Easter 5 – Following Jesus
Acts 7 vv 55 – E – The stoning of Stephen
John 14 vv 1 – 14 – Jesus prepares his disciples for his death
- On 19th May 1954 I was present in Haringey Arena in N London for one of the 6 weeks of the Billy Graham evangelistic rallies. In the centre of the arena on the faces of a large cube, perhaps 10 foot across, was the verse that came in our gospel reading, John 14 v 6, “Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. That verse made a deep impression on me. It was as much that as Dr Graham’s sermon to make a personal commitment to Jesus, that influenced my decision. The context of that verse is Jesus’ discourse with his 12 disciples as he prepares them for his death. Our first reading was a brief account from the Acts of the Apostles of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. You may wonder why it is that we have such a reading in one of Sundays of Easter, when our focus is the resurrection of Jesus. The reason is that Jesus is looking beyond his death to his resurrection and ascension. He is putting life here on earth in the context of eternity. Stephen’s death is a perfect example of someone who understood well Jesus’ teaching in John 14.
A recent Ipsos Mori survey 1 found that just 30 per cent of people in the United Kingdom think that religion is important compared with 53 % worldwide. Of the 23 countries surveyed, only three, Sweden, Belgium and Japan, have a lower proportion of people for whom faith is important. I know many of you have a lively faith but it may be that this morning there are here a few, who are still searching, wondering what the Christian Gospel might have to offer you. You are perhaps not too sure about this business of the death and resurrection of Jesus and what might happen to you when you die. To some extent we are all still searching, learning, seeking to develop our faith so although I am addressing my sermon particularly to those at an early stage of seeking, it maybe that there will be something for all of us as we think about Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.
- Who? Who is this person who is saying these words? You may say, “Well, it is Jesus of course.” Yes, but the introductory wording is significant. Jesus says “I am”. The strong emphasis does not come across in the English but it does in the Greek. The Greek is εγω ειμι (ego eimi). Ειμι by itself means ‘I am’, so to say ‘εγω ειμι’ is strongly emphatic. This is just one of the many ‘I AM’ statements in John’s gospel, such as ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the living water’, ‘I am the good shepherd’, as in last Sunday’s gospel from John 10, and of particular relevance, in his discourse with Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life”. All these descriptions have echoes of God’s revelation to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3). When Moses questions God about his identity, God’s reply is “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’”. Even that wording in English does not do justice to the original for verb has past, present and future all wrapped up in the ‘I am’. Moses is meeting with the eternally existent one, who has created the universe. Jesus is making what the disciples would understand clearly, a statement that he is God. Should any doubt this he says a little later in the discourse, ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me’ (14 v 11). Having emphasised who it is that is speaking let as look at the three aspects of his statement.
- The Way. Jesus starts his teaching on this occasion by telling the disciples that he will shortly be leaving them but that they should not worry because he is going to his Father’s house and there he will prepare a place for each of them.
He surprises his disciples by saying “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas, perhaps bolder than some of the other disciples in questioning Jesus, says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” It was Thomas you may recall, who was not present on Easter Day when the risen Jesus revealed himself to the disciples and wanted good hard evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. When he had it a week later, he made a very firm confession of faith, saying to Jesus, “My Lord and my God”. Perhaps something in the discussion here in John 14 helped Thomas to that faith commitment. When Thomas made that commitment to accept the Lordship of Christ, to go in his way, he could not have know that his path to his ultimate destiny would be via an effective ministry in India as the founder, according to strong tradition, of the Christian Church in India, The Mar Toma Church, still in existence today. I could not have known as an 18 year old officer cadet in the RAF what my earthly path to my heavenly destination would be including firstly becoming a Reader in the Church of England, followed some years later being ordained as a priest. I have no regrets about that path of following Jesus, with a variety of interesting jobs in the RAF and ministry and other work since ordination in 1976, with a very supportive wife, two happily married sons, each with two children. Thomas was right. The earthly path is unknown, at least to us. But Jesus is right for an earthly path with Jesus leads us to our eternal destination where he now is, with God the Father, in the glory of heaven.
