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18th May 2014 - Sunday Morning - Revd. Preb Maureen Hobbs

Easter 5 2014
Acts 7. 55-60
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 true?

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.