Critical Distance

August 8, 2021

Series: August 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: John 7:1-9

Today's Sermon


"Critical Distance"


We should always be careful when reading John for the anti-Jewish undertones. There were a couple of major reasons this gospel is hard on the Jews. First, it was dangerous (deadly) to be critical of the Romans, and so some scholars suspect the biblical writers transferred the deserved criticism of the empire to the religion from which they splintered.  Second, the community for which this gospel was written had been expelled from their former religious community, and so what we read is really an internal conflict (intrareligious) and not one that should be exported to contemporary (interfaith) relations. 

John 7:1-9

          7After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. 2Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. 3So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; 4for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ 5(For not even his brothers believed in him.) 6Jesus said to them, ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. 8Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.’ 9After saying this, he remained in Galilee.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.  Amen.

Critical Distance

            During my time away, I wasn’t only on vacation, I did a week of study leave, which, I suppose, is vacation in its own way, as it’s so refreshing to be able to devote one’s self to reading and prayer.  I’ve listed in the worship notes some books I read or listened to:

  1. Son of Man:The Mythical Path to Christby Andrew Harvey
  2. Circling San Francisco Bay: A Pilgrimage to Wild and Sacred Places by Ginny Anderson
  3. Everything is Spiritual: Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here by Rob Bell
  4. Native:Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering Godby Kaitlin B. Curtis
  5. Faith After Doubt:Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About Itby Brian McLaren
  6. Rescuing the Light: Quotes from the Oral Teachings of Martín Prechtel  

This morning I must read to you the beginning of a book I’ve just begun, from John Philip Newell, who many of you know I consider my teacher.  These are the opening words of his latest:

We know things in the core of our being that we have not necessarily been taught, and some of this deep knowing may actually be at odds with what our society or religion has tried to teach us.  This book is about reawakening to what we know in the depths of our being…[1]

          Wow.  “We know things in the core of our being” – we can trust ourselves, our true selves, and these things “we have not necessarily been taught, and some of this deep knowing may actually be at odds with what our society or religion has tried to teach us.”  Immediately, we have significant claims:  wisdom, not sin is at the core of our being, it’s just been layered with forgetting; what Newell says the Celts call soul-forgetfulness. Finally, sometimes this deep knowing runs counter to the norms of dominant, and dominating, culture. 

          This is what led Jesus to say the world “hates me.”  Jesus exposes things for what they are, running counter to the dominant culture. This works in two directions.  He exposes things and beings as being sacred, and he exposes people and systems that instead treat things and beings as mere objects, and not sacred. Newell argues objectification is intentional, at least subconsciously self-serving, for some entities because once you objectify something or someone, you can exploit it or commodify it.  That’s how empires work.  This is why when Buddhist monks in Thailand took to ordaining trees, they were fighting back against a widespread soul-forgetfulness.[2]  The true spiritual path, re-blesses everything, or recognizes its blessedness. As Richard Rohr puts it “all cognition is really recognition.”[3] 

          Because of his deep knowing, his remembering about the sacredness of all things, Jesus was able to stand apart from the dominant values of the world.  It is why he was eventually crucified, as I have said many times, not because he was nice, but because he was a threat to those who benefited from the way things were.  His way of being was absolutely a threat to the order, the religious, social, and political order (and ours too, by the way).  We get squeamish talking about that in certain Christian circles, but that’s our particular hang up.  Ours is a culture obsessed with individual action and responsibility, while we claim systems are too big to change, or worse not appropriate to talk about in church, which should be confined—a word chosen intentionally—to one’s personal relationship with God or Jesus. 

          Jesus did not share our bias.  As the very interesting evangelical pastor and author (and Bob Dylan enthusiast) Brian Zahnd puts it, “Jesus didn’t seem very interested in exposing symptomatic sinners—tax collectors, drunkards, prostitutes, etc.  Instead, Jesus challenged the guardians of systemic sin—the power brokers of religion and politics.”[4] Jesus did invite people to change their ways, but he was rarely hard on them.  He saved have scathing rebukes for groups of people who accumulated power and wealth and their corrupting influence. 

          To think of it in spatial terms, Jesus was always drawing near to people, often the people from which others distanced themselves, but he maintained a critical distance from the systems and institutions that took advantage of people. Often these were institutions that had the potential to serve, but had lost their way, lost touch with their true core values, had forgotten (there’s that word again) what they were there to do. Jesus exposes that and he is hated for it.

