Monday, 21 September 2020

Being Valued & Labouring in the Vineyard

 A sermon preached at Croydon Minster on Sunday 20 September 2020, gospel reading Matthew 20.1-16, 'The Labourers in the Vineyard', a parable of the kingdom of heaven.


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Oscar Wilde famously said that the cynic is the person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

 

In that outlook everything can be weighed, measured, assessed, priced. There is no room for value, appreciation, delight, joy.

 

Lockdown showed us that things we value are infinitely more precious than things we can put a price on: being in church, seeing friends, visiting relatives, getting outside. How do you put a price on those things?

 

Prices change, but value doesn’t.

 

When many people today talk about ‘worth’ or value they are thinking about the ‘bottom line’, about a person or a company’s bank balance, and not their worth to the Common Good.

 

According to Forbes ‘Real Time Net Worth’, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has a net-worth of $115 billion. He himself would say that his real worth, his real value, is what his Foundation is doing to eradicate malaria globally.

 

But in a priced obsessed world the tech entrepreneurs, the celebrities, the hedge fund managers, the oligarchs must be the most significant because they top the rich lists. They are first, and the poor are last. That is how it is.

 

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Except that Jesus Christ declares that is not just how it is: the priorities of the kingdom of heaven fly in the face of that, he says, ‘so the last will be first and the first will be last’ (Matthew 20.16).

 

Jesus proclaims a kingdom that is value obsessed. Each person created in the image and likeness of God is of infinite value.

 

We see this in the parable. The landowner, who is said to be like the kingdom of heaven, rewards the labourers not on price grounds or daily wage but on the value of the presence they have simply by working in the vineyard.

 

The first worker is as valuable as the last and they are not measured by price. Their value does not lie in a transaction for their labour or even what they have contributed.

 

And this gets the grumbles going and that is about a perceived injustice based on price, not on value: the grumblers are talking in totally different terms from the landowner, who asks them ‘are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20.15b)

 

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Many people today feel themselves to be of low worth, not quite making it, not valued.

 

Low personal self-esteem is a blight of our times. But we cannot just generate esteem for ourselves; it is a vicious cycle and people feel increasingly worthless the more they are told they should value themselves.

 

But we gain self-esteem when we are held in esteem by others and when they show it. We receive esteem when we are valued and held to be precious, not when a price or measure is put upon us.

 

In God’s eyes human value and worth cannot be priced and go up and down. For love of us God prices nothing yet spends everything. As St Paul says to those entrusted with the care of the Church: ‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained [or ‘purchased’ Greek periepoiÄ“sato] with the blood of his own Son.’

 

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So the parable tells us we are of infinite value to God, who is the source of our life and our esteem. God’s love for you is unlimited, as seen in Christ’s death on the cross. Other people’s opinions, perceived judgements or what we think they think of us, wither away in relation to how we stand before God.

 

The grumblers are those who measure people by price and time, who say they don’t merit what they have received; the landowner, the kingdom of God, is generous in valuing each one irrespective of when they ‘turn up’.

 


 

The Church – established on the Apostles - is Christ’s chosen foretaste of the coming kingdom of heaven and is the crucible in which men, women and children endeavour, by God’s grace, to forge out the life of that kingdom. So it is all the more important for the Church to be a place of value not of price.

 

That means we seek to shape a culture of abundance and not a culture of scarcity: so that we rejoice in what we have and do not bemoan what we do not have.

 

This task begins in the human heart and spills out into our corporate life too.

 

A culture of scarcity is a culture that penny pinches and puts prices on things and people; a culture of abundance values, cherishes, treasures people upon whom no price can be placed.

 

‘Are you envious because I am generous?’, asks the landowner, the kingdom of Heaven. In fostering a culture of abundance, like the kingdom of heaven, let us make it our business to esteem and value others as God does, to invite them into labouring in the vineyard of God and may we be generous in valuing them such that our hospitality is boundless.

