StJohn&StStephens-logo

How is your Theology, Ali ?

I was 18, a medical student at a party in London, glass of wine in hand, and the student pastor Greg sidled up to me and asked, “ How is your theology Ali?”

I was studying medicine, not theology and I suspect what he really wanted to know was how was my relationship with God, in a new place, away from home for the first time,

It was the wrong question on so many counts at the wrong time and in the wrong place, I spluttered something as I choked on my wine and quickly fled to find a safer conversation

Thankfully I do not think anyone has asked me that since. But sometimes it is hardest to talk about the things that matter most to us, I wonder how your relationship with God is just now, are you best friends? Do you talk occasionally? Are you mad with God, disappointed, feel let down or maybe God just feels irrelevant to life? . For many many years I prayed to God calling God Father, a cosy safe relationship, felt like I climbed onto his lap and poured out my heart. In more recent years Pete and I tried to refer to God as She in our prayers, and over time it made a huge difference to how I felt about prayer, I have spoken before about how simply changing the title led to a deepening in my understanding of this sacrament of communion, where Jesus offers us himself, in a way like I did as I breast fed 4 children. In the last couple of years I have moved to calling the divine simply God, leaving for a while the safe intimate relationship of parent to child I feel as if I have become more of an adult in the relationship and am certainly more aware of the mystery, the otherness of God, God is not a tame pet to do my bidding but I am invited into the mystery with less certainty about where that might take me.

Winter-A-Time-of-Roots-Growing-Below-the-Soil-1

I hope you picked up a picture of a tree as you came into church, I want you to look at the picture now for a few minutes and consider whether it can teach you anything about your life and God at the minute, are there ways in which it reflects how you feel, or is perhaps the opposite of where you are just now, what attracted you to this photo instead of all the others? Could this picture be saying anything about who or how you are now?

Nicholas  Mermon was born in the Lorraine in France in 1614, into a poor family. Fighting as a soldier, lonely and despairing, in the cold snows of winter he looked at a tree, branches bare, stripped of leaves and fruit, apparently dead . Gazing at the tree and remembering spring and summers of his childhood he began to grasp the extravagance OF God’s grace and , the promise that the turn of the seasons would bring fullness. He writes that ” leafless tree first flashed upon my soul the fact of God”

An injury forced his retirement from the army, he entered a Carmelite monastery, sadly with no  education  he was  assigned to work in the kitchens for the rest of his life, there amidst the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning at the constant bid of his superiors he developed a way of life. He writes about the simplicity of coming to God, finding God in the ordinary, in  turning out a cake, in preparing vegetables, he speaks of it being enough to sweep up the floor for love of God. He cooked meals and scrubbed pots and wrote ”the time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayers and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen while several persons are at the same time calling for different things I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees receiving the blessed sacrament. He was no good at set prayers, though he tried for 3 hours a day but resolved to give himself to God moment by moment through his busy day, found that he wanted to maintain an ongoing conversation with God no matter what he was doing. “ I make it my business to rest in his holy presence”…the good brother found God everywhere.

We know this man today as Brother Lawrence, author of Practising the presence of God

I had a meaningful encounter with a tree at my ordination retreat,a chestnut tree ,  a  rather poor photo I took of it. A line of trees had been felled by the storms of the mid nineties, the farmer had cleared most of them away but this one, on the edge of field was stripped of useful branches and wood, the stump left fallen on the ground, but now a few years on new life was sprouting amazingly, now 20 feet tall. I had had to give up the career I had been trained for, I could not cope with the demands, I felt dried up and useless, logs on a wood pile  but this tree promised new life , new direction, there were still a few roots deep into the ground, something new could happen

The Ethiopian in our reading from Acts this morning was looking for something, searching scripture and  Philip asked if he understood. He replies How can I without someone to guide me. We all need help. If Eli had not been around Samuel might still be sleeping, without Ananias bravely opening his heart to the blind Saul along the road to Damascus we might never have had the wisdom of Paul. If the stranger had walked on by minding his own business or keen to reach his destination then the two people along the Emmaus road might still be wandering, lost in their grief and misunderstanding.. we all need help along the way, Jesus longed for company in Gethsemane but the disciples did not quite get it and fell asleep. WE know little of Mary but in the midst of that confusing pregnancy she chose to go to her cousin Elizabeth to work together toward understanding and acceptance.

