The Fifth Sunday of Easter
I want to begin this morning by asking your prayers for the rector and congregation of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. Before I was aware of the sad situation the rector shared via video, I chose one of my favorite hymns, “King of Glory, King of Peace” which we will hear during the time of Communion. It is sung by the choir of All Saints Church.
Earlier this week, the church received two threats: that a bomb was planted somewhere in the church and was set to detonate during today’s worship and that someone will come to the church with a gun during today’s service and shoot the rector. Why these threats? Because All Saints has for years been of community of radical inclusion with a strong presence of the LGBTQ community in the Los Angeles area.
This is disturbing on many, many levels. The rector and staff have taken every precaution with the help of the police and private security and have communicated all this to the congregation and wider community. Still, pray for our sister and brother Episcopalians in Beverly Hills. These are very challenging and ominous times in our country and for the church.
The Gospel today might feel a bit strange on this fifth Sunday of Easter. It takes us back in time to the night of the last supper and the farewell discourse Jesus gave to his closest friends. Jesus tells us that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life.” In other words, Jesus shows us a way of life that values inclusion rather than exclusion, reconciliation rather than discord, mercy rather than heartlessness, peace rather than war, sharing our wealth rather than hording it, liberation of the oppressed rather than abuse of power and disregard for human dignity. Then comes the rub. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Is Jesus telling us here that Christianity is the only way to know God and for God to know us? Is he saying that the faithful Jewish person or Buddhist or Hindu has no chance of enjoying eternal happiness in those many dwelling places of which he speaks? Or those who have been abused in the name of religion and walked away from the institution?
What about atheists and agnostics who live really good lives and make a difference in the world? This statement of Jesus has disturbed many and has been the basis for some Christian denominations asserting that they are the one, true faith and the only way to salvation.
We do know something about Jesus and how he welcomed everyone without distinction and we do know that he is telling us that he is the face of God for us, the closest we can come to knowing God in this life. I think what Jesus is talking about is “access” to God, not because Jesus is the only way to know God but because it’s the way for us who espouse to be Christians. It’s our way, not necessarily everyone’s way.
My money is on the truth that anyone who lives the kind of life that Jesus taught us to live will know God and be known by God. And one disturbing truth is that some non-Christians are more Christ-like than some Christians.
In the end, the final test of our belief is not what we profess with our lips but how we treat each other. How we live in love.
A recent college grad writing in The New Yorker, commented that since the pandemic is pretty much over and he moves into his professional career, he feels the tension between two cravings: to live, on the one hand, “the good life, full of bay windows, summer vacations, good dinners and fine wines,” and to live on the other hand, “a good life full of purpose and service to others.” He was describing the tension between a “life-style” and a “life,” between existence and finding the whole of life that makes for peace and purpose.
In one of the scenes in Herb Gardner’s play, “A Thousand Clowns,” the main character Murray is arguing with his brother Arnold about what really matters in life. Murray is something of a gentle rebel with a refreshing vision of what essence is all about. Arnold is his opposite, a right brain type who sees his existence made up of who can compete for the most benefits.
Arnold has settled for a life-style but not a life. He had persuaded himself that his drive to get ahead and compete to win the most toys made him “the best possible Arnold Burns.” Jesus, however, calls us not to catch the drifting trade winds of culture and society but to venture into the open sea of faith where we discover the essence of God, of our lives, and that of our neighbor.
Jesus says something near the end of this Gospel that is astonishing and remarkable: “You are going to do greater things than I have done.” Greater things than even Jesus has done? Wow! Yes, Jesus raised the dead but I have seen people raise themselves from the heart break of a dying relationship or loss of employment or the death of some dream in their life and embark on a new life. Jesus gave sight to the blind. I have seen people open the eyes of someone who walked in the darkness of despair by giving them hope where they could not find it themselves.
Like Thomas, sometimes we do not know where we are going and sometimes we may feel lost but we continue to proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness unto his marvelous light.
The conversation Jesus had with his followers that night wasn’t so much about what to anticipate after his death or theirs. Jesus didn’t want them to keep people from dying. He wanted them to show them how to live. And that’s what he expects of us.
Coming full circle to the difficult time for All Saints Church, I read a quote from French poet and novelist , Jean Cocteau: “And now I have to confess the unpardonable and the scandalous. I am a happy man. And I am going to tell you the secret of my happiness. It is quite simple. I love mankind, I love love. I hate hate. I try to understand and accept.”
And as the One who has promised many dwelling places, I think Jesus might have added, “And Never reject, but rather embrace.” And that is the way, and the truth, and the life.