Experiencing the fullest revelation of God
Peter Seal, 14 May 2017
Acts 7: 55–60; John 14: 1–14
Just eight days ago we celebrated our Carnival Community Day, welcoming over 900 people onto the St Paul’s site. You may have seen, we’ve got a full page of coverage on p. 14 of this week’s Chronicle. This is really fantastic publicity as we develop our commitment to being a local church that has soft edges and really does welcome everyone.
Today, as an expression of our commitment to others, we embrace Christian Aid Week as we look Beyond Ourselves. The focus this year is on refugees. Christian Aid invites us to stand alongside people like Nejebar, who with her family fled Afghanistan. Her husband Noor was a teacher, a government employee. The Taliban announced that they would kill anyone in this position, so the family travelled for months, through rain and snow, with young children, risking their lives in a plastic dinghy. They arrived in Greece with no more than a tent to protect them against the wind and rain, no school for their children and no clear idea of what would happen next.
Noor described their initial reaction to arriving at the camp as ‘like suicide’. They thought they would stay there for ten days, but already this has stretched to six months, and with no end in sight. Despite all their problems the family have welcomed two unaccompanied boys to live with them. Nejebar still has hope, most importantly ‘for their children’s future’.
The suffering of refugees and asylum seekers is truly shocking. As Christian Aid writes, ‘If the family next door lost everything … the chances are you’d try and help them’. This week our support in collecting, giving and praying will help Christian Aid to continue to meet these and other needs throughout the world.
Let’s try and set the terrible plight of refugees in the context of today’s readings. In this Easter season, we hear each week from the Acts of the Apostles. We’re given a picture of the early church and of first-generation Christians.
The setting is Jerusalem … the new faith is spreading … no one is quite sure what’s going on … and we hear an extraordinary story. Two characters draw attention. Both are young men, both are rooted in Judaism, both are brilliant. One is called Saul, the other Stephen.
They really differ when it comes to Jesus. Stephen becomes a convinced believer and a brilliant advocate for the new faith; Saul is utterly opposed and determined to destroy it by any means and at any cost.
Saul manages to bring Stephen to trial – what we’d call a show trial. It has little to do with justice and much more to do with politics and ideology. Stephen is condemned to die, but he’s allowed to speak. He gives a moving and brilliant defence of his newly found faith.
He remains condemned and is taken to a deep valley between the eastern edge of the city and the Mount of Olives. Here he’s beaten to a pulp by a crowd flinging rocks at him until he dies. It’s a truly terrible picture.
Today’s first reading takes us to the moment life is leaving Stephen. The early church never forgot this. In our reading we heard, ‘While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”. Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord do not hold this sin against them”. When he had said this, he died.’ Notice how Stephen’s dying reflects that of our Lord. He hands his spirit to God, asks that his murderers be forgiven, then dies.
Notice how Stephen’s dying reflects that of our Lord. He hands his spirit to God, asks that his murderers be forgiven, then dies.
Dying like his Lord, he will rise to new life with his Lord. This is why martyrdom has been associated with Easter in the mind of the church. And that’s true even in our own day, when Christians are still being killed for their faith.
Then we come to today’s gospel. It has a different feel. There’s almost a measured calm about it: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’. Here, according to St John, we have Jesus’ last proper conversation with his disciples before he dies. In this passage Jesus answers questions from two disciples.
First Thomas, who has been listening to Jesus, can contain himself no longer. His question feels almost like a frustrated protest: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus’ reply resounds throughout Christian faith: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’.
Jesus then explains that the way to the Father is through him. In other words, he’s saying to them:
This is it – this is the moment; now is the time; here, in me, you are experiencing the fullest revelation of God. He’s my dad, my heavenly Father. I should know!
Jesus continues: ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’. In other words, God himself is being made known to people, in this moment, through me.
This text has often been used to defend the exclusivity of Christianity to the exclusion of other world faiths. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind. I heard a great sentence the other day, which I’m wanting to test out. It goes like this: ‘Nothing true can be said of God from a defensive position’.
And then Philip comes in with his question, which shows that he hasn’t twigged who Jesus is either. Philip says, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’. You can almost sense Jesus’ frustration as he replies, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?’ And adds, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.
To experience relationship with Jesus is to experience relationship with God. This is a wonderful assurance. The first disciples needed it, and of course so do we; especially when life is tough or our hearts are breaking through loss or grief.
Today’s gospel reveals deep truth. Today’s gospel challenges the belief that ‘reality is what our perceptions make it’. Jesus’ words to Philip, and thereby to us, say that when we encounter Jesus, and when we choose him as Lord, then we are coming into contact with the ultimate reality. The ultimate truth that we call God.
Today’s gospel reveals deep truth. Jesus’ words … say that when we encounter Jesus, and when we choose him as Lord, then we are coming into contact with the ultimate reality.
It’s true that, because we are human, we can encounter God only through the veil of our perceptions; but God is not therefore merely our perceptions. God, we believe, is ultimate reality.
I’m drawing to a close. The stoning of Stephen, with its sound of angry voices and the thud of stones against flesh and bones, leading to the death of a young man, is deeply disturbing. It jars. Especially during Eastertide. Our challenge is to let the story of Stephen’s horrific death belong with the comfort that Jesus promised his disciples before he died.
Every day, in some way, you and I live out the challenge of holding together pain and comfort – be it within ourselves; in ongoing Christian martyrdom today; in the death of a loved one too young; in the shocking plight of refugees, which Christian Aid is seeking to alleviate.
In conclusion: here in this parish we’re appropriately proud to boast of being an open, community-focused, welcoming church with soft edges. But that’s just our starting position. We’re also gritty people, prepared to engage with the pain as well as the delights of what it means to be human.