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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Fifth Sunday of Easter - Year A
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
'Mr One Way'
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, 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 you have seen him." It is an old joke, but it is still true. Seems this man died and was ushered into heaven, which appeared to be an enormous house. An angel began to escort him down a long hallway past "many rooms". "What's in that room?" the man asked, pointing to a very sombre-looking group of people chanting a Gregorian mass. "That's the Roman Catholic room," said the angel. "Very high church." "What's in that room?" the man asked, pointing to a group of half-naked dancers gyrating their hips and occasionally shrieking out loud. "That's the Balinese group," said the angel. "Very lively." "What's in that room?" asked the man, pointing to a group of bald-headed people meditating to the sound of an enormous gong. "That's the Zen group," said the angel. "Very quiet. You would hardly know they were here." Then the angel stopped the man, as they were about to round a corner. "Now, when we get to the next room," said the angel, "I would appreciate it if you would tiptoe past. We mustn't make any sound." "Why's that?" asked the man. "Because in that room there's a bunch of very fundamentalist Christians; and they think they're the only ones here." + If you've ever wanted a scripture text to make you feel smug about being a Christian, today is you're lucky day. If you've ever wanted a text with which to hit your unbelieving friends over the head, or that will help you make a few Muslims or Jews or Hindus feel bad, have I got one for you. Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. "I am the way. Me. You want to get to heaven? You do it through me. Are we clear?!" Now, before any of you get a little testy with me, let me say right at the start that this week's very familiar passage was probably meant to bring a note of comfort to a group of Christians struggling to maintain their identity around the close of the first century C.E. The author, the apostle John, or more likely a disciple of John by the time this was written, was attempting to give courage and hope to people who found themselves in the midst of a very nasty fight with their Jewish neighbours in the synagogue. Their survival as a community of faith and their individual security and safety were very much on the line; because we all know what can happen to people of faith - any kind of faith - when that faith becomes passionate, exercised, don't we? Only one thing matters - being true to the faith that is yours and resisting anything else. You cannot read a book like the gospel of John without keeping such circumstances in mind. John was writing to people who were frightened, vulnerable and defensive. Much like people are at a funeral, when the world seems to close in. Somebody dear has left or is going, just the way John pictures Jesus leaving his disciples one last time. People are grieving, having a hard time hearing much of anything that's being said. They wonder what's going to happen to them and the people who are dear to them. It's a situation John's people knew well. Which Jesus' disciples did. Which we do. "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.... I go and prepare a place for you," Jesus says. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to remember our departed sister, to hold the faith that is ours and to comfort one another," the preacher says. Because it is a comfort to know that the person you have bet your life on can be trusted. Because it is a source of deep relief to know that the people who have shared that faith with you will be taken care of in the end. Don't we all want to know that there will be room for us one day? That we will not be left on the outside? That we know the way in? "I am that way," says Jesus, according to John. "I am the way to get there." To give John the benefit of the doubt, I think we should first assume that his aim was pastoral, an attempt to comfort those friends of his who were afraid. Who needed assurance. P eriod. Whether or not he meant anything more, whether or not he meant those words as a kind of challenge, a gauntlet thrown down in the face of Jewish rivals when the fight turned bitter is anybody's guess. "I am the way because your way is not! Jesus is the only way to God! It is our way or the highway, friend!" Who knows. What is not in dispute is the way Christians have used such a text to say things just like that. Not to comfort one another, but to make people who don't believe in Jesus or don't believe in Jesus the way they do or don't read the Bible the way they do or don't talk about their faith the way they do feel on the outside. Used such a text, in other words, like a weapon. If ever there has been an obscene finger gesture, it would certainly have to include that one finger extended heavenward in defiance of any other way other than the authorized Christian way, which, of course, means the way that I or my group authorizes and not yours. The kind of 'Christianity', in other words that gives Jesus a bad name. "There is one way to heaven and that is our way!" + I'm glad Jesus said (or John said Jesus said, take your pick), "I am the way, the truth and the life." I'm glad he said it to (or