 

 

 

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Slavery, race and the Christian Church: A Reflection

 

SLAVERY, RACE AND THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH

 

The recent killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and across the world, has rightly, and powerfully, shone a fresh light on racism in the United Kingdom today and the way in which this country was not simply complicit in the Atlantic slave trade, but was at the heart of it.

 

In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death there was a legitimate fury that led to certain statues and symbols being toppled or questioned: the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol being one, and the ongoing campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College in Oxford another. We see the power of symbols and iconography and how they inform and shape our understanding of history.

 

In the light of this the Archdeacons of the Diocese of Southwark have written to the incumbents, churchwardens and Parochial Church Councils of the Diocese asking us to research any connections between our churches and the Atlantic slave trade.

 

This article sets out the connections that Croydon Minster, as Croydon Parish Church, has had with slavery and seeks to set this history in the context of how we might act today.

 

History and Remembering

 

History is about collective memory; and how we remember matters. Remembering is not just a recollection of a past event it is a piecing together of what has gone before; it is a re-membering: putting the pieces, the members, back together. The opposite of ‘re-member’ is not ‘forget’, but is ‘dis-member’. Black Lives Matter is asking us to re-member, not dis-member the past. That means we must tell, to the full, the stories of the past in a way that affect real lives in the present and shape the future.

 

This should be obvious to Christians because at the heart of the Christian faith is an act of remembering. The Eucharist draws us into the past – the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross - to make sense of the present – as disciples who walk in the way of the cross - and anticipate the future – as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet of the Lamb of God. The word anamnesis is the Greek word used in the Gospels when Jesus says ‘do this in remembrance (anamnesis) of me’. Anamnesis translates as ‘remembrance’ or ‘make present’. In that sense the past recollection is made present and active and therefore transformative. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the context of complicity in slavery, it is amnesia and not anamnesis that is prevalent in the United Kingdom today.

 

The statues of the likes of Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes tells us that British history is not benign and cannot be told nostalgically. Rather, British history has long festering and seeping wounds that infect how we live life today; the poison of those wounds comes out in ‘passive’ and ‘active’ racism. People of black, Asian and minority ethnic heritage[1] are on the receiving end of the dis-memberment of British history and the story of who we are today when the full story is not told.

 

Discovering ‘Our’ Story

 

It would seem that slavery has been a feature of human societies for millennia. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and in the market place in Rome Pope Gregory the Great saw Angles, English heritage slaves, for sale.[2]

 

It is also true that the New Testament refers to slavery apparently uncritically. We cannot gloss over that. It is part of our story. Both Jesus and St Paul use the imagery of slavery and slave owners, sometimes enjoining mercy on the part of slave owners, but also saying slave should be obedient. St Paul uses the word doulos which can translate ‘slave’ or ‘servant’ to speak of the Christian being ‘a doulos of Christ.

 

This imagery became toxic as slave owners and traders, who ‘professed and called themselves Christians’ felt able to appeal to what they saw as a Biblical mandate for their practices.

 

Ironically it was from the same Judaeo-Christian source that the abolitionists, amongst them evangelical Christians such as William Wilberforce, made the case against slavery. Scripture also speaks of the freeing of slaves, both Israelite slaves from Egypt and release of captives in a Year of Jubilee.

 

What is clear is that by the 18th century British society was utterly entwinned in the Atlantic slave trade and the commerce which was reliant on enslaved people from Africa.

 

What does that have to do with Croydon Minster today? Global and national stories must be told and so must the local. That is why the Archdeacons of the Diocese of Southwark wrote to us to research any connections between our churches and the Atlantic slave trade. These connections may be expressed by monuments in the building, the naming of an institution associated with the church or benefactions over the centuries. The Archdeacons did not ask us to tear down any such connection, but to begin to account for them and how we interpret them today.

 

Some research undertaken by David Morgan has shown that there are such connections. This is not surprising given the prominence in the locality of Croydon Parish Church. The fire of 1867 destroyed memorials which were to families associated with slavery, but we know that memorials existed.

