we can now imagine.

How will we know his voice? John 10:11-18

With the image of the Good Shepherd, Jesus asserts his connection with his disciples which nothing can sever. Unlike the hired hand who has no investment in or true concern for those in her care, Jesus makes the ultimate sacrifice for his friends. He gives up his life so that they may live. He willingly handed himself over so that we could finally know God’s unconditional love.

As we rest in John’s garden during the Easter season, we are being asked to receive this love, to bask in the Son’s glorious fullness. For it is only as we know this love  that we may become unconditional love for others.

In the garden we cultivate the solitude that will let us recognize the “still, small voice” when we hear it.

Two men were walking along a crowded sidewalk in a downtown business area. Suddenly one exclaimed, “listen to the lovely sound of that cricket.” But the other could not hear. He asked his companion how he could detect the sound of a cricket amidst the din of people and traffic. The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to listen to the voices of nature. But he didn’t explain. He simply took a coin out of his pocket and dropped it to the sidewalk, whereupon a dozen people began to look about them. “We hear,” he said,” what we listen for.” As we listen for and hear God’s voice, we will find ourselves being shaped in ways that we would not necessarily have chosen for ourselves. We will find ourselves becoming who God intends for us to be and thus becoming more fully ourselves.

Who are we listening for in the silence of John’s garden?

“Why are you standing there looking up into the sky?” [Acts 1:11]

[This week’s readings are posted below.]

One disadvantage to focusing on a short reading each week is that we can lose sight of the larger story as it unfolds.  I am indebted this week to one of my mentors, Dr. Aaron Milavec, for pointing out that in this scene in the locked room, Jesus seemingly overlooks his having been abandoned by the Twelve.  They, of course are too ashamed to bring it up.  “But,” Milavec continues, “nothing has changed.  Jesus recalls his mission and their mission. [Jn.20:21]  The one and the other both override failure.  He believes in them!  And that is enough….”

Yet as we read the story as it continues in Acts, the disciples response to Jesus’ ascension is to “stand there looking up at the skies.” [Acts 1:11]  Sixteenth-century painter Hans Suess von Kulmbach (The Ascension of Christ)  provides a fitting—and you may find humorous—visual metaphor for the hazard posed also by Thomas’ persistent doubting [Jn.20:27]  Thomas has missed the meeting.  He is still stuck in his unbelief.  Jesus challenges him, “Stop persisting in your doubting. Believe!”  (One might be tempted to add, “Believe! –There’s work to be done!”)

“As our Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you” is a clear call to action—particularly with the disciples having been given the Holy Spirit to go forth with and within them.  Belief is only a first step, not the ultimate arrival point.

Action without belief can be pointless, directionless.  But belief without action is deadly, particularly for the church today.  Note, however, that this is not a polarity. Belief is braided together with action. Both are essential to the task at hand.  “…So I am sending you” means taking up the work of Jesus himself.  And it is not just an individual calling.  Now the community is to stand in the place of Jesus, continuing his work.  (John 17 speaks eloquently of how we, like Jesus, are now no longer of the world, but sent into it, to serve the same continuing purpose.)

Our first reading today [Acts 4:32-37] tells of the new church sharing all resources in common, being of one mind and one heart.  Some believers, for example, sell their property and give the proceeds to the whole body, so that the basic needs of all the believers are met. This is truly belief put into action!


John 20:19-31

19 On the evening of the first day of the week [the same day when Mary Magdalene had brought news of Jesus’ resurrection to the other deciples] the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Temple authorities.  Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”   20 He then showed them his hands and side, the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw him.

21 Jesus said again, “Peace be with you! As our Abba God has sent me,  so I am sending you.” 22 Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus–‘the twin’), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples kept telling him, “We have seen Jesus!”

But he said to them, “Unless I put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand in his side wound, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the locked room again, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, examine my hands. Put your hand into my side.    Don’t persist in your unbelief!  Believe.”

28Thomas responded to him, “My Savior and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “You have become a believer because you have seen me; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples  which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written to help you believe[or continue to believe] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in his name.

