Lectio divina

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Chris Cheah
27 July 2003

2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21

Well hello, in what is a new role! I'd like to start by thanking all of you, but especially the ever-generous and wonderful Rob, for allowing me to speak today. It's a great privilege and I really am hoping that I will give good service. And please give feedback (later!) — it's probably in your interests to train sermon-givers early!

Since a first sermon (like this one) is a kind of rite of passage, and given that sermons are a part of the Ministry of the Word, I thought it might be appropriate to frame our thinking about today's gospel reading within a slightly wider reflection on the way we approach Scripture.

To start this framing, I first want to talk a bit about one of the treasures of our church heritage that I stumbled across for the first time this year — the Benedictines' approach to Scripture which they call lectio divina. This latin phrase literally means 'divine reading'. It's usually shortened to just lectio.

Now evidently, I am not a Benedictine monk (or for that matter any kind of a monk!) but, as I understand it, this lectio takes a very contemplative approach to Scripture. You start with a short passage and read it carefully, several times. You listen hard and let the details seep in. You then meditate on it, taking your time — days or, as in my case, weeks if necessary, working away at the same small canvas, coming back to the text. The Benedictines describe this as being like chewing, then ruminating. For this reason, a favourite image in Benedictine art is that of a cow chewing on its cud.

Importantly, you're supposed to avoid imposing your will or agendas on the passage. Rather you're *listening*, humbly hoping that the Holy Spirit might speak to you. Your attention may come to rest on a word, a phrase, or an image which then provides an object for further contemplation. lectio is also sensitive to nuances, and to silences — what is not being said. And it has an underlying humility that any insights that may come are not the result of your own cleverness. They are gifts — gifts from a small, quiet voice that you may not recognise at first.

Fortunately for me, the last 7 verses of today's gospel story — John's account of Jesus walking on the water — are almost perfect for a lectio. Hopefully what follows will give you a feel for the what this lectio approach meant in practice for me, and some possible leads for you to do your own. I should stress, though, that the actual process was far messier and unstructured than my report might suggest.

To start, we first need to sensitise ourselves to the details. If I remember correctly, when I started out, the main detail I noticed was that curious twist at the end of John's story where, as soon as Jesus gets into the boat, it arrives at 'the land to which they were going'.

Then, after re-reading the passage several times, I decided to look at the other gospel accounts of the same story. While there are some broad similarities, what I found was that Matthew's and Mark's version of these stories turn out to be almost shockingly different in almost all of the particulars. But once I got over the surprise, told my head to stop trying to reconcile them, and remembered the task at hand was to notice details in John, it turned out that the differences were actually very useful. The differences worked together — almost conspired, in fact — to draw my attention to things I had not otherwise noticed in John's account.

Here are just a few examples drawing on Mark:

Mark starts his story with Jesus making a call to 'let us cross over'. Jesus then dismisses the crowds himself, sees the disciples off in their boat and then almost retires up his mountain, to pray. In John, remember, Jesus went up the mountain to get away from a crowd who were about to make him king

So it seems Mark has Jesus instigating the whole incident, while John says absolutely nothing about why the disciples make their crossing. Interesting. Hmmm.

This became even more pointed when I noticed that, in Mark, Jesus specifically instructs his disciples to go to Bethsai'da. In John, Jesus' disciples set off, seemingly without instructions, to Caper'na-um. So, where were they going then?

And when evening comes, Mark says the disciples are in the middle of the sea. In John, evening was when the disciples came down to the sea. So where were the disciples at evening? And, for that matter, why mention evening at all?

The disciples in Mark are not just 'afraid' when they see Jesus approach the boat, they are absolutely terrified because they think they have seen a ghost. Jesus ain't no ghost in John.

So it's not surprising that when Jesus gets into the boat, the disciples in Mark are not just 'glad' as they are in John, they are 'utterly astounded'.

There are many more interesting differences. But rather than rabbit on, I'm hoping that you will do your own fresh lectio on Mark (whose version of this story is, by the way, my favourite)! Maybe we can compare notes some time _

It seemed the harder I listened, the more content I started to hear, but the more confusing the whole situation seemed to become. At this stage, we could shuffle our feet, dismiss the differences as being minor, and move on. But this is supposed to be gospel. And there are a lot of differences and oddities, and some sound significant. What the heck is going on?

