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Homily by Dr. Miriam Pepper

Easter 5, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 18, 2014

John 14:1-14

“I myself am the Way. I am Truth, and I am Life. No one comes to Abba God but through me.” This claim from Jesus in chapter 14 of John’s gospel is similar to the one we discussed in our Lectio Divina reading of John 10 last week “I am the sheep gate. All who came before me were thieves and marauders. I am the gate… Whoever enters through me will be safe.”

Taken by themselves, as statements out of context, these words are dangerous. They can lead to triumphalist, imperialist claims about the superiority of the Christian religion that dismiss and belittle other traditions. They can be used to coerce, compel and instill fear. They can, and have, been used to colonise and dispossess.

These words can be used in such a way as to bear little resemblance to the one who John has speaking them Jesus who identified with the poor, the sick, with sinners. Jesus who himself suffered for love of others, whose commitment to fullness of life for all was such that he bore violence and refused to retaliate.

This embodied way of Jesus was what drew me back into the church in my early adulthood. More precisely, it was encountering Christians and churches who I saw were convicted by and attempting to follow in the way of Jesus. At that time, more than a decade ago, I saw it especially in people advocating for asylum seekers and refugees.

And yet I think that there was something unhealthy in my understanding of the Christian life. Maybe it was due to my lack of appreciation of my own embodiment a carefree assurance of my health, a taken for granted material privilege, comfort, and access to education that many the world over can only dream of. I took on the idea that the Christian calling is encapsulated in making a choice to save the world. I made a judgment that suffering that comes through choosing altruism through self-denial and through persecution for standing up for others is noble. And, that sort of suffering should be welcomed, perhaps even sought after. I was, I now realise, glorifying suffering the suffering of Jesus, the suffering of Stephen, the sufferings of others who have walked the way of martyrdom.

I hope and pray that I am growing into a less arrogant and more humble and healthy understanding. That through the experience of life and encountering the God of love and walking with others, including you here, my perspective is shifting.

The last several years I have been suffering daily with physical pain and discomfort. Sometimes it is so exhausting that everything else is blotted out from my mind and heart. At those times I’m not remotely walking a path of my own choosing, I’m simply enveloped by the realities of something over which I have little control. At those times, I want comfort in the house of God in one of the dwelling places. I want to be and stay in the sheepfold I don’t want to be called out of it to the pastures. I don’t want to be walking on the way and anyway the best I can do is to hobble, quite literally. Maybe I won’t be able to be Jesus after all!

I know that there are others of you in this congregation who deal day in and day out with health issues of various kinds. I mention my own not to try to draw attention to myself or to equate my sufferings with sufferings of others. On this Jubilee Sunday, I am particularly drawn to consider that people with health problems but without my privilege are in a very difficult position indeed. I mention my sufferings to be real. I mention them to break down the dichotomy between love of the other and love of the self, between altruism and concern for self. I mention them because I feel connections between my own sufferings, the sufferings of others, and the sufferings of this beloved Earth a common humanity, a common creatureliness. Empathy is another word for it.

One of the things that empathy brings is a commitment to hear the voice of the ones who are suffering, to stand along side them in solidarity not simply to advocate “for” them. Activism that is divorced from this can become paternalistic, ineffective, and be as much about the gratification of the activists as it is about justice and wholeness. Jubilee Australia, who we will hear more about in our announcements today, has a strong commitment to hear the voices of people living in poverty and to support campaigns on the ground in countries across the world.

In an email to Dorothy and I a couple of days ago, Andrew wrote that the idea of the artwork on the front of our liturgies today the Body of Christ Shines relates to the Gospel promise that believers will do as Jesus has done. “Anyone who has faith in me will do the works I do and greater works besides,” (Luke 4:12). It is encouraging to know that there are churches across Australia today who are remembering the great Hebrew principle of the Jubilee the writing off of debts, the cancellation of debt bondage, and the restoration of the land to its original owners/custodians. The Jubilee principle calls us not simply to respond to the immediate needs of people in poverty but to attend to the complex structures, policies and laws that lie at poverty’s roots.

It is encouraging to know that people across the country are considering what it might mean to follow in the way of Jesus, who saw his mission as fulfilling the Jubilee promise, in our context of gross inequality and concentration of wealth.

Andrew’s expression the promise that believers will do as Jesus has done is something that speaks to me strongly today. I might have said that it is a calling to follow the way of Jesus. Or a responsibility. But the promise remains when I don’t fulfill my responsibility and when I can’t live up to the call. The promise is something that I can hang on to when I don’t feel that I have the strength to follow. It’s also a promise that captures us all as a community, not simply as individuals.

What promise lies in the way of Jesus for you today?

Dr. Miriam Pepper