In the muddle of 4 children under 6 Pete gave me a life changing present, 48 hours retreat in the convent of ST Mary’s in Wantage. I sat with the delightful fun loving twinkle in her eyes rotund nun, sister Ann Julian and said I don’t think this spiritual life is for me. The only way I had been taught to pray was on my knees, first thing in the morning, for at least half an hour with a list of people and situations that I needed to inform God about. If I set my alarm to wake up it simply woke all 6 of us, made the day longer and everyone more grouchy.

Of course I know that that way of prayer works for some people, my dad prayed on his knees by his bed every night, read his bible notes, BRF ones I know because I watched him when we all slept in a small caravan for holidays.  I hate daily bible notes, I feel such a failure when within the first week I am a day or two behind, I feel incredibly judged by those little letters and numbers of a date at the top of each page. But AJ nonplussed asked if there was ever a time when I was aware of God, without hesitation I responded yes, when I walk through the woods…could I go for a walk more regularly she asked. I got home, it still felt very selfish to take myself off for a walk, not too much achieved by a walk in the woods but we had children who regularly asked for a puppy, we got KEs , a golden retriever pup and suddenly I had to take a walk every day. Years later training for ordination we were invited to take in a symbol of our relationship with God, I took in the by then two dogs, my prayer partners. And yes these days I still enjoy walking and talking with God but I have also learned to be still and mostly quiet with God often in the early morning.

It is often a struggle to  come to God, it is often a struggle to face myself but the gentle wisdom of that nun encouraged, sometimes challenged me to keep trying. She gave me ideas of new ways of approach, questions lead me to different understanding. She inspired me so much that during a really tough period of my life, off work, in turmoil that I trained in that same ministry of spiritual direction, except that is such a misnomer, the guide does not direct but sits with, offers a safe hospitable space to explore my relationship with God. And that is what is on offer in June this year, here in the parish, for just one week we will have a variety of guides or accompaniers if you would like to give a little attention to how you and God are getting on at the minute. No answers guaranteed but a deep belief that God longs for us to relate to him/her, to ourselves and to one another, to be in community.

There are a few metaphors for this that I enjoy, the first is that I, your guide can be a midwife, a midwife does not make you pregnant but has sat with so many people who are giving birth that they can offer support and suggestions about how you might best live through this that is happening to you. The second is to pan for gold, it is an opportunity to put all the mess and mud of life into a sieve, and allow the Spirit of God to gently wash through then together we will look for the nuggets of gold, the things in our lives that we most value, that we want to hang onto, give space for

If you would like to work with some of these questions, then sign up for the week of accompanied prayer, no qualifications or experience necessary, you will be offered half an hour each day to talk over your life in God with an experienced guide or companion. They will make suggestions for things for you to do, they will listen and together you will seek God in amongst the complexity or your life.

Tomorrow Pete and I are off on the Eurostar to  see daughter Jo, she lives in Paris. We will catch the train at St Pancras station so we will see for ourselves the new art installation by Tracey Emin, you might have a copy of it on the front of your service sheet, as we look toward the clock we will see the huge pink fluorescent writing that says I want my time with you. So many of us struggle to use time in a way that is true to our deepest desires, yet that is where God can be found. The monk  Thomas Merton captures this well, as Lucy WInkett quoted in thought for the day this week, reflecting on this art work, If you want to know me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I do my hair but ask me what I am living for and what is keeping me from living fully for the things I want to live for….if I am not spending my time with who I want to spend it with, why aren’t I? what is stopping me?

RC-shape of water

The Shape of Everything

Acts 3:13-19, Luke 24:36-48

If you have seen the film, ‘The Shape of Water’, you may have wondered about the title. The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty has many faces. It’s a lovely, unlikely film where Sally Hawkins falls in love with a humanoid sea-creature, ugly to our eyes but beautiful to hers. The shape of water.

Luke is the author of the gospel passage we read this morning, or, as I am coming to like to call it, the Jesus story. In those few verses, right at the end of his account, Luke gives us a summary: ‘the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’. These few words have a particular shape, containing as they do suffering and death – crucifixion – on the one hand and new life – resurrection – on the other. The cross-resurrection message, Luke goes on to tell us, is at the heart of the message of forgiveness for the world. I want to look at this in a particular way that I hope we will find enlarges our understanding and our faith, using the metaphor of shape.

