The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s028g14   Fifth Sunday of Easter   18/5/2014

‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?’    John 14.9

Sometimes things that are right under our nose are the hardest to see.   Sometimes I can’t see for looking.

There is some blindness which is deliberate, and the devout and the orthodox saw, probably more clearly than the disciples, what Jesus was doing, and they refused to see.   They saw him mixing with the less-than-religious, enjoying their company, and not spruiking their devotion. (1)    Curiously the others who saw most clearly were the demons.  (2)  Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt.   The simplicity and startlingness of it all pales, and the pressure to maintain rather than look beyond, deadens our vision.   Perhaps this blindness is inadvertent.  The parable of the seed strewn by the sower is pertinent here.   Some of the new growth is choked by the cares of the world - the need to perpetuate our version of church.

The people who saw, the ones where Jesus found faith, were the outsiders - the centurion (3), the woman cured of her haemorrhages (4), and the Syro-phoenecian woman (5) - those who least expected to be listened to.

It seems necessary to say that the number of clergy and denominations who quote Jesus’ words: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.   No one comes to the Father except through me’ are legion and they are all different.   If one really took this saying seriously the casual observer is presented with a multitude of competing paths, all claiming to be the way, but all seemingly going in different directions!   Somehow those who seem to have been with Jesus all their lives still disagree as to the message.   They can’t all be right, so they might as well be all wrong.   They blithely close their eyes to different interpretations, different paths.

Recently I heard of the anguish of good ‘christian’ parents when their daughter declared she doesn’t hold her parent’s faith.   Perhaps part of this is natural rebellion but perhaps also it is a rejection of the parent’s version of ‘christianity’ - an exclusive, ‘we know it all’ sort of christianity, to which others have to subscribe.   I wonder how many children and parents have been split this way - literally millions - to which the church turns a blind eye.   Perhaps it is ‘god’s’ will, quoting: ‘Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.   But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’  (6)   In modern conflict situations this would be called ‘collateral damage’ and ‘friendly fire’.   But perhaps God is actually working in the daughter’s life, rejecting a judgemental religion and embracing an inclusive faith.   Perhaps the rejection of her parent’s faith is to allow her to embrace faith in an inclusive God!   Perhaps it is the parents whose very familiarity with Jesus means that they, like Philip, don't really know him!

Yet related to this is the other reality that human inquisitiveness and ingenuity are so all-pervasive that a consensus on that which cannot be perceived, measured and analysed will always escape us.   We have enough competing theories about what we can see, measure and analyse!   I recall Bill Bryson’s book: ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ and it seemed the inevitable opposition that those who proposed new scientific theories faced.   Perhaps one quote is ’Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground’ (7)   If we are to have an all-embracing faith and church, one that is truly catholic, we have to reckon with literate, rational and vocal people in the pews who differ in their spiritualities.   To have a truly catholic church in this day and age we have to move beyond compliance.

And surely this is the essence of the ‘many dwelling places’ which Jesus prepares for each and every one of us.   Far from being surprising and unwelcome, our very diversity is divinely initiated, ordained, and expected.   We would be unfaithful to God as well as ourselves if we simply complied with someone else’s take on the faith.   As Oscar Wilde said ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken.’  (8)  This is why we need that encouragement from Jesus: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’   If our security is in the numbers of people who think, believe and live like us, we probably have enough support without Jesus’.

As we read Exodus again during morning prayer I heard again the story of God bringing the tribes of Israel to the Mount of Sinai where they were given the commandments - they did not need to get any closer to God.   In fact, of course, God had been with them all along the way in a ‘pillar of cloud by day .. and in a pillar of fire by night’.   (9)   What they had to do was to learn how to get on with one another and with the nations around them.   Sadly, they often took the commandment to not have any other gods as license to exterminate others - which fact should give any thinking person pause to consider that the words of the bible need to be read and applied with a considerable degree of caution and wisdom!   In fact, by waging ‘holy war’ on those who worshiped differently they were indeed serving the idols of the nations around about them and emulating their neighbours. 

C. S. Lewis, in ‘The Last Battle’ makes the same point when Aslan talks with the faithful servant of Tash, Emeth.  ‘If any .. do a cruelty in my name, then, though (the person) says the name of Aslan, it is Tash whom (the person) serves and by Tash (the) deed is accepted.’  (10)   ‘Christians’ who marginalise women, alienate gay people and condemn any who do not share their version of ‘truth’ would do well to hear these words.   The effort I need to go to, to gender unspecify these words shows how gender bias is ingrained and often unconscious.

Lewis’ words are particularly pertinent when we hear those words of Jesus: ‘If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’   ‘In my name’ surely doesn’t include marginalising, alienating and condemning others.

Like those ancient people of God, people have already come to the Father, the real task is how we as ‘christians' relate to those around us.   In the end, the route that people take to get to the divine is pretty immaterial, the real task is what they do to one another when they find others there!   Will they weep and gnash their teeth like those who were dressed in funeral garb for the wedding feast?  (11)

Jesus goes on to say ‘the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these’.   The one who believes in Jesus will also associate with those where he found faith, the outsiders - the centurion, the woman cured of her haemorrhages, and the Syro-phoenecian woman - those who least expected to be listened to. 

As the church wrestles over the issue of marriage equality, perhaps we need to remind ourselves of those words of Jesus: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.   Believe in God, believe also in me.’   The gospel tells us that God’s kingdom has ever included those thought to be outsiders.

1. Matthew 11.16-19
2. Matthew 8.29
3. Matthew 8.10
4. Mark 5.34
5. Matthew 15.28
6. Matthew 10.21-22
7. p437
9. Exodus 13.21
10. p205
11. Matthew 22.13