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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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South Sydney Uniting Church
Easter 5, Year A
May 22, 2011

John 14:1-14

Where did you get that idea?’

A third-year medical student, Laurie, came to see me ne day. He was curious about some things he’d heard on campus during the week. “One God! One Way!”
 Something along those lines. There was a religious group known to chant such things aggressively and on a regular basis.

Laurie had been to church, on and off. He was curious sometimes; also attuned to “Christian” marketing ploys and overt ideologies. He’d come to see me for a chat. We’d played guitar together a few weeks before at the MedSoc Talent Quest.

Talking for a while, Laurie told me about his studies and hospital placements. He was a thoughtful and determined sort of person. Deliberate with gestures and comments. He’d make a good doctor. I asked him about a medical condition (as you do!) and he explained a procedure to me matter-of-factly yet with warmth, and even enthusiasm for the art of healing as he understood it. I’ve been known to grow pale and faint at the mere mention of a medical procedure, so I can tell when someone has a healing way of handling the information.

We got onto religion. Something about the cross. We agreed that it was seen as a kind of trademark, a decorative sign, even a slogan. I suggested there was something compelling about it, something attractive. And that this was the great challenge of evangelism – to communicate a beauty hidden in such an ugly, messy, tragic and offensive scene/sign.

What draws someone to the cross is akin, perhaps, to what draws a person to the bedside of a dying patient. Laurie had had recent experience of this.

What is happening when we find ourselves drawn toward suffering, dying, in spite of many tendencies to turn away? What holds us there, respectfully, in spite of tendencies to fill the space with idle chatter, to deny the awful reality of dying? What is happening when we experience a certain joy in that space (words fail to name it) – a privilege in the silence?

Our conversation made possible the suggestion that the word “God” describes just this movement. For Christians, God is the one who draws us toward suffering in spite of quite natural tendencies to avoid it. God is the one who reveals a beauty and even a joy in contexts of shared suffering, mutual respect at the limits of life in the world, the silence of face-to-face encounter. God, it may be said, is the face-to-face encounter.

We talked some more. I remembered sitting with friends at the bedside of my friend, Helen. I re-membered (re-assembled in a way, making the past present) the joy of her friendship as well as a palpable resistance – a protest at the way she suffered. The gift of a courage to sit with her even when she remembered nothing about me except for my name.

Students like Laurie have helped me over the years to reclaim a love for historic Christianity; have helped me to claim an orthodoxy understood as “right praise” – praising the God concealed and revealed in the suffering love of Christ. I might easily have run from a text like today’s gospel –hearing only a fundamentalist call to arms – a call to oppose all Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims in the name of Christ the Imperial One.

I might easily have relativised its claims, positing instead a god less specific, less demanding, less offensive.

With respect to a God who draws us toward suffering, that of others and our own – quite specific, demanding and offensive – Laurie said, “I’ve never heard of this. Where did you get that idea?”

To him it was strange and novel. Responses like Laurie’s are interesting, invaluable, reminding us that Christianity is widely misrepresented, drained of all pathos and mystery, used to reinforce cultural and spiritual prejudice and to deepen anxiety over violence.

Misrepresentations, not always aggressive, will speak quickly and assuredly of truth and beauty directly perceived (by reason, emotion, or the senses). Power, wealth, fame, youth, success as obvious blessings, and so on.

Today’s gospel bears witness to a more subtle and subversive conviction: the conviction that real comfort, that security, is to be found in friendship with a Christ betrayed, denied and crucified. A doomed person.

Comfort in solidarity with an expendable political prisoner. Comfort in relationships committed to risky associations in the Spirit of compassion.

“Where did you get that idea?”

One answer that comes to mind is that the church is this idea. By the Spirit we are this conviction incarnate for the sake of the world. We are the incarnation sent as Christ was sent to bear witness to the rule of love in the world – drawing close to sufferers that all might be re-membered and raised, that all might be saved and glorified.

The church is called to live this impossible idea – to live it into possibility. To measure its faithfulness against the distinctive way, truth and life of God in Christ.

“Where did you get that idea?”

From the testimonies of those who’ve said that “only the suffering God can help”. A conviction rendered unforgettably by Dietrich Bonhoeffer 66 years ago. Here’s how he comes to speak of mission in the face of a so-called “Christian” majority seduced by youthful exuberance and power, in the face of Jewish brothers and sisters humiliated and annihilated. “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer” (Life Together).

“Where did you get that idea?”

From Christians resolute in promoting harm-minimisation strategies on behalf of “expendable” drug users. From Christians appalled at the treatment of asylum seekers in a global culture of competition and flagrant scapegoating. From Christians – and others – alert to a certain idolatry of happiness in the prosperous West that masks a profound mental health epidemic.

“Where did you get that idea?”

At the table of the Saviour whose priestly life of thanksgiving releases new ways of being human – new humility, courage, kindness, gratitude – whose hospitality opens a space even now for the orphan-soul denied access to the hard heart of one father or another, one ossified patriarchy or another.

“Where did you get that idea?”

Practicing the art of prayer with sisters and brothers, friends of Christ, learning to ask after the heart of the Father/Mother who wills life and joy for all daughters and sons, all persons – beginning always with those made victims that a minority might flourish.

“Where did you get that idea?”

I need to speak at some point of my own suffering. My own sense of failure and finitude. My own profound anxieties about life and death. Meaninglessness. I confess that, alone, I have no idea what it means to make my way to God, to live in the truth, to live faithfully. I have tried and failed.

There is a sense in which I have no idea.

Nothing apart from a conviction I experience as a gift – a command, a call, in spite of the circumstances – to trust the love I know in communicating the gospel. Sharing the art of healing as I best understand it.

There is a sense in which this is becoming my way, my truth, my life.

How would you conclude this homily? The conviction that real comfort, that security, is to be found in friendship with a Christ betrayed, denied and crucified. A doomed person. Where did you get that idea? …

In the name of God – Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver – Amen.