 

The Bourdieu family, who lived locally at Coombe House, erected a memorial to Phillippa Bourdieu. It was a Grecian style monument near the rood screen of the church. They owned the Hoghole Estate in Jamaica in the parish of St Thomas in the Vale.

 

The last pre-revolutionary Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, has a plaque in the Lady Chapel. He would certainly have known of slavery and been complicit in it, although we do not know, without further research, if he profited from the trade.

 

We also find that the associations with slavery extended right into English society, including the Church of England. The Reverend East Apthorp, who was Vicar of Croydon in 1770s arrived from America having been ejected from Boston by the independence movement. In England Apthorp initially stayed at Addington Palace. The Palace was substantially rebuilt by Barlow Trescothick, a slave owner, who was married to Apthorp’s sister.

 

Apthorp’s father Charles was the Paymaster General of the North American Colonies, and we can be certain that he made money out of slavery.   Charles Apthorp married Grizzelda Eastwicke whose family owned a plantation in Jamaica. We also know that East had brothers who made money from slavery. Indeed in the Baptism Register for Croydon Parish Church in the 1780s there is an entry for the baptism of an ‘adult negro servant’ of the Apthorp family.[3] This man was not a member of the Vicar’s household but someone who has come over with one of Apthorp's brothers. We can only speculate if he was a freed slave.

 

Those are the facts: so where does that take us, as a church community today?

 

Sin and the Image of God

 

It must be stated, absolutely and categorically, that slavery was, and is, always wicked and wrong; racism was, and is, always wicked and wrong. In Christian terms we would add that slavery was, and is, sinful; racism is sinful.

 

Slavery and racism, which are intimately related, are sinful because the enslavement of another human being diminishes their dignity which we believe is God given to all people. Slavery is the ultimate and enduring deprivation of liberty which makes human beings a commodity to be sold and bought. Racism is wrong because it reduces people to a category, a subject, a ‘thing’ and not a person to be known, cherished and valued.

 

A Christian account of being human, drawing on the Hebrew Scriptures (most vividly the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land), sees human identity as free and subject only to God and not another person.

 

We draw our understanding of human dignity from the Book of Genesis which speaks of human beings made in the image and likeness of God and into whom God breathes his living giving spirit (Genesis 2.7).

 

Furthermore as Christians we see that divine image marred through human sinfulness, of which more below, and because ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23): all people – irrespective of race - are in need of restoration into the image of God. In Jesus Christ we see the fullness of human potential as one who lives a sinless life because he remains a bearer of the image of God.

 

As the first letter of John teaches, ‘Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen’ (1 John 4.20). He also states this very clearly and dramatically saying, ‘All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.’ (1 John 3.15). The enslavement of a human being is a catastrophic failure of love, and precludes a true love of God.

 

Some have called slavery the ‘original sin’ of modern western society. Original Sin does indeed tell us that we are bound up and implicated in patterns of behaviour that precede our individual existence but into which we are bound by our very membership of the human race. In Christian thought the sin of Adam speaks of the predicament we find ourselves in. Original Sin could be called ‘inherited sin’ because it is something received even if not merited, but something we all too readily make our own.

 

The doctrine of Original Sin has had a bad press in modern times. It is assumed to be a deeply pessimistic account of the human condition, implying individual wickedness from birth. Rather, it is better seen as a generous account of humanity because it acknowledges that we are all caught up in inherited patterns of human behaviour and consequences that are not of our own doing, but that we are formed by, precisely because we are social creatures and part of humanity. Attitudes to race, stemming from slavery are an illustration of how original sin works.

 

Being in Christ: A New Creation

 

For Christians life ‘in Christ’ (Greek en Christou) is the way to restore life lived in the image of God and to break the crippling inheritance of sin. St Paul teaches that the capacity for renewal is in Christ, the Second Adam: the First Adam, the first anthropos - human being - led humanity to reject the ways of God, so the Second Adam makes possible the reversal of that sinfulness through a radical obedience to God, even to death. It is this way of life that leads us ‘from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land’ (from the Church of England Baptism Service Common Worship: Christian Initiation p. 87).