Firstly, I want to say that this book, the Scriptures, has itself the shape of death and life, cross and resurrection. Jesus tells us that “’…everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.’” (Lk 24:44-46) What he is saying is that his death and resurrection were clearly foreshadowed in the Scriptures: that is, the OT. Let me illustrate briefly with three examples. If you’re not familiar with the stories, I will reference everything and you can look it up later. It’s important to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t come out of the blue: there was a shape to much of the OT – the shape of death to life. First, there is the grand movement of the Exodus: the captivity and slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt and their escape (Exodus 1-14) – from captivity to freedom, the shape of death to life. Then within that story is another story with the same shape, just so we don’t miss the point – the death of the Passover lamb and the horrible death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 12) which led to Pharaoh driving them out of his country. Again, death to life. Secondly, there are many individual figures in the OT with this shape. The clearest is Joseph, poor boastful Joseph, literally thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, then unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into prison. But God reveals dreams to him which he interprets to Pharaoh and he becomes ruler of Egypt. Slavery to redemption. Death to life, crucifixion to resurrection (Genesis 37-47). Finally there are the prophets. I will mention only one, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, written around 700 years before Jesus’ birth, speaking of someone who is to come, a suffering servant: ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…yet he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light.’ (Isaiah 53:4,5,10,11). This remarkable chapter in Isaiah prefigures the coming of the Messiah, a servant who will mysteriously suffer in order to give us life, who will die, but will see new life. It traces the shape of the One who was to come, and in the person of Jesus the dots are joined together. Scripture is Jesus-shaped.

I’ve made a bit of a meal about the shape of scripture for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus does himself. No argument there! Secondly, because if we believe anything, if we say that we believe that Jesus, in his life and death and resurrection achieved our salvation, that is, our healing; and if we say that in Jesus, God himself was dwelling, and if we say, look, this didn’t happen out if the blue, it’s actually prefigured in the OT, then get this: not only is scripture Jesus-shaped, God is Jesus-shaped. I don’t know what picture of God you carry in your mind – an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud? A kindly uncle? A kindly aunt? Put those images away. God has the shape of Jesus. And as we reflect on his death and resurrection, it’s a blood-and-guts picture as well as one of new life, of victory – even if his hands and feet and side still carry the marks of the nails and the spear (John 20:27). Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15) – an image which includes all the suffering of the cross, death and resurrection. I am certain that when Ascension day comes, Vince will remind us that what the ascension tells us, is that all of this is taken up into the Godhead, into the Person of God himself.

This is treasure beyond price. But I want to widen the field still further. In speaking of Scripture having the shape of Jesus, the shape of cross and resurrection, and then of God Himself having that same shape, we are still being sort-of ‘churchy’. I came to faith some 40-odd years ago with the idea of ‘personal salvation’, that it was all about me somehow. And I had a message to tell people about admitting sin, coming to Christ, receiving his forgiveness through the cross and then the promise of eternal life through his resurrection. And all of that is true, and absolutely right for me and for many people at the time. The trouble is it was too small. It’s not only that Scripture is Jesus-shaped, or that God is Jesus-shaped – thinking particularly of cross and resurrection – it’s that everything is Jesus-shaped! We don’t have to look very hard to see the same shape spread across not only humanity, not only the world, but the whole universe. The animal and plant kingdoms have been following a cycle of death and new life for billions of years. Paul himself, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, in Greece, writes about the resurrection. He uses the illustration of a seed which first has to die – that is, to be put into the ground, before it comes to life again (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). The universe itself is full of stars dying and being born again. It’s like this: from the smallest microbe to the biggest galaxy, in the Scriptures, in our own lives there is the shape of death and life: the shape of Jesus, the shape of God himself, the shape of everything. Have we got it yet?

In our human existence we experience death and new life – quite literally, but also within our own lives as we face pain and suffering and then sometimes, new life as well. I deliberately say ‘sometimes’. We will not always see the reality of resurrection, of new life and hope. We can reflect that in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, there really wasn’t much hope, maybe none at all. With one or two exceptions, the story of Jesus’ death reads like it’s the end. We tend to view the cross through the lens of the resurrection, but the reason the resurrection reads like a surprise is because it was a surprise! Who really knew that would happen? For the disciples and everyone around the cross, it looked exactly  like the end – it was a public execution. Did even Jesus know the resurrection was coming? He had some hope – ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, said to one of the two thieves crucified with him (Luke 23:43) but coming back and eating fish on a lakeside (John 21)? Maybe not! ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46) doesn’t sound full of hope, does it? ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30) sounds, well, like an ending.

