Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 14, 2017
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Year A
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14: 1-14
Despite the rare grace-note of Pope Francis’ successful apostolic visit to Egypt two weeks ago, following the Palm Sunday bombing of two Coptic Orthodox churches by ISIS terrorists, interreligious and ecumenical relations have been strained in recent years by news of mounting terrorism, nativism, and xenophobia—all in the name of religion. As I thought about and prayed this morning’s readings from the New Testament, I did so against this backdrop of mounting anxiety and frustration over religiously-inspired terrorism and fanaticism worldwide. Car-rammings, shootings, and knife attacks by Palestinian terrorists against Israeli Jews, accompanied by cries of “God is Most Great” in Arabic, are almost weekly occurrences now in the State of Israel and the holy city Jerusalem. Israeli-Jewish extremists, in turn, continue to vandalize Muslim and Christian properties in Galilee and Jerusalem. These so-called price-tag attacks against Muslim and Christian foundations are perpetrated by fanatical West Bank Israeli settlers any time the State of Israel’s government even thinks about making serious concessions to the Palestinian national movement in the longstanding Arab-Israeli conflict. In South Sudan, Christians and Muslims are slaughtering thousands of men, women, and children in a tribal civil war and famine now on the brink of repeating the horrors of the 1990s Rwandan genocide. Over two million children alone have been displaced in the “ethnic cleansing” there. In Nigeria, despite the prisoner swap of 103 of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from their dormitories by Boko Haram—which means “the West is forbidden”—many of the remaining young hostages have been forced to convert to Islam, don the hijab, chant the Qur’an, and become pregnant “child-brides” or worse, suicide-bombers for their terrorist captors. In the interim, 2000 more children have been kidnapped and abused by these terrorists. Iraqi Sunni Muslims at the behest of ISIS continue to maim and kill their Shi’a neighbors in terror attacks surpassing the death-toll at the height of their civil war following the American invasion. And, to be perfectly honest, I often feel that I want to vomit now every time I hear God’s name taken in vain by Islamist terrorists shouting “Allah’u’ Akbar,” “God is Most Great,” as both sides in the Syrian civil war fire rockets at hospitals, buses full of evacuees, and other civilian targets, while the government forces of the war-criminal Bashar al-Assad attack their own people with barrel-bombs and sarin gas in that six-year civil and proxy war that has resulted to date in almost a half-million civilian deaths and four million refugees. I find those words every bit as repulsive as the Christian Crusaders chanting “Deus Vult,” “God Wills It,” as they rode through the streets of Jerusalem and slaughtered thirty-thousand Jews and Muslims following their capture of Jerusalem in the twelfth century CE.
And it’s not just the monotheistic “heirs of Abraham” who regularly engage in this sort of unspeakable sacred violence. Buddhists are slaughtering Muslims in Myanmar; Hindu nationalists are murdering Muslims and Christians in the thousands in India; Chinese Muslim Uigers are blowing up innocent civilians at Chinese train stations. The narrative of Saint Stephen’s martyrdom in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is the quintessential expression of the reality and horror of murderous violence anywhere in the name of God. Is it, then, any wonder that the first murder in human history recorded in the Hebrew Bible involved the slaying of one brother by another over their rivalry around a religious sacrifice in the story of Cain and Abel? There is a deep and abiding truth about the human condition and our propensity for fratricidal sacred violence—violence in the name of God—here that we continue to ignore at our very great peril. Saint Augustine in his Confessions has rightly observed that “it is strange that we should not realize no enemy could be more dangerous to us than the hatred with which we hate him, and that by our efforts against him we do less damage to our enemy than is wrought in our own heart.”
So, what are we to make of Jesus’ words to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, “No one comes to the Father except through me”? Must they too be taken as a warrant for hatred and religious intolerance? God knows that all too often legions of Christians have put them to such use over the centuries. And by lifting his words from their historical context of the intra-Jewish controversy over Jesus’ messianic claims on his fellow Jews—both during his ministry and after his death and resurrection—it’s very easy to hear them as one more divine counsel of rejection and exclusion. If we universalize his words as a mandate for the treatment of all peoples, at all times, and in all places, then we can reach no other conclusion, and our only choice is between grudging or amiable toleration at best.
