Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter, 14 May 2017, St John the Divine

Reading  John 14.1-14

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

There are numerous passages in the New Testament texts which make it clear that the earliest Christians expected Jesus to return very soon. He would fully establish God’s kingdom and transport them to a higher plane of living. As time went on, however, it became clear this was not going to happen, and that the Jesus story would – at least to some extent – have to be continued, and perhaps reinterpreted, in different contexts and contemporary circumstances.

Today’s Gospel reading forms part of what came to be known as the ‘farewell discourses’. They are found only in John’s Gospel. They take place after the last supper and, obviously therefore, before Jesus’ death. However, it is clear the speaker is in fact already talking in terms of the risen Jesus. (Bear in mind that John, unlike the other Gospels, is essentially a theological reflection on the Jesus story.) So we read this passage as part of the ongoing Easter story. This week and next, the Gospel readings begin to lead us away from Jesus’ appearances following the resurrection, towards his departure from the physical world, which the church calendar will mark on Ascension Day, followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit we will celebrate ten days after that, on Pentecost Sunday. In a way, the bodily presence of Jesus limits his potential influence, but the Spirit’s work will know no limitations at all. It is in the power of the Spirit that Jesus’ followers will be enabled to continue his mission. And here we are, centuries later, essentially grappling with that same reality: how to continue the Jesus story in the context we inhabit today. Seen in that light, this Gospel reading raises a number of important ideas and challenges. I’d like to look, briefly, at just three of them.

First, Jesus’ words, ‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling-places, and I go to prepare a place for you’ are very familiar, as they are frequently read at funeral services. ‘Dwelling places’ is sometimes translated as ‘rooms’. As a child, I remember having this picture in my mind of heaven as some sort of celestial boarding house! Actually, the Greek word John uses here is the noun corresponding to the verb ‘abide’. ‘Abiding’ is a recurring and important theme in John’s Gospel: ‘Abide in me’, says Jesus, ‘as I abide in you.’ We have the noun a little later, when Jesus promises that he and his Father will ‘make their abode (home)’ with those who show they love him by doing what he has taught them.

In our day, it is the case that many people have real respect for Jesus and his teaching. In fact, many of them exemplify his essential principles of being a good neighbour and, in particular, embracing the marginalised and rejected. Yet they find themselves unable to subscribe to the religion that has often claimed a monopoly of him.  So it is that many keep his word without even knowing that it his word they have kept! The mansions or rooms of which Jesus speaks, we may logically conclude, are not for members only, not even for Christians only, which poses a challenge to the idea of a Christian monopoly on truth, to Christian exclusivism and, consequently, to our relationship with other religions, and our approach to more humanist philosophies. This also implies that these metaphorical dwellings are not places we may inhabit only after we die, for we are invited to encounter God now, right where we are. The picture Jesus offers is of God’s house having an open door and many rooms: we don’t all have to occupy the same space, so that it becomes potentially exclusive, cloying or claustrophobic: there really is plenty of room for all. We Christians will, of course, say that Jesus is the unique exemplar of the very nature of God (‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’), but a consequence of the ‘many rooms’ image is the need to engage, meaningfully, and also with humility, with the variety of worldviews around us. This is a hard lesson for a church which has historically tried so hard to preserve its own power, but, actually, since the Enlightenment, there has been no other realistic choice.

Second, another important aspect of today’s reading is Jesus’ assertion: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, which comes as the summation of a number of ‘I am’ sayings in John – ‘I am the bread of life…the light of the world…the true vine…the good shepherd’. The follow-on, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’, has very often been used to reinforce Christian supremacy. But I think we ignore at our peril what Jesus had already said about ‘the way’. The way to God is the way of Jesus. That way is both the path he took in his life, and the path he is. It is the way of the cross, so it is no easy option. Yes, it also has many joys and delights, for the cross isn’t the end of the story, but it is by no means all still waters or green pastures.

The earliest Christians were spoken of as those who belonged to ‘the way’. Later, they became the church, and some would argue that is when things began to go belly-up. Somewhere back along the line, – some would say when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and religion became entwined with politics – we ‘lost the way’ and, ever since, we have been trying to find it again. There’s an interesting proposition to debate – though maybe not right now! It raises the question of the appropriate balance between our allegiance to the life, the ‘way’, of Jesus, and what the nature of the institutional church, which later began to take shape in his name, should appropriately be. Historically, the church has not always been noted for embracing those who make mistakes in life (which, of course, is all of us), or for dispensing the forgiveness and mercy that lie at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Even now, in a less deferential age, it can still often be regarded with suspicion by the sceptical and those whose lives and lifestyles lead them to fear condemnation and rejection. The ‘many rooms’ images encourages us towards a more radical inclusion.

Thirdly, and finally, Philip, like Thomas, is bewildered by what Jesus says.  His plea, ‘Show us the Father’, expresses the longing of all those who seek God.  When Jesus tells him he need look no further (‘He who seen me has seen the Father’) he is not suggesting Philip can now simply sit back and enjoy the splendid vision.  Consider the revolutionary thing Jesus is saying here: in the Hebrew Scriptures, no mortal could see God and live.  Even the High Priest himself could only enter the holy of holies in the Temple once a year.  But now Jesus says: ‘If you have seen me, you have seen God’.  This is what God is like, and if God is going to continue to be made known, it is down to you.  He tells his followers, in effect, ‘I may not be here physically any longer, but my Spirit is the guarantee of my continuing presence.  And, as for you, you can do even greater works than those you have seen me do’.  Can we even begin to imagine that?

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