          I’m glad Jesus acknowledges that he is hated for it, because sometimes we’re led to believe that if we do the right thing all will be sweetness and light.  You might find inner peace, but you’ll also find a lot of outer resistance.  Now, not everyone who is resisted or hated is in touch with deep knowing.  They might just be a jerk.  But, don’t assume resistance is a sign you are wrong.  Your critical distance will have consequences, because you threaten those who benefit from the way things are.  You have to be ready to face the consequences.

          I wonder for what we would be willing to be hated.  As you know, we just took a cross country trip.  Though my wife and I are vaccinated, our son is too young to be. So, we committed to be very careful lest either he get sick or even we get sick in a way that probably doesn’t threaten us but could be dangerous to him.  At every gas station, every hotel, even in outdoor spaces where there were other people, we masked up religiously.  On our initial drive East, over 2,300 miles, I saw a total of two masks.  As a result, I braced myself every time I took him in to use the restroom somewhere.  Would we get harassed?  To be fair, that never happened, maybe a couple of looks, but nary a comment.  The point is I was willing to take any of that to keep him safe.  That’s about the measly extent of my courage, and let’s be real, were we harassed at a gas station or something, I probably would have launched a “Little Debbie” to create a diversion and then have us sprint out the door.

          Jesus models for us what it looks like to stand critically apart from the most powerful entities in the world to reveal them for what they are and potentially be hated for it. Of course, it’s hard to recognize what to stand apart from when you’re so thoroughly immersed in it, but boy you know when you’ve crossed the line because the dominant culture will snap back with a vengeance.  Recall how outraged people were and are when athletes protest injustice by refusing to engage in rituals that honor the flag, perhaps exposing some of what that flag represents. I read this week the IOC needed to “look into” the demonstration in which an athlete who made an “X” with her arms on the podium, a gesture she explained was acknowledging, “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”[5]

          What is worth being hated for?

          When you get in touch with what is most true, the answer becomes clearer.  How do we do this when we get layered with other messages that cause us to question what our souls know, when we’re constantly being gaslighted?  How can we access our deep knowing?  The word “deep” is part of the answer.  You have to develop some depth.  You can’t be a flower in the desert without some roots.  Those roots come in knowing where you come from, the stories of the ancestors.  You have to engage in serious and consistent spiritual practice.  That’s how you access what you actually already know.  (I read an article this year about how mother dolphins sing to their babes when in utero, and the offspring starts to recognize its mother’s voice.[6]  Prayer is learning to listen for God’s voice that you first heard in her womb.)

          Of course, this raises a critical question.  What about people who claim to be in touch with deep knowing, but are wrong?  Some of the worst examples of have been from folks who swore to be in touch with some wisdom from beyond when, in fact, they were charlatans, or sociopaths, or narcissists?  Less dramatically, we all know people, or can recall times in our own lives, when we, or they, were just slightly off course, had blind spots. It’s not that we were spiritually corrupt, we just didn’t see a full enough picture.  The antidote to this is relationship.  We cannot do this in total isolation.

          The paradox of our time is that we are both more connected and more isolated than perhaps ever before.  We need relationship, real relationship, to keep us on course.  I wonder how many of us have real relationships in our lives. I would say outside the family, but even within the family.  Newell says we need “soul friends.”  The Celtic term for soul friend is “anam cara.”  We need them because they love and trust is strong enough for them to be able to say sometimes, “You’re out of your mind.”  “Do you hear yourself?”  Such relationship, spiritual relationship, helps us distinguish when we are hearing true sacred wisdom from deep within us and other voices, voices of ego or prejudice, or envy or greed.

          “We know things in the core of our being that we have not necessarily been taught, and some of this deep knowing may actually be at odds with what our society or religion has tried to teach us.”  Embrace this knowing so you will know, like Jesus, when you need to stand up and stand apart, and I believe in this knowing you too will find the strength to endure the consequences. 



[1]John Philip Newell, Sacred Earth Sacred Soul:  Celtic Wisdom for Reawakening to What Our Souls Know and Healing the World (New York: HarperOne, 2021), p. 1.



[4]Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace(Audiobook).