St Bride's: Sermons

A Broad Church

John 14: 1-14

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14 Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.

In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.

Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.

Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.

Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father?

10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.

11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake.

12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.

13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

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Two conversations last week made me think about the kind of faith I hold as part of what I suppose would be called the Broad Church/Liberal tradition within the Church of England.

One was with a fellow clergyman from the evangelical tradition who felt that we didn't take the Bible seriously enough, and the other was with a journalist, a practising Roman Catholic, who felt that the Church of England was just too wishy-washy and not robust or definite enough about what we believe.

Both were implying that we should, as a church, be more definite, more prescriptive about faith, drawing a stronger line between those who believe (and believe the 'right' things in the 'right way') and those who don't, who are beyond the pale.

Engaging in these conversations I was forced to defend my position, which I was happy to do, and the starting point for it is based on what we find in the Gospel reading this morning, the passage from John in which Jesus explains his message and mission to Thomas, and the first words that strike me are in verse 2: 'In my Father's house are many rooms' - mansions in the old translation.

The image John is conjuring up for us is not about the physical geography of heaven but about its wonderful spaciousness and inclusiveness, a place where there is room for a great deal of diversity. It reminds me of a similar phrase in Psalm 31: 'Thou hast set my feet, O Lord, in a large room.' Spaciousness, inclusiveness, room to breathe and explore and be ourselves - that is Jesus' image of heaven, and that image should surely be reflected in our experience of the church on earth.

I don't like criticising other parts of that church - we need to make common cause, Christians of all shades and denominations, against the enemy of militant secularism which wants to push the church and religious discourse to the margins of society, rather than fighting amongst ourselves. But I did respond to both of my conversationalists that I am proud to belong to a church that values diversity over dogmatism, that gives people space in which to spread and to serve, that encourages us to love God with our minds as well as our hearts, which doesn't censure or excommunicate those theologians who dare to critics current orthodoxy, and which approaches the issues of our time with openness -  which may sometimes make us look muddled and indecisive but which is a lot more honest and less hypocritical than a church whose teaching, say on contraception, is absolute and unbending but in practice, widely ignored.

Our Anglican concept of authority is not centralised or rigid, but a threefold tripod of scripture, tradition and reason which includes the possibility of change and development. Anglicans historically have declined to isolate and idolise the infallible book, and have felt able to embrace and accept those whose liturgical and theological views differ considerably from their own. We have always been a broad church. 'Thou hast set me, O Lord, in a large room.'

Of course, such breadth and spaciousness can lead to wooliness and vagueness. It is important that we have a strong core of faith while keeping the edges both of belief and of the church slightly fuzzy, allowing people to move on their spiritual journeys while still feeling that they truly belong. 'In my Father's house are many rooms,' many staging posts on the spiritual journey.  After all, when I signed up for the Christian faith, I didn't sign up to a set of dogmatic pronouncements, I decided to follow a person - Jesus - who seems to me to have the key to how we should try to live our lives and to the meaning of existence. When Jesus says to Thomas 'I am The Way, The Truth and The Life' he is inviting Thomas on a journey, inviting him and us to trust Jesus as our pathway and our guide through life.

So it is sad that people read this famous answer of Jesus as restrictive, implying that Jesus is the only way to God. We don't know how many rooms there are in the Father's house, and we certainly don't know how many routes there are because the travellers - you and me - start from so many different places. All we know is that we are on the journey together and all we have to do is not to judge other people's seeking but to keep going on our own journeys as followers of the Way, journeying towards a generous God, in whose house there are many rooms.

As Frederick Faber's hymn puts it:

'There's a wideness in God's mercy
Like the wideness of the sea..........
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man's mind.

The breadth of that love should be reflected in His Church, a church in which there is room to explore, room to breathe, to think, to differ and to be ourselves - so that all our rich diversity and our searching and muddle and glory can be offered to God to be used in His service.


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