Sermon for the Parish Eucharist at both the Barn Church and St Luke’s Kew on the Second Sunday after Trinity 13 June 2021 by the Revd Sister Margaret Anne ASSP
In our gospel reading from Mark today we have heard the account of Jesus telling his disciples two parables: the parable of the Growing Seed and the parable of the Mustard Seed. As always, his parables are given in order to reveal something of the nature of the Kingdom of God. Mark would clearly have expected his readers, or listeners, to have understood the first of these two parables, that of the Growing Seed, in the light of the more well-known parable earlier on in the same chapter, that of the parable of the Sower. The parable of the Sower at the beginning of chapter four in Mark is clearly significant: it appears in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Here Jesus openly explains the meaning of the parable to his disciples. The focus is on the hallmarks of Christian discipleship. The seed sown by the sower is the word of God. At first some people gladly receive the word, but then fall away. Jesus goes on to explain in detail all the things that can cause people to fall away, such as the thorns of worldly cares and so on. Whereas the seed that falls on good ground represents those with honest and good hearts who hear the word and keep it: they put it into practice in their daily lives and bear fruit abundantly.
Jesus here at the end of the parable of the sower describes the true disciple who is not overcome by distractions and temptations, but perseveres and grows through such temptations in honest discipleship. And there is a challenge for us. Can we be like that? Let’s remember however that the parables of Jesus are above all about God and the Kingdom. The point is that the sower sows abundantly, in all directions, regardless, without discrimination. God’s loving gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ if for all, and God longs for all to respond. We may at times be distracted by the thorns of worldly cares, but in Christ’s strength and Christ’s alone we may persevere and bear fruit with patience, all to the glory of God.
But we are human and sometimes we fail. The reasons for falling away as described in the parable of the sower might be classically described in terms of that triad of “the world, the flesh and the devil”. Of these three aspects of temptation the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, religious and priest-poet St John of the Cross wrote:
“The world is the enemy least difficult to conquer, the devil is the hardest to understand, the flesh is the most tenacious”.
In order to overcome such temptations much patient endurance is required, and this will involve suffering.
So the parable of the Sower earlier on in chapter four of Mark’s gospel is the context for the two shorter parables we have as today’s gospel reading. Today’s parable of the Growing Seed explicitly acknowledges God’s initiative in making the kingdom grow. Here someone scatters seed and then goes to sleep. Meanwhile the seed sprouts and grows, without the sower knowing how. In the same way, God will use our small efforts to serve God and proclaim God’s love, going beyond even our greatest imaginings. We should not be too disheartened if our efforts seem to come to very little. God knows how to use even a little, and bring about great good.
The second of our two short parables for today, that of the Mustard Seed, emphasises that the growth of God’s kingdom is for the benefit of others. Just as birds will come and nest in the branches of the shrub when it is full grown, so others will be drawn to God’s kingdom by the efforts of those who go before them.
What is this Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims so frequently in his teaching and preaching? A kingdom implies a rule. God’s rule, ultimately, is that of Love. God in Christ is continually reaching out to us and inviting us to share in that love that fills the Godhead. But sometimes we hesitate. This is beautifully expressed in a poem by the seventeenth century Anglican poet-priest George Herbert, entitled Love:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
“A guest”, I answered, “worthy to be here”.
Love said, “You shall be he”.
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee”.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve”.
“And know you not”, says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve”.
“You must sit down”, says Love, “and taste my meat”.
So I did sit and eat.
We live in testing times. With the growing spread of new variants of the pandemic Covid 19 virus, we may need to wait some more weeks before further restrictions are eased in the current lockdown. The eyes of the world have been fixed these last few days on the G7 summit in Cornwall, at which the leaders of many of the wealthiest liberal democracies have been discussing matters of global importance. The Queen and members of the Royal Family were also involved. Whatever decisions are made, whatever actions taken, it is important that they are made, as Prince Charles said, for the good of the planet. And that they are made in love, that is, for the good of the other. As our collect for today puts it, God has taught us “that all our doings without love are nothing worth”. Today, as we gather in this eucharist in these unusual times, may we do so with love and expectancy in our hearts, and may we, at the Lord’s bidding, gladly “sit and eat”.
