In spirit and in truth – Third Sunday in Lent 2011

When you and I were growing up, we knew that religion was true; specifically our form of religion was true; and we measured all other forms by it. Some groups, like, say, Presbyterians and Methodists, were more or less ok, at least they sang the same hymns. Other groups were to be either avoided or converted. I have a useful little volume called “Cults and Isms” which sets out, from an Evangelical perspective,  the characteristic false teaching of various sects and cults such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. First of the cults it deals with is – “Roman Catholicism”. The nearest we came to exotic religion was at Passover when the Chief Rabbi gave a short talk on RTE. But Jews always seemed a bit like another Protestant group,  a sort of biblical hangover, in Catholic Ireland. The first really outside group that I can remember was the Hare Krishnas, who dressed in orange and shaved their heads and livened up Westmoreland Street on a Saturday with their chanting and drumming.

All is changed, changed utterly; whether a terrible beauty is born or not is another matter. First came ecumenism; then multi-culturalism. Our schools have pupils from every religion and none; and in religion class we teachers are expected to understand and explain all religions and none. It is, I think, easier to be positive about major world faiths, such as Islam or Buddhism, than (perhaps) about deviant forms of Christianity, such as Mormonism or the Witnesses. So far most of my problems have come from fundamentalist Christians rather than the usual run of teenage agnostics and atheists.

Officially all religions are treated as more-or-less equal, but what sort of equality is it?  Are all equally valid approaches to the divine, so that each has something to teach, and all should be publically celebrated? Or is each equally contrived nonsense, so that all should be banned from public life in an enlightened secular society?

By and large, we cope very well. “Love your neighbour as yourself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” commend an attitude of “live and let live”. As long as we are reasonably free to practice our faith in our own way we don’t object when others do the same. We get rather more concerned either when attempts are made to convert us, or to suppress religion altogether.

But how do we fit this practical tolerance together with the very particular and exclusive claims to truth that we find in the Gospel, especially perhaps in John’s Gospel? A major theme of John is the inferiority of Judaism, or at the very least its redundancy, having been superseded by its Christian offspring. That is understandable, given that Christianity was defining itself against its parent when the gospel was written; but in our age the negative references to “the Jews” looks like, and could certainly encourage, a most undesirable anti-semitism.  Jacob’s well, in today’s passage, represents the religion of Israel (Jacob’s other name); and it is contrasted with the superior “living water” which Jesus will give. Further, the Samaritan woman asks this man, who seems to be a prophet or even Messiah, to judge between Samaritans and Jews – whose religion is right? “We worship here on Mt Gerizim; but you Jews say we should only worship in Jerusalem”. Samaritans were felt to have an impure form of Judaism, somewhat mixed -up with pagan ideas; this may be what is meant by the woman’s five husbands – a sort of adulterated religion, akin to paganism. Who is right? Well, Jesus does not opt for the post-modern answer: “Whatever you believe is true for you”. He says, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we Jews what we do know, for salvation if from the Jews”. In ancient Greek thought, you could only speak of knowing something if that something was in fact true. If it wasn’t, then you didn’t know it: you only thought you knew it, you had an opinion, but a false one. I take this phrase to mean, Samaritans do not know, because what they have is not true. Jews however do know, because their Scriptures, rightly understood, point them to Jesus who is the Truth. But even then, both Samaritans or pagans and Jews are to be superseded but the true worshippers. Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem, but – in spirit and in truth. “God is a spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeks such to worship him.”

What is this essential truth that the evangelist considers to supersede all other religious opinions? It is rather Trinitarian in shape. Firstly, it is by Jesus Christ the Word-made-flesh that we come to know the unseen Father. “No-one has seen God at any time. The Only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The ultimate reality is as we see him in Jesus.

Secondly, the way for us to return to the Father, to share the eternal life, to walk in the light; is the way of self-giving sacrificial love that we see in Jesus’ doing of the Father’s will and completing his work, until on the cross “It is finished”.

Thirdly, the power whereby that divine love is poured into our hearts is the Spirit that Jesus gives, the Spirit that is represented by the springs of living water in the believer’s heart, that quickens us to share eternal divine life.

These are the essential non-negotiable truths for John, and he would expect to learn them and experience them in the Church’s fellowship, in its teaching, and in its sacraments. Essentially they are Jesus himself; Jesus as Revealer of the Father – the Truth, Jesus as the pattern for selfgiving sacrificial love – the Way; Jesus as the giver of the life-giving Spirit that leads into all truth – the Life. For John, we possess and are possessed by this Jesus in the sacramental life of the Church; like branches of the True Vine, we are only fruitful when we remain connected to Christ.

Is it possible that there may be some outside the Christian fellowship who have nonetheless come to understand reality in a similar way, albeit by different names?  Anyone who has come to see ultimate reality as generous compassion; or who has learned that freely giving of the self to others is the way to live – have they not in fact perceived truth, and can we say that in their following of this truth we see the Spirit at work? The label we put on to religions is less important than the truth which transcends them all.

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