Sunday, May 22, 2011

St Andrew's : Farewell Sermon

Today, I am leaving you and am about to go somewhere else.  And today, I want us to consider Jesus leaving his disciples to go somewhere else; not because I think that I am as important as Jesus, but because I want to speak about Jesus and the Church, and this particular story will be read and reflected on in churches up and down the country today.

The setting is a meal.  Now, in Matthew’s Gospel, and Mark’s and Luke’s, this meal is the celebration of the Passover – the remembering that God came to rescue his people out of slavery, and the longing that he would do so again – that Jesus observed with his disciples not long before he was crucified, not long before he became the lamb slain in our place, the innocent blood that causes the angel of death to pass over us when God passes a judgement on our oppressor that is so severe it causes our oppressor to say, ‘Enough!  Take your people, and go!’

But in John’s account, this meal is not a celebration of the Passover.  In John’s account, it is the crucifixion itself that will be a celebration of the Passover.  In John’s account, Jesus doesn’t take bread and wine and give them a new layer of meaning.  Because in John’s account, this is a different meal: this is the meal celebrating a betrothal; this is an engagement party.

In Jesus’ culture, marriages were arranged.  The parents would meet, in order to determine that their children were a suitable match.  And between the engagement and the wedding, the groom would build an additional room for himself and his bride, and any children they would have in due course, on top of his parents’ home.  Literally, he would build his future on the foundation of his parents’ lives.  If you go to Israel today, you can still see Palestinian homes that are built in this way; one generation lifted up on the shoulders of the previous generation.

We read this passage, and we hear it through the filter of our highly individual western society.  We hear this: ‘My Father’s house has plenty of rooms, and I go to make a room for you, and for you, and for you.’  Indeed, the King James Version speaks of many mansions: and we imagine a wealthy suburb of big houses, a nice neighbourhood where the kids can play out, and the grown-ups can play a game of my-house-is-better-than-your-house.  Because that is how individualism works: it is competitive, and insecure.  We look at one another and we worry that we won’t be given as nice a room as so-and-so, and we console ourselves by believing that at least my room will be better than hers.

That isn’t what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus is saying this: ‘My Father has chosen you, the Church, to be my bride.  My Father believes that you are a worthy match for me.  This meal seals our engagement.  Let me reassure you: my Father is a good man, and a man of means.  His home is a good home.  And I am going now, to build on that home the room where we will live.  When everything is ready, I will come back for you.’

You see, the Father has chosen us: not you and you and me; but us.  Not even us, the congregation at St Andrew’s, but us, the Church, down through the ages, across every people-group, in heaven and on earth.  So there is no need to make comparisons, among ourselves here or against other congregations.  On the contrary, when we look at one another – here at St Andrew’s, and other congregations, and the Church as a whole – we ought to say, ‘Wow: we have been chosen to be the bride of Jesus.  Us: we are one body.  And we are loved.’

Now, in our culture, at a wedding the groom arrives at the church or wherever else the ceremony is going to take place, and waits there for the bride, becoming increasingly nervous the later she is over arriving.  But in Jesus’ culture, as in similar cultures today, the groom goes to the bride’s parents’ house, and leads her from there to his parents’ home, where the wedding ceremony will take place.  The journey from one family home to another is a part of the celebration.

Thomas hasn’t understood what Jesus is saying.  He wants to know where Jesus is going, and how to get there.  To be fair on Thomas, the only time Jesus has talked about ‘my Father’s house’ before, he was talking about the Temple, and Thomas knows how to get to the Temple, but Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking about the Temple now.

Jesus replies, “I am the way” – ‘I am the way to the Father.  You’ve not been to his house, but I will lead you there.’

I think we tend to imagine a long road, a road across open country, a road we can see disappearing over the horizon; a road on which, from time to time, we might meet the occasional fellow-traveller; a road on which, from time to time, there are difficulties, and at such time we will surely need Jesus’ help.  But for the most part, we can see the road and we can walk the road, with or without Jesus.

But again, that isn’t what Jesus is saying.  He isn’t saying, ‘Life is a journey,’ though that is one way we might describe the life of faith.  He is saying, ‘Get on with life, a life of preparation for the day on which we shall be wed.  Dream about that day, that journey; and in your dreaming, focus on me; find yourself lost in my eyes.’

Imagine this: a journey through a warren of narrow city streets, overhung so as to provide shade, filled with merchants’ wares and jostling people going about their lives.  Through this scene, a wedding party winds its way: the bride and groom, hand-in-hand, with their attendants and their guests.  It is a dazzling and dizzying display.  But if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, if you keep hold of his hand, you will not get separated by the swirling crowds.