As I continued to mull it over, I started to become suspicious, like a nagging flicker just out of the corner of the eye, that something else may be going on. Is this just a literal story about another 'power miracle'? At one level yes — the story can be heard as a simple, and evangelically important, tale about Jesus' powers over nature. True gospel is always accessible.

But listening still harder, I started to notice the way John tells the story. The way he suddenly fast forwards in the middle with the disciples coming down to the sea, hopping on their boat, setting off and it suddenly being dark all in just over one sentence. The way one scene jumps and merges into the next with little explanation. The way Jesus comes and goes, including a largely unexplained departure and strange and fear-laden return. This mode of story telling was starting to feel like something vaguely familiar. What? Then I listened again to that last incident where as Jesus gets into the boat, it arrives at the farther shore. Ah. This is exactly the way things happen in dreams.

John, it seems, wants us to hear these stories symbolically as well as literally. He tells the important surface tale using a language which is capable of speaking past our heads, directly to our hearts. He links events in Jesus' outer life, with movements in our inner life.

Perhaps my single most important discovery with this story, and it took some time, was when I stopped focussing on the action — who was doing what — and listened. It was then that the still quiet voice pointed to the landscape. What is this story's most dominant feature? It is not the people, it is the Sea of Galilee. And so what might be significant about the Sea of Galilee? Then the penny dropped that the Sea of Galilee is an inland sea.

From there, I remembered that this inland sea is the quiet, almost ever-present feature around which almost all of Jesus' ministry takes place. Jesus' ministry started with his calling of the disciples — most of whom are fishermen of an inland sea. Isn't that what we are — spiritual seekers — fishermen of an inland sea?

As we noted earlier, both John and Mark specifically link certain events to the time of day — to evening. So let's reflect, what might be special about evening? Maybe it was just the end of a day's preaching. But evening is also a time of change. A time when day crosses into night. When the light turns golden and things look different. In John, this is also a moment of separation. Jesus has gone up his mountain. The disciples go down to the sea. Letting it linger, John's beautiful image of the disciples coming down to the water's edge at evening almost starts to chime with a flavour of transition. I find myself being invited to get into a boat, to cross the water's edge, to cross an inner threshold, maybe to change states of being.

And then time seems to go a bit askew. It kind of speeds up, and merges into night. No, wait, look again. Mark used the word night. John used the word 'dark'. Interesting. I doubt this was a casual usage —John is particularly sensitive to the language of light and dark. A dark place is one where the light has left as, with Jesus' departure, indeed it seems to have. No wonder the going gets hard.

Now let's think about that curious silence at the beginning of John in giving no reasons why the disciples got into the boat. We might first remember Mark's account started with Jesus' call to 'let us cross over'. This is a call that resonates. There's at least an echo of the call to repentance — the call to take a journey into faith, towards change, to go to another shore.

Hearing this amplifies the impact of the silence in John. Suddenly I realised that when I get in the boat to make a crossing, maybe I do not entirely know why I am doing it, or where I am going, even if I think I do.

And now John's careful choice of words at the end make more sense. John does not say whether or not the disciples actually arrived at Caper'na-um. Rather they came to 'the land to which they were going'. The boat, it seems, arrives at the right place when Jesus steps into it, whether or not his disciples know where that place is when they leave.

Then the wind rises. The image of a rising wind, perhaps suggesting an impending storm, during a dark crossing of the inland sea, is a huge and powerful one which you really should ponder yourselves.

Suffice it to say that major internal transitions in us are often accompanied by a rising wind and the troubled waters. Our big changes, which can be the result of a natural stage of life, or triggered by some very disruptive event, can lead to feelings like anger, resentment, melancholy, doubt, self-doubt, depression and lethargy along with strange and snaky reactions to things. Such transitions can seem to be quite dark at the time as we lose perspective and cannot see our way out. The shore can seem distant. It can even seem as if God has deserted us in what feels like a sinking boat.

