18 May 2014
10.30 Priory Sung Eucharist
The Fourth Sunday after Easter
Revd Simon Cowling
‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What’s that you say, Mrs Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away?’ Even without the ‘oo-oo-oo’ and the ‘ay-ay-ay’ those of you from a certain generation will remember those words from Simon and Garfunkel’s song Mrs Robinson, originally written as part of the soundtrack to the film The Graduate. Some time after the song was written, Paul Simon apparently received a letter from Joe DiMaggio, one of the most famous baseball players in American history. DiMaggio expressed his bemusement at what the song could mean. He wrote, “What do you mean ‘Where have I gone?’ I haven’t gone anywhere! I’m still around. I’m selling coffee making machines.” Paul Simon commented, rather dismissively, “Obviously Mr DiMaggio is not accustomed to thinking of himself as a metaphor!”.
Well I don’t think Jo DiMaggio can be blamed for that. Maybe he didn’t even know that a metaphor is a way of describing or explaining something or, more rarely, someone, by calling them something else. So in the song Mrs Robinson, Paul Simon was using the now retired baseball player as a metaphor for lost hopes and faded dreams; but like the rest of us, Joe DiMaggio no doubt thought of himself in quite different and more concrete ways – a coffee machine salesman, perhaps; or just a retired baseball player.
In this morning’s Gospel passage Jesus describes himself as ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ – one of a number of images, or metaphors, he uses of himself in St John’s Gospel. The Old Testament writers often describe God in metaphorical terms, but very rarely human beings: God is a shield, a refuge, a strong fortress; God is a light, a shepherd, a gardener; God is a nurturing mother, a loving father and so on. So for Jewish people listening to Jesus in first century Palestine it would have been striking that Jesus, as reported by St John, should describe himself so frequently in metaphorical terms. He does so on seven separate occasions using nine different images: bread of life, light of the world, gate for the sheep, good shepherd, resurrection and life, way, truth and life, true vine. By describing himself in this way, Jesus was quite deliberately echoing the way in which God is described in the Old Testament, through images.
And of course the content of these images is rooted in the language of the Old Testament as well. Jesus himself sometimes makes this explicit. ‘I am the bread of life’, Jesus says to the great crowd, the 5000, whose physical hunger he had satisfied on the previous day. Not bread such as the manna that fed your ancestors in the wilderness, but the living bread given to you by God the Father. ‘I am the light of the world’, says Jesus to the Pharisees; follow me and you will never walk in the darkness. This image would doubtless have reminded them of the opening words of Genesis, of the total darkness that had preceded creation and of the light created at God’s command. ‘I am the true vine’ said Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died. The vine is an image used in the Old Testament of the people of Israel, who all too often produced bitter fruit; but it is an image now transformed into a vine of true fruitfulness in which the disciples, and we, are called to remain so that we, too, can produce good fruit.
‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’, says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Not ‘a’ way, note; ‘the’ way – John’s Greek is quite clear on this point. Of all the images that Jesus uses of himself in St John’s Gospel this is potentially the most problematic. How does this leave our relationship with other faiths? How are we to counter charges of exclusivism, of ignoring the possibility of seeing God at work in religious traditions other than our own? For some Christians this is not an issue – God is simply not at work in other religions. For many Christians this won’t do. Fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council declared that ‘the Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in (other) religions’ and I suspect that this is the view most Christians hold today.
An answer to the challenge of Christian exclusivism in John chapter 14 can, I think, be developed out of something I said earlier. Remember I suggested that, in his use of images to describe himself, Jesus was quite deliberately echoing the way in which God is described in the Old Testament. But there is an even bolder stroke. Jesus introduces each of the images with the words ‘I am’: I am the light of the world, I am the true vine, and so on. In the Old Testament the words ‘I am’ are used by God when he reveals himself to humans: at the burning bush God tells Moses ‘I am who I am’; to the prophet Isaiah God asserts ‘I, I am he who comforts you’. By introducing himself in this way Jesus is making a quite explicit and universal claim about his divine authority – a claim that allows him to say to Philip in today’s Gospel I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Of course this claim angers the Pharisees, alienates some of his followers, and thoroughly puzzles and mystifies his disciples. But it also allows us to say that, if Jesus and the Father are one, then all who truly seek the Father, the living God, from whatever religious tradition, already have full access to the way which Jesus both reveals and embodies, and to the fullness of life which he came to bring.
Finally, what do these images of Jesus mean to you? How do you receive them? Do they anger you, as they did the Pharisees? Probably not. Do they puzzle or mystify you, as they did the disciples? Possibly. What does it mean to you to call Jesus the bread of life, the gate of the sheep, the way, the truth, and the life? What do these phrases mean to you? I have found it helpful, when reflecting on these striking images, to remember that as a disciple of Jesus Christ I am called above all to be Jesus for my neighbour. But in order to be Jesus for my neighbour I need to know first who Jesus is for me. These ‘I am’ sayings in St. John’s Gospel give me an answer to that question. I know that, as the bread of life, Jesus is the one who sustains me, I know that, as the gate for the sheep, Jesus is the one in whom I am welcomed into the divine embrace; I know that, as the true vine, Jesus is the one in whom I can bear fruit that will last. I know that, irrespective of how others receive him, Jesus is for me the way, the truth and the life. And it is in knowing this that I am released to serve others, to serve the whole world which Jesus served, for which he died and in which he lives for all people, our risen Lord now and to the ages of ages.