Sermon for the 9.30am Parish Eucharist at the Barn Church Kew on the feast of Pentecost 23 May 2021 preached by the Revd Sister Margaret Anne ASSP
Today the Church keeps the great feast of Pentecost. The name Pentecost was first given in the Old Testament to the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which fell on the 50th day after the Passover. On this day of Pentecost the first fruits of the corn harvest were presented, and in later times the giving of the Law of Moses was commemorated. The New Testament had its parallel timings between great events that came to be celebrated as feasts. It was 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, as described in the second chapter of Acts that we have had for our second reading today. So the name Pentecost was applied by the early Church to the feast celebrating this remarkable event, marking the birth of the Christian Church. In the Greek Pentecost simply means fiftieth. In the Old Testament the Feast of Pentecost or Weeks had marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest. In the New Testament, Pentecost marks a harvesting of souls, the birthing of the new Christian community.
Although the feast we celebrate today may not nowadays be so firmly fixed in the popular mind as Christmas and Easter, yet it ranks with them both as part of that central triad of great high feasts upon which the Christian faith hinges. In the canons of the Church of England it states:
“It is the duty of all who have been confirmed to receive Holy Communion regularly, and especially at the festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun or Pentecost”.
In the Old Testament book of the prophet Joel the second chapter focuses on a promise made by God; that at some no doubt distant point in the future God will pour out the Spirit on “all flesh”. When that happens the signs of the event will be that people will prophesy, dream dreams and see visions. This prophecy is fulfilled in our reading today from the second chapter of Acts. It is the day of the Jewish feast of Pentecost, and the disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem in one place to pray. Suddenly a sound like a rushing wind fills the house and flames as of fire rest on each of them; they are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in foreign languages, much to the amazement of the gathering crowds who hear them. The Jews who have returned to Jerusalem for the feast from many scattered and foreign places are astounded to hear these simple Galileans speaking in foreign languages. It is a highly significant moment. The tower of Babel of Genesis is reversed. Formerly at Babel communication had broken down in the diversifying of languages. Here – at Pentecost – the opposite happens. Those who before could not understand each other are now suddenly united in joyous mutual understanding. Former barriers to communication have fallen down. Harmony is restored. A palpable manifestation of the Spirit is at work. The event is startling, and it is Peter who realises what is happening. Peter claims that the prophecy of Joel has now been fulfilled. God at Pentecost has now begun the task of pouring out the Spirit on all flesh. Peter himself may have thought that it was literally the last days. Things always seem clearer with hindsight. The last times may well have been inaugurated, but from inauguration to completion is an ongoing process that takes time; from a human point of view, a very, very long time to unfold.
From a Christian perspective the Holy Spirit has manifold roles and activities. The very opening verses of the Bible, in the first chapter of Genesis, testify that the Spirit was at work at the beginning of creation – a “wind” from God – or the Spirit of God – “swept over the face of the waters”. In our reading today from the second chapter of Acts at Pentecost the Spirit breaks down barriers and unifies, bringing about new understanding between people. Above all, the gospels ( and indeed other parts of the Bible) teach us that as human beings we inhabit two worlds simultaneously: the ordinary every-day world of our human existence, and the Spirit-filled world of divine reality that is God. This divine reality can break into our every-day, time-bound consciousness at any moment, as it did for the disciples at Pentecost. Suddenly – in a moment – and through God’s activity at work within us and around us, all is changed. Just as the life of the imagination can be a bridge between our waking and our dreaming existence, between our conscious and our unconscious minds, so the Spirit also can act as a hinge for us between the material and non-material world. The Spirit can act upon us and open us to the divine reality, both when we are awake and when we are asleep. Often the Spirit uses a physical medium to open us up to the divine. This is of course how the sacraments work for us. The Spirit enlivens bread and wine, oil and water – in the eucharist, in anointing, in baptism.
It is the life and energy of the Spirit to transform us. From our reading of the New Testament we will be familiar with the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, and St Paul in his letters has lists of both. In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, he lists many spiritual gifts, such as wisdom, faith and healing. In his letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, he lists the fruits of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace” and so on. The gifts of the Spirit equip us for our Christian life and ministry; the fruits of the Spirit are those recognisable qualities that we grow into as we endeavour to lead more and more Christ-centred lives.
