Preached on Sunday, 14.05.2017
Written by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Delivered by the Reverend Dr. Roger Sturrock
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.’
Have you noticed the mismatch between the question and the answer? Of course, it’s not unusual; Jesus often, with his disciples and with others, answers at a tangent, changing the direction, changing the ground of the conversation. Here, Thomas asks a question about a destination; and Jesus answers about a journey. He does talk about a destination, actually, but the destination he refers to is ‘the Father’. And then he says that if you want to know the way to the Father, then it’s the way to Jesus that you’re after. So where are you going, they ask him; and essentially he answers that he is going to himself. It’s all very confusing.
And yet this encounter is regularly read at funerals, and there we do not hear the confusion; instead we hear the reassurance. And the reassurance is that there is no need for map or compass, no need for satnav or GPS, no need for detailed directions. In death as in life the reassurance is the knowledge that we do not journey alone – and it is all the reassurance we need. Or is it?
In our series of services on the theme of ‘life’, that we’ve been going through since Easter, the thought may have occurred that at no point have we noticed Jesus offering a life that is safe, or secure, or sedentary, or stationary. The life of which he speaks is life on the move, life on a journey. And yet it was clearly not terribly long after the events of the first Easter that the life of faith began to be understood as all these things.
In the famous passage we read this morning from Peter’s first letter we find an equally famous image of Jesus – as ‘the cornerstone’ – and, in this regard at least, it may not be all that helpful; that is until you take in everything that is said. The reason the cornerstone may be an unhelpful image is that it conjures up a picture of a building: solid, permanent, immovable; and Luther, for example, wrote a hymn describing God as ‘ein feste Burg’, ‘a strong fortress’.
But that does not fit well with the idea of the Christian life being lived ‘on the way’, on the move, out in the open, exposed rather than hidden. So we have to remember that the stones we are hearing about and talking about are not at all like the stones we are about to spend so much money on here; these stones, Peter’s stones, Jesus’ stones, are alive.
So we’re not talking here about the Jerusalem temple that the disciples had once gazed on so admiringly. Because, when they had made all their impressed comments, Jesus was quick to tell them that no stone there would be left on top of any other. Jesus is much more about mobile homes than he is about edifices or monuments.
And so when Peter talks about a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, he is not talking to people who have ‘arrived’; he is talking to people who are on the move, on the way. It is a reinterpretation of the way in which the people of Israel had learnt to think of themselves in relation to God, an adoption of their language, but an attempt also to reaffirm what was in many ways the original calling of the people of God – the calling to pilgrimage, the calling to travel, the call to look for God on the journey – and to walk with God on the journey.
But there are at least two parts to this call to travel: one is the call away from a life that is self-satisfied, that thinks it has come as far as it needs to, as far as it can. This is Jesus’ call to ‘follow me’: no guarantees, no security, no itinerary, just the call to walk with the one who calls. The second part is the call to travel with a purpose; it’s not, after all, about wandering around aimlessly. Even though they wandered for forty years in the wilderness, the people of Israel always had a purpose, a promise, in mind – it was never aimless, even when it must have been directionless.
And for those who seek to walk with Christ today, that walk must be to walk with those who have no choice but to travel, to walk with those who seek a promised land – one that does not need to flow with milk and honey, but one in which the bullets do not fly and the bombs do not fall from the sky.
So, in Christian Aid week this year, our travel is with those who flee, those who seek refuge. Our travel, the journey of those who are so often tempted to sit down and bask in our own safety, involves walking with the desperate, the desolate, the disturbed and the dislocated. And so we are offered the story of Nejebar as a guide for our footsteps:
Nejebar fled Afghanistan with her family after the Taliban threatened to kill anyone who worked for the government, like her husband, Noor. The Taliban had already carried out that threat on another family member, taking out his eyes before killing him. ‘The last days and weeks in Afghanistan were the hardest,’ Nejebar says; ‘when I went to work, my heart was beating harder. I didn’t know if my family were going to be alive when I got back.’
When the family arrived at the makeshift camp in Greece, where they’re now stranded, they thought they would only stay for 10 days. But they’ve been there six months and there’s no end in sight. Noor describes their initial reaction to arriving there: ‘It was like suicide for us. But we took the decision that it is better to die here than to die there from war.’
The only protection they have against the wind and rain is their tent. There’s no school for their children. Five-year-old Sudai, their youngest, is ill. His tummy is swollen and he hasn’t been growing as he should, but Nejebar and Noor don’t know what’s wrong with him because they can’t communicate with the camp’s doctor, who is Greek.
Nejebar is the rock at the centre of her family, holding them together throughout all this uncertainty [an image, perhaps, for us, of the cornerstone]. Despite her meagre circumstances, she has also welcomed brothers Faraidoon (22) and Farzad (13) into her home – they don’t know where their parents are or if they’re even alive. ‘We still have some hope for our children’s future,’ they say; ’we only want a peaceful life. We want our children to go to school. The most important thing is our children.’
This Christian Aid week reminds us that we live in an age of travel; populations are on the move – because the story of the journey is always a story of the future, about the search for a new future. But travel has been the way of humankind from the earliest of days. The stories of the peoples of the earth are stories of wandering – stories of peoples looking for pasture, looking for peace, looking for prosperity. The stories of the Hebrew bible are stories of nomadic people gradually finding a place to settle and a land to cultivate. The stories of these islands are stories of Celts from the steppes of Russia, and Vikings direct from Scandinavia or via their lands in Normandy, and the Angles and the Saxons arriving from Germany. So the English, mostly, came from Germany, the Scots came from Ireland, the Welsh are the British that the Romans knew. Not only the story of our times but the story of all time is the story of travelling peoples – and we are faced with the challenge that has faced most generations before us – whether to see God in the movement or not, whether to walk with the God of the journey – or not.
But the truth is that the decision has really been made already, the decision has been made for us. The Jewish people had to realise, when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, that their wanderings were not, after all, over. Christian people have had to come to terms over and over again with a God who does not stay conveniently still, and who calls on those who would follow to take up their sofas and walk. God is not to be pinned down in temples or churches, or particular cities, or the holiest of shrines, or the thinnest of sacred places. God is not even to be encased in the formulae of historic understandings or the councils of the church. We cannot contain or limit God in or by the structures we create; we can only contain and limit ourselves. God is to be found on the move.
Thomas asked about a destination – and Jesus replied about a journey. And Christians have been trying consistently to dodge the implications of that ever since. But if we are to follow, we must move; if we are to follow, we must walk with those who have no choice but to move; if we are to follow, where we are is never to be understood as the end; if we are to follow, where we are is always a new beginning in the waiting.