Welcome to those of you who are unable to attend worship today and who have come here for a moment of reflection. The words for today are thoughts on the Gospel reading that, but for the current world crisis, would have been read in many churches today – Saint John Chapter 11 Verses 1-45.
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26
One single word, “whoever”: it tells those listening to Jesus much about God; it tells them much about the Church; and it tells them much about themselves.
“Whoever”, yourselves, the man in the street, the lady on the bus, the most unlikely, even the most ungodly, God will relate to anyone directly. God May be presented as a powerful, terrifying figure, but he is also a God who is immanent, a God present, a God there, at all times in all places. “Whoever” is a statement that this is an accessible God, that this is an approachable God. “Whoever” is a statement that God does not discriminate: whoever responds to God, God will respond to them. The story of Jesus is the story of God being present to anyone who chose to listen to him, “whoever” believes has God alongside them.
If “whoever” tells people about a God who is near and who is prepared to be a close friend, it should also tell them about what the church should be like and what it shouldn’t be like. The first Christians had trouble with this idea of “whoever”, they were Jews and they expected anyone who wished to join them to become Jews. “Whoever” was not an idea that fitted in with their Law, they were the chosen people and as far as they were concerned membership of God’s people was not open to “whoever”. Saint Paul has to write to the early churches a number of times to make the point that they couldn’t carry on with their old attitudes. He writes to the Christians in Rome telling them that being one of God’s people wasn’t just for those who followed the law of Abraham, it was also for those who had the faith of Abraham, no matter who they were.
What can be seen as the centuries passed is that the church became the institution that turned people away from faith. The church liked to have power, it liked to have influence; bishops were like princes. They weren’t going to accept that whoever believed in Jesus would have a place in heaven, far from it. To have a hope of a place in heaven you had to be subject to the rule of the church, you had to receive the sacraments, you had to accept everything the hierarchy said. If you refused, it wasn’t just a religious matter, it was against the law of the land and you could end up being burned at the stake for heresy. So much for Jesus saying that whoever believed in him would live, even though they died.
The church’s official teaching was that outside of the church there was no salvation. In times when people lived in daily fear of death, the idea that you would face eternal damnation if you were not on good terms with the church was a very powerful threat. It made the Church very influential and very, very rich.
What happened in the 16th Century was that some people started reading the Bible and saying, “hold on, Jesus didn’t say all these things,” Jesus said, “whoever believes in him”. Jesus didn’t say you had to do and had to believe all these extra things’.
At the heart of the Reformation there was this one simple point, is being a Christian open to whoever believes? Or is being a Christian a matter of accepting all the rules and regulations of the Church and accepting the authority of Church teaching in every part of your life? Jesus says being a Christian is open to whoever believes.
“Whoever” tells people about God. “Whoever” tells people about the church. “Whoever” tells people about themselves. Being a Christian is not about belonging to the church; it is about personal faith in this God who takes on human flesh and walks among ordinary people and dies and rises again. “Whoever” does not refer to the church, “whoever” refers to individual people. “Whoever” tells people that they are responsible for their own decisions.
When people talk about faith, they should talk about what they believe, not what the church says, there is a need to recover Jesus’ words to his disciples. There is a need for people to read Saint John Chapter 11 and think about what it is saying to them.
“Whoever” is a challenging word. It is a challenging word because for so long church teaching was accepted without question. Morality was whatever the church said was moral. Authority was not challenged. Now it’s all changed, the church is just one voice among many and people must choose for themselves.
The problem is that being a Christian has meant to most people being a church member, not what Jesus expected. Jesus looked for people who took their own decisions, who responded to him and who lived their life in the light of their faith in him.
“Whoever” is a statement that God recognises the dignity of individual people. “Whoever” is a sign that God. respects people’s right to make their own decisions. “Whoever” is an indication that people are going to be called to account for their own lives.
When faith is talked about, “whoever” is a word to remember; it means people can talk about faith, and not about the church.
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Whoever” is a word that makes things different.