Christian art can help us in trying to understand the nature of the Spirit. Many of us will be familiar with artistic depictions of the Spirit as a dove. In paintings such as those of the Italian artist Fra Angelico the Spirit is painted as a dove appearing to Mary at the Annunciation of the conception of Jesus whom she will bear in her womb. She will give birth, the angel tells her, to the Son of God. There is a ceiling boss in stone in my Community’s chapel in Oxford of which I am particularly fond. It depicts the Trinity – God the Father holds the cross upon which Jesus hangs and a dove, representing the Spirit, rests on the cross-bar.
In our reading today from John’s gospel, the night before Jesus dies by crucifixion on Good Friday, Jesus in his Farewell Discourse to his disciples speaks many reassuring words of comfort to his followers, who will soon be bereft. He describes the Spirit as an “Advocate”, who will come to them and strengthen them. Another word for Advocate is Paraclete – literally meaning the one called alongside. It is a legal term. Jesus is saying that the Spirit is like a defence barrister, who speaks up on behalf of his client in a court of law, in order to defend the client from accusation, and to secure a verdict of innocence rather than guilt in the minds of the jury. The Spirit is totally there for us.
There are many ways in which we can use our imaginations to help us focus on what – or rather who – the Spirit is. Today’s great feast of Pentecost is especially a time when in our prayers we can ask the Spirit to fill us anew with the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit that St Paul so eloquently describes in his letters. The Creator, Jesus, the Spirit – these are the three faces of the one true God. Today let us particularly focus our hearts and minds on the outpouring of the Spirit in our lives – not just for our own sakes, but in order that others may also be drawn to this God of love who inspires our devotions and who calls us to ever deeper fellowship and communion. Let us be open to the enlivening power of the Spirit to transform us and enable us to be Christ-centred and expectant and ever alert to the needs of those around us, that God may be glorified.
Sermon for 9.30am Parish Eucharist at the Barn Church Kew on Sixth Sunday of Easter 9 May 2021 preached by the Revd Sister Margaret Anne ASSP
Today my sermon will be shorter than usual, as this service will be followed by the APCM. Yesterday was the feast day of Julian of Norwich. In was on that day, 8th May 1373, when a young priest went to visit Julian, who was gravely ill and thought to be dying. The priest held a crucifix before her face. Then Julian, aged 30, received a series of sixteen visions, which revealed to her in most vivid form the sufferings of Christ crucified and the love of God. Julian recovered from her illness, and spent the next 20 years of her life as an anchoress reflecting on the spiritual and theological meaning of her visions. She recorded her reflections in her book The Revelations of Divine Love, or Showings. This was to be the first book written by a woman in English. Julian was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote the Canterbury Tales. As an anchoress, Julian was attached to the Church of St Julian in Norwich, where she lived in seclusion in her cell, though people did seek her out for counsel, such as Margery Kempe. Julian died around the year 1417.
One of the most famous passages from her book is that of a description of a hazel nut lying in the palm of her hand. In this small hazel nut she sees in her imagination the love of God. Julian writes:
“In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the Creator and the protector and the lover”.
God was able to teach Julian spiritual lessons through nature, and God can do the same with us. As with Julian, God can communicate some spiritual nugget to us through the wonders of nature, when we are simply walking in a green space. And south-west London is greatly blessed with such spaces, such as Richmond Park and Kew Gardens, to name just two of them.
It is a church tradition to have readings in our Sunday services from the Acts of the Apostles in Eastertide. And no wonder, for Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles is full of stories of amazing events and healing miracles and stories of new life bursting forth in people’s lives; there is a lot of energy and joy as the new-born Church starts to flex its muscles and grow. Acts is full of an upbeat enthusiasm and energy that we associate with the meaning of Easter. In today’s reading from Acts we have the end of the account in chapter 10 of Peter’s visit to the household of Cornelius, who is a Gentile centurion in Caesarea. As Peter preaches to Cornelius and those standing around, the Holy Spirit, we are told, “fell upon all who heard the word”. This is a very significant moment in Acts, for it is the moment when Peter realises that even the Gentiles can be accepted by God and baptised as followers of Christ.