John said he said it to, take your pick) people like Thomas and Philip and the rest of the disciples, people who said, "But we don't know the way... Show us the way." People who had been with him all along, who had watched his every move, heard every word and still didn't get it. "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?" Right. Because this Mr. One Way is not as easy to get as Christians have often thought, so inclined have we been to think we can wrap him up in a theological opinion or a three-point sermon - which other people better agree with if they know what's good for them. Yes, we have been with him all this time and still don't get it, don't get the way he insists on - always moving on, moving out to people who are on the outside, who haven't found the way in yet, always leaving the ninety and nine in the fold and going out to endure all the indignities of the search just so that he can find the one that is lost. "I am the way, the truth and the life." "Like that, not like your precious opinions about me. Not like your beliefs about me. Just me. I am the way!" "You want to know the way, the only way?", Mr. One Way says. "A sower went out to sow and scattered good seed everywhere - every-where! A man found weeds growing in his wheat-field and said, "Leave'm be! Dandelions make good wine! A man had a son who stayed at home and kept all the rules and one who was a loser and got busted. Guess what?! He loved them both! I'm the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep and who has sheep that aren't even part of this fold yet who belong to me too! That's the way I am. That's the truth I am. That's the life I am. Now do you get it?" Yes, there is something comforting about this week's gospel and it is that the way into wherever all of us need to be, the only way in, is a lot broader and wider, a lot more welcoming and expansive than any of us have ever imagined. Room enough for everyone! For Mr. One way was a gauntlet thrown down, was and is a challenge to every theology and religious practice that tries to ex-clude and be-little and re-serve "room" for itself alone, every life-style that presumes to think that only some have a right to what they need and that those who don't are expendable. And it is not much wonder that we still have trouble seeing a world like that, seeing the way he was and is and the way we all of us still need to become. And it is why we still need to say to him: "Lord, show us the way you are! Show us the way!" --------- Acts 7:55-60 - Since it is one of the most moving stories in all of the Bible we should do it the honour of reading it all (Acts 6.7-15; 7.1-60) or maybe even acting it out in a group. Stephen is presented as a model of faith and courage, a man who dares to bring forth the truth of a bitter family dispute. It was a fight that had grown considerably worse by the time Luke wrote these words, with the temple of Jerusalem, from which Christians had long since been expelled, now in ruins and the division between the church and Judaism firmly entrenched. 1. The story suggests that there is something persistently suspicious, intolerant and malicious within religious communities. Is this fair? Why or why not? 2. What are the comforting and the discomforting truths of the story? 3. When have you seen this scenario acted out in a religious community? How did it change you? 1 Peter 2:2-10 - The author uses startling imagery to provoke a new sense of identity within the community of faith: newborn babies, a living stone, holy priesthood, chosen race, royal people, God's chosen, God's own. Peter wants his listeners to understand that their vocation is now irrevocably tied to Christ. 1. Compare Peter's imagery for church and ministry with the ones primarily being used in your church or denomination to describe "effective" and "successful" ministry. What differences do you notice and how do you feel about them? 2. Who would Jesus want to feel like they were of royal blood? 3. How have Christians both misunderstood and misused such a notion? John 14:1-14 - - Although the setting is Jerusalem and Jesus' last supper with his friends, the author is writing this for the members of John's congregation. It was an attempt to sustain them during the first major crisis of the church: how to live in a hostile world in which one's enemies may be those of one's own household. The author wants to reassure Jesus' followers that their suffering will only be reinforced by Jesus' connection with them and his power in them - provided they understand what Jesus' way is. 1. When and how have you observed Christians misusing the statement or the idea behind it: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me." 2. What is it about Jesus "way" that sustains you during dark and troubling times? FOR FURTHER REFLECTION - - "I'm in a church which acts as if God has a very small house, with only a few rooms and only one door. But thanks be to God, God's house, according to Jesus, has many rooms, many places to dwell. If it were not so, he would have told us." - A minister of the United Methodist Church forced out of his congregation and the ministry. What are the implications of this week's gospel for such a minister and such a church? In what ways do you need to proclaim such a message? HYMN 628 Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life (Voices United)
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