I say that because sometimes it can feel like there is no hope at all. Yet the Jesus story contains even hopelessness (which, weirdly, can give us hope). We can draw a line between the bleakness and futility of the torture and death of an innocent man on a Roman cross and our own experiences of bleakness and futility. Many years ago I spent 6 weeks on a training course in India, became friends with a German doctor, Dirk, on the same course. We had a lot of fun together, and I stoically endured the merciless teasing about warm, flat British beer with gritted teeth and a plastic smile. We talked often about faith – he wasn’t a believer – and one time he asked me, what do you say about suffering? I began to talk about the cross, the suffering of Jesus. After a few minutes he said, ‘Stop! It’s enough for me to know that you have somewhere to go with it!’

Some of you know that Rosemary and I have recently got back from a visit to Myanmar where our son and daughter-in-law are working for a few months. While we were that side of the world, we took the opportunity to visit Cambodia with Jon and Alexia. On our last day we visited the Genocide museum and Killing fields in Phnom Penh, the capital. Some 2 million people – that’s a quarter of the country’s population – almost all completely innocent, were tortured and killed in around 200 centres around the country in the years 1974-1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge under their paranoid leader, Pol Pot. It is the most sobering and depressing place I have ever been to, yet it is part of our global history. Before we went Rosemary and I prayed together and read verses from Isaiah 53: ‘He was despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief’ (v.3). Those words are so poignant, connecting like an electric circuit with the horrors of what happened at Tuol Sleng prison and I wept. In her prayer, Rosemary thanked God for the resurrection of the country, much in evidence now. And there it is again. Crucifixion and resurrection. Look for that pattern, that shape. It is everywhere.

‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’ (Luke 24:47) comes near the end of our gospel reading. I have said before that I the word ‘repentance’ quite problematic. It seems to me, at least, to have too narrow a focus: ‘what have you been up to, then? – you had better repent of that!’ I much prefer to break the word down into two halves – ‘re’ meaning ‘again’ and ‘pent’ from the French penser, ‘to think’. Rethink your life! No so much what have you done wrong today (although there may be profit in that!) but what direction is my life taking? How does my life line up with the Jesus story? And rethink the cross and resurrection – not just isolated events in history, but fulfilling the shape of Scripture written hundreds of years in advance; somehow revealing not only the shape of God Himself but the shape of everything. And you are forgiven! Again, I find the word ‘forgiven’ a bit narrow although it’s true, but it’s not enough – not only forgiven, you are loved, accepted, welcomed. If Jesus could forgive the men who nailed him to the cross – and he did – he can surely accept you!

Richard Croft

 

https://ronaldraab.com/2017/04/22/the-second-sunday-of-easter-2017-painting-of-jesus-and-thomas/

Living with the Resurrection; doubts, hopes and all.

+ May I speak …

Quote from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

It’s been a week, a long week.. and a lot can happen in a week. I wonder how your weeks have been since we last were together celebrating the wonder of Easter’s resurrection… have you lived in the bright glow of hope, or the grey everyday, or under darker clouds of oppression, stress or grief..

One week on.. has Easter made a difference?

One week on… lets be honest, what difference did we expect it to make?

As the excitement of the festival dims, It’s hard to know what difference it actually makes to our lives… is it a marker, a signpost, a symbol of hope built into the everyday?

During last weeks (joyfully chaotic) homily, I spoke of the abrupt mid-sentence ending of Mark; of how the story is left unfinished. How the wordlessness and fear of the visiting women might be the only appropriate and fitting response.

+Andrew asked me several years ago what it means to say ‘Christ is Risen’ before a church; I answered (controversially?) that I wasn’t really interested in trying to get back to what happened 2000 years ago, I was interested in what that meant now; how in people come to church and say ‘yes’ to this impossible claim, that it becomes the very basis of this church and of the lives of its people … how can we say ‘yes’ to a testimony which claims the God has made life come from places of death? How and when does it happen? And how do we celebrate that hope realistically?

