s028g99 2/5/99 Fifth Sunday of Easter
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14.6
It is indeed a felicitous aspect of our lectionary that this reading follows last week's gospel reading about Jesus being the gate (see http://www.geocities.com/Athens/2125/027g99) not the shepherd. For the "through me" more closely refers to Jesus being the gate than either the way, the truth or the life. We are always going through gates or doors of some description - whereas we less naturally go "through" the way, the truth or the life.
Often these words come across as exceedingly exclusive, as if Jesus is the heavenly bouncer, keeping people away from God - those without faith - those with not enough faith - and those who express their faith differently from us. This is precisely the opposite way in which they were intended.
Religious authorities of every age and faith have often exercised their religion by protecting God from others. The gospel accounts are littered with people who wanted to protect Jesus from real people. The disciples and the people who brought their children. I have often argued that the religious authorities had Jesus crucified because Jesus associated with ordinary people rather than just with them. "Ethnic cleansing" is just a more extreme form of this same motivation.
However the Jesus we know and love visited the saint and the sinner alike, accepting the hospitality of all.
Just as I spoke last week of the gate being an inanimate object, opening when pushed by anyone, quite indiscriminately, so too the images we have today of Jesus - the way, the truth and the life - are also essentially inanimate. The way is trodden on, the truth and the life are there for all.
The astute listener will perhaps ask: "Is not the gate locked to some?" "Is not the way barred on occasions?" I confess I was wrong on Easter Sunday about the doors not being locked the second time (as the NRSV suggests) - the words used in Greek are precisely the same in John 20.19 and 20.26.
Interestingly the scriptural evidence reveals that neither God or Jesus hold keys - but God's elect, in the end, you and I - and this gives particular impetus to the importance of the words about "those who sins you retain ..."
There are three keys referred to in scripture - the first is the key of David - this refers to the king's authority and responsibility (Is 22.22, Rev 3.7).
The second key Jesus gives to the angels, but the key is NOT to the kingdom, but to Death and Hades - the bottomless pit. The only recorded being consigned to the bottomless pit is the Devil (Rev 20.1), so the primary purpose of this key surely must be to release those perchance trapped there.
The third key always ends up in the hands of God's people. Firstly we find it in the hands of the Pharisees and the lawyers; but later it is conferred on Peter, and through him, to the later apostles. Jesus charges the scribes and the Pharisees: "you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them." (Mat 23.13) Luke records Jesus speaking of the lawyers and the "key of knowledge" in similar terms (Lk 11.52). After haranguing the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus ends up by saying these words, which I think are most illuminating: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Mat 23.37)
This key is conferred on Peter and the later Church; but the terms are both explicit and dangerous. Peter is given the keys of the kingdom, but immediately Jesus says: "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matt 16:19). This same phrase is used later when talking to all the disciples (18.18) and John remembers the risen Jesus saying to the disciples: "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn 20:23).
So far from Jesus, in some way determining whether a person may enter the kingdom or not, the biblical evidence tells us that firstly he is the door. Then John tells us Jesus is the shepherd, and the shepherd's task is to guide the sheep to the door - the shepherd would hardly guide sheep away from the door, to their detriment. Those who control access to the door are God's people - and we can either get in people's way, or facilitate their path. The door itself remains unlocked - no one needs our assistance to open the door. The way is never barred, it needs only to be travelled.
So our position as disciples gives us responsibility. If we choose to remain at enmity with another, we run the risk of impeding their path to the door. Of course, in the complexities of ordinary existence it is not solely our responsibility to fix enmity between others and ourselves, but we can always pray that our relationship does not affect the eternal salvation of another.
Now I would (initially) be the first to argue that putting this sort of lasting authority in the hands of humanity is a most unwise thing to do, but argue or not, this is what God has done. God has structured the universe in this manner for aeons, so we are unlikely to change his / her mind just because we feel uncomfortable with this sort of authority. With grace comes responsibility - we can't avoid it.
The ancient people of Israel were to be the people of God, not just for themselves, but to be a light to the nations. The grace of God flows outwards - from those who see themselves as the people of God to those who don't see themselves as the people of God - OR NOT. The Church is the new Israel - the commission is no different.
We tend to look at this in the negative sense - the forgiving we are called to do when we would perhaps prefer not to forgive. Yet there is a positive sense also, that we can "make it easy" for others - our friendship with others opens up possibilities quite beyond human reckoning.
I was interested in the phrase in the collect for the day: "give us grace ... to share his risen life". I think I would have always thought that this meant the we were asking God to help us in our path that we might share his risen life. But it could be equally easily interpreted as a prayer that God will help us share our risen life with others ...
"Grace" surely means that our way has been facilitated rather than obstructed; and so "grace" flows from us as we facilitate rather than obstruct the way of others.
Jesus is the way - and if we follow Jesus - if we walk in his path - we will surely go where Jesus went - and that was to accept the hospitality of saint and sinner alike.
Jesus is the truth - and the truth is that we will find good, as Jesus did, when saint and sinner offered hospitality to him.
And Jesus is the life - life in all its fullness will be ours as well as those from whom we accept hospitality.
So "no one comes to the Father but through" Jesus, because Jesus, in the cross and resurrection is the door. The door is there, it only needs to be pushed for one and for all to gain entrance. And Jesus went out and about that all, saint and sinner alike, might know his acceptance in life, and be reassured that they will again find acceptance and entrance into that closer presence of our heavenly Father, when this life is ended.
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