Our gospel reading today from John continues on from last Sunday, taken from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples, before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Jesus comforts his disciples by declaring his love for them, and asks them to abide in his love. They are to love one another as he has loved them. He declares that his followers are his friends. The greatest love that a friend can show, is to lay down one’s life for a friend. And this is precisely what Jesus himself will do, in his death on the cross. Jesus appoints his friends, his followers, to bear lasting fruit in his name. And that is our call: to bear fruit in lives of loving service and obedience. This will bring both joy and suffering. Following Jesus is costly, but he has promised us abundance of life in him.
As Eastertide continues and we approach Ascensiontide, may we reflect on all that Christ has accomplished for us in completing his work on earth and raising our humanity heavenwards, and making possible for us continual communion with God. And despite our own personal challenges, particularly in this time of global pandemic, and also the conflicts of the wider world, let us remember the prophetic words of Julian of Norwich:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.
Sermon at Barn church Kew 10am Patronal Parish Eucharist ( joint service with St Luke’s) on Fifth Sunday after Easter 2nd May 2021 by the Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
It is a joy to be with you all today to celebrate the Patronal Festival of the Barn Church Kew, dedicated to St Philip and All Saints, together with our brothers and sisters from St Luke’s in this joint Parish Eucharist. Yesterday, 1st May, was the feast day of St Philip and St James. They are both listed in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as among the disciples called by Jesus to become his inner circle of the twelve apostles. In John’s gospel there are more details about Philip. Having been called by Jesus, Philip then persuades Nathanael to come to Jesus. He is present at the feeding of the 5,000, when he questions if there will be enough food for everyone, and later in John’s gospel he is recorded as asking Jesus to “show us the Father”. This leads to Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples on the night before he died. Little else is known about Philip apart from the New Testament evidence. The story from Acts which we have had as our first reading today tells of another Philip, the Evangelist. Here Philip, while on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, joins an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Ethiopian Queen, and after explaining some scriptures to him that foretell Jesus’ sufferings, Philip converts the Ethiopian to the Christian faith and baptizes him. It is a wonderful example of being alongside someone and encouraging them in a spiritual journey from doubt or uncertainty to faith in Jesus. According to ancient tradition all of the faithful twelve apostles apart from John, who lived to a ripe old age, were martyred. Tradition says that Philip, like his master, was crucified.
St James who is always celebrated on the same feast day as Philip is often referred to as “James the Less” to distinguish him from the other apostle bearing his name, “James the Great”, who was the brother of John. James the Less has sometimes been identified with James “the brother of the Lord” and as the first bishop of Jerusalem. According to tradition he was sentenced to stoning and clubbed to death. Philip and James are always celebrated together on the same day because the church in Rome where their relics were preserved was dedicated on 1st May in the year 560AD.
Our gospel reading today from John is a well-known passage in which Jesus says to his disciples:
“I am the true vine”.
This is the last of the seven great “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s gospel. The image is a telling one. Jesus compares himself to a vine, and he says that we his followers are the branches. The only way such a branch can live is by drawing its strength from the vine. Jesus goes on to say it is the same for us in relation to himself – in relation to God. Without Christ – without God – we are cut off from our spiritual source. Jesus says we need to abide in him, as he abides in us. He continues with some stark words:
“apart from me you can do nothing”.
The problem with familiar passages of scripture is that we can become too familiar with them and almost take them for granted. Do we really believe what they say? When life is going well I suspect that many of us may find it hard to believe – really believe – the truth of Jesus’ words: “apart from me you can do nothing”. One of the spiritual problems that faces all of us when things are going well is that we can end up believing we can do things in our own strength. So much so that we do not even realise we are thinking in this way. But then when things do not go so well – in fact when things go really badly – a necessary shift occurs: when we face a serious illness, when we suffer a major bereavement, when something central to our way of life falls apart, when we suffer any major loss of any kind, that is when we might begin to realise the truth of Jesus’ words: “apart from me you can do nothing”. We might even come to realise that every cell of our body depends utterly on the life of God flowing through it to sustain it, to keep us alive. This time of global pandemic has been difficult for all, heart-rending for the many who have lost loved ones. The last year has been a time of huge change and loss of one kind of another for everyone, with so many restrictions having been imposed upon our lives. But good things have come out of this global tragedy, and many have re-evaluated their lives, considering at a deeper level than before what is really important, what really matters. We have all learned anew the importance of making connections, whether with others or with God.