- Truth. “What is truth?” (Jn 18 v 38) said the Roman Governor Pilate at Jesus’ trial before him. His decision to crucify Jesus reflected this lack of concern for truth for he then goes on to say, “I find no basis for a charge against him” (Jn 18 v 38 & 19 v 4) and then finally hands him over to be crucified (Jn 19 v 16). Likewise today many decisions are made on the basis of expediency rather than truth. So many advertisements appeal to the emotions rather than to the factual basis of the product. We live in a world where the virtual and actual reality overlap and sometimes one cannot distinguish between them. We have recently become accustomed to a new category of ‘fake news’ of propagation of deliberate untruths to influence elections or other courses of action. How does Jesus match up to his claim to be the truth? He both taught and lived out what he believed in regardless of the consequences and knowing as he came to Jerusalem for the last time that he would meet his death there. Over the last 2000 years the four records of Jesus’ life, ministry death, resurrection and ascension – the four gospels – have probably been the most critically researched documents of all time and yet they still stand as firm records of that person Jesus of Nazareth. I suggest to you that Jesus’ claim to be the truth is well founded and is trustworthy.
- The Life. In last week’s gospel we heard Jesus saying that He had come that his followers might have life and have it to the full. Some people, looking from outside, regard being a Christian as being restrictive; you can do this or you must not do that. However God is only wanting to us to keep clear of those things that will harm us, will spoil our relationships with one another and with God. What following Jesus gives instead is a wonderful assurance that, as he promised, he is with us right the way through to the end of time. In our gospel today, Jesus is encouraging his disciples not to fear death, to look beyond this life to a wonderful future that he is preparing for his followers. As we pray, seeking the guidance of his Spirit, we can avoid unnecessary problems and suffering in this life, arising from our own waywardness and also Jesus can transform the more challenging circumstances into a spiritual blessing, as he did with his own death. Let me give you a particular example. A few days ago Julia and I attended the funeral of a friend in his early 70s who had died of pancreatic cancer. He was a keen Christian, a much loved and respected classics teacher and a lover of music. He knew that there was no medical cure for his condition, which was diagnosed late last year. In recent months he faced the future with great courage and equanimity. The clergyman who spoke at his very uplifting and positive funeral, said that Sandy had felt nearer to God in his illness than at any previous period in his life. Jesus is the life and has come that we might have abundant life on this earth and in our eternal future in heaven.
- Decision. I know that there are many of you here who have like Sandy, a lively and strong faith and are seeking to follow Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. But also there may be a few here who are on the fringe, who are not quite sure where you stand and have never made a firm decision to entrust your life to Jesus. My hope and prayer is that one or two of you, or maybe more, will make that decision today. I made such a decision 63 years ago when Billy Graham preached at Haringey in 1954. I have never regretted that decision. The text, John 14 v 6, ‘Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life” hanging in the arena influenced me greatly. I don’t remember much of the sermon but I do remember something of the invitation at the end of Dr Graham’s address, “If you received an invitation from the Queen to go to Buckingham Palace you would not refuse it. How much more should you accept the invitation of the King of kings.” Will you accept that invitation today? There is all the difference between knowing about a person and knowing a person. Most of us have seen many photographs of the Queen, seen her on television and warmed to her Christmas broadcasts. We feel we almost know here. Probably few of us here have actually met her and even then it would have been a brief conversation. Jesus invites us to know him through the indwelling Holy Spirit. We can talk to him every day. If you would like to make that step of commitment today then follow me quietly in the prayer that I will lead you in along the lines of, “Jesus, I thank you for your promise that you are the Way, the Truth and the Life. I want to invite you into my life, to follow you as my way, the trust in you as the truth and experience the fullness of life through the indwelling Holy Spirit.” If you feel you are not ready to make such a commitment just know but would like to discuss it further then speak to Paul or me. So now for the prayer that you can join me silently or quietly in saying.
“Jesus, I thank you for your promise that you are the Way, the Truth and the Life. I want to invite you into my life, to follow you as my way, the trust in you as the truth and experience the fullness of life through the indwelling Holy Spirit.”
If you made that prayer your prayer, then do tell someone about making that decision, maybe someone in the family, a friend, a person in the Church you respect or someone else. God bless you.
1 As reported in the Daily Telegraph on 2nd May p. 2
“Britain is one of the least religious countries in the world according to an Ipsos Mori survey.
Just 30 per cent of people think their religion or faith is important to them, compared with 53 percent worldwide.
Only three countries surveyed – Sweden, Belgium and Japan – have fewer (presumably as a %) citizens for whom faith is important. The survey also showed that 79 per cent of Britons think we have become more negative about immigration, and just eight per cent think healthcare will improve in the future – the lowest level of 23 countries surveyed. Ipsos Mori polled 18, 000 people in the survey.”
Also see the Ipsos Mori website – global trends.
One quote, similar to the above report and presumably reporting on all religions/faiths:
“30% of us feel our religion/faith is important to us, compared to 53% globally. We are joined at the bottom of the table by Sweden (29%), Belgium (27%) and Japan (22%).”
Word count:2000 Christopher Miles