Friday, 23 May 2014

Living the Way of Jesus

Sermon preached on 18 May 2014 at Duston URC. Text: John 14:1-14. See also my blog post from 2013 on John 14:6.
So I began talking with the children about what it means to walk along with Jesus, and I want to go into that a bit more – about what it means to live in the way of Jesus. This is a long and quite complex passage, rich with imagery and ideas. There’s material for a whole series of sermons in these 14 verses. So as I did earlier, I’m going to mostly focus on one single verse – though drawing on ideas from the rest of the passage.


Now there are probably bits of the Bible you like more than others. Some parts really hit the spot for you, other parts make you much more uncomfortable. And for me, verse 6 of this passage – “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the father except through me” – puts me straight into the discomfort zone. I’ve carried this verse with me for perhaps twenty years, looked at it again and again from different angles. I find it really fascinating but also quite disquieting, with this sense of exclusivity in the second half. It’s a verse beloved of tracts and those posters you used to see at railway stations. It could be seen as closed-minded, creating an in-group and an out-group, rather self-satisfied. Does that mean all the Muslims and the Hindus and Jews, not to mention the atheists, have no chance of finding their way to God? Some Christians would say yes, that’s exactly what it means; others would want to interpret it differently and point to the fact that Jesus said that there are many dwelling places in his father’s house. I’m not sure what I think about this subject, but I think the verse as a whole and indeed the passage as a whole is so rich and interesting that it’s worth working with it for a while to see where it takes us.

Let’s step back a moment. This passage is part of John’s gospel in what’s sometimes called the farewell discourses. It happens at the Last Supper, soon after Judas leaves the others to go and betray Jesus. Before the events of the Passion unfold, Jesus gives his disciples a long set of final teachings, interspersed with dialogue from the disciples. They begin with Peter’s declaration that he would lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus’ prophecy that Peter will betray him three times. And immediately follows the passage we’ve just heard. Jesus says he’s going to his Father, that there’s plenty of space for the disciples to come too, and that they should put their trust in him.

And then comes Thomas, the original TomTom. Good old Thomas, just as much of a believer and a follower of Jesus as the other disciples, but who was always keen to have things nailed down and certain. The man who’s become known in history as Doubting Thomas, but really was just a bit too keen on clear evidence. Here he’d like a satnav please, telling him the way and when he’ll reach his destination. And in response, Jesus speaks two words, which for a Jewish ear are incredibly resonant.


What Jesus says is “I AM”. John’s gospel has several of these I AM sayings – I AM the light of the world, I AM the bread of life and so on. In Greek, the phrase is particularly emphatic, a strong way of saying who you are; but for Jews it’s dynamite, because it’s exactly God said to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus. When Moses asked God his name, God said “I am who I am” and to tell the Israelites that “I AM has sent you”. It’s the basis for the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh, so holy that to this day devout Jews won’t say it aloud. So in using this phrase, Jesus was making a really strong claim about himself, and his connection to God.

And then he goes into more detail about what he’s saying about himself, in these three words. He says that he is the way, that he is the truth, and that he is the life. I’m not entirely convinced these are separate ideas, or even that they’re meant to be. But they’re individually very interesting, and so I want to look at each in turn and what they can tell us about being a follower of Jesus.

So the first thing he calls himself is the Way – the path, the road. He doesn’t say he’ll tell people the way to where he’s going, he doesn’t say he’ll show it to them. He says that he himself is the way. The first Christians were known as the people of the way, and the idea of the ‘way’ was a familiar one in Jewish thought; Moses used it, as did the prophet Jeremiah when he said “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it,  and find rest for your souls”. As I said to the kids, choosing the right path is very important. But these are all about the way as something external, something physical. By saying that he himself is the way, Jesus makes the idea very personal. We will know the way to the Father by following his example, by living our lives as he did. It’s not about what you believe, or pious statements of faith. It’s about how you live your life.

There’s a wonderful poem by a Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who wrote: “Traveller, there is no road. We make the road by walking.” Paths are fragile, like the one across these sand-dunes I saw once in California. And Jesus tells us that the only path that matters is one that we can’t see, that we make ourselves by the way we lead our lives. So how do we live our lives? Another quote from a traveller, this time the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, a travelling preacher who did a lot of walking, and told said that we should: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”

And then we move on to Jesus’ second word. He says he is the Truth. Now we live in a postmodern world where truth is a slippery concept, where my version of the truth is just as good as your version of the truth. We have more information than ever before in history, and that information sometimes clouds what is the truth. But in the past, uncovering the truth about something has always been important. And again Jesus doesn’t say he’s going to show us the truth, or bring us the truth, or lead us to the truth. He says he is the truth. Many people proclaim that they have a message of some sort which is true for the world, and yet they live quite a life which shows that is not true within their own lives. It’s something we’re all guilty of at times. But Jesus proclaimed that he was the truth, and he lived a life of truth and integrity. And he said something else amazing about truth: “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. So much that goes wrong in the world comes from half-truths, rumours and outright lies that people tell each other or we tell ourselves. But truth brings freedom in it, and by following the one who embodies truth, we find freedom.

