Unsnatchable – 4/21/13 – John 10:22-36

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“Snatch” isn’t a word I use all that often.  I’m not sure why, because now that I’ve thought about it a bit, it’s a pretty great word.  It’s one of those words that sounds like what it means.  It’s abrupt, snatch, over before you realize what just happened.  But that S and N at the beginning sound like someone has been plotting for a while.  Sneaky, like a snake.  And then the atch.  Once the premeditated sneaker reaches the desired object, things happen quick, Sssnnn-atch, grab, grasp, latch on and it’s gone.  Too fast to catch.  It just got snatched.

Snacks get snatched around our house by little, and big hands.  We’re probably not the only house of sneaky snack snatchers.  Our girls do need to work on covering their tracks with the plenty of incriminating evidence they leave behind, like ladders in the pantry, opened wrappers on the table, and chocolate on the face.  True story, during Lent Lily said that she was going to give up sneaking.  It was a vow not well kept, but Lent is all about forgiveness.

Snatch is a word that Jesus uses twice in this passage in John.  Maybe the Aramaic word also sounds like what it means.  Jesus is having another of those heated confrontations with the religious leaders, who have asked him to stop beating around the bush and tell them whether or not he is the Messiah.  So, Jesus starts talking about sheep.  Specifically, sheep that hear his voice and sheep that don’t.  Jesus’ sheep hear his voice.  He knows them and they follow him, Jesus says.  He gives them eternal life, and they will never perish.  Then the bits about snatching.  “No one will snatch them out of my hand.  What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and, no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are One.”

If it weren’t for that last statement, I’m guessing the conversation that followed would have focused on snatching.  Who is trying to snatch whom?  What is this thing that is ‘greater than all else’ that can’t be snatched from the Father’s hand?  Instead, Jesus drops the big one, upstaging the snatching statements.  “The Father and I are one.”

Instead of conversing about snatching, Jesus’ listeners start looking for the nearest stones, to pick up and hurl at him.  Jesus has just made a statement that sounds like blasphemy to the highest degree, a human claiming oneness with God, and he’s about to have his life snatched away by these stones.

In today’s world it would be the perfect kind of sound bite to lift out of context, play over and over again throughout the 24 hour cable news cycle, call in endless commentators to give both sides of what Jesus could have meant by the statement and how it will affect his standing with the public.  The ticker at the bottom of the screen reads, “Jesus of Nazareth says, ‘The Father and I are one.’”  This is our preferred method of stoning – bloodless, slow, and painful.

The context, out of which that quote would be lifted, as John tells us, is the time of the Festival of Dedication.  That festival now goes by the name Hanukah.  Jesus is in Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukah.  The festival had its roots in the long history of Jewish subjugation under different empires.   First the Babylonians, then the Persians, then Alexander the Great and his armies came sweeping over the Near and less Near East, bringing with them the language and culture of the Greeks.

He’s so successful that when John writes his gospel over 400 years later, he’s writing it in Greek.

But before this – a century and a half after Alexander, in 167 BCE Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian/Greek ruler of the lands surrounding Palestine, had hand picked a sympathetic high priest and ordered that pigs be sacrificed on the altar of the Jerusalem temple.  This, as you can imagine, did not go over well, and was strongly resisted.  Among themselves the people switched Anthiochus’ name from Epiphanes, which means “God made manifest,” to Epimanes, which means “madman.”  A political pun.  A nice under the breath jab – from the peasants toward this king.  Antiochus the madman.  Less under the breath was the Hasmonean family, believed to be the rightful heirs to the priesthood.  One of the sons of the family, Judah, who had a nickname of his own, Maccabee, the Hammer, led a revolt and ousted the Syrian/Greeks from Israel, giving the Jews a window of political independence.

The celebration of Hanukah comes from this political liberation and the story that arose about how, during the fighting, there was only enough oil in the temple to keep the Eternal Light burning for one more day.  But the oil lasted eight days, and the Eternal Light never went out.  The miraculous light of God’s presence continued to burn, and ever since has been a source of celebration and joy.

Leaving aside the provocative question of what it might have meant to the nonviolent Jesus to be honoring a holiday with violent overtones, we are told that he is in Jerusalem during this celebration of his people, the Feast of Dedication, Hanukah.  And not just in Jerusalem, but in the temple, that space that had been so contested over the ages.  And not just in the temple, but in the portico of Solomon, as verse 23 says, a covered walkway named after one of Israel’s first monarchs, before those empires came with all their conquering violence, and foreign language and culture.  Solomon had built the first temple.

So much of that ancient glory and beauty had been snatched away.  Taken forcefully, with bloodshed, without thought to the culture, the livelihood, the dignity, of the people from whom it was snatched.

Too many powerful forces snatching away too much.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to make connections to the snatching that has been more contemporary to our time.  I think of indigenous peoples around the world, ravaged by the guns, germs, and steel of their conquerors.  Languages lost.  Entire libraries of knowledge, contained in the stories told by the elders and passed from generation to generation, lost.

