Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

The way, the truth and the life
May 23, 2011, 3:48 pm
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A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday May 22nd 2011

“Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

I have preached on the first part of today’s Gospel dozens of times- it is one of the standard readings at funerals. In that context, I have usually made the point that, faced with a bereavement, we can all identify with Thomas’s plaintive question. We do not know, we have no experience, of what lies beyond this earthly life. How can we prepare ourselves for a journey we know lies ahead of us, but whose destination we are so ignorant about?

The other week, Fr Richard, Fr Steve Hawkins and I had to go to Plymouth for a clergy meeting. Both Fr Richard and I went on to the AA website, put in the relevant postcodes, and printed off an excellent set of instructions for the journey: turn right here, go for so many miles, turn left, turn right and so on and so on. We arrived safely, and on time. Before the internet came, faced with a long journey, I would usually provide myself with an Ordnance Survey map to help me find my way (actually, that is still my preferred method). It gives so much more information: what is that church with tower I can see across the fields? Oh yes, it must be such-and-such.

It isn’t surprising if a lot of people think of religion in similar terms: a set of instructions to guide us through life, do this, don’t do that; or else a kind of map which gives us information about the countryside we are passing through, the detours we might make if we were so inclined, dangers to be avoided. (I am reminded of an old cartoon. An elderly cleric is in the pulpit, preaching to three old ladies. “But, I hear you say, that is Monophysitism!”) The religious map keeps us out of such quick-sands, along with Arianism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism and all kinds of interesting heresies just off the main road.

But that isn’t really the way we are meant to travel. How can we know the way? Jesus replied to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Some years ago, Marilyn and I arrived in Venice for the first time, late at night, with no idea how to find our hotel. We asked our way from a policeman in St Mark’s Square, and he pointed us in the right direction, but we still could not work out where we were. We asked someone else, and he said, “It’s not far. I will come with you and take you there.” Our Lord says the same. What we need in life is not just instructions. We need a friend who will take us by the hand and walk with us. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” or, in another translation, “I am the true and living way,” trustworthy and on your side.

“I am the way.” Our Lord does not say, “I am the destination.” “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Our destination is the Father, the mysterious Origin of all. “In my beginning is my end.” We are all meant to return to the One from whom we have received existence. We came into the world despite ourselves, with no knowledge of our origin or goal. Our life’s mission is to find answers to the fundamental questions: who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going? We are meant to return to the Father in full knowledge, and drawn by love.

“If you know me, you will know my Father also.” Actually, the Greek text says, “If you had known me, you would have known the Father too,” speaking of the Apostles’ lack of understanding up until then. It goes on, “Henceforth you know him and have seen him.” The future will not be like the past. Philip says, “Show us the Father, and that’s enough for us.” What an astonishing demand! What on earth did Philip expect or hope to see? Some vision of a glorious being on a heavenly throne? But “henceforth you know him and have seen him.” You have seen him. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

This is the Gospel of John, John who had listened to Jesus as a teenager and now, after half a century or more, was passing on the fruit of his meditation on the great question, “Who is Jesus?” How does he relate to the One Eternal God of Israel, whom he always referred to as “Father”? This is what the theological maps are trying to plot, with their labels of Arianism, Docetism, Adoptionism and the rest. Whoever has seen Jesus, has seen the Father; yet Jesus is not the Father. Rather, as John reports Jesus as saying, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” John says in another place, “No one has seen the Father.” The One Eternal God of Israel is utterly beyond our powers of comprehension. He makes himself known by sending out into the world his own understanding of himself, his “Word”, you might say his own idea of himself. He expresses himself in the form of a human life, the life of Jesus. Jesus’s whole being is simply to reveal the Father. The Father is in him, and he is in the Father.

God has created each one of us for happiness, for love. Human parenthood is a faint reflection of God’s Fatherhood. As every parent should (though alas many fail), God wants his children to know him as he knows them, to love him as he loves them, to know and love one another as he knows and loves them. It’s a simple scheme, really! To bring this about, he gives us not just an abstract set of instructions or a map, but a living Person who is the full expression of Himself, the true and living Way who walks with us on the journey, and even fills us with his own life.

How can we live as we ought to live? By imitating Christ, to be sure: but Christ is much more than a pattern to be imitated and reproduced in our own lives. He is the way, the truth and the life. Just as he is in the Father and the Father is in him, so he will be in us and we in him. The Eucharist, the Holy Communion, is not just a reminder or symbol of a long-ago Christ. It is the point at which the living and eternal Christ unites himself with us, little by little changing us into true representations of himself, little by little incorporating us into the eternal union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit: to whom be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.


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