The third of Jesus’ words is my favourite of all. He says he is the Life. Again, not that he shows us life, or tells us about life, but that he himself is Life. The word ‘life’ is absolutely central to John’s gospel. It opens with the statement that “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life, that those who follow him will have the light of life, that those who believe in him will have eternal life. And it’s in what to me is perhaps the most important verse of the whole Bible [slide 12], also in John’s gospel, where Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. Jesus didn’t come to bring us rules, he hasn’t come to convince us of our sin, to rub our unworthiness in our faces. He has come to bring us LIFE.

But this is not just any old life. This is not the boring and mundane life, the grey life of the 9-5 drudge with little sense of life. This is life in abundance, life lived to the full. Nor is it about greed or excess. It’s not about taking from others. It’s about living a life that is full of joy, that is suffused with an awareness of God’s love. The American preacher and author John Ortberg talks about becoming the people God created us to be. He asks the question: “what do you do that makes you feel fully alive?” This isn’t about momentary pleasure, the sort of kick you get from eating chocolate or drinking your favourite tipple or watching a mindless but fun television programme. It’s about deep satisfaction. What makes us feel fully alive differs for each of us, but I believe that Jesus came to show us that this kind of life, and richer and deeper, is possible right here and right now.

So Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth and the life. He is the one who in his own person embodies the generosity, abundance and integrity that he promises to the disciples and to any who are prepared to follow him. Because he asks us at the start of the passage to put our trust in him. Sometimes that verse is translated as “believe in me”, but really it’s better seen as putting our trust in Jesus, like one of those trust exercises where you lean backwards and let go and trust that someone will catch you.

So how can we live like this? How can we put our trust in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life? How can we really be followers of Jesus? Isn’t it rather presumptuous of us? Well, I think we need to start by remembering who we are. We are creatures who are made in the image of God. George Fox talked about answering that of God in everyone, which to me means loving each person we encounter and working for their good, as well as for the good of all others around the world. But it also means seeing that of God in ourselves, of recognising the image of God inside ourselves, of being prepared to be called into that abundant life which awaits all of us who choose it.

The Protestant reformers talked about the priesthood of all believers. They believed passionately that we don’t need intermediaries between us and God, that every Christian is able to find their way to the father through following the way of Jesus and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. We started the service with the words of Peter that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. This is an amazing promise, but it’s also a bit scary and I think we often dodge around it and don’t take it quite seriously. If we are made in the image of God, if we are followers of the way of Jesus, then we really can trust that it is possible for us all to be priests. And Jesus promises us that if that happens, then we will do the works that he did, and even more.

To follow Jesus is to be in relationship with the one who in himself personified the way, and the truth, and the life; and who calls us to have those things now with him and for ever more.

Amen.



Sunday, 11 May 2014

Life in abundance – now and for ever

Sermon preached on 9th May 2014 at a residential weekend of Gateways into Worship, part of the Training for Learning & Serving programme of the United Reformed Church. Text: John 10:1-10
I listened to a talk earlier in the week by someone who works for Google. He recounts that the software engineers there, in the plain-speaking way of engineers everywhere, have what they call the “WTF question”. If someone presents an interesting but obscure idea, then they’re presented with the WTF question. Jesus could be disarmingly direct and to-the-point, but he also had a liking for parables and complex images, and his disciples seem to have done a fair bit of asking of the WTF question, including in this passage. And as I read on a blog recently, explaining a parable is like explaining a joke: even if you do it really well, you’ve still missed the point.

So it is here. The image of Jesus as a good shepherd is found in all four gospels, and the fourth Sunday after Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s a well-loved image, much preached on and much portrayed in art. The people of Jesus’ time knew about sheep and shepherds, so Jesus kept coming back to stories about shepherds.

Like most of the rest of the gospel of John, this passage is rich in imagery. There are sheep, a shepherd and his voice, gates and sheepfolds, thieves and bandits, strangers. It’s a strange cast of characters. And when we’re told that the disciples didn’t understand it, Jesus introduces another layer of images. What are we to make of it all?