Perhaps the clues are found in this week’s connected readings; both rich with layers of meaning.

We have two scenes portrayed; first, the book of Acts, (interesting that the lectionary this year gives it as a post-resurrection narrative, not  the usual post-Pentecost narrative). We get a snapshot of a life totally transformed, people and community transformed, living together and sharing in ways that they could never have imagined before now… a radical, (even today) vision of a re-setting of prime values and priorities..

Why is this a post-resurrection reading? How does this speak of new life, unexpected life coming from places (or habits) of death?

32 The group of believers was one in mind and heart. None of them said that any of their belongings were their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all.

Hold on… ‘great power’, ‘rich blessings’, these are words associated with the Spirit.. by enacting community are they embodying something of the resurrection drama?

It’s a reminder that our whole service this morning makes up the Eucharistic Drama… when we share The Peace we are doing more than simply saying ‘hello’, (and slightly embarrassing ourselves); we are participating in a symbol which is rooted in exactly this resurrection change – a moment of sacramental remembering.

I said last week that the Mark’s resurrection is a story which needs telling again and again, it never ends.. As we greet one another, we confer a blessing to each other , and as we do we re-hearse, re-tell, re-story the endless story. The Acts passage invites us to imagine such moments as defining rather than accidental. The Peace provokes and rehearses our own works of mercy and justice.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

The second scene is told by John… is the familiar visitation to the disciples, and the special encounter with Thomas… We hear the story of the disciples locked away, afraid; fearful of the Jewish authorities, (note – ‘Jews’ means authorities, priests, not all Jews; Jesus was a Jew – as were his followers, and John himself!). Other commentators have wondered, were they afraid of Jesus? Maybe they didn’t want to believe the testimony of the women … afraid that it was all too real?

But Jesus appears.. we imagine the shock, the awe… We see the physical interaction; body, wound, touch, seeing, restoration. (Whatever resurrection has done – it has not removed the wounding).

But we also witness the Spirit being given… as breath, and the words ‘Peace be with you’..

This following section was not given in the sermon…

And then this strange line about forgiving.. most strange. or is it…

If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

There are two halves to this sentence; the first concerns this strange word ‘sin’.. but I’m not talking about that today. It’s easy to imagine the second half of the sentence follows the same subject… which means if you do not forgive sin, they are not forgiven..

But that’s not what is being said… let’s be honest, Jesus has just died for or with the sin/(brokenness) of the whole world.. why on earth is he saying then that sins can be left unforgiven? That makes a mockery of the whole Easter event!

Let’s look another way and consider it talking about the people who commit sin, who carry and embody brokenness.. (and yes – that’s all of us!).

if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

… But if you do, if you forgive the person, hold the person, embrace and welcome the person, the ‘other’– they are held, they are restored, they become like you.

Jesus meets the doubt of his followers; holds them, gives them the Spirit of peace, gives them the ability to share that peace with each other and with the world. So peace, spirit, resurrection, others .. again. The resurrection story becomes a little clearer… it is lived out with others…

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

And finally we have the story of badly-typecast Thomas. To be honest.. he doesn’t even really ‘doubt’.. it’s more like when someone tells you about a great movie, a great song or a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour.. hearing about it isn’t enough.. you want to see it or hear or taste it yourself.

That’s not even doubt in my book! .. I can tell you a few things about real doubt.. (but you’d be bored!)… Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but instead it’s part of it. Real doubt is good, necessary sometimes, and once again embraced by the one who cares enough to meet us in doubt.

And I would push further and say that doubt isn’t an in/out thing… we all live questioning; both believing and simultaneously denying all this stuff – all the time! Those whose doubts prevent them from entering church have a gift for us… cause us to be realistic. (Camino program, ‘I’m not sure if I believe’). In the crucible of doubt we lose certainties but are left with faith.

Thomas is where we are.. one week on.. when the glow of celebration subsides and reality knocks at the door. He wasn’t with the first disciples.. (who also didn’t believe what they were told)..  he’s probably had a terrible week.. I think we can give him that.. Maybe he didn’t doubt at all.. Maybe he grieved.. “how can anything be real anymore, how do I even begin to carry on with life?” Maybe we can all share something of that.. when something so devastating rips the ceiling off our lives… tears our worlds apart… Perhaps Thomas is like the psalmists pleading for God’s existence amid our groans, watching for God in the land parched with doubt but no water, looking for the God who bears the marks of our weary world in his own body. * The Psalms juxtapose extravagant faith claims alongside deep doubts.. The tension of now/not-yet. And if we are to be realistic about the resurrection then maybe we can doubt it as much as celebrate it!