 

Baptism which initiates us into the Body of Christ acknowledges both our uniqueness, who we are – ‘God has called you by name’ – and that we find our identity within a wider mystical society, the Communion of Saints. So in Baptism our deep identity is not eradicated but cast in a new light, for we also become members of a ‘new race’ as Christians. As St Paul writes:

 

As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28)

 

St Paul connects this new identity in Christ to the coming New Creation which is cosmic and personal: ‘So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ (2 Corinthians 5.17). The ‘new race’ of being a Christian must never be into a notion of ‘whiteness’ or middle-classness or any other secular cultural construct, but rather into the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Romans 8.21)

 

The Christian narrative is one in which we are led to a vision of the New Creation in Christ. The vision of the New Testament is one of a new race of those redeemed in Christ. Identity is not defined racially or tribally. The Revelation to John describes a vision of heaven in which the twelve tribes of Israel are present, as is to be expected, but the seer continues looking and then writes:

 

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white with a palm branch in their hands. (Revelation 7.9)

 

Slavery, Racism and the Church Today

 

As I stand at the altar of Croydon Minster and see the faithful gathered for the Eucharist I get a glimpse of John’s vision: I see people of many nations and heritage gathered around the Altar of the Lamb, and it warms my heart.

 

I, and I am sure the vast majority at the Minster, find it hard to believe that this has not always been recognised by ‘those who profess and call themselves Christians’. Yet we know that as recently of the arrival of Caribbean migrants on SS Windrush in the 1950s that the Church of England was frosty at best and hostile at worst in its reception of Black Anglicans from the Caribbean.

 

Some will say that we cannot judge people of another age by our standards. In some ways that is true; but judgement for all of us will be against the enduring message of the Gospels.

 

I behold the congregation of the Minster - and look at myself - there are people who harbour ill-will, bad thoughts, a ‘past’, envies, quarrelling and strife. There may even be people who have a racist side to them.

And so comes the call of our patron saint, St John the Baptist, that we should repent and amend our lives.

 

The Church is made up of people who get things wrong. All of us gather as broken and in need of perfecting, conversion and repentance. The conversion of society begins with the conversion of the human heart.

 

This raises big questions about how we handle apology, sorrow, regret, remorse and historic complicity. At this time penitence is appropriate. Acts of penance – personal and corporate - are not virtue signalling. They are times when one acknowledges one’s own sinful actions in the past and resolves to amend one’s life, by God’s grace. The Christian Gospel however declares that through Jesus Christ we can break the ‘habits of sin that lead to spiritual death’.

 

It also lays down the challenges for how the church: what does our church look like in how different faces are seen, voices heard and contributions valued. If we really are the Body of Christ, what is our body language as ‘people of from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb’?

 

© Andrew Bishop, 2020

 



[1] BAME is an term that is not without its detractors as being too all encompassing. The recent BBC website article ‘Don’t call me BAME’ illustrates this point (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-53205008/race-and-identity-don-t-call-me-bame accessed 30th June 2020). Someone who is Black may be or African or Caribbean heritage and Asia is a big place and culturally diverse. The lesson is that we should deal with people of any race or heritage as individuals and not groups, whilst acknowledging there is a commonality, though not uniformity, of experience amongst many.

[2]  Gregory was reputed to have said, on seeing the English slaves ‘Non Angli sed angeli’ – ‘not Angles, but angels’, which is an interesting comment in the light of the colour of those slaves. That should not allow for a ‘superiority narrative’ in relation to the race and heritage of slaves.

[3] That the person baptised was an adult was worthy of note as it was very unusual then (the Book of Common Prayer has a rite for ‘Public Baptism of such as are of Riper Years’; that the Register notes the man was ‘a negro’ is utterly irrelevant to Baptism.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Artisans of Reconciliation: Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven

 

Last week Fr Joe shared with us a saying of Pope Francis that Christians are to be ‘artisans of reconciliation’.

