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5th Sunday of Easter

30 April 2020

Acts 7.55-end; Psalm 31.1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2.2-10; John 14.1-14

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OUR Gospel begins with a statement of eternal hope. In words used at many funerals, Jesus declares that “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places”, and promises his disciples that he goes to “prepare a place” for them.

Thomas objects that, as the disciples do not know where Jesus is going, they cannot know the way. Jesus replies that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. He is the “way”, because he is the one by whom and in whom disciples must travel. He is the “truth”, because, in seeing him, the disciples see the Father. And he is the “life”, because participation in him is both our journey and our journey’s end.

Commenting on these verses, St Augustine writes that our destiny is to be “partakers of his life”. We are dependent on Christ; for we are “wholly incapable of being in ourselves what he is. But even while we ourselves are not the life, we will be able to have him as our life”.

In the prime of earthly life, it may sometimes be possible to evade the reality of our finitude, and entertain a fantasy of complete autonomy. If we have not had to do so before, at some point the ageing process will compel us to reckon with our interdependence and mortality.

The good news — proclaimed in our readings, and summed up in our collect — is that Christ’s resurrection has turned death into “the gate of everlasting life”. In this pandemic, we are all being forced to contemplate the fragility and finitude of life, some of us for the first time. Our dominant culture struggles with such realities, which is why it is so keen to keep out of view people who are disabled and elderly, or to remove them altogether through abortion and euthanasia.

In contrast, the gospel squarely faces the reality of death, and does so without fear. This is evident in the martyrdom of Stephen, which both flows from and mirrors the Passion of his Lord. (In particular, his final words in Acts 7.60 echo Christ’s in Luke 23.34.).

Our epistle expresses the intimate relationship between the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrificial lives of his disciples. Christ crucified is “the stone that the builders rejected”, but his resurrection reveals him in fact to be “the very head of the corner”. As “living stones”, Christians are part of this cruciform building: a “living temple”, whose orientation and alignment is set by its cornerstone.

The imagery used in the epistle shows what it means for Christ to be “our life”. We are a living temple because he is the true Temple; we are a royal priesthood because he is the true High Priest; we can offer “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” because he is the true sacrifice (cf. Douglas Harnick, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 and 2 Peter).

In an Easter meditation, Sarah Coakley observes that this vision of the Christian life is “a particularly difficult idea for us moderns, because it challenges everything that our education teaches us: that we should aspire to be accomplished individuals, and autonomous ones at that”.

The prevailing culture prizes self-reliance and individual autonomy. In contrast, our crucified and risen Lord bids us die to self, so that he might be our way, our truth, our life. Coakley offers a powerful description of this process of spiritual death and resurrection, and its practical working out in our lives: “We begin to see that our false, conscious, striving self has to go. And as that self is worn away in a process that feels like death, something unimaginably mysterious starts to emerge — the new life of selfhood that is Christ’s own and which transcends all individualism.”

In the deaths of Stephen, and of countless other early martyrs, we see the fruit of lives that have been liberated from the prison of the ego and incorporated into Christ. The blood of these martyrs was described by Tertullian as the “seed” of the Early Church. They had died to the “false, conscious, striving self”. Instead, Christ was both the one in whom they travelled, and the destination of their journey. They brought new life to this world because their hearts were set on the world to come. In this, they show the pattern for Christian witness in every generation.

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