Maybe, like Thomas and the Psalmists, we wait – allowing time to pass… we have to – we have no choice. We find ourselves held by others.. exploring silence and then (sometimes) unexpectedly surprised.

Jesus greets Thomas one week on.. offers the same blessing of peace, the same breath of the Spirit.. the same physical interaction. It is a beautiful intimate moment.

 “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

John finishes his story here…. (most scholars believe the other chapter is a later addition)

The story told ‘that you might believe’, is always being told, always without an ending; it requires time, patience understanding and love.. it requires others to help us tell the story, to listen, to share and to grow.

It asks that we dare to imagine something different.. something different to what we face now…

It asks that we embody a future full of wild, unknown and hopeful possibilities.

It asks that we understand that doubt is an inevitable part of that journey.. we cannot love the impossible until we first realise that it is truly impossible.

Yet in the face of death.. even the death of a crucified God .. a gift seems to emerge in our lives and offer something new.. life still overcoming death – over and over again. A new blessing, a new grace.. The Peace we share in this Eucharist reminds us that Easter transforms our lives and will keep on transforming…  always in process, always in hope, always in the face of an/other.

Peace be with you …

 

Featured Image : “My Lord and God” Jesus and Thomas, Painting by: Ronald Raab, CSC
https://ronaldraab.com/2017/04/22/the-second-sunday-of-easter-2017-painting-of-jesus-and-thomas/

series-g

Thomas and Philip and the Way, the Truth and the Life

Thomas and Philip and the Way, the Truth and the Life

Acts 7:55-end, John 14:1-14

 

Many years ago, when I was a student, there was a fashion for thinking about Jesus like this: ‘Is he mad, bad, or God?’ The question was meant to be a way of focussing your mind on the incredible claims that Jesus made about himself and saying, well, who on earth is he then? A fraud, or who he says he is? I suppose the very fact I can remember that says something. But if you’ve been coming to church and been hearing about Jesus for some time, we tend to take it all a bit for granted. We’re used to the formula Jesus = God. It was definitely not like that for the disciples, certainly not in the time before His death and resurrection. Jesus was, after all, a human being, a man. They knew Him as their master, their teacher, yes – but also as their companion, their friend. This morning I want to try and get inside of that, to look at Jesus from the disciples’ point of view, specifically that of Thomas and Philip. So I am going to try and speak to them. Perhaps you can imagine yourself as one of the other disciples, sitting, listening, overhearing Jesus’ words or perhaps you can become Thomas or Philip and hear the words directly. Because what Jesus says, His words that we heard read in the gospel, were spoken in relationship. And they are really only true in relationship. Our Christian faith isn’t a set of rules and regulations that you follow. It begins and ends with the person of Jesus. It’s all about Him.

Before we get there though, let’s be clear of the context. Jesus didn’t say what He did out of the blue. He was on his way to Jerusalem, it was the last week of his life on earth. He had already told them that He wouldn’t be around much longer: “I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you: ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’” (Jn 13:33) So this was a period of uncertainty, of fear for the disciples. The party was ending. From the position of fear and uncertainty, Thomas poses his question: ‘Where is it you are going? How can we know the way?’ (Jn 14:5)

‘Thomas, how long have we known each other? Is it really three years? We know each other now, don’t we? I know you so well, always a bit sceptical, a bit unconvinced, but still you’re here, still you are with me. I love you for the way you voice your doubts and questions, you don’t keep them buttoned up. And don’t you know me? Don’t you know me well enough to believe me when I say that even though the worst may happen to me, to you, to any of us, in my Father’s house there are many rooms? Look, I am going there to prepare a place for you – yes, you Thomas – as well as all of you, too. That part is settled. I know that there are dark days ahead of us and that you are worried and fearful. I want you to step over your fears – as I have to – yes, I too am fearful of what may come in the next few days – but hold on to what you know, what you have seen and heard.

