I have never really loved the word “flourish.” I keep thinking that it will go out of fashion among Christians, but so far it hasn’t. It appears in all kinds of places online. In fact, certain assumptions about what it means to flourish seem to me to be a sort of grid, or paradigm through which the Bible is very often read—like “love” was for Episcopalians back in the early 2000s. The chief assumption of the word “flourish” is individual happiness. If I am doing well, if I am using gifts, and if I feel basically affirmed, then the church must be doing what it’s supposed to do.
Or, to put it the more usual way—in order for people to “flourish,” the church must organize itself a certain kind of way. For that to happen, time is spent thinking about who those people are. Women, usually, and ethnic and sexual minorities. Is anyone not doing ok? Is someone not flourishing? Then the church is wrong and should correct itself.
In some sense, this is true, which you can see if you go to Twitter and look at how the word “flourish” is often very properly used. Sin, many tweeters tweet, is often allowed to “flourish,” and this is very bad. It starts out small and then grows into something ugly and sickening. There are a lot of tweets about Josh Duggar that articulate this very well. There are certain conditions in certain Christian communities that allow certain kinds of sin to take root and come into full flower. Except that the flower is hideous. Pulling up the whole plant and throwing it away into the fire, though painful, is perhaps the only way forward.
In this way we have two senses of the word—sin, or something like that, flourishing, and people “flourishing.” The second one, as I said, makes me shudder. I always flinch when I hear it, and wonder why, but then remember whenever I crack open ye olde Bible. There, modern assumptions about flourishing are too often contradicted, usually by Jesus himself. This is as it should be. If I come to the text with certain ideas about what I ought to find there, of course it is hard for me to hear what the words actually mean. Like everybody else, my own sense of my own well-being is always upwards in my mind. I want to be “well,” I want to be productive, I want to be happy, I want to “flourish.” And so, when I encounter something like this morning’s gospel, I find myself dismayed—indeed, as the disciples themselves would have been.
Again, though we are in the Easter season, the lectionary has us reading back through so much of what Jesus did and said on the night before he died. After washing feet and instituting the Eucharist and sending Judas away, Jesus and the disciples walk to the Mount of Olives and somewhere along the way he prays a long prayer, part of which goes like this:
And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
Several alarming words leap out at me every time I read this. The word “hate” for example, is most unpleasant. Also the word “lost.” But perhaps most of all, the word “sanctify.” The three form a sort of trifecta of ruined expectations for many people who end up straggling after Jesus. In a world where “Hate has no home here” and “love is love” are the creedal marks over the door of each home, begging that judgment will fall somewhere else, it is excessively upsetting to be told by the Lord of Life that “the world has hated them because they are not of the world…I do not ask you take them out of the world.” If you are looking for conditions for the flourishing of people, this seems to me not to be it by a long shot. The first ingredient for flourishing—I think anyway—is peace, is people not being totally awful to each other. To be hated by the world, which, tragically, often includes being hated by individual people who think you are wicked and wrong, is not at all what most of us sign up for.
Why can’t there be peace? Why does the word “hate” have to factor in at all? Most often, and most unhappily, I think, because there is never a very sharp line, as each of us thinks there should be, between the world and the church. Because Jesus doesn’t ask the Father to take his disciples and friends out of the world, but to leave them there, it is a very messy business. The world often muscles in and sits in the pew, or lives in the minds of all the people. Hatred may easily flourish, though usually in very hidden kinds of ways. One person may deeply injure another, and the injury is all the more wretched because it happened in a place where you thought you were going to be free to spread out and enjoy yourself like a green bay tree. Rather than “flourishing,” you find yourself enduring your hour at church as one cut to the heart, crippled even, spiritually limping, or even crawling up to communion.
The other word—lost—is also upsetting. “None of them will be lost,” says Jesus, except “the son of destruction.” That’s Judas. The small group looks around at each other and wonders what he is talking about. What do you mean, lost? They are all together. Why would anyone get lost? And yet, this is usually all my prayers on Sunday morning as I watch people struggle into church. Getting lost is what people do, especially when the world—which Jesus so unkindly refuses to remove from the equation—presses in so terribly. There are so many ways to get lost. Lust is a great way. And anger. Or just garden variety discouragement. My problem with Jesus is that I don’t know what on earth he is doing. How lost someone is, I can’t even tell, and what he is doing to find them.
And finally, that dreaded word “sanctified.” This word cuts so far against the stalk of the flourishing vine as to make me want to give up. We want to “flourish,” and Jesus wants to “sanctify” with “truth”—I guess the word truth shouldn’t be in scare quotes. Of course we all care about the truth. Of course lies shouldn’t be told. But the truth ought to be a proposition, or a set of doctrines to which you can peacefully assent when you stand to say the creed. The truth shouldn’t be so personal, so intimate as to “sanctify” you, as if there is something wrong and lying so far down in the depths of yourself that Jesus had to die to save you, and then spend the rest of your life dredging it up and making you know about it. “Hate has no home here,” you whisper to Jesus, hoping he will leave you in peace to enjoy yourself, to which he replies, “wanna bet?”
And so, of course, if you hang on for dear life, eventually you do have some sense of spiritual wellbeing. You will discover some useful work to do, perhaps even something you enjoy. You will have relationships with other people. You will go along being bound ever more tightly to Christ’s Body, the church. You will be able to look back and see that things are a lot better than they were when you took your first steps in the way of the cross. But still, the heaviness of that death-dealing instrument weighs you down and you wish you could throw it aside and rest awhile. You wish you could “flourish.”
Don’t worry—one day you will, but in the meantime, go to church. You—no matter how disappointed you are—can start to put down roots there.