The feast of St Philip and St James on 1st May marks the beginning of a new month, and since the Middle Ages this month of May has been strongly associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, that Queen of Saints. This has taken the form of special devotions to Mary in the month of May. The English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived from 1844 to 1889, one of the greatest poets of the Victorian period, wrote a poem entitled The May Magnificat. The poem is a reflection on the close religious association between Mary and this month. In one of the verses he writes:
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
A deeper appreciation of the beauty of nature is something that has also emerged from the pandemic. It was fun when I was walking in Kew Gardens on Friday to see a young couple standing in front of a beautiful cherry tree in full blossom: the man was proposing marriage to the woman, while from a distance a camera man zoomed in on them, coming closer and closer to the loving couple.
As today we celebrate this Patronal Festival dedicated to St Philip and All Saints, and not forgetting among them St Luke, as we give thanks to God for the inspiration of the saints and their devotion to Christ, we also give thanks for the many blessings of life: for love and joy and friendship and above all for the love of God that sustains us daily, whatever challenges and difficulties we may face. I close with another poem of Hopkins, entitled Spring:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s egg look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worth the winning.
Sermon Fourth Sunday of Easter 9.30am Parish Eucharist the Barn Church Kew 25 April 2021 – by Sister Margaret Anne
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the gospel reading from John in which Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd”. This title for Christ is based on this gospel passage and also the parable of the Good Shepherd in Luke’s gospel. In early Christian art, such as in the catacombs, Christ was often represented as the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders. I have many times visited Holy Island, or Lindisfarne as it is more popularly called, a tidal island off the Northumberland coast renowned for its Celtic saints, notably Aidan and Cuthbert. I have often experienced a very familiar sight in such a rural setting, that of the modern shepherd on his jeep rounding up the sheep! The typical scene of sheep and shepherd as Jesus describes it in John’s gospel would have been rather different. The shepherd would have been on foot – no handy modern jeep to sit on! Also, in the Palestine of Jesus’ day the shepherd went ahead of the sheep, whereas today in our Western society the shepherd drives the sheep from behind. This may say something about differences between Western and Middle Eastern styles of leadership! But whatever model or style of leadership we might prefer, the important image or figure of speech used here by Jesus is that of the good shepherd who cares for and protects his own.
Jesus here claims that as the good shepherd he gives his life for the sheep. He is addressing the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day. The Pharisees would have been familiar with the Old Testament scriptural background to the metaphor Jesus uses here – that striking and important chapter 34 of the prophet Ezekiel in which Israel’s incompetent leaders are described as false shepherds, who not only fail to nurture their flock, but positively drive them away. Then Ezekiel in the same chapter goes on to describe God as the true shepherd, caring for the people. God will seek out the scattered sheep, his beloved people. Immersed in the Old Testament scriptures as the Pharisees would have been, they would have realised that Jesus’ image of himself as the good shepherd implied that, in taking on this title for himself, he was aligning himself with the loving and saving purposes of God. A few verses earlier than our gospel reading for today, Jesus also claims that he is the gate for the sheep. There is a wealth of associated meaning here. The shepherd of first century Palestine would have himself literally acted as the gate for the sheep by lying down and sleeping across the opening to the sheepfold by night, ensuring that the sheep remained firmly and safely inside. And of course by day the open gate would have been the means of access for the sheep. So in spiritual terms by claiming that he is the gate for the sheep, Jesus is stating that he is both protector and also the way to abundant life. Jesus also makes it clear that his role as good shepherd is a sacrificial one, when he says, “ I lay down my life for the sheep”. There is also a prophetic hint of the resurrection, for he will lay down his life, “in order to take it up again”.