‘So, you are wondering about the way we are going, what is the way. Haven’t I become the way for you over these last years? Haven’t you been with me in all the things I have done and said? I have literally been ‘the way’ for you – you have, after all followed me – but haven’t I become like a way of life for you as well? Not only that, haven’t I become the way to the Father for you as well? Did you imagine it could be anything like how it has been? And hasn’t it been exciting, fun even? Think of some of the things we’ve been up to! Look around you to start with, at this bunch of misfits and ask yourself how it is that we are all here? You’re not exactly the top class, are you? Yet I chose you! Look at Peter the fisherman with his size 13 wellies, always ready to rush in where angels fear to tread! And James and John, the sons of thunder I call them (Mk 3:17), after they wanted to call down lightning from heaven in judgement! Matthew, dear Matthew, the tax collector, the collaborator, the traitor – gave it all up, all his money so he could be here with me, with us (Mk 2:13-14). Would you have been friends with any of them? But look, here we are! Isn’t this life? Isn’t this living? Think of some of the other people we’ve come across, invited to join us, people who are ‘nobodies’? Ordinary men and women and children, shopkeepers, bakers, fishermen, builders – and then the sex workers, the crazy – what about the man who spent his life naked, raving among the tombstones, remember that? How we sent the spirits that plagued him into a herd of pigs that rushed off a cliff and left him clothed and in his right mind? Didn’t we give him his life back? (Mk 5:1-17) Even more than that, think of Lazarus, our dear friend, Mary and Martha’s brother, who died. You wept, I wept, we all wept at their sorrow. And yet, what happened? he’s unwrapping his bandages and stepping out of the tomb (Jn 11:1-44). Thomas, I am the way, I am the life. I am the truth, too. Not that horrible kind of truth that condemns a man because he’s on the wrong side of it, but truth that is full of life, truth that says, ‘this is right, this is true and good’ – and it gives life. Because the truth about those ‘nobodies’, about you, and all the others that are just ‘ordinary’ is that you’re not ordinary. In fact, my Father loves you, Thomas the doubter, and the crazy guy in the tombs, and the whores, and the collaborators, as well as the people at the top. Yes, He loves them too.

‘Do you remember when we got accused of being drunkards? (Mt 11:19) Maybe they were thinking of when I changed the water into wine at the wedding in Cana so the party could go on (Jn 2:1-11). Hasn’t it been a bit like a party in these years? Hasn’t it felt like that? But that’s what being in the kingdom of my Father is like – it’s not some drab, stiff, sober place where nobody laughs or cracks a joke or maybe has a bit too much to drink – it’s exactly the opposite. It’s a place where we celebrate, enjoy each other’s company where we can be who we are, happy to know we are loved by the Father.

‘And think about the cages we’ve rattled? That’s part of it, too. We rattled cages when we stood up for what is right and true and some people – people with vested interests, people who have been blinded by possessions or power haven’t liked it at all. I called them out. The Pharisees who teach you can leave your parents dirt poor if your money is offered to God (Mk7:9-13). Who load people with burdens, stuff to do to make them really ‘religious’ but don’t help them to do it . The people who are offended because I care for the poor, the outcast, the sick, lepers, even the dead. Those ways of living – not that it’s really living – have to be called out for what they are, even though there’s a price to pay. In fact, and you know it, the price is soon going to be paid. I am the truth, the truth about my Father.

‘But Thomas, you should know that the way, the way I live, includes pain. Yes, I am the way to the Father and you have seen how much joy there is in that, how there is welcome, how it’s true life and how that is literally what I have given to people. But there will always be resistance, there will always be pain. This is a way where we go out towards others, towards people who are suffering, towards the unloved and the unlovely, a way where we do what is true and right even though it costs us. What is about to happen to me is part of the way too.

‘Philip, I have heard your question too. ‘Show us the Father’. Philip, haven’t you understood yet? Look at me. Look at the things I have done and said. Think about what I’ve just said to Thomas. Think of what kind of person I am. Think about why you wanted to follow me. The truth is, I am in the Father and the Father is in me. When you look at me, you are looking at the Father.

I hope that in some way that has helped us to get behind perhaps what Jesus had in mind when he said of himself. ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (Jn 14:6) It is this Jesus that we honour in our worship and in our lives, who is Himself the way to the Father, who shapes our way of life – a way that is full of celebration, friendship across all barriers, brings healing and reconciliation but also self-giving; who is the truth, the truth about God Himself who reaches out in love to all; and the life – the life of God.

 

Richard Croft