I think of the snatching of natural resources, from which we have so often benefited.  Mountains blasted into valleys. Rivers poisoned.  Habitats snatched from species now bordering on extinction.

I think of the events of the past week.  Boston Marathon runners having the accomplishments of their day snatched from them.  Three people at the race, an officer, and a suspected perpetrator, having their lives snatched.  Boston residents having their sense of security and safety snatched.

In the Senate, a bill with strong public support that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases and banned some military style weapons, snatched by special interests with a lot of money.

Too many powerful forces snatching away too much.  It’s enough to make one angry.  It’s enough to make one fearful.  It’s enough to make one paranoid, or want to rise up.  It’s enough to make you want a Messiah.

It is in this context that Jesus brings up the issue of unsnatchability.  That which cannot be taken away, cannot be grabbed, cannot be sneakily snatched and devoured.

And the statement, “The Father and I are one,” is not an unrelated add on.  Divine union is never an unrelated add on.

What might appear initially to us as one of the most extreme egotistical statements possible – equating the self with God – something for which we would rightfully criticize a person for claiming – also has a deeper, much more profound meaning – a liberation from that very ego that has such a strong grip on our lives.  In John, more than any other gospel, Jesus speaks as one who has reached this kind of realization.  When he says “I” he is not referring to the little I of the little self, but the big I, the eternal subject which finds its very being in the I of God, whose name is I am.  Jesus knows that his life flows from the Eternal Source, whom he calls Father, and has no qualms about speaking in these terms.  He feels, knows in his deepest self, is ever conscious of this union that he shares with the Invisible Source of Creation.  He is not the same as the Father, but he is unified with the Father.  They are one.  His life is a witness to this.

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus says a little later in John 14:9.

But now rather than set himself up as the sole recipient of this experience, Jesus invites his listeners into participation.  When they pick up stones to throw at him, after he says “The Father and I are One,” Jesus refers to a text they would have been familiar with, a line from Psalm 82.  “Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods?’  If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son?’”  Jesus must have had some kind of divine consciousness – he’s surrounded by people about to throw rocks at his skull, and he has the coolness and clarity of mind to quote poetry.

Not only is Jesus claiming union with God for himself, but he is telling these potential murderers that they are gods, have divinity so deeply embedded in their being that they can’t escape it.  They can only deny or ignore it.  But it can’t be snatched away from them.  Nobody, nothing, no armies, no foreign king, no oppressive culture can snatch this away.  They are children of God, an outpouring of the Eternal Source of Being, a physical manifestation of God’s flow.

The next time someone threatens to hurt you, you may want to consider going this route.  Quote a poem about their divine origin.  It kind of works for Jesus.  The situation gets downgraded from an attempt on his life, to an attempt to arrest him, but, as John says, he escaped from their hands.  Jesus is hard to snatch.

I wonder how many people live with the fear that what’s most important to them could be snatched any moment.  There are so few guarantees in life, and plenty of losses we experience along the way.  There are things we can do to protect ourselves, to be prepared, to guard against these things.  Lock all the doors, buy more insurance, buy more guns…these are options.

“My sheep hear my voice…No one will snatch them out of my hand.  What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and, no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are One.

There is a mystical quality to what is going on here.  It’s a stream of spirituality that is deeply contemplative, that goes inward before it can go outward, that basks in silence.  That quiets the thoughts and the internal and external dialogue that tries to tell us who we are and where we come from, and simply is.  It communes with God who is the Source of all that is, and, in communing with God, one ultimately begins to commune with oneself, because the Father/Mother and I, the I beyond the personal ego, are one.

So many of the snatching forces are seen in those threatening outsiders, those others – other cultures, other languages, other powers – that threaten who we are.  But, one of the joys of the mystical path is that it allows one to be open to other cultures and other ways of knowing in a manner that is completely nonthreatening.  There are mystics in every tradition.  Evangelical Christian Tony Campolo has recently written that “mysticism provides some hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam.” He asks “Could they (Islamic Sufis) have encountered the same God we do in our Christian mysticism?”  And his answer is – absolutely.

Some of this language also sounds very Eastern, ideas that many Hindus and Buddhists would be quite familiar with.  Aham Brahman (I am Brahman).  The Buddha says: “Whoever sees the Dharma sees me.” (both taken from Raimon Panikkar, The Experience of God, pp. 82,83.)  Which sounds similar to “whoever sees me, sees the Father.”

The point isn’t to get too caught up in which spiritual lineage these truths come from.  The point is for us to get in touch with the Ultimate Source out of which these lineages come.  This is the effervescence that Jesus so intimately referred to as his Father.  This is unsnatchable, even when, as the Psalmist says, you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

I want to end there, but also want to note that I hope to pick this up in a couple weeks and focus more on some of the specific ways that we can grow in communion with God through prayer.  There are some very practical and tried and true forms of contemplative prayer and meditation for this.