A Convenient God?

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘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.John 14.1-14

Last Wednesday I was talking with the children of our school about St. Thomas. Although he’s traditionally known as ‘doubting’ Thomas, his real gift to the Church is his honesty; not least that occasion he says to the Lord, “We don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”. Because in response to his uncertainty; his confusion in matters of life and death, the Lord (memorably) replied….  ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14.6)- a text from our Gospel reading this morning.

There can be few moments in Scripture, it seems to me, that provoke such a curious reaction as this one. I mean, whenever I’ve heard Jesus quoted as saying, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’, I can rarely recall a moment when someone hasn’t objected in some way or other. And I can rarely recall a moment when those of us who have been brought up on a diet of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘reasonableness’ haven’t metaphorically looked down at our feet appearing to wish that the Lord hadn’t said (what we are proud to label), such apparently exclusive and dogmatic things. But frustratingly, it ‘niggles’ with us because try as we may, we can’t just wish these words away. In fact, the more we listen to the Lord elsewhere in Scripture we realise that this wasn’t just a slip of the tongue or some mistranslation of the text.

No, it’s all of a piece with numerous ways in which Jesus underlines his unique position. I mean what else can you conclude from statements like, “he who has seen me, has seen the Father”? In other words, whilst our environment rails against it, it’s clearly Jesus who is the focus of our worship and our following; He is the bread of life, He is the one who has the words of eternal life; He’s the one who gives us the Holy Spirit and brings us to the Father and so on.

Now, I suspect that the fundamental reason for our discomfort, is that besides the indoctrination we’ve received by the wider, liberal and intellectual culture, for most part we tend towards being Theists rather than Christians. I’ve mentioned this before but putting it very simply the Theist is one who assents to the notion of a God but then tries to set the terms. We, as it were shop around from a range of sources to build up a ‘spiritual portfolio’ of things which appeal; or meet our perceived needs and so on. It’s as if, where religion is concerned, we’ll shop around for a ‘reasonable’ God; worthy, as it were, of our belief and attention.

All of which means that the apparent exclusivity of Jesus; the singular claims that he makes about himself, cause offence. Because it seems that He won’t be the God whom we want. But as somebody has noted, this has consequences: “Since we can’t stand submitting to a living God who is determined to have us on his terms rather than ours,… we devise a god on our own terms; and flaccid, contemporary Christianity is the result”. (William Willimon)

So this is the tension that arises whenever we’re brought back to this central theme: The Christian takes Jesus and His word to heart; dismisses whatever pictures, images and understandings of God we may have gleaned from other sources and simply looks into his eyes; or as Thomas did, looks at his scars and says, “My Lord and my God” (John 20.28) (that’s the point) and then goes on in obedience.

This is perfectly illustrated by that (Mark 6.1-13) occasion when Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth. You might remember, this was the place where everybody knew him; or at least thought they did. And the tragedy is that they couldn’t begin to grasp anything of the unique place he holds, nor the mission he’s engaged in because they had already set the terms by which they will relate to him. More significantly, they were setting the parameters by which GOD will be present. It’s just like Nathaniel said on another occasion, could “anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1.46)

In other words, to them, he’s just the local lad…. A familiar face; a bit precocious perhaps but nothing special. And effectively, this is what the ‘Theist’ does. Yes, Jesus is a good spiritual teacher; Yes, a teller of great stories… and he LOVES the children(!). But again, it’s all too easy to look down at our feet or become outraged (as they did in Nazareth) when his full stature is announced:  Saviour and King; the things which are uniquely his as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. (John 14.6)

And the thing is, as I’ve already said, there are consequences to this. St. Mark tells us that Jesus “could do no deed of power” among the blinkered people of Nazareth (Mark 6.5); precisely because they didn’t realise who they were dealing with. So, basically, they discovered (and so do we) that wherever Christ is diminished or limited; wherever his claim to be “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15), and “the Way the Truth and the Life” (John 14.6) are not acknowledged in FULL…. What results is a deep Spiritual powerlessness and malaise.

Simply put, this is not only what happened at Nazareth and it has been repeated again and again among Christian communities and Parish Churches across the land…. We see that wherever one takes the ‘Theist’ path…. it all goes rather flat. Which is why, the next time we’re looking down at our feet when we hear him say, “I am the way the truth and the life”, (John 14.6) it’s good to remember that he also said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels”. (Luke 9.26)

Which is difficult and chastening stuff; but perhaps rightly so. Because the Christian life is not one of ‘Theism’… that is ‘wishful-thinking’ and ‘speculation’ about the possibility of God. It’s about keeping company with the God made known in and through Jesus the Christ; which is something altogether different. Something which is as perplexing to us as it was to those who first sought to follow him.

As you might imagine, St. Peter was a good friend of St. Thomas. Peter knew a thing or two about how challenging it can be in the company of Jesus; how he turns our world upside down; how radically uncompromising he can be and how we cannot have him, God, on our own (rather diminished) terms. In other words, we can’t have what someone called Christ-less Christianity. Which is why in his first letter, St. Peter gives us some good advice. He says, “in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord”. (1 Peter 3.15) He says this, because in the end, this is his rightful place.

The point is that when he is on the throne, of our lives and of our Church… it’s THEN that we will see the difference he makes; what are called “his deeds of power”. The difference it makes in being “Christian”. So, the question is: “What will our lives begin to look like if we dare to take him at his word?” What happens if we begin to recognise him for who he is; “The way, the truth and the Life” (John 14.6). Because these are the questions which the Theist carefully and conveniently avoids.

2021-05-07