A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7.55-60 & John 14.1-14
We have been adjusting to a new and unfamiliar way of life now for almost two months. We have come to realise the things we miss, and our hopes for the future. The news in these past few weeks has focussed almost solely on Covid-19, and I do wonder if we are indeed focussing too much on ourselves, but I will come back to this later.
The one day on which the news here in the UK was different, was last Friday: VE or Victory in Europe Day. I suspect a particularly poignant day for those of you who remember the first VE Day: Churchill’s memorable speech and street parties throughout the country. The question in how far the Church should be involved in civic celebrations such as VE Day and Remembrance Day has always been a topic of conversation, as there is a wide range of opinions on the relationship between our faith and armed conflict.
For me personally, coming from a country that was occupied by Nazi Germany until 5th May 1945, the situation seems much more straightforward. I have been taught to celebrate freedom, rather than victory around this time of year. Freedom brings unity, rather than division. It challenges a structure of oppression, rather than pointing towards an enemy. Just having read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, after his long years of prison, he is able to put it as follows:
I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. (…) I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
That, for me, is why we should remember and celebrate 75 years since the end of WWII: because we should not forget those who made our freedom possible. Those who gave their lives knowing that they were fighting a right cause, and also those who doubted, and those who did feel they were given no choice. We owe it to them to continue to strive for freedom, as they did for us.
The shift in language from victory to freedom also helps me understand this morning’s Gospel reading, particularly Jesus’ words “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. I find it difficult to hear these words in a divisive way: to separate people into two groups: those who come to the Father – those who go to heaven, and those who don’t.
Rather, I hear these words as affirming what we already know: “you know the way to the place where I am going”. Being made in the image of God, we know that the only way to life and truth is treating others as made in the image of God too. To see what we have in common, rather than how we differ. No one can be fully the person they are meant to be in a system of injustice. Neither the oppressed, who are denied a full life, nor the oppressors, who are denying this themselves.
That does not mean condoning unjust structures, but rather challenging injustice without condemning those who are caught up in it. That is precisely what Jesus did. He turned over the tables in the temple, but ate with tax-collectors. He spoke out against the hypocrisy of the authorities, yet reproached Peter for cutting off a slave’s ear. “You know the way to the place where I am going”: we know but don’t always act.
Coming back to our own situation here and now, there are two more things I would like to mention. Firstly, that despite our restrictions, we are free. In many ways, Covid-19 has reminded us of our common humanity, because it has reminded us of our common vulnerability: no one is immune, no one is exempt. The question to us is how we can retain that insight as we go forward: the insight that we need each other.
That brings me to something I already mentioned at the beginning: the question if we are becoming too self-centred? In our own crisis, are we forgetting the plight of others, who are not free, unlike us? This week is Christian Aid week, a time particularly to think about others in place we may have forgotten over the past weeks. So maybe one thing to do this week is look beyond our immediate borders, and become aware of what is denied of others. Not asking ourselves “is there something I can do”, but changing the question to “what can I do”?
We know the way and the truth and the life, and when we believe we can do the works Jesus did, yes even greater. That is the promise and the challenge we hear this morning. The promise and challenge of which we were reminded as peace came to Europe 75 years ago. And the promise and challenge we face, every time we see another human being, made in God’s image, just like us. Do we take up that challenge and indeed find the way, the truth and the life?