Benediction Online

Sunday, May 18, 2014

It's not about being Good, Nice and Fair

Today’s gospel reading is a troubling one for many of us.  Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. “ So far so good … but here comes the kicker – “No one comes to the Father except through me.” We’ve all heard that used to support an elitist view of Christianity, where only Christians are ok and only Christians get to heaven. It’s been used to impose a kind of martial law – you have to do whatever it takes to become and stay a Christian, or else. Not surprising that many of us would like to cut it out of the Bible. It’s like the reading last week about the sheep in the sheep fold when several of you were concerned about the sheep who were not in the fold.

We have heard these words interpreted one way, but there are others. Jesus did not say, “no one comes to God except by believing in my existence and by praying to me.” Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  His disciples were people who were living with him and listening to his teaching and watching the way he lived his life. So they didn’t hear these words as believe in my existence and pray to me – that would not have made sense to people who saw him every day. 

So I want to suggest that, when he said it, Jesus was talking about his life and his personhood.

Once Jesus had been resurrected and ascended, the disciples no longer had the same relationship to him. At that point, they began to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit no longer in Jesus but in themselves and in each other. So his personhood was, and still is, primarily experienced through the personhood of the Holy Spirit who we know blows like the wind and burns like divine fire but speaks in a still small voice.

The Holy Spirit is not separate from Jesus. They are both part of that complex and divine organism which we call the Trinity. So when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life” he is also saying “The Holy Spirit is the way, the truth and the life.” In fact, in those first two words, I AM, he is also claiming to be one with Yahweh the God who told Moses that he was to be known as I AM THAT I AM.  As he said specifically a few chapters earlier, “I and my Father are one.” So of course we come to the Father through Jesus because they are one. And we come to Jesus through the Holy Spirit because they too are one.

We have access to Jesus through the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit. In my mind, there is no reason to think that for this to happen people have to know the name of Jesus or believe that Jesus existed. As the Presiding Bishop said a few years ago, to insist that Jesus is the only way to God is to limit God. “God is, at the very least,” she said, “a mystery. God’s intention is for a restored relationship with all humanity. My job is to proclaim the good news of Jesus, but I cannot deny God is at work in other ways,”[1]
Our particular calling is to dedicate ourselves to following Jesus as his disciples and to proclaim the all encompassing love of God expressed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But others may access the Holy Spirit in different ways and through different paths and in doing so encounter Jesus and his Abba. As Christians, we relate to Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life” through the person that he was and is who we can know directly through the activity of the Holy Spirit present and working among us even at this very moment.  And because God is one and undivided we are also relating to the Creator, the Father, the Abba.
So now let’s turn to Jesus’ life. The disciples of any great guru seek to imitate the life, attitudes and values of their master. And we are no different. But we need to understand who it is we are imitating. There’s a general feeling in American society that Jesus was a good, nice and fair person and that that’s what God wants us to be. Good, nice and fair.
But that leaves out a lot. Why would a good, nice and fair person be hated by the authorities and killed?
Last week we heard that the early Christians “spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” It sounds like they were good, nice and fair people and everyone liked them. But this week, something has changed quite radically. Apparently the new movement was getting so big that the authorities, the Sanhedrin, felt threatened and decided this needed to be controlled before it all got out of hand. Even some of the temple priests were becoming followers of the Way, as it was called.
But others were angry that these people were suggesting that God could be worshipped outside the temple and so they began to argue with Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin on trumped up charges, just like Jesus before him.  Stephen, who was filled with the Holy Spirit “so that his face was like the face of an angel” responded to their accusations by recounting the history of God’s plan for salvation and then declaring that they had betrayed and murdered God’s Righteous One.  When they heard this “they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” But Stephen didn’t take any defensive action. He did not get fight them or try to get away. Instead he had a vision of the glory of God and while he was being stoned to death prayed for his attackers.
Does that remind you of anyone?
It’s remarkably similar to Jesus, isn’t it? Stephen wasn’t just a good, nice and fair person. He was someone whose connection with the Holy Spirit empowered him to speak truth to power and when power turned on him, he did not respond to violence with violence. He followed in the steps of Christ by taking a stand against the ruling authorities and taking a stand against the violence of the sin matrix.
Our society is based in violence. It has been from the earliest days. Violence is not just the visible ugly murder of a good, nice and fair man. Violence is paying less than a living wage. Violence is benefitting from the profits of companies who exploit the earth and exploit workers. Violence is buying clothes made in sweatshops. Violence thinks there isn’t enough to go round and grabs all it can get. Violence lives in our hearts and minds whenever we judge another or ignore them or see them as less than the beloved children of God. It is this violence which we call sin. It is endemic in our way of life and so I call it the sin matrix.
But Jesus refused to give in to it. He refused to return violence with violence. He loved so deeply that he allowed himself to be falsely accused, betrayed by his friends, treated with contempt and then murdered. And in his resurrection he turned the whole thing upside down and demonstrated once and for all that the way of God, the way of the Prince of Peace is more powerful than the way of violence and hatred. In so doing he reconciled us to God whom we had imagined as the most violent of all. And Stephen, the first martyr, followed his example. He too refused to respond with violence to violence. And he was murdered.
This is not about being good, nice and fair. This is about being fearless in the face of tyranny. This is about learning to love so much that we are willing and able to sacrifice our own desires and our own selves for the reign of God.
That is the Way, the truth and the life. That we love so deeply that we resist violence in all its forms. That we love so deeply that we set one another free by our forgiveness. That we love so deeply that we give ourselves to the Holy Spirit to be transformed and to become part of the reign of God, that alternative society which is based not on violence but on love. 
Whatever the cost.



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