 

An artisan is someone who crafts things that are both useful and beautiful.

 

Our Christian ‘craft’ is reconciliation with God and with one another, within and beyond the church: and reconciliation is both useful and beautiful.

 

Through time and application we can begin to master our craft and make something of enduring value. That is what we call the 'journey of discipleship'.

 

Another word for disciple could be ‘apprentice'. The Christian faith is an apprenticeship in reconciliation and love on all levels.

 

The artisan needs tools. If we are to be ‘artisans of reconciliation’ we need some tools for our craft.

 

The tool presented to us in this morning’s gospel reading is forgiveness.

 

It is not single-use-forgiveness, but forgiveness that endures, is patient, is costly and that aches for reconciliation.

 

The letter to the Colossians says, ‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1.20).

 

Forgiveness flows from the heart of Jesus - his heart wounded on the cross - and Jesus calls us to forgive our brothers and sisters, our fellow human beings, from the heart.

 

Reconciliation between human beings heals the wounded heart of Jesus, because the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ is to ‘reconcile all things to himself’ and he does this through forgiveness: ‘Father, forgive them’.

 

Perhaps the greatest hurdle is first to know that we are forgiven.

 

Knowing yourself to be forgiven enables forgiveness to flow. The slave in the parable did not realise that forgiveness is a gift: ‘give’ is part of forgive. And he was unable to forgive even a smaller debt of his fellow slave.

 

‘Forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’ as we pray with Jesus in the ‘Our Father’.

 

Forgiveness also takes us deep into the complexities of the human heart.

 

When I make my confession - and seek forgiveness from God - I am seeking to go deep into my heart to uncover, to name and to confess the actions, the grievances and grudges, the long held hurts and irritations which have separated me from my Maker and from my fellow creatures.

 

It’s little wonder that people shy away from Confession. But what a release! To know that I am released from those things, that they have no hold over me and I am free to love and therefore reconciled to God. I am, as the hymn puts it, ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’.

 

Forgiveness is deep and complex, it is subtle but brings about amazing things.

 

Forgiveness raises hard questions: are there things, are there people, that can never be forgiven? Are some things, some people, just too bad to be forgiven? Why should I repeatedly forgive someone who keeps making the same mistake, or misdemeanour or sin?

 

When I forgive I am giving away my grievances and resentments. I am not suspending pain, I am not forgetting what has been done to me, I am not capitulating to the person who has wronged me.

 

When Gee Walker forgave the racist killers of her son Anthony, after his murder in 2005, she did a remarkable thing, driven by her Christian discipleship, her apprenticeship in the ways of reconciliation and love.

 

Her forgiveness did not undermine justice; the murderers went to prison for 23 years and 17 years.

 

Her forgiveness did not end her pain; she lost her son.

 

But as a Christian Gee Walker knew that forgiveness is never a dead end. Forgiveness renews people and situations, it restores relationships, it opens up future possibilities. Gee Walker was not capitulating to those who wronged her but was saying that they would have no more power over her. Forgiveness is strength, forgiveness is dignity.

 

Not to forgive would have locked her into never being able to live again: living again, being alive, is the fruit of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is resurrection life, life beyond resentment, reconciled life.

 

There are many things that might be weighing heavy on our hearts today: perhaps grievance, anger or bitterness, memory of trauma or pain or just the niggles of everyday life and rubbing up alongside tricky people. Take those people with you to the reconciling heart of Jesus; pray for them and yourself to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

 

As artisans of reconciliation we have the tool of forgiveness: being forgiven and being forgiving. And all this flows from God.

 

How about this week try it out afresh? As an artisan of reconciliation, and knowing yourself to be forgiven in Christ, look out for opportunities to forgive. And go out in newness of life: ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.