Acts 4:32-37

32 All the believers were of one mind and one heart. None of them claimed that any of their possessions was their own; instead they shared everything they had. 33  The apostles continued to testify with great power to the resurrection of the Jesus Christ, and God’s grace was powerfully at work in them all. 34 No one among them was needy.  From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the proceeds, 35 and put the money at the apostles’ feet.  It was then distributed to anyone who had need.  36 There was a certain Levite from Cyprus named Joseph–the apostles had given him the name Barnabas, meaning ‘encourager.’  37 He sold a farm that he owned and made a donation, presenting the money to the apostles.

Being Loosened from Constriction and Fear

We have arrived at the fifth week of our retreat focusing on renewing our relationships with each other, our community and our communion with Spirit/God. As we reflect on this Sunday’s text, remember it is given to us as a prayer meditation that our relationships and community life might be a more vital and expansive – ever growing with Spirit’s radiance and wisdom.

As we are re-discovering these weeks as the community retreat – remind yourself that each of these Sunday’s is about the prayer of self-emptying and noticing where in our thinking/feeling each of us is caught/attached rather than spacious and freely bending toward harmony and relatedness. Week by week we of the retreat, we seek to still and empty our minds. To move in this direction, we pull back from discussing world, cultural and even church events/issues. The retreat is an emptying from these contents. In the early Church – the retreat began with the bishop laying down the Crosier. Might we think again on this fifth Sunday of our retreat – what Crosier do I still need to lay down so that the community may be more one, more vital, more in harmony?

As you read the text, remember that John’s use of the term “world” is better translated as “less awareness or unreflective action.” Also recall that each instance in John that refers to “Jesus” or “I Am” is not a reference primarily to the Jesus of history, but rather to – Logos/Christ/One Breath/Dynamic Breathing of God – that has always been – even before the beginning of time.

Also recall that the core pattern of the retreat is the sequence of texts found in the Year of Matthew/Year A. This Sunday’s text continues the imagery from the Raising of Lazarus and its impact of calling us to be a person and a community of less fear and constriction. As you read the text through this lens, what are your reflections? We would love to hear from you.

Our prayer for the fifth week:
O Breath of Our Oneness, by your grace, may we receive every loosening of our thoughts, feelings and attitudes – from constriction and fear.

John 12:20-33
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–‘ Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”
The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

To See Our Own Blindnesses

We have arrived at the fourth week of our retreat focusing on renewing our relationships with each other, our community and our communion with Spirit/God. And our text for reflection this week is one that has been so badly interpreted that the words out of context have wounded, enslaved and actually led to murder in the name of God. As we reflect on this text, remember it is given to us as a prayer meditation that we might be a more vital, expansive and growing community filled with Spirit’s radiance and wisdom.

Below is the traditional (NRSV) translation of this Sunday’s gospel text. Scroll further down and you will find my Quadratos translation.

If so moved, take this contemporary translation into the heart of your community, whether it be the intimacy of two or hundreds.

Our prayer for this fourth week of retreat:
O Breath of Our Oneness – give us the grace of true vision, so that we might see our own blindnesses and have the courage to grow in The Way (attitude and action) of Your One Breath.

How might our prayer that we see our own blindnesses to Spirit and to each other, change and expand our relationships with each other and with Spirit?

4th Sunday of Community Retreat: Gospel Text – John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Quadratos translation as understood by Alexander:
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must God’s Breath be lifted up, that whoever believes in the God’s dynamic breathing may know eternal life beyond the life just in time. For God so loved our lesser awareness that God gave God’s very breath that everyone who believes in the one Breath that fills the Cosmos may not perish in time but may know eternal life. Indeed, God did not send The Christ – the full manifestation of God’s Breathing – into lesser awareness to condemn our unawareness, but in order that our lesser awareness might expand through God’s breathing. Those who believe in God’s breath are not condemned to live just in time. But those who do not know of Spirit and timelessness are condemned already, because they do not know God’s Breath. And this is the judgment, that expansion-radiance has come into our lesser awareness, and people loved unawareness rather than expansion because their deeds were unreflective. For all who are unreflective hate transformation-expansion and do not choose to live in The Way of God’s Breathing so that their attitudes/actions may not be raised to awareness. But those who do what is true come to the dynamic expansion of God’s breathing, so that it may be clearly seen that their life expands in the manner of God’s breathing”