Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 18 May 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
I wonder what home means to you. I’m not quite sure where it is for me. I was a clergy child and we moved a lot, a pattern which I have replicated. Jesus was, of course, talking to a group of men and women who had left their homes, families and jobs to be the support group of an itinerant preacher; now he tells them he’s leaving and they will need to get along without him (this passage is well in advance of the crucifixion or the Ascension, but Jesus is preparing the ground). This rootlessness is to be a permanent state. But, Jesus says, repeating the most frequent command in the Bible, ‘do not be afraid’, because his departure will not be a disappearance, a loss, but a preparation for something better. He goes before them, beyond their present understanding, to do something for them, to make a place ready which will be truly home.
Whenever this Gospel is read, clergy, and possibly many of you, think instinctively of funerals. The first half of what we heard is often used as the scripture reading in those services (we will use it here on Thursday for Robert Blott’s funeral). And when I think of funerals, among the hundreds I’ve taken, it is most natural to me to think of those of my parents, for each of whom I had to fly back to Australia.
The Sunday after my mother died I happened to be going to a Roman Catholic Church. Let me explain. Geoffrey, my head server in Sydney, had become a Roman Catholic; unable to kick the habit, he’d become head server of his wonderful new parish in inner Sydney, St Brigid’s Marrickville, where Mass is celebrated for thousands of people every weekend, sometimes in Vietnamese, sometimes in Italian, sometimes in Spanish (for Philippino worshippers) and sometimes even in English – well, Irish-Australian. Its a very lively and interesting church. My friend, Geoffrey, had arranged for the parish to be praying for my mother in her final illness; now they were praying for her as recently departed. The parish priest, Fr Tom, had welcomed me during the notices, slightly surprisingly, as an Anglican priest visiting from England who would be sharing communion with them. Geoffrey had asked the assistant priest, Fr Jim, to be available if I wanted anyone to talk to. I waited after the service to talk to Jim, who had even offered to attend the Requiem Eucharist which I would be celebrating that week. All this unexpected ecumenism was becoming a little overwhelming. As the people poured out into the blazing city sunshine, we finally spoke. I’m ashamed to say I was expecting some platitude, or at best some polite fellow-feeling. But Fr Jim smiled brilliantly and fixed me with a disconcerting look; then he uttered just one sentence: ‘Michael, here we have no abiding city’, he said, quoting Hebrews. This was the sum total of his bereavement counselling.
Now I wouldn’t dare offer that as my only pastoral response to the recent death of a parent, but applied to me, at least, it was not only true but apt. My mother was the last reason I had to call Sydney home. I didn’t use today’s gospel at her Requiem, as it happens, but I thought about it as I commended her, a lifelong communicant and long-suffering missionary and clergy-wife, to whom home was actually very important. Now her home was to be with God, with no need, any longer, of anxieties and fears, of competitive insecurities or irritations, of disappointments or even small triumphs of achievement. And that, I suggest, is the primary gospel, ‘Good News’ of this passage –
‘…do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many dwelling-places. … if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am there you may be also. ..’
All of which can be easily said, but may be harder to process, deep inside.
What is the basis of this security which Jesus offers? It is, he says, that knowing him means that we know God as Father. The problematic aspect of this reading at funerals, especially of those whose faith is not known to me, is that as set in Common Worship, it stops at verse 6 –
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
which appears to exclude a lot of people. I always add verse 7 –
If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
That at least makes it clear that Jesus is talking about himself as a reference-point for God as Father, and one that we can all access if we choose, rather than trying to set up an exclusive membership boundary.
But there is a problem with this text seeming to require a very exclusive membership of the heavenly club; certainly some use it like that. Jesus wasn’t talking like that, he wasn’t trying to formulate doctrine or exclude people (that is never his intention if you read the gospels carefully). But in these days of loudly fundamentalist Christianity and equally noisily expressed fear of fundamentalist Islam, and even in dialogue with Jews and people of other faiths, these words can seem to close down the conversation about welcoming difference and diversity, when they should be an invitation to faith.
Jesus is speaking positively, not negatively, here. His specific revelation, his Good News, is about direct access to God as loving parent: he is the way to understanding and relating to God like that. God may be known to others differently, but as long as God is God, who are we to deny him however the knowledge is received? In a sense Jesus is saying: ‘I’m offering you something straightforward and easy to understand, something God has never done before and will never do again in this way. Take it or leave it. But, if you know me, you do know God as a loving and forgiving parent.’
Of course we want everyone to share in that relationship with God. But if we lose our openness to difference and diversity in faith we actually sell the gospel short and make it less attractive. Wider missionary experience confirms that. To speak again of my parents, in the 1940’s my father went off to China as a missionary, full of Evangelical zeal and certainty. He had some success in building a Christian community in one of the oldest university campuses in the world, in West China. But his experience of Buddhists and Taoists while planting that church removed his certainty about the innate and invincible superiority of the simple evangelical Christianity into which he had been converted and ordained. It simply didn’t work there, he found. These people had no need of it. If you offered to ‘save’ them, they asked, without sarcasm, ‘from what?’. They might need food, or welcome fellowship, but in order to deliver the standard evangelical gospel – that Christ died to save them from their sins – you had first to convert them to belief that they were sinners and to implant in them the whole Old Testament narrative, which to them was just foreign superstition, and rather less ancient than many of their on texts and institutions. Then you had to subvert what you had just implanted with your good news about Jesus. That is a big ask if you’re talking to people who have no reason to know the story (as we are discovering afresh in England). Any success my father had in sharing the gospel came through patiently learning Chinese and then studying alongside the students he’d been charged to evangelize. On the basis of that approach he founded a church in the University of West China which, I believe, still exists – doubtless by now in a form unrecogniseable to him.
He had to leave China in a hurry after Mao’s victory in the battle of Chungking; he returned to Sydney, married my mother and went to work in Hong Kong. There, when he spoke to his bishop of his anxiety about evangelism after his experience in China, the Bishop (R.O. Hall) answered that the hand that points to God has at least five fingers that we can see; each is different and all work best together.
The words of Jesus in today’s gospel are a challenge, but not a challenge to promote a narrow and exclusive access to God, a way with boundaries which we police (something which members of the Anglican Communion are yet again doing). We can safely leave it to God to decide who he wants in his family (and he gives every indication of being more generous than we are); we don’t need to try and keep other people out, like the elder brother of the prodigal, in order to be assured of our place in our Father’s house.
The challenge to us is not to discover and administer border controls, but to demonstrate in our daily living that distinctive commitment to Jesus, which makes us different, which indicates that we do have something worth sharing, a relationship with God which means we are at home wherever we are, in life, and in eternal life, for ‘here we have no abiding city’. That is nourished here, above all, day by day and week by week at the altar, with the Eucharist which is our viaticum, ‘food for the journey’, our unique communion relationship with God.
Jesus says to us,
‘If you know me, you will know my Father also’,
For each of us, the question then is, ‘if you know me, will you also get to know Jesus?’