 

 

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Coronavirus Pastoral letter 13 17 May 2020


14th May 2020
Sixth Sunday of Easter (Rogation Sunday)
Pastoral Letter No. 13


Fr Andrew writes:

Pastoral Letter 13

ROGATIONTIDE: DIVINE PRESENCE IN THE ‘HIGHWAYS AND HEDGEROWS’

The Sunday and weekdays before Ascension Day are traditionally known as ‘Rogationtide’.

This name seems rather antiquated and from another era. Its origins are rural and agricultural as the in the past the community would process out from the church and walk the boundaries of the parish and ask for God’s blessings on the newly sown crops.

The word ‘rogation’ comes from the Latin rogare meaning, ‘to ask’.

Rogation is the necessary prerequisite of giving thanks for the harvest. Rogation is when we say ‘please’; harvest is when we say ‘thank you’.

The Rogation traditions still continue in some places (although not this year because it involves gatherings of people). In the city rogation can be reinvented as more of a parish prayer walk, praying for the residents, schools, places of worship and business, cultural and administrative centres. This has happened from the Minster in the recent past.

Rogation processions, like all public church processions - Palm Sunday, Corpus Christi and the Eucharist each Sunday - are about hallowing public places. Reclaiming, though not in an aggressive way, the streets and ‘public square’ as a places where God’s grace can operate through his people.

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One of the sad aspects of how the House of Bishops of the Church of England responded to the lockdown was to mark a retreat from the public space into the private and domestic.

It’s worth saying that the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 were clear: ‘Places of worship are required to close except to broadcast services (my italics)’: the Church of England, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, chose to disregard the exception; services were not even permitted to be broadcast from the church.

That has meant that the widespread perception has been that the Church of England signalled a retreat from the public realm, represented in the church building, to the domestic and private realm, represented in the sitting rooms of Vicarages and through Zoom and Microsoft Teams (thus further excluding those who don’t have broadband).  

The Church of England was perceived to be absent and not present, despite many good Anglicans being on the frontline in health and social care amongst other roles in which they have been, and remain, at some risk.

We will have to work hard to reposition our churches at the hearts of their communities. This was always a big task in a secularising, pluralistic society, but becomes all the more urgent now. It might just be the challenge we should set for ourselves in 2021, when we mark 10 years of being a Minster Church: how we become again a church confidently at the heart of our community and civic life.

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This week, from Ascension Day (Thursday 21 May), Fr Joe and I will be live-streaming worship from the Minster on Sundays and Holy Days. In this small way we are reclaiming the church, a public place of worship for centuries, for all the people of our parish. We will also pray, most earnestly, for the hastening of the day when everyone, clergy and laity, can gather again.

After this crisis we need to claim afresh the presence of God in our streets now more than ever. We need to reclaim the streets as hallowed places where people can walk in safety, free from fear of knife crime, free from assault, harassment or fear.

As a church that rightly aspires to be open in spirit and in practice - open to God in word and sacrament and open to all in hospitality – we want our doors to be open to show that Christian faith occupies a public space and people can step in. But the next step for us as a community is to step out so that the divine presence is heralded beyond the Temple too (like our patron saint John the Baptist did) on the highways and byways of our parish.

Christianity has never been private; though at times it has been hidden away through persecution. The last thing Church and society need today is for the witnesses of the Divine to retreat from the public space, for if that continues we will be rightly judged as failing to be witnesses to the reconciling love of God in Christ.

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(You may also want to watch for encouragement and, perhaps, challenge in equal measure: ‘God in the streets of New York City’: the clip lasts just under three minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bxQ9MVTkuQ )


A sermon - May we dwell in Christ & he in us


A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: Readings Acts 17.22-31; 1 Peter 3.13-end; John 14.15-21

‘I will not leave you orphaned’ says the Lord.

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Today is the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide and we continue to proclaim: ‘Alleluia Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia’.

The season of Eastertide is given to us to sustain our appreciation of the resurrection.

For Christians the resurrection is the epicentre and source of abundant life; the resurrection of Christ makes possible our conviction that death has no more power to come between human experience and the knowledge of God.