And yet, when we place those words in their proper historical context, and acknowledge their meaning within Jesus’ Greco-Roman world in the Roman Empire’s province of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, his words signal inclusion rather than exclusion: an open invitation for everyone—Jew and Gentile—to behold the face of God in the incarnate Son. In other words, they are best understood as descriptive of the specifically Christian spiritual journey and not as a prescriptive warrant for proselytism, religious coercion, and worse, for sacred violence. Such contextualization of Jesus’ words is often necessary for their proper understanding, especially concerning the “hard sayings” of Jesus. And today’s discourse from the Gospel according to Saint John is no exception.
The whole of Christian spirituality is expressed in Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel, and we could spend a whole lifetime contemplating these words and never come to the end of them. This Gospel that we have heard today is the essence of our Christian faith and the quintessential proclamation of the saving work of God in Jesus the Christ. In it, Jesus reminds his perennially confused and bemused disciples—and, by extension, us as well—that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” for his disciples. In other words, God has made a full, unique and, most importantly, a personal self-revelation, with universal significance, in Jesus Christ. Through Christ, we see the face of God, Who is Life and suffering Love set free, and we are invited into a personal relationship with the Father. Just as Jesus dwells in the Father, we Christians have communion with God through him. We are “Christ’s own forever,” (BCP) according to the Baptismal Covenant, and through him, we are God’s own for all eternity and through all the worlds of God. We can make this profession of hope because Jesus, who is the Eternal Word and Love Incarnate, has come into this world “to prepare a place” for all in God’s kingdom. In the words of the eucharistic prayer, he is “a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” (BCP) And, if we truly and faithfully follow Jesus Christ—by the grace of our Baptism and through the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church—we will do and even “increase” the redemptive work of his suffering love on this earth. This is the “good news” this morning.
But the “bad news” is that this same Gospel—so full of hope, and such a moving witness to the universal love and to the spaciousness of God, has too often been used as a warrant for exclusion and for Christian triumphalism and supersessionism. For too long, Jesus’ statement that “no one comes to the Father except through me” has been used by some Christians to deny any truth in other world religions and to consign all manner of people and faiths to the dustbin of history. We have allowed ourselves to make the grave mistake of hearing Jesus’ proclamation of his messianic vocation and his saving work of redemption and salvation “for many” and “for the whole world” (BCP) as excluding all other paths to God. Yet, nowhere in this Gospel does Jesus consign all non-Christians—or anyone else, for that matter—to everlasting darkness. Only we can do that through our false choices and pursuit of selfish and apparent goods.
To the contrary, Jesus begins his bold proclamation by reminding his followers that “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?” Could there be a clearer statement that absolutely no one falls outside the mercy, love, and salvation of God’s loving providence? As Christians and disciples of Christ, we do not need to repudiate others to follow Jesus in his way of suffering love; his truth about the “kingdom of God”; and the abundant life that flows from loving God and keeping his commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. If it is true, as we profess, that Jesus’ sacred life, death, resurrection, and ascension truly do have universal significance—and I believe with my whole heart that they do—then God excludes absolutely no one from the fruits of Christ’s redemptive work. Again, only we can do that when we deny the inalienable and equal dignity of every human person by repudiating another’s path to God; by arrogantly presuming that our way of discipleship is the only way; and, worst of all, when we engage in sacred violence, as persecutors or bystanders, in the holy name of the Prince of Peace. None of us can presume to know or to fathom the mystery of just how God is reconciling all things to himself through the risen, ascended, and glorified cosmic Christ, in preparation for presenting a redeemed humanity and world to the Father in “the fullness of time.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, we know that prayer and the sacraments bind us to Christ and give us the grace and power to go into the world to, in Jesus’ own words “do the works that I do and, in fact, [do] greater works than these….” If we are commanded to “love God with all of our heart and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves,” how can we ground that life on the exclusion and repudiation of all sincere seekers after the True, the Good, and the Beautiful One? How can we say to anyone that the God who, according to the New Testament, is “Love,” “Life,” and “Spirit” will not know her or him in the end? So today, let us resolve to leave vengeance, judgement, and salvation to God, and to go about doing “greater works than these” as true disciples and witnesses of our risen Lord, charged to love all others as he loves us. Because, unless I have seriously misread the story, God will not be checking membership cards in the “life of the world to come” when, as the ancient rabbis taught, “all of the righteous will have a share in the “kingdom of God.” We can and we must take Jesus at his word that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Any sane and reasonable future for humankind on this planet depends upon it because, as the philosopher Albert Camus states, and the tragic history of the last century testifies, “All “…isms” of any sort end in murder”!