Easter V, 10th May 2020
Sometimes I get carried away when I’m doing the weeding and I have to stop myself, especially when it comes to the Vicarage lawn. I stop myself because I can picture what the grass at home would look like sometimes after my father had weeded the lawn. Amid the green grass swaying in the breeze, there would gaps of brown earth, where weeds had been ruthlessly removed. We’re all aware, I guess, that we become more and more like our parents as we get older.
Last Sunday, we celebrated that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and I want to explore a bit more about who He is this Sunday. First among all the ways we come to know Jesus is His Sonship. We might not instantly consider this in our day-to-day experience, but seeing children always tells us something about their parents. This is certainly true of Jesus, as we are reminded in our Gospel today when he answers St Philip’s question by saying, “To have seen me is to have seen the Father.” The word we use in the Creed Sunday by Sunday is “consubstantial” meaning of the same substance. In other words, just as I’m a human being because my parents are human, so Jesus is God because His Father is God. Remind yourself of this as you see the Lord’s Body and Blood: that to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father.
But the relationship between Jesus and God the Father is more than that between any ordinary parent and son. “To have seen me is to have seen the Father,” indicates a union on quite a different level. Yes, we are all sons of God by adoption and grace; Jesus is the Son of God in a different order, hence the Lord distinguishes in the Gospels when He speaks to Mary Magdalene: “my Father and your Father” (John 20:17). Indeed, Jesus is introduced to us in St John’s Gospel as “the only Son of the Father” (John 1:14). Jesus is therefore not a creature, He is “begotten not made.” This affects how we read the Old Testament. All that we read there happens with Jesus on the scene even though He is not mentioned by name. When Abraham perceives the three person (Genesis 18), there is God the Holy Trinity, three persons and one God. It would be much easier to write off those passages of the Old Testament that seem odd to us as being simply overturned by Jesus, but He is clear He comes to fulfil them (Matthew 5:17). When we read the Scriptures we are looking not at historical events on which we then make our own mind up; we are seeking to discover more of the Living Lord who is Head of the Church today. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8).
This is why Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Christians: they do not recognise Jesus is God. How on earth can you believe in Jesus and seek to follow Him, if you do not know who He is and do not know Him to be “Lord and God,” as St Thomas declares Him to be (John 20:28)? JWs are likely to respond by quoting passages such as that which we find in John 14:28: “The Father is greater than I,” which will be read at Mass on Tuesday. So, let’s look at this passage.
A large chunk of St John’s Gospel, including this chapter 14, is set at the Last Supper, the night before Jesus died on the Cross, when He institutes the gift of the Mass, His Body and Blood. Jesus has also just washed the disciples feet and given a new commandment. It is the moment therefore when the servant-nature of the Son of God comes to the fore. St Paul reflects a few decades later, in his letter to the Philippians, “Christ emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave … and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a Cross.” God in Christ empties Himself that we might have life. That is only so dramatic and potent because He continues to be truly God. It is God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who washes the grubby feet of those fishermen from Galilee.
This servant ministry is to be continued by us, washing each other’s feet - not literally necessarily all the time, I might add, especially during social distancing. This servant ministry is enshrined in the Holy Order of the Church in the diaconate, which we heard the disciples inaugurate in our first reading from Acts 6. The running of the administration of the Church and the care of her members is entrusted to deacons, from Stephen, Philip, Prochorus and those others mentioned earlier, to St Laurence in third century Rome and St Vincent in third century Spain, right down to deacons today, including our own Fr Rimmer. It is given to those ordained to the Holy Diaconate because it is something we are all to have a concern for, the continuation of the servant ministry of Christ our Lord.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It’s a popular Scripture reading for Funeral Masses; indeed I’d like it at mine. What does “Way” mean? It implies a journey. It recognises a distance between where we are now and where we ought to be. It shows there is a route, a template, a pattern, such as we see in Jesus’ earthly ministry two thousand years ago; His ongoing Heavenly ministry, coeternal with the Father; and His activity in the Church today and especially in the Sacraments and our service of the poor. “Jesus is the Way” shows we cannot merit our own salvation without recourse to the vast and immeasurable treasure store of grace that is stored up for us. The name Jesus is the Greek and Latinised form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “God saves.” Jesus wins salvation for us on the Cross and we know this can only be done by God and no other. Jesus is God who saves.
When St John introduces Jesus to us at the state of his Gospel, he writes that he is “close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18). This beautiful expression is given yet further meaning when at the Last Supper, St John himself, the writer of this Gospel, describes himself in the same position, on the bosom of Jesus, sometimes rather boringly translated as “reclining next to Him” (John 13:23). Here St John stands for the whole church: we are to recline on the heart of Jesus, listening to what is there. Elsewhere Jesus gives John His Mother Mary, which teaches us that we all have Mary for our Mother (John 19:27). My friends, in our worship and prayer, know ourselves to be in that intimate position, on Jesus’ chest, in His arms, hearing His heart beat. If you’re that close to someone you can hear the changes in the rhythm of their heart, aware of how they’re feeling. This is how close we are to be to Jesus.
This reminder comes to encourage us to express our Christian identity not just mentally or internally: the “I know I’m a Christian, that’s all that counts” mentality that keeps us at home even when lock down rules do not apply. As St James teaches us: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26). The Sacraments teach us this dual partnership of faith and works. We need faith to perceive the effects of marriage, of the Mass, of Baptism, of Confirmation, of the anointing of the sick, of Confession, of ordination. But there’s also something thoroughly earthy about these expressions of God’s love: oil, water, hands, touching, speaking out loud that which is most private. These are messy, but they are also utterly grounded in that they give us grace we need to walk life here on earth. “I am the Way,” Jesus says. We’ll do greater things on earth now that Jesus has ascended to the Father, we were told at the end of this morning’s Gospel. This only makes sense if we are to do these greater things through this sacramental reality into which the Christian will be drawn more and more.
My friends, let’s roll our sleeves up then and know the diaconal life of the Church, the call to service we all embrace as we follow Christ, who is both God and servant, and is risen from the dead, alleluia!