A newspaper tells me that there is an exhibition at la Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal, of Miles Davis. Many have heard of Miles Davis, the trumpeter, usually associated with jazz. Also black. That bit of information is important as I speak a bit about Miles Davis. According to this article, Miles Davis recreated his style over the years—from the war-time bebop to a rock-jazz combination. He was a musical artist of renown, who acquired a global reputation.
Once, Miles Davis was asked, according to this article again, “What are your three fondest wishes?” And he said, “To be white, to be white, to be white.” So that, as he explained, was his fondest wish.
The same article spoke of a man with an insatiable desire for freedom. So, when he grew up, racism was still very strong in the States. Martin Luther Jr. would express the hope of many of the blacks in the United States, with words such as “Free at last! free at last!” Evidently, Miles Davis felt that need for freedom, which he expressed somewhat in his own art-form, jazz, the jazz trumpet.
Our passage from John’s gospel relates to this theme of freedom, in its own way. We see Jesus first of all in the temple, during Hanukah or the festival of Dedication. He is “surrounded” by (evidently) leaders of the Jews. That gesture, in itself, is threatening. In the immediate sequel to our passage, when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one,” these same people pick up stones in order to stone him. So, already the gesture of encircling him is a threatening gesture.
And that is quite often the way in which faith or the church, religion of various sorts, expresses itself—sometimes, in a threatening sort of way. I mentioned to the Bible study group during the week something that I read concerning Augustine, who was one of the great theologians of the church, in its earlier centuries. Augustine, however, made a very significant error of interpretation—at least from the point of view of later generations.
The scripture under consideration by Augustine was Jesus’ parable of the great banquet. In this parable, the master invites his friends. But all of them are ready to make excuses. For example, one has bought a field; he is going to examine it. One has bought a cow, and needs to check it out. And one has just married a wife. And so, these various friends of the master wish to be excused from the great banquet.
The master, or landlord, is incensed by these excuses. And so, he counsels his servants to go out and invite others, those in the city. They are invited. But still there is room, according to the servants. And so, the master says to his servants, “Go out into the highways and byways, and compel them to come in.” Well, that word “compel” was taken by Augustine as a license for worldly power, such as a Roman authority, to force people to take upon themselves the faith of the Catholic Church, the faith of the dominant church of the West, of the time (pretty well the only church of the West, of the time). Augustine was dealing with a group of people known as the Donatists. In his mind, they were heretics. And, using that passage of scripture, he used that as a license to force these heretics to proclaim the Catholic faith.
As we know, faith compelled is really no faith at all, because, as we read our passage of scripture from John’s gospel, Jesus talks about his sheep hearing his voice, and responding in faith. It’s not as though they have been compelled to accept that faith.
In fact, in the understanding of the Christian faith, as presented by Jesus, our attitudes to our neighbours which express love, which banishes fear, and therefore promotes a freedom from fear—those actions are not forceful actions in the sense of compelling people. They are actions of mercy, visiting the sick and those in prison, giving food to the hungry, drink to those who are thirsty, welcoming the stranger. Those are gestures which are in accordance with Jesus who is our good shepherd.
And it’s by such means that we can encourage people to see that God’s love liberates them from fear. God’s love is not a thing that forces people into submission. Rather, it awakens in them the gift of faith whereby they respond to God.
So, the Christian faith is concerned with freedom. And the basis of that freedom is God’s love, which reaches out to us in Christ, a love which we, of course, are called to express to our neighbour.
Now, Lorna Rogers, not too long ago, read from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, concerning Tabitha—otherwise known as Dorcas. This woman, Tabitha or Dorcas, was known for her handiwork of various sorts. We heard that, when Peter came, because Tabitha or Dorcas had died, the other people showed to him the tunics and other handiwork of Dorcas.
I think that that is a sign that God can use our very day-to-day work, our day-to-day activities, as a way in which we serve God and serve our neighbour. We don’t have to be those who furnish special vestments for a temple or church, or produce ecclesiastical items. Rather, our day-to-day life, our day-to-day work, can be expressive of the place, the position, the purpose, that God has given us through Jesus Christ.
Perhaps that was one of Miles Davis’ main difficulties. He felt excluded—somehow on the outside. Well, the kingdom of God includes, no matter what the skin colour. And the kingdom of God includes us in the gifts that we have, whereby we express our care for neighbour.
Now, it does happen that, like Miles Davis, we do not feel, in our present lives, perfectly free. There are things that weigh us down, things that worry us, things that cause us fear in our lives. There are also, in our lives, times when we feel that we cannot find, really, a place for ourselves, where our lives can really shine, where we can make, what we feel, is a really valuable contribution.
Recently, we were visiting with our daughter and son-in-law, and had a visit with some of their friends. One of them works for a stock exchange. He is not a trader, but he does other work associated with trades. However, he is leaving his job, because, in the company where he works, there seems to be promotion on the basis of whom you know, whether you are a friend of so-and-so. And the management of the company does not consist necessarily of people who are the most competent in terms of their knowledge of how the company should be run.
So he is frustrated in that position, in the work that he currently has. He and his wife are going on a round-the-world trip, beginning with South America. They are hoping, on their return, to find some sort of employment. Our lives are often like that. There are things that frustrate us from expressing truly who we are, and frustrated from being accepted for the gifts that we have.
But there is a promise in scripture, which already is made known to us through Jesus Christ. The promise is that the power of sin and death has already been defeated in Christ. The final realization of that is yet to unfold. But we see the first glimmers of that through faith in Christ, and in the gift of God’s Spirit.
And also, in the present time, in relationship to Christ, we find a purpose for our lives, we find a place. There may just be glimmers of this. But, in Christ, already in the present time, there is the promise of the kingdom of God that is to come, when fear will be no more, and when we truly will have a place, our lives will be fulfilled. We will a place where we can express ourselves, in company with one another, giving glory to God, and love for one another.
We all seek freedom. And we have inklings of the freedom in the present time. God has provided for us in Christ a glimmer of what it is to be in the kingdom of God, when fear will be no more, and we will truly have a place, and be fulfilled as God’s people.