You see, Jesus is the way.  Jesus is our bridegroom.  He is captivated by us.  And we ought to be captivated by him.

You see, the bride of Christ doesn’t have to talk herself up before the world.  She wants to talk of her beloved.

Jesus continues: “I am...the truth.”  What does he mean by that?  Well, what is the nature and purpose of truth?  Some chapters earlier, John records a dispute.  The dispute is all about the identity of Jesus, who claims to be the Son of his Father.  In the course of this dispute, Jesus says this: “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin.  Where I go, you cannot come.” (John 8:21)  That sounds like what Jesus is saying here in John 14, but with a different outcome.  Let’s get back to that dispute: to those who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” To which they respond, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be set free?” To which Jesus replies, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31-36)  What is interesting is that we are told that this group of people, people who had believed Jesus up to this point, people who pretended they had never been slaves despite Egypt and exile in Babylon – as a consequence of their sin – and occupation by Greece and Rome as evidence to the contrary, took offence and turned against him when he held out...freedom.  They didn’t hold on to his teaching; they showed themselves not to be disciples, those who learn from Jesus.

So the nature and purpose of truth is to set us free from slavery to sin; and in saying “I am the truth” Jesus is identifying himself as the Son in a family business: GOD & Son: setting slaves free since the beginning.  Jesus will do that by sharing our prison cell, a cell that it is too small to contain him, so that he bursts out and leads us out with him.

Why does ‘the truth’ go together with ‘the way’?  Because this is a betrothal to be married, and Jesus is setting out his case: ‘My Father is a reputable man; the family business is setting people free from slavery to sin: this is the family you are marrying into; this is what we do.’

Philip hasn’t understood what Jesus is saying.  He wants to see the Father: one meeting will be enough.  But Jesus replies, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father; if you have seen what I have done – the ways in which I have gone about setting people free from slavery to sin and sickness and poverty and death – then you have seen what the Father has been doing.  And more: we are engaged to be married now: we have entered into a covenant joining us together: yes, I must go to prepare the home we shall share, but, while you wait, this is now your family business too: welcome to the business: as the Father does, as I have done, you must learn to set people free.’

In Jesus’ culture, a couple were considered married from the point of their engagement.  That’s why, you’ll remember, when Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, knowing that he wasn’t the father of her child, he considered divorcing her quietly, rather than demanding she be stoned to death, the punishment for adultery.  Now, a couple didn’t live together until the home was prepared and the wedding could take place; but while the groom built onto his father’s house, the bride learnt about the way this new family lived and what her role would be within that calling.

We have been brought into the family business of setting people free.  But we can only take part as we ourselves step out into the freedom that has been given to us by the Son.  And the way we step out is as disciples: as those who hold to Jesus’ teaching, those who choose, day by day, to reflect on Jesus’ words and allow those words to shape our lives; those who seek to follow Jesus not (yet) by going where he has gone, but by doing here what he did when he was with us.

Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth...” and one more thing.  “I am...the life.”  “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No-one comes to the Father except through me.”  ‘I am the way’ – so you don’t have to worry about the future.  ‘I am the truth’ – so you can participate in freedom in the present.  ‘I am the life’ – so you can leave your past, whether bad or good, behind.

You see, again, we need to hear these words as words spoken at an engagement party, as words of reassurance to a bride-to-be in a culture where marriages are arranged: ‘You are being asked to prepare yourself to leave behind everything you have known, and become part of another family.  From today, you are leaving your parents behind; even though you will not leave their home until I return for you.  But you have seen me, you know my reputation, you know the life I live: the life I now share with you.  Live this life with me.’

That, of course, requires that we die to one way of life, in order to live to another.  That is the Jesus way, the single seed and the head of wheat, the way of the one who holds out the truth that brings freedom by taking up the cross and dying to self in order to live to God.  What does this dying-to-live look like?  It looks like this:

Daily choosing to die: to insecurity, and competition, and denial about our need to be set free, and reputation, and success, and failure – to a host of things that, however unlovely, did not and do not result in the Father saying, ‘This woman is not fit to marry my Son!’

And daily choosing to live: to security, and service, and forgiveness, and calling, and fruitfulness, and discipline – to a host of things that express the covenant relationship we have entered into.

What, then, is it that I want to say on the day that I leave to go somewhere else?

I want to say, look to Jesus.

I want to say, tell the world about Jesus.

I want to say, love Jesus.

I want to say, love one another – which is to love yourself, the bride – in order that you can love those who wait to be set free.

I want to say, live out our calling to be the bride of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father.  Amen.

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