Eastertide is a week of weeks, seven days times seven – seven being the number of completion in the Bible - with a crowning day to make fifty. These fifty days of Eastertide hang on the twin poles of the Resurrection – Easter - and the Descent of the Holy Spirit – Pentecost.

That gives us fifty days of intentional reflection on what it means to be, in St Augustine’s phrase, ‘An Easter People with Alleluia as our song’; It also gives us fifty days to ponder what it means to say that we believe ‘in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life’ and contemplate how the Spirit forms, leads and guides us as the Church, the People of God.

And forty days into Eastertide comes the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, which we observe this coming Thursday.

This is the time we recall Jesus’ bodily ascension into the heavens (Acts 1.1-11), when the followers of Jesus have to learn what it means to share his life when he is not physically present with us.

The joy of the resurrection meant that the disciples could still connect with Jesus present in their midst. The deprivation of his death, when they thought they had been abandoned and turned into spiritual orphans, was reversed in the resurrection when they continued to encounter Jesus, albeit in a new way.

Because of his ascension Jesus Christ is longer subject to place and time: that opens up access to God our Father, in Christ’s name, for people of all times and all places.

Jesus’ ascension is not going to be about deprivation but about discovering a deeper union with God, in Jesus’ Name, bound in by the Holy Spirit.

The Ascension gives us a vision of abundance in the church that flows out of the abundance of the Spirit and union with Christ, and not out of the narrow, human centred vision of scarcity that denies the life of God, and blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.

And this is what the gospel reading today prepares the disciples for, and trains us in too; preparing them for the rupture of their relationship with Jesus.

All through the gospel Jesus is quite clear that he will not be with them forever, that the time will come when, in his name, they will have to take responsibility for their discipleship, but they will be able to do so because the Holy Spirit will equip and lead them.

This is why the sacrament of the Eucharist matters so much to us.

Jesus is no longer present in human form, but in the sacraments the intensity of his presence is manifest in the things that we can grasp and touch and hold: bread and wine in the Eucharist, water in baptism, oil in anointing, another human body in marriage. The sacraments are the breaking through of the grace of God, in which we are reminded of the depth of the relationship we share with God in Christ. And the elements of the sacraments – bread, wine, water, oil, bodies – are given that capacity by the work of the Holy Spirit: ‘send down your Spirit upon the gifts to make them holy’.

So John’s gospel prepares us for the time when the Word made Flesh, who has chosen to dwell in our midst as one of us, is no longer with us. And the sacraments are given to us to connect us in the deepest possible way to God’s grace in the Holy Spirit.

This union with God is Christianity’s purpose, goal and end. Jesus’ discourses about being the Bread of Life (John 6) or about being the True Vine (John 15) or about his priesthood (John 16, 17) is all about abiding, dwelling, living, finding a home, in God. After all, God has found a dwelling place with us, in Christ: ‘and the Word was Made flesh and dwelt, lived, found a home, abided with us’ (John 1.14).

For God’s ancient, and first chosen, people the Jews, the relationship with God is established and maintained by living Torah, the way of faithfulness to the Covenant.

For Muslims, the relationship with God is established primarily in submission to God’s will.

For Christians the relationship with God is union and incorporation into the life of God: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them’ (John 6.56).

This is not a subjective feelings-based exercise – although it can feel wonderful to feel alive with God – it is an objective reality. Living the way of faith, hope and love in the Church, and feeding on Christ in word and sacrament, is our incorporation into the life of God.

That all begs the question of what we have been learning in this time of deprivation and being cut off during lockdown. What is it that has been most sustaining for us? What are we truly looking for in our hearts? What will a time of deprivation and disruption teach us about deeper union with Christ?

These are huge questions of course, so perhaps we might make this gospel passage into prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you promise that if we love you
and keep your word
our heavenly Father come and abide with us.
Make your home with us
that we may truly be at home
in you and with you.
And may the Holy Spirit come down upon us
so that we are not left alone
but drawn into your nearer presence,
now and always.
Amen.