Sunday, April 20th, 2008 - The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello, Assistant Rector
Easter 5 – Year A
April 20, 2008
Preached at Christ Church Cambridge
The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello
Psalm 31:1–5, 15–16
1 Peter 2:2–10
Sometimes on Sunday mornings I look out from my seat up by the altar and I’m filled with joyous awe that you’ve all shown up again. I’m amazed and inspired you’ve come to this community again, and I wonder, “Why are they here?” Why are you here? Why are you in this particular place, when there are so many others to choose from: other Episcopal Churches, other denominations, other faiths, other Sunday morning activities. Each one of you made the choice this morning to be here, in this place, in this community, worshipping God in this particular way—and I really would love to know why.
I imagine some of you might say that you are here for the music. The music here is terrific. But so is the music at the symphony, or the chorale. So why this music? Some might say you are here because of the commitment Christ Church shows to matters of social justice. But there are plenty of organizations that do social justice work. So why social justice work here? Some might say that you are here for the community. It’s a terrific community, to be sure, though it’s certainly not the only one in town. Why this community?
Whatever reason you might be here this morning, I am almost sure there are other places you could go to get those interests met. So why are you here?
There are days I am convinced God led me to ordained ministry simply to make sure I would get to church on a regular basis. But, honestly, my role in this community is not why I’m here. I’m here because of something I believe to be true, something I know has the power to transform lives, as it has transformed mine, and something I am sure has the power to bring the kind of radical healing to the world which it so desperately needs. And I’m here because I can’t get it anywhere else.
I am here, because it is here that I meet Jesus Christ. And it is in Jesus Christ that I meet and have a relationship with God. It is only in Jesus Christ that I am able to know God, and know God’s desire for me. I’ve said the name Jesus Christ four times already, and named him my only access point to God. If you are not more than slightly uncomfortable right now, you’re doing better than I am.
I find it terribly difficult to talk about Jesus. It’s a job hazard for a priest, don’t you think? But I do.
I’m much more at ease speaking of God in the abstract, or the Spirit, or the many reasons for going to church I listed above. Talking about Jesus, though? Isn’t that what we have the Prayer Book for?
When I wrote my final Spiritual Autobiography as part of the ordination process, the priest who was serving as my mentor in the process responded to the draft I sent him, writing, “This is great stuff. They’ll love it. Oh, by the way, you didn’t mention Jesus anywhere. Are you two still on speaking terms?” I hadn’t mentioned Jesus in the paper I was writing in partial fulfillment of my application to the priesthood. What was I thinking?
Actually, I know exactly what I was thinking. I thought, and often still do, that explaining my faith in God in terms of my relationship with Jesus Christ sounds exclusive. It sounds, of all things, Evangelical. Just listen to Jesus in John’s Gospel: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For centuries this very scripture passage has been used to justify anti-Semitism and the oppression, persecution, and condemnation of anyone who doesn’t profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And it still is. A friend wrote to me recently that she had been told by a good friend of hers that, unless she believed in Jesus Christ, she would go to hell, and, well, what did I think? I thought she needed a better friend.
So I avoid talking about my faith in ways that sound exclusionary, narrow or oppressive.
I don’t want to turn people off to the church, so I don’t mention Jesus.
In the process, though, I am left with no way to speak passionately, or specifically, about what it is that draws me to this particular community, to worship God in this particular way.
That’s what happens when you read Jesus’ proclamation that he is the way, the truth, and the life from a 20th century perspective, and not the perspective of the community for whom it was written. And it’s what happens when you separate it from Jesus’ earlier assurance in today’s Gospel that “in [his] father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
The group of people for whom this Gospel narrative was written was a small, frightened community who were facing great persecution. Not quite the Christianity of today. John writes to assure them, to give them hope, to build them up in the midst of great doubt and fear. John’s Gospel was written to a particular community, at a particular time, for a particular reason. Over the centuries, this particularity of John’s message was lost.
And what does it mean when we pair it with Jesus’ assurance to his disciples, “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” This is an image I treasure. No matter who we are, where we come from, what we’ve done, or what we think, there is room for us to be in relationship with God. There is room for me, there is room for you, there is room for us all.
