Sermon - 17th July 2016
People of the Way
Scripture - Acts 10:34-36; John 14:1-8
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Last weekend, the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church took place in Southport. It is the highest decision-making body of our church, and it meets every two years in July. There were just over 300 representatives from the 13 synods in the United Kingdom, including 2 under-26s from every synod to ensure the voice of younger people is heard, and guests from other UK and international churches. From our North Western Synod, there were 26 representatives, including me, Chris Burton, an elder from the morning congregation, and other people whom you may know such as Andy Braunston, the Revd Dr Adam Scott and his husband, Jonnie.
The Assembly discussed many issues facing our world and our church, some of which you may have read about on social media; however, the one which captured the national media’s attention was the Assembly’s majority vote on same-sex marriage, and many of you will have seen our own Lee on TV, or heard on the radio. Following the decision, it is now up to each individual local United Reformed Church, in their church meeting, to decide whether they wish to allow same-sex marriage services to take place in their church. (Our next church meeting is in September.)
Also pertinent to our local church and, in particular, to this congregation, the first business resolution discussed at General Assembly was called “Change The Story”, introduced by the Revd Catherine Lewis-Smith, URC minister in Darwen, whom some of you may know. The resolution is a straight-forward one: to encourage churches to turn the tide against all the negative publicity surrounding refugees and asylum seekers by pro-actively promoting positive stories and to use the hash-tag #changethestory.
The situation with refugees was mentioned again at Assembly by the visiting Coptic (Egyptian) Bishop Angaelus, who encouraged us to “look for the face of Christ in every refugee.”
Those are the only two business resolutions I am going to mention; you can read more about what was discussed at General Assembly using the links Philip has included in this coming week’s newsletter. This is because that everything that took place at General Assembly is surrounded by worship, prayer and God’s Word revealed to us through the Bible, and I would like to share with you some of the reflections and the Bible studies.
I began today’s service by saying that today’s theme is “People of the Way”. This was also the theme of the whole of General Assembly, reflecting Jesus’ declaration in John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” The word “Way” implies a journey. Sometimes, the journeys we make we do frequently; other journeys are one-offs, like the journey of escape many of you here will have made to escape the countries of your birth to come to seek asylum here in the UK. Travelling in to the unknown can be scary.
And so it is with the journey we call life, and, as Christians, the Way we walk with God: each day, week, month and year is unknown to us, but they are known to God. Jesus said:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear… Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? … Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:25a, 27, 34)
Nevertheless, we should be prepared for our journey along the Way, supporting each other along the Way – that is part of what we as a church community are for. And, most importantly, because what is ahead is unknown, we need to suspend our judgement, because making such assumptions can close our eyes to the surprises God has in store for us.
The out-going Assembly moderator, the Revd David Grosch-Miller, spoke candidly about the future. He compared tourists as people who travel through places with pilgrims who allow places to pass through them. He spoke of how it is not easy to be faithful when that faithfulness demands sacrifice. He encouraged us to have to courage “to let something go”, observing that in the desire for certainty, we must not choose easy answers, and to be aware of the dangers of fundamentalism, which robs people of the ability to make informed choices.
Brother Andrew, a Dutch missionary, once said: “If your vision does not scare you, your vision and your God are too small!”
Let us look now at today’s Gospel reading from John. (Assembly reflected on this passage on Saturday morning, led by the Revd Sohail Ejaz from Southend-on Sea URC in Essex.)
Jesus’ monumental statement in verse 6 that He is “the way, the truth and the life” can easily overshadow other parts of that passage. The passage begins with Jesus encouraging us once again to put aside our worries and concerns: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1)
For the following verses, the original listeners to Jesus’ words, the Jews, would have easily understood the massive significance of what He was saying. The Jews, historically, were a nomadic people, beginning with Abraham who left his home in Mesopotamian Haran, then slavery in Egypt, then wandering the desert for 40 years following the Exodus; then, later, exile in Babylon. In a Hebrew translation of John’s Gospel for Messianic Jews, and thus most likely the word used by Jesus, the word chosen here is “me’onot”, meaning permanent residences. The significance of the feature of permanence in God’s promise would have brought hope, in the same way as it might to those seeking asylum: an end to your difficult journey and struggle.
Similarly, Jesus’ way of describing Himself using the verb “I am” would not have gone unnoticed by His Jewish audience who would have spotted the parallels with the use of the Divine Name as revealed in Exodus. In the Gospels, there are 7 statements of Jesus in which He declares “I am”:
- I am the bread of life
- I am the life of the world
- I am the gate
- I am the good shepherd
- I am the resurrection and the life
- I am the way, the truth and the life
- I am the true vine
The one we have in today’s reading – “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” – brings us one further challenge. “THE” way, not “A” way. The original Greek of John’s Gospel does use the definite article. Looking at the leaders/founders of other world religions, they are sign-posters; however, Jesus is the only one who claims to be Divine. As Christians, we cannot evade the question as to whether the “I am” statements of Jesus have a place in a pluralistic society. In the second part of verse 6, Jesus affirms His claim: “No one comes to the Father except through me”.
Our other Bible reading today, from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, was studied General Assembly on Monday morning, and it was led by Karen Campbell, a Church-Related Community Worker from Luton, which is very much a multi-faith and multi-cultural town.
Jesus’ words about being “THE Way” need a practical outworking in our communities. Acts 10:34-35 gives us the necessary foundation for our thinking and our living in respect of others:
“Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.’”
We were asked to discuss these questions: Are we “PEOPLE of the Way” or “people of THE Way”? If there is only one way, how can we make sense of the realities in the world? There are over 43,000 Christian denominations world-wide! There is much on which the differing traditions agree; however, there is much disagreement.
For some, we are “THE Way” to salvation… but in this life, or the next life? Or are we the Way to social action, or to evangelism? The reading from Acts seems to point to all four of these. Various Christian groups have different emphases.
What about other faiths? Are they “wrong” or just different? For some of us, the answer might be obvious, but for others, it is a more demanding question. We need to avoid the easy answers. Looking at the text from Acts, it reads like there are specific people to witness to specific circumstances in specific places. In every town, city and country, there are those who are fundamentalist and inflexible in their approach and this increases tension; however, there are others who work together in their differences.
We are “people of THE Way” and “people of the JESUS Way”. On this journey, more of more of God is revealed in the journey. We need to look for the truth and treasures in our churches, but also to recognise the truths and treasures in other churches, denominations and even faiths.
In conclusion, I will finish with some thoughts from the Revd Kevin Watson, ministerial Moderator of General Assembly to 2018, in his sermon last Sunday, speaking of “the Way”: he said that in similar ways, the people who founded the URC in 1972, even though they are now no longer with us, they walked the Way. He urged us to remember that Jesus will not call us to a place He has not already been Himself! (John 14:3 – “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”)
God is with us, so it does not matter that the URC is small. We are called to be both evangelical and liberal. However, we cannot do it all: we should let go from all that keeps us from Jesus’ Way.
I invite you now to join with me in the General Assembly Prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace
we are your people, People of the Way.
Light our path. show us Your Way
clearly and compellingly.
Through complexity, diversity, dissent,
make Your will known, make Your will shown
in our lives and in our Church.
We give thanks for Your call
which gave birth to our Church many years ago.
Help us now to hear your call afresh.
Like a cool wind on a hot day
Blow us out and about, people of the Way,
healing, life-giving, wise and faith-full.