I don’t intend a full verse-by-verse exegesis of this passage. I have two observations to make about the context of the piece, and then I want to skip ahead to the end, the final verse which is the one that really fascinates me. On the context, then. Sheep in 1st century Judaea were mostly kept for wool, not meat – so that the shepherd kept a herd together and developed a close bond with the sheep over a number of years. So Jesus is describing a long-term relationship, not a short bit of guarding then off to the slaughterhouse. The second bit of context concerns gates and sheep-folds. In the town, sheep were guarded with a proper locked gate. But when out in the country, sheep were kept in a simple pen with walls and one entrance. It didn’t have a gate – instead the shepherd sat or lay across the entrance to keep the sheep in and the predators out. So in saying he is the gate, Jesus is being less obscure than you might think – it was what shepherds did. He knows his flock, he protects his flock.

But on to that final verse, or indeed its second half. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – or have it to the full, in some translations. I genuinely believe that this may be the most important sentence in the entire gospel. Elsewhere we are told of Jesus’ actions, of his preaching and life and death. But here he sums up for himself the core of his purpose. He hasn’t come to bring us rules, he hasn’t come to convince us of our sin, to rub our unworthiness in our faces. He has come to bring us LIFE. It’s the great theme that runs throughout John’s gospel. It opens with the statement that “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life, that those who follow him will have the light of life, that those who believe in him will have eternal life.

But this is not just any old life. This is not the boring and mundane life, the grey life of the 9-5 drudge with little sense of life. This is life in abundance, life lived to the full. The word in Greek, perissos, has a sense of surplus, of something that is more than enough. My cup overflows. This is not about greed or excess. It’s not about taking from others. It’s about living a life that is full of joy, that is suffused with an awareness of God’s love. The American preacher and author John Ortberg talks about becoming the people God created us to be. He asks the question: “what do you do that makes you feel fully alive?” This isn’t about momentary pleasure, the sort of kick you get from eating chocolate or drinking your favourite tipple or watching a mindless but fun television programme. It’s about deep satisfaction.

What do you do that makes you feel fully alive? It differs for each of us. For me, I feel at my most fulfilled when I’m really properly spending time with my wife and children; when I’m singing a complex piece of music in a choir that I’ve got to know really well and which engages my soul as much as my voice; when I’m writing (whether it’s a sermon, a blog post or an academic paper) surrounded by books and websites and full of ideas in all directions which somehow come together; or when I’m worshipping and totally carried along by the experience. For other people it’s a different combination.

These things are a tiny taste of heaven. But I believe that Jesus came to show us that this kind of life, and richer and deeper, is possible right here and right now. Now the church hasn’t always been very good at recognising this. To paraphrase St Paul, I stand before you as a Presbyterian and the son of Presbyterians. My people are famously dour and joyless. There is a wonderful photo in the biography of John Reith who founded the BBC, and in late life was the Queen’s commissioner to the Church of Scotland general assembly. Reith was a serious man, and he’s shown processing in solemnity into the assembly, under a statue of John Knox looking even more serious. Not much sense of life in abundance. And in their own ways, other churches have been just as bad about denying life. For centuries decent Christian folk supported slavery and persecuted members of other faiths, or the wrong branch of their own faith. There are many churches today who still think it’s acceptable to deny acceptance of those in a loving relationship simply because their partner is the same gender. I believe that Jesus would stand against all these denials of life and lovingly affirm that he has come into the world that all may have life, and live it to the full.

To follow in this abundant life is not to be selfish or materialist. On the contrary. It includes enabling others to have life in abundance. It is focused on others, outward-looking and generous. Jesus’ words here closely follows a healing he conducted of a man who was blind from birth, to whom he gave sight. We are likewise called to heal and help those in all sorts of need. We are participants in bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth, the upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first, where the mighty shall be humbled, and where the meek shall inherit the earth. You may remember the Christian Aid slogan from a couple of years ago which read “we believe in life before death”. That’s the kind of life we’re called to lead and to help others to lead.

And to me, this is our role as preachers – to bring life and hope to those we lead in worship, to show them the way to find abundant life through a relationship with Jesus. To show them that however difficult is their life today, there is a way into a life of joy and satisfaction. Rob Bell writes: “God is love, and love is a relationship. This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained. Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the centre of the universe. He insists that he’s one with God, that we can be one with him, and that life is a generous, abundant reality.”

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He came to bring that life to the world. He came to bring that life to us, to offer us the chance to live in abundance – right here, right now, and then for ever more.

Amen.