Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
George Herbert’s sublime poem, ‘The Call’, goes right to the heart of our living faith, an active trust in God as occasioned by the work and witness of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the same call as that which we hear of in our scripture readings on this Fifth Sunday of Easter.
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” says Jesus to Thomas. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” he says to Philip. And to the widest crowd of listeners - including you and me, my beloved brothers and sisters – he says “Very truly [...] the one who believes in me will also do the works which I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Christians are in an awkward intermediate stage in Western culture: having once been culturally established, they are not yet clearly disestablished. This helps make liberalism attractive, since it keeps people vaguely related to the church. Through translation, we attempt to show that Christians are really interested in what interests "the best" in our culture. We translate Christian hopes for God’s transformation of creation in the fullness of time into political themes and strategies, or we translate salvation into self-fulfillment. Our bishops speak out on "important issues," showing society that the church cares about the same things society cares about—and in the same way. We keep people interested in the church even though they no longer worship its God.
But today’s readings remind us that this is back-to-front presentation of the faith and living of the faith. Today’s readings remind us that authentic Christianity resides in its wholehearted immersion in the person and revelation of Jesus Christ.
We live in a confused generation, and for them (and ourselves) we must stop redescribing our faith to conform to what is already known. We must begin teaching a language and way of life that transforms the self. George Lindbeck, the great post-liberal theologian, recalls that pagan converts to Christianity did not first have a religious expression and then decide to become Christians. Rather, they were attracted to the church’s way of life and then submitted themselves to the sometimes painful discipline of being a Christian. When we reduce the Christian story with its particular, historical claims to the level of general, universal principles, we are left with precious little upon which to build a society. In our desire as religious people to be significant partners in national discourse, we have lost a distinctive voice.
Now, please don’t get me wrong, here. I am not saying that conversation is bad; that we should merely declaim from a position of didactic certainty. No, listening, conversation, discovery is also key to the gospel being lived out, and I for one think that all Christians should do more speaking in the public square, not less, and more dialogue and shared activity with those of others faiths, not less. My goal is not to make the church a sect. But it is, simply, to make it faithful.
The notion of pluralism – that we live amidst many expressions of contended truth - cannot eliminate the question of truth. And my truth, the truth which is Jesus of Nazareth, cannot be proved, dismissed or discussed without reference to the concrete community he forms.
If such talk of truth makes my neighbour, the rabbi, or the imam, or the Sun journalist uncomfortable—and I can understand how it might—I can only point out that Jesus is my sole reason for defending the rabbi or imam against the onslaughts of either fascist politicians or liberal theologians who will not embrace him until he becomes "rational" or "enlightened" in other words, something less than Jewish or Muslim. As a Christian, I embrace him not because of my belief in universal human goodness or my perception of the commonality of our faiths, but because I am trying to follow a Master who came to me, a stranger, and embraced me as a brother, and who bids me do the same to others. The truthfulness of my faith must be judged on how well it teaches me to live without murderous fear or nihilistic despair. Without the resources of the Christian story I simply don’t have the resources to live peacefully in this violent world.
"Tolerance" is too often a vehicle for condemning those who demand that their differences be taken seriously. The liberal appeals to reason as the basis for toleration, but if some refuse to adapt to our current levels of toleration or our definitions of reasonableness, then there is only one explanation for their peculiarity—they must be without reason. Mere tolerance has rarely provided the moral resources necessary to stop an Auschwitz.
What can be our defence against tribalism if we permit discussion of the truthfulness of our various claims? The answer is that the truthfulness of any set of convictions is not in their alleged "universality" but in their practical force, the sort of lives they produce. Christians like Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are the only evidence we have that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life." Christianity is not another philosophy or some primitive system of belief; it is a community of people who worship the Jew whom Pilate sent to the cross, the Galilean carpenter’s stepson who lived a fully human and fully divine life.
Now, that community may not seem very interesting to some when they think of the churches they know, nor may it seem like an adequate resource for sustaining our democracy amid religious diversity. But no one can know me, as a Christian, unless he or she knows that community; nor can I know anyone else as a Jew, a Muslim or a Buddhist, except as someone for whom these qualifiers are more than mere accidents of birth. And as for whether our various faiths are a help or a hindrance to the success of this particular nation, I see no reason why that question should be the test of our convictions. My faith has reason to be suspicious of Pilate in any guise. Asking “What is truth?” is a question which can only be asked at the same time as the questions “Who do you follow and who do you belong to?” and “Can you show me how you live?”
Jesus is the Way, and the Truth and the Life…