It’s an image that stands at the center of our lives together as Episcopalians. Imagine if more time was spent resolving differences in the world by making more room for each other. Instead, walls are built between dwelling places and each one claims to be the right one to be in.
It seems so often that we are asked to choose one part of Jesus’ assurance to his disciples or the other. It is either that there are many dwelling places in God’s house, or that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. If we believe that Jesus is the way, there is little room in the household of God for others who believe differently. If we believe there is room for all in God’s loving embrace, as I do, then we can’t call Jesus the way.
Lately, though, I’ve begun to be able to put the two together. “In God’s house, there are many dwelling places.” And, in my particular dwelling place, “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.” The only way for me to make sense of either of these two truths is to put them together. Without both, each one remains incomplete, unable to grasp a greater truth. For me, in this community in which I find myself, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.
Jesus is my salvation because it is through Jesus that I have come to know some of the breadth and depth of God’s immeasurable love for me. It is through Jesus’ life that I find guidance for my own.
It is in Jesus’ death that I find the strength to resist the powers of death in my life, and it is in Jesus’ rising to life again that I find the hope to know that death is never the end. In Christ, new life always waits.
That is my truth, my way, my life. That is why I am here and not somewhere else, letting this music wash over me and lift me up. That is why I am here, and not somewhere else, working for the dignity of every human being through this work of social justice. That is why I am a member of this community, in this tiny corner of God’s creation and not another. It is why, no matter how long I am away, I am drawn to this table, to break this bread, to live this life as nothing less than a member of the broken body of Christ.
I just returned from a conference of clergy from all over the Diocese. Two questions seemed to lurk under the three-day conversation: 1. Why isn’t the Episcopal Church attracting new members at a rate to sustain growth? and 2. Why are the fundamentalist mega-churches gaining members by the thousands, though unable to keep them for the long term? Without getting into the statistics, I wonder if part of the answer doesn’t lie in which half of Jesus’ assurance each tradition lifts up and lives into.
We, in the Episcopal Church, strive to proclaim that in God’s house there are many dwelling places, that all are welcome, that all have a place at the table. It’s a reason many come into this tradition from others. It is central to our identity and should be. But we Episcopalians are not always so good at letting folks know what makes us any different than a Sunday morning spent reading the paper, or walking along the Charles. We hesitate to talk about the one thing we have to offer that the other competing demands on our Sunday mornings don’t.
And so, since there’s no reason to be here that I can’t get somewhere else, and since it’s such a beautiful day out, or since it’s rotten out, or since it’s so early, why go?
Fundamentalist mega-churches, on the other hand, are quite clear about what they have to offer that no place else can. But without the capacity to express the expansive nature of God as articulated by Jesus himself, the exclusiveness of their message leaves those in the pews always unsure of their place before God, and fear is no way, I believe, to spread the message of God’s love. The clear and certain assurance that gets folks in the door becomes too shallow to allow them to grow roots in the community.
But what if we did both? What if we were clear about who we are and what we have to offer? Clear that here we believe that there are many ways, many unique paths to a relationship with God. Clear that God isn’t as concerned with which community you are seeking a relationship with God in, but that you are seeking a relationship. And clear also that, for us, at Christ Church, Christ is why we’re church.
We don’t hesitate to enthusiastically share with a friend a book, or a new diet, a medication or a recipe with the exhortation that “It is the best. You’ve got to try it!” Should our friend come back, disappointed with our offering, we simply chalk it up to a difference in taste. We might simply reply, “Well, I loved it” or “Hey, it works for me.”
What if we spoke of our faith like that? With that kind of confidence? Free to let others know what works for us, what is, for us “the best”, assured that it is God, ultimately, and not us, who knows how each of us need to be sought. Only God knows how God will best be revealed to every creature on this earth. It seems to me, then, that the greatest risk we run is being a vehicle of that revelation.
God gives us room. Spacious dwelling places in which to find deep relationships with God and with each other. And Jesus waits for us there, preparing a place, so that where he is, we might be also.
© 2008 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello