(May 18, 2014)
(Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5 &17-18; 1 Peter 2:11-25; John 14:1-14)
In the early part of C. S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, Jill, who only recently found her way into the world beyond, finds herself lost and alone. Soon after her Jill encounters Aslan – Lewis’ Christ figure. At this early stage in their relationship he is no more than a lion. He fills her with fear – and he is out there. Her response is to flee.
It is not long, however, before Jill, hiding quietly in the forest, develops an overwhelming thirst. From her hideout she can hear running water and decides that even if a lion is on the loose she must find its source.
In no time Jill finds the bright, running stream. But between her and the water rests the lion.
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realised that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion – no one who had seen his stern face could do that – and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. (C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, pp.23-24).
I love this story. The unknown Aslan is the way, tells the truth, gives life. It is only as Jill listens to and trusts the lion that she discovers the rich reward for her faith. Her moving forward, kneeling down, scooping and tasting the life-giving water mysteriously echoes the experience of many who have come into relationship with God through the person of Jesus. It contains all the elements of an old time alter call.
Our Gospel reading is, before anything else, a call such as this – to trust Jesus and to discover life.
Jesus knows the coming days will test the disciple’s faith. Without him among them they will know loneliness and loss. Jesus offers them comfort – assuring them that he goes to prepare a place for them in the very presence of God.
But Jesus’ assumption that they understand the ‘way’ into this relationship asks too much. It is too cryptic.
Thomas articulates the disciple’s corporate bafflement: ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’
So Jesus makes explicit what has so far been implicit. I imagine Jesus speaking with an element of frustration: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
After all this cosmic claim only builds on Jesus’ other ‘I am’ claims in John: ‘I am the bread of life’; ‘I am the light of the world’; ‘I am the gate for the sheep’; ‘I am the gate’; ’I am the good shepherd’; ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, and later; ‘I am the true vine.’ Each of these echo God’s self-naming before Abraham: ‘I Am’.
And each is a claim to Jesus’ divinity. Together they also point to the many dimensions of the salvation he offers.
But in our reading Jesus is somewhat more direct. He is, unquestionably, claiming to be the only ‘way’ to the Father.
This is confronting for a pluralist society like ours. It grates against the high value our culture places on ‘tolerance’. It may bring up images of intolerance; of anger, arrogance, even of racism, and violence.
The exclusivity of Jesus can raise many issues: How do we relate to people of other faiths or none while holding to Jesus so absolutely? Are we able to genuinely discuss faith when we hold to one possible answer? Can we really, from such a place of certainty, connect with our Muslim neighbours, our atheist work colleagues, our friends who see the church as oppressive and arrogant?
For many these questions are not theoretical but all too real. We encounter them in our families, in our offices, in our everyday existence.
We do well, however, to remind ourselves that these were also very real issues for the culture in which the early church grew. There were at least as many religious and philosophical options then as there are now.
One of the reasons, I suggest, for this growth was the way the church insisted that ‘tolerance’ was simply not enough. For them it would have been considered not a high, but a low, ethic.
The early church went much, much further: they insisted, in light of their suffering, dying, and rising Lord, on relating to the people around them through the same radical service and love. They were not content to put up with those who disagreed or were different. They insisted, rather, on loving and serving them.
Of course, this love-of-other and enemy made the church community quite odd. We heard this morning Peter describe the followers of Jesus as ‘aliens’ and ‘exiles’. They were not part of the ‘in crowd’; they were doers of good but accused ‘evil’.
And yet Peter settles right alongside this outcast language a call to live graciously and honourably among the nations. The hope is that their unconditional goodness, service, and love will mysteriously open eyes to the glory of God in Jesus.
Peter’s is a radical invitation: ‘Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles’ includes, specifically, the Roman emperor and his governors. These make up the very institution that crucified Jesus and later scattered his followers across the known world.
Yet in the face of this systematic violence the people of God are invited to live out their God won ‘freedom’ without resorting to similar ‘evil’. Their priorities were to: ‘Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the Emperor’. They are to arm themselves against the might of Rome with respect, honour, and love.
And then Peter turns to, of all people, the ‘slaves’. They epitomise powerlessness. But even these are urged to embrace their ‘awareness of God’ living in the knowledge that they ‘…have God’s approval’. They too are encouraged to embrace the example of Christ and serve with generosity.
Perhaps Peter’s words imply that the early church also struggled with concerns that their love and service might be misunderstood as religious or moral approval. Perhaps they too were tempted to write off the suffering of others as divine, even deserved, punishment. Maybe they also worried that their love might be exploited or ignored.
Make no mistake, love does not work if the goal is worldly success and popularity. Love only works if the goal is to imitate the Christ-revealed character of God.
All we really know is that Peter saw need to write to remind his communities that they follow one who radically, sacrificially, unconditionally, and intentionally loved them first.
And, yes, the church suffered for it. We heard this morning of the martyrdom of Stephen. They stoned him for his message even as he prayed for their forgiveness. He named their action ‘sin’ and asked that it not be ‘held against them’.
The echoes of Jesus’ ministry are obvious.
Easter, it would seem, is something we are called to follow, not simply admire. We embrace the strange ways of love, service, and even suffering because upon returning ‘to the shepherd and guardian of our souls’ we have seen that God relates to us in these strange ways: love, service, even suffering: ‘By his wounds we are healed.’
So here, today, like Jill at Aslan’s stream, we kneel drinking and discovering the life-giving presence of God. The invitation to this presence is the very reason Jesus came among us – that we, and the world, might quench our thirst with the surprising delights of God.