Which is one reason there can be a fair bit of fear present during a dark crossing of the inland sea, whether such fears are obvious, or unconscious, or a combination of both. Interestingly, John tells us the disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus approaching the boat. But they do not seem to have turned away, or become terrified like the disciples in Mark. Rather, they watched their fears approach. Perhaps this suggests that one way through a storm may be to turn towards those fears, hard though that is. That one way of dispelling the darkness of an inner crossing is to find a way of recognising within our fears the return, perhaps in an unexpected and strange manner, of the light.

And, thinking about it, this rings true. Ask yourself what you really fear in a rising wind, and you may be surprised. It can involve confronting and peeling back layers of fears, and layers of comforting illusions we have built around ourselves, and getting through avoidance behaviours. But, in the end, our fears can lead us to recognise some of the images we have been carrying around about what we really use as our measures of 'success' in life. This process can be scary, not only because we have to turn towards our fears. But we may also end up by having to admit that we have invested a large part of who we think we are in these images. And that they are just that — images projected by our memories, desires and conditioning. And maybe that living up to this image may not have been practicable, or at least it is no longer practicable, which is sad. Or perhaps that the image was never particularly attractive nor desirable — that we have been foolishly sucked in by other people's ideas of success, with resulting in various shades of regret.

But this kind of recognition can also be liberating. It can provide an opportunity to make something of our experiences, and start over. And it can provide a rare perspective on ourselves, because we see ourselves honestly as we really are, largley stripped of illusions. If we can avoid the temptation to be maudlin, then it can even provide a window to see ourselves a way resembling the way God sees us — with true compassion. And we may come to understand through direct experience that our true centre lies somewhere else, in a place, beyond images, where no storm can ever touch.

It seems faith in this story is more than just ascribing to a set of learned precepts or even just 'belief'. It does not speak about creeds. It points to experience. Like having the courage to get in a boat and to start rowing — and to persist with a journey inwards, through a place where the ground is no longer steady, where there are depths I do not comprehend, and where it may well seem dark and lonely.

Unlike Matthew's and Mark's two very different endings to this story, John's almost seems to be a blessing of quiet reassurance. Fear gives way to gladness as Jesus is welcomed into the boat. "It is I; do not be afraid". Actually, the Greek phrase John uses for "it is I" is eimi ego which can also be translated as, "I am". So maybe what the disciples heard was "I AM, do not be afraid". And the next thing they knew, they were arriving at the farther shore.

Taken as a whole, this story points to different way of looking at things based on a true understanding of who the master is. A master who walks the waters of the inland sea. The master who has no fear of drowning, or of anything that dwells in the deep. The master of the inner, as well as the outer world, and who unites those worlds.

This is where the summary of my lectio ends, and it is perhaps time to apologise if it was too long. But during my intimate journey with John's story, it became a close friend whom I want you to get to know too. For my part, now that I have started to sense the contours of this story from the 'inside' (so to speak), I am sure it will continue to teach me lessons the rest of my life.

It's interesting that those Benedictine monks and nuns down the centuries called their approach to Scripture 'divine reading'. We tend to call ours 'bible study'. I think I am starting to appreciate what the difference may be. And why a wise teacher once said, that until you have heard the stories in the bible as your own stories, you have not really heard them. Because they are stories about you, the whole you.

On that score, we might recall that John ended his gospel once again by the shores of the inland sea. The disciples were out fishing without much success until an unrecognised someone told them where to cast their nets. We, my fellow fisherman, need to find a way to cast our nets with our hearts as well as our heads. I found that lectio gave me the focus and stillness to give the small quiet voice a chance, but you should do what works for you. If we cast our nets in the right direction, we may find that we start getting much bigger catches than we expected from these deceptively multi-levelled gospel stories. When that happens we should perhaps look up, and try and see who the unrecognised stranger is.

As a postscript, I think I now see why the lectionary has Paul's remarkable passage from Ephesians in as today's second reading. It suddenly seems almost perfect as a kind of benediction, both on the gospel passage itself, and on the broader topic of reading Scripture : "…May [the Father] grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in your inner being, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend … what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." Amen.