In 1919, W.B. Yeats wrote what has come to be a famous poem known as The Second Coming. The opening verse is prophetic of today:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
Yeats wrote this poem just after the end of the 1st World War, just as the Irish War of Independence was beginning, and towards the end of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic with which his pregnant wife became ill.
The first few lines of this poem jumped into my brain as I read a couple of reflections on the Gospel and as I thought about events that began in 2021. Angela N. Parker was the author of the reflection pieces on the gospel readings of the last two weeks, and she wrote about how the centre—the dominant culture—doesn’t treat life as precious—Black lives, the lives of people of colour, the lives of Indigenous people, and the lives of working poor. In her reflection pieces, she argued that the centre isn’t where the Church is called to be; Jesus is out on the margins, on the edges, and stands there with us in the world’s brokenness. The work of creating the Kin-Dom of God is on the margins, and justice can happen, peace is possible and new life can begin because that’s where the hard conversations are happening… on the margins. Part of the Gospel work is to bring those conversations into the centres of power.
The Gospel—the Good News—I believe, is that God in Jesus isn’t afraid to get down into the muck and the dirt; Jesus came to this world as the Word made flesh to encounter people where they are, people who struggle, who are tired, who are ill, who are suffering, who are feeling hopeless. And after all, God took the dust of the earth, breathed the Spirit into it and human beings came alive.
Today’s reading from John is very interesting on many levels. There’s the whole idea of seeing, which for John was sight though one’s heart. There is the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, the Human One, or, as just introduced, the Word made flesh. But there is also a sub-plot in the little interplay between Jesus and Nathaniel.
We don’t know if this was an actual event depicting Jesus and a potentially new disciple. But maybe it was something that happened that John changed into what we read in the 1st chapter of his Gospel. In the story, Jesus referred to Nathaniel as a true Israelite in whom there was no deception. Nathaniel then affirmed Jesus as the Son of God and the King of Israel, but Jesus said that he was the Son of Humanity and that Nathaniel and the others would see the angels ascending and descending. The use of the term, Israelite, is only used this once in John’s Gospel.
One of the challenges with John’s Gospel is that it has been used for the persecution of Jews over the years, especially the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion; John refers to those calling for Jesus’ death as “The Jews” or “the Judeans.” This has given rise to anti-Semitism over these past 2000 years.
Some scholars have suggested that John wrote about Nathaniel as a true Israelite so that his gospel wouldn’t be misconstrued as anti-Jewish. A true Israelite, where there was no guile, could be found in many instances in Israel, as we find in Acts and Paul’s letters. Even though John used the term “the Jews” at the end, it wasn’t meant to refer to all Jews. John was referring to those Jewish leaders who called for Jesus’ crucifixion and death. It was later interpreters who made the blanket assumption that John meant all Jews, which then became the defense for many antisemitic acts over the centuries.
In this instance of referring to Nathaniel as a true Israelite in whom there is no guile, John addressed the question of how the early church—especially John’s community—should relate to the Jewish community. And in this way, John affirmed that Jesus acts as a bridge between people and groups of people.
For Jesus and Jesus’ world, as well as for John and John’s world, questions of discrimination were very real. Think of Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman who just wants healing for her daughter; or think of the relationship between Jew and Samaritan. Jesus bridged these divides. And John proclaimed that Jesus, as the Son of Humanity, is key.
Angela N. Parker wrote that in the reference to Jacob’s ladder, John implied that Jesus functioned as a literal ladder; or, as she suggested, more like a bridge. Jesus bridged heaven and earth, bridged places of brokenness with the resources for healing, bridged the Israelites and the Jews in John’s world; in our world, Jesus bridges gaps between people in terms of wealth, creates new bridges between Blacks and Whites, people of colour and others, and between Indigenous people and White people. Focusing on Jesus as the Son of Humanity opens us to a pathway for communal healing, for reversing discrimination, for ending systemic racism, and for finding a collective place on a new bridge as people of hope and healing. We need to build bridges across divides.
I think, using this analogy of building bridges, that this is part of what Marin Luther King, Jr. did. He began building a bridge across racial divides. And it’s what he invited other leaders, Black people, people of Colour, and White people to do also… to walk away from the centre, which isn’t holding and where the power brokers aren’t interested in listening, and to walk across a brand-new bridge of antiracism and hope together.
We are in a different moment in time to what Dr. King faced but racism is still very real; White people, of which I am one, need to face up to privilege and entitlement and let go of assumptions and be willing to walk out onto this new bridge or reconciliation and hope. That’s our collective work today. That’s the Church’s call. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission demanded this of every Canadian and our new Executive Minister, the Rev. Michael Blair calls us as the United Church of Canada to build bridges of love and wholeness.
“Come and see,” Jesus said. Well, we can collectively … with our hearts. We can walk with others together on this Gospel road across this Gospel bridge. We can walk together with the light of the Human One, the Word made flesh, leading us into a brighter future.
Maybe it’s time to realize that the centre is broken, that our old systems are broken beyond repair. It’s time to create new ways. And in fact, that’s frequently what Jesus did. He created new systems based on relationships, based on love, based on justice and peace. Maybe we can create new democratic systems, new systems of administering the law, new ways of creating policy and writing new laws, new parliamentary processes that aren’t about winners and losers, that aren’t about putting others down so someone else might be elevated.
Love sends us in our full humanity,
to encounter the full humanity of others:
messy, real, complicated as it is.
That compassion may be our practice.
That differences may be our teacher.
That honesty and truth may guide us.
O God, you call not the perfect but the willing.
With the assurance of your Spirit’s companionship, we go in peace.
 Go to The Christian Century website to see the article by Angela N Parker: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/january-17-epiphany-2b-john-143-51.
 Go to https://enfleshed.com/: “Spiritual Nourishment for Collective Liberation.”
 Quoted in Cameron Trimble’s Convergence Weekly email for January 14, 2021.