Saturday, 28 May 2011

5th Sunday of Easter: Inclusivity and Exclusivity

Acts 7:55-end
But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 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.

John 14:1-14
Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to 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. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Our Gospel reading today carries two of the most iconic and controversial passages which I think are linked together. The phrase, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions’, is deeply ingrained in our culture to the extent that it is often the first choice for people when they are thinking about funeral readings. But we cannot have that phrase without the next one, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.’

We live in what is one of the most liberal and multicultural societies in the world. In my lifetime I have watched a sea-change in our understanding of the other ethnic groups who live in this country. As a child I remember the popularity of shows like ‘Love thy neighbour’, a comedy of its time, the 1970's, all about how a white family come to terms with a black family moving in next door.

The two stars of the show were inevitably the racist white husband and the long suffering black husband next door, and if I remember correctly, their two wives had no problem whatsoever in getting on! And then allied to that was the racist humour of numerous stand-up comedians such as Jim Davidson. And Britain laughed so much at such things. But no more.

Now, a generation on, we have become much better at recognising and valuing the many different cultures which have intermingled in Britain. Of course we’re not perfect, and I continue to be shocked by some of the comments I sometimes hear from people. But in general we’re getting used to the idea, and hopefully valuing the richness that such diversity can bring to this country.

But allied to that is a knowledge that the religions represented in this diversity differ greatly in their understanding of God. There are the three main ‘Religions of the Book’; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three are monotheistic, yet each recognise something different about God. The Jews have many names for God, and a sense of racial intimacy. For the Muslims their relationship with God seems often to be defined by the name of their religion, Islam, which means ‘To submit’.

And once we begin to look further afield we find other diverging views of God. Hinduism, for example, seems pantheistic, believing in many gods, although a good friend of mine in the company I used to work for, who was herself a Hindu, explained that at its heart Hinduism is ultimately also monotheistic with these many gods being different faces of the one God, although she acknowledged that in general practice that wasn’t how many treated their belief.

Once we begin looking to the modern rebirthing of the old nature religions such as druidism, neo-paganism and so on, we find an even wider plethora of views. Some druidic beliefs do seem to have a revealed trinitarianism to them and amongst the many strands of neo-paganism there can sometimes be found a faith in both mother earth as the goddess but also of a male deity too.

Back in the old days of the unenlightened 1970's we could have dismissed all of these religious cultures as being simply wrong. We would have said that, since they didn’t worship God through Jesus, then according to that verse, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’, they were lost and simply ignorant of what God was really like.

But now we’re having to change our opinion somewhat, because our experiences are beginning to show us that the contrary is true. In fact many of the followers of these other religions that we get to know are in fact quite devout worshippers who are most definitely holy. In fact there are many people who have converted to these religions away from Christianity because they have found something special there that they have found lacking in the people who follow our faith.

Now whilst that must be a sad indictment on Christianity, and the way we often don’t take our beliefs seriously enough to be challenged to grow in holiness through prayer, the fact that we are finding holy religious people of other faiths must surely come as a challenge to this apparently exclusivist statement by Jesus. Or does it? Remember that I did say at the beginning that the two halves of this statement must be linked, and I think in interfaith work is where we find that link.

All of the different religions have something unique about them, but what marks Christianity out is this statement about not coming to the Father except through the Son. Now Jews of Jesus’s era were just beginning, in some places, to talk about the Fatherhood of God, but not in the terms that Jesus used. When he prayed, and as he taught his disciples to pray, we should use the words, ‘Abba Father’.

Abba is similar to our word for Daddy, although with more respect than we usually include. Abba is a term of deep intimacy between a child and his Father, and that is the relationship we are encouraged into; one in which we are in a genuinely paternal relationship with God. The only way that can happen is if we are in Christ, as members of his body, because he is the true Son and we are invited into the kind of relationship that he has with God the Father.

That’s what makes baptism so very special, because we are baptised into that relationship with God of a child with its parent through Jesus. That’s why he was able to say, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’. But what, then, of these other religions? To some, calling God Father seems blasphemous because they think we’re putting ourselves on a par with God, rather than understanding that what we’re doing is accepting an invitation we don’t deserve.

But, and this is the key point, not calling God Father does not preclude them having a relationship with God on some other level. I happen to think that the relationship that Jesus bought for us through his death and resurrection is the deepest most wonderful thing we could yearn for, but I also believe that other monotheistic faiths worship the same God as we do.

And so it is possible to learn from people of other faiths. We find holiness there because these are also people who worship God. Their understanding may well differ sharply from ours, but that doesn’t devalue their faiths, even if we can yearn and pray for them to experience God as an intimate Father. And this, I believe, is perhaps a part of what Jesus meant about his Father’s house having many rooms.

Through Jesus we have been invited into the inner sanctum, a place where have no right to be except through him, but let us also learn to listen to what other faiths have learned about God. We might be surprised to discover much colour worth appreciating in the rooms that God has prepared for them too. Amen

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