Friday, May 16, 2014

"No one comes to the Father except through me" - Time to Put It Back in Context (May 18 2014)

Homily.  Yr A Easter 5 May 18 2014 St. Albans
Readings:  Acts 7.55-60; Ps 31.1-5,15-16; 1 Pet 2.2-10; Jn 14.1-14

“No one comes to the Father except through me”
-  Time to Put It Back in Context.

Have you ever had anything you said taken out of context?  It can be a frustrating, and sometimes even a damaging experience.  It happens all the time.  We see it in political ads.  We see it in movie reviews.   Some of you might remember the film Norbit, with Eddie Murphy, not one of the all-time classics.  When it came out, Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune wrote,

“Eddie Murphy's comic skills are immense, and Dreamgirls shows he's a fine straight dramatic actor too. So why does he want to make these huge, belching spectaculars, movies as swollen, monstrous and full of hot air as Rasputia herself — here misdirected by Brian Robbins of Good Burger, Varsity Blues and that lousy Shaggy Dog remake?"

Sounds like a total diss, right?  But the promoters of the Norbit chose to use Wilmington’s review anyways, and the advertising for the movie included his words:  “Eddie Murphy’s comic skills are immense.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Now if you consider that phrase on its own, taking it out of its context, and many people do just that, what does it sound like?  Well, it can sound like a threat.  It sounds like Jesus is setting himself up as a gatekeeper, determining who gets to come to God the Father, and who doesn’t.   It sounds exclusive, like there are insiders and outsiders (which is so not Jesus!).   And to raise the stakes even higher, we hear the words at the start of today’s gospel text, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places,” and those are the same words that we hear so often at funerals, and that makes it easy to jump to the conclusion that all this is about whether you get to go to heaven or not.   All of a sudden we’ve created a test for whether a person is going to heaven or hell based on Jesus as the gatekeeper, and we’ve just condemned all those who are Pagan or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu to hell - unless, unless they come to Jesus, and so what are we going to do about that?

Well, historically speaking, what we as the church have done about that includes the following:  We’ve done the Crusades, and we’ve done the Inquisition, and here in Canada we’ve conquered and colonized our first nations people, and put them in residential schools where they would be forced to abandon their own religion and spirituality and adopt ours so that they could get that ticket to heaven, because “no one comes to the Father except through Jesus.”  These words of Jesus, taken out of context, have been used to justify some of the worst atrocities in the history of Christianity, and continue to taint our relationship with peoples of other faiths today.

I think that it’s time we put Jesus’ words back into context.

Our gospel reading today takes us back to the last supper, the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples on the night before he died.  It is a troubling time, a time of great fear and uncertainty.  Jesus has washed their feet.  Judas has just left, intent on betraying Jesus.  And Jesus tells his closest friends, the ones who have trusted and followed him for the last three years, “I am only with you a little while longer.  You will look for me, and as I said to the Jews so I now say to you, where I am going you cannot come.”

Peter speaks up.  “Lord, where are you going?  Why can I not follow you now?”

But Jesus tells Peter, “Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

Now, what Jesus has just told Peter turns out to be true, but it certainly does nothing to relieve the anxiety, doubts and fears of the disciples.  And Jesus knows this.  And he cares.  And so he speaks to them words of comfort, words of compassion:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God, trust also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. . . .  And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

What does Jesus mean when he says “In my Father’s house”?  We often make the association with “heaven”.  But what does Jesus mean?  Well, he’s used the phrase before.  Remember when Jesus goes into the Temple with a whip and cries out “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace”.  In that phrase, “my Father’s house” is the Temple, the very centre of the universe in the religious thinking of the Jews, the place where God is present, God is with us, and where we are forgiven and reconciled with God and brought into right relationship with him.  But there’s more, because Jesus, in that very temple action is challenging the status quo thinking.  Do you remember when he tells the Samaritan woman at the well that “the hour is coming when you will no longer worship God on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem”?  Do you remember when he says “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up”?  Jesus is not going to “his Father’s house”.  He is “my Father’s house”, the place where God dwells, God with us, the place of forgiveness and reconciliation.  This is much more about relationship than it is about either heaven or geography.

The relational aspect becomes even clearer when we think about another way that the phrase “my Father’s house” was used in Jesus’ day.  Do you remember the Christmas story, where we are told that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because they were of the “house of David”?  This way of speaking means that they were descended from David, they are part of David’s family, David’s offspring and descendants.  It’s an expression of kinship, of family and of identity.  And so when Jesus tells his disciples “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” and “I go to prepare a place for you” he is also telling them that they are to become members of God’s family.  In this moment when the disciples feel that they are losing their identity as followers of Jesus, Jesus is reassuring them that they will have a new identity as children of God, their Father.  And surely this is an echo of the prologue in the first chapter of the gospel of John where we are told that to all who received him, he gave power to become the children of God.

“Where I am, you will be also,” Jesus tells his worried friends, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Jesus is talking relationship.  But Thomas is still thinking more in terms of geography.

“Lord we don’t know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”

Thomas is looking for an alternative route since Jesus is leaving and can no longer be followed.  Thomas is looking for an address that he can plug into his GPS that will show him the way.  Should he find another rabbi to follow in Jesus’ absence?  And here Jesus looks at Thomas and his other close friends with compassion, wanting to reassure them that they don’t need anything new, they don’t need an alternative, they don’t need another way.

“I am the way, and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

These are words spoken to Jesus closest friends.  They are spoken as words of comfort and reassurance.  They are spoken to people who share Jesus’ Jewish faith, not to adherents of Greek and Roman religions, not to those who have never heard of Jesus.  They are spoken with compassion, not as a test.  They are spoken as a direct response to the concern that Jesus is leaving and the disciples don’t know what to do next.  They are not meant to teach about how to get to heaven, they are an invitation and an assurance of a relationship.  These are words of promise, not threat.

As some of you have heard me say many times, “it’s all about relationship”.  Our relationship with God the Father.  And Philip kind of starts to get it, but he has one more request:

“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

And here I think we get to the dynamic core of this dialogue.  Jesus says to Philip,

“Philip, have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. . . .  I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  Again an echo of John’s prologue in Chapter one:

“No one has seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s bosom, who has made him known.”

Do we have something to say to people of other faiths and religions?  Absolutely we do!  But what we have to say is not a threat.  It is not a ticket to heaven nor a get out of jail free pass for hell. 

It is instead a gift, something of amazing value that we can offer.  All you who seek God, who want to know God, who want a relationship with God, we have something we want to tell you.  We believe that the almighty God who created the heavens and the earth became flesh and dwelt among us as a human being named Jesus.  And it is as a human being who talked our talk and walked our walk and lived among us and died among us that Jesus has made God known to us.  And the God that has been revealed to us in Jesus is a God who loves us, all of us, and wants to be in relationship with us, all of us, who wants us as his children and as members of his family.  Come and see.  No one has ever seen God, but God the Son, who is at the very bosom of the Father, has made him known.  Come and see.


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