Easter 5 2014
John 14. 1-14
"No one comes to the Father, except through me."
That one short phrase - in
the middle of a passage that is heard over and over again at
countless funerals - is both wonderful and terrible.
Wonderful, because it comes in the midst of one of the most supremely
comforting, quotations. Because although Jesus was telling his
closest friends and companions that he was about to leave them,
it won't be for ever. And the fact that he is going away will
be for their ultimate benefit. He will never ever forget them.
He is not about to abandon them - even though it may feel that
way. So yes, it is wonderful.
Terrible, because that one
short phrase has also been used to stir up hatred and enmity
between Christians and those of other faiths. It can make Christianity
sound like some sort of exclusive club, offering salvation yes,
but only for the initiates.... And I believe that is direct contradiction
of all that Jesus came to teach us.
So why say it, if it isn't
Well, I think it is true -
but we usually read it (like so much of the Bible) with eyes
only half open and minds almost fully closed! For doesn't Jesus
also say - just a few sentences before, "In my father's
house are many rooms"? This is one of the very few occasions
where perhaps the Authorised Version of the Bible puts it better
- "in my Father's House are many Mansions" - that sounds
altogether more substantial than' rooms', doesn't it? And makes
us think that those other dwelling places are more solid and
developed than the modern translation leads us to believe. For
these may be world views and philosophies that have been around
rather longer - in some cases - than has Christianity.
The word in Greek that John
uses here - whether you want to stick with rooms or mansions,
is the noun corresponding to the verb 'to abide'... 'Abide in
me as I abide in you' as Jesus will say a little later in John's
Gospel. He uses it when he promises that he and the Father will
make their home with those who show they love him by obeying
his commandments - living a Christ-like life. Many who love Jesus
do not necessarily subscribe to the religion that too often claims
a monopoly of him. Many keep his word without knowing that it
is his word. Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats?
"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry" - etc.?
So I venture to suggest that the rooms, dwelling places or mansions
of which Jesus speaks are not for 'members only'.
'I am the way, the truth and
the life.' The way to God is the way of Jesus, that way is both
the path he trod and the path he is. It is the way of the cross.
Not an easy path or a comfortable destination in many cases.
Today we also hear of the death
of a young man called Stephen. His was a life full of promise.
He was a handsome young man. He had a way with words. I am sure
that Peter, James and John and the other senior apostles had
high hopes for the work he might have achieved - had he lived.
But Stephen's life was completed in the inspiring words he spoke,
just before he died. He was granted a glimpse of the reality
of heaven - but when he tried to tell others, they rushed upon
him and stoned him to death. Too much reality can be too much
for many human beings. They are not ready to face up to the reality
of God's message for them. They prefer to remain in darkness
and ignorance, rather than move into the light of understanding.
And Stephen is able to forgive those who persecuted him and killed
him - providing for us an example of Christian faith and steadfastness
and securing for himself the distinction of being remembered
as the first Christian martyr.
This week we have had two other
examples in the news to make us think of this account of death,
life and steadfastness.
Stephen Sutton - the teenager
who touched so many hearts and lives, died this week. He was
both ordinary and extraordinary. His was a life full of promise.
He was a handsome young man. He had a way with words
He was a young man from our county - Staffordshire. He was diagnosed
with cancer aged just 15 - and he had every right to be bitter
and angry. He has been denied the future he wanted - to be a
doctor. Yet he brought to his condition and to the world an extraordinary
sense of the value and beauty of life. And I dare to say that
he fulfilled much of his potential in 19 short years. The fund
that he began, hoping optimistically to raise £10,000 to
combat Teenage Cancers, is now heading towards the £4million
mark. And - should his family wish it - they will be able to
hold his funeral in Lichfield Cathedral - such will be the interest
and attendance expected from the public. A very modern sort of
martyr - giving his life for the benefit of countless thousands
of fellow sufferers.
I don't know what sort of faith life Stephen had - if any - but
who could doubt that the cathedral would make a fitting place
to say final farewells to this remarkable young man?
And in South Sudan a young
woman is under sentence of death for apostasy - precisely the
same crime of which the Stephen in our first reading was accused.
He was accused of abandoning Judaism for the new sect of The
Way - later to become Christianity.
Although born to a Christian mother and raised a Christian -
and now married to a Christian man - Meriam Yehya's father was
a Muslim and so - in Sudanese law, she is Muslim also. We can
only pray that sense and humanity will prevail and that she and
her son and unborn child will be allowed to live on and to choose
to worship God in whatever way seems right to them. Enough martyrs
already in the world.... we don't want any more - not like this!
In my Father's house are many mansions.
Death - when it comes - as
it will to all of us - is both an ending and a beginning. It
is a point of transformation, of change; and change is never
comfortable. I am the way and the truth and the life. The path
of the cross was never going to be easy or comfortable. I cannot
believe in a God that refuses to value the good hearts and good
lives lived by men and women of many different faiths. Whatever
the outward appearance of their mansions, I am sure that they
will find the doorkeeper is always Christ - whether they recognise
him as such or not. To that extent he is the only way in which
anyone may reach the Father.... but as he told us in the reading
last week - he is in his very nature a doorway, a gate - a point
of entry, not a barrier to keep anyone out.