Today is also kept in the Church as Vocations Sunday. It is a day when churches are encouraged to think about the meaning of vocation, and their own in particular. The word of course literally means “calling”, from its Latin root. In centuries gone by, and even not that long ago in the first half of the twentieth century, vocation in church circles was often understood to be the privilege of the few rather than the many. Priests had a vocation to serve God in the Church, religious – monks and nuns – had a similar vocation with an emphasis on a life of prayer. Certain caring or educational professions would be referred to as vocational, such as teachers, doctors and nurses. Hopefully by now, in this relatively enlightened twenty-first century, people will be more aware that vocation – calling – is not just the privilege of the few, or even the many, but includes all.
Everyone has a vocation. First, we are called to be flourishing, joyous human beings. Secondly, we are called to grow in the knowledge and love of God. For most of us if not all of us here today that will be as Christians – people who have heard the call of Christ and who have responded and followed that call. That is why we are here in church this morning. Or maybe some of us are still seeking. In terms of church life, vocation is not about hierarchy. Sadly, it has often been understood that way in the past. Rather it is about diversity and co-operation. St Paul’s metaphor of the body of Christ in his first letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament is helpful. In any one congregation it is as if each of us is part of a body. We all work together in our different ways as a team to help build up the kingdom of God. A time of vacancy in a parish, such as now, is always a litmus-test time to see how the local body of Christ is really working. It is a time when church members are tested and challenged in more ways than usual, and it can be unsettling. But – to quote a well-known phrase – every crisis is an opportunity. I have often thought that a parish vacancy is a great time for growth. I am not necessarily talking about numbers. I’m talking about spiritual growth and a flowering of gifts, spiritual and otherwise. A vacancy is a great opportunity for people to discover gifts that have been latent, and they had never realised they had. It is a time for willingness to lend a helping hand, rather than turning away and letting someone else get on with it.
The body of Christ can never depend simply on one person. That is not how the body works – to work well, all parts of the body need to thrive. Like any other group, church life has to be ordered. And that is why God calls people to be bishops, priests and deacons who can engage in a ministry of the Word – preaching and teaching – the sacraments and pastoral care. But of course such tasks, with the exception of certain sacramental functions, are not exclusively clerical. It is really important that lay people are engaged in these ways as well.
At one level of course in the Church of God we are all priests. This is eloquently expressed in the first letter of Peter in the New Testament: “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”.
“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”.
This doctrine of the priesthood of all believers acknowledges that we are all called to offer spiritual praise and worship to God. That is at the heart of what we are all about, and why we come here Sunday by Sunday.
Presumably most of us are here this morning because at some point in our lives God made us aware that God is real and that God is love. Like the saints before us, we are called to show forth that love in our daily lives. Today is also the feast day of St Mark the Evangelist. The gospel that bears his name gives powerful testimony to God’s love for us in Christ, particularly to how suffering with and for Christ is often at the heart of the Christian calling. It is Eastertide. Yes, life has many trials and struggles, and we have all been made so aware of that in the last year of the global pandemic. It has been an exceptionally hard year world-wide. There are powers at work both within and beyond this world that militate against our true vocation to flourish as human beings, as Christians, as the beloved children of God. Patient endurance is a great gift from God. Let us pray that as we journey through this Eastertide, we may grow in such patient endurance. And may we journey with joy, confident in Jesus our Good Shepherd, whose risen presence accompanies and sustains us come what may, at all times and in all places. Alleluia!
The Easter Octave, or the first week after Easter Sunday has now passed, but we continue to celebrate Easter for fifty days after the resurrection. So this is still Easter!
We are living in an age when the news media picks up all sorts of stories and flashes them round the World in seconds. We have Facebook, Youtube, WhatsApp, Signal, Instagram, blogs, Slack, Snapchat, you name it, as well as all the websites of the big newspapers, the BBC and so many other sources of information. I wonder how the resurrection would have been reported if these resources had been available in first century Palestine. The story “Son of God rises from the dead” would certainly have made headlines across the World.
But they did not have such things and we have only had them ourselves in recent years. The message of the Resurrection therefore had to be spread by the disciples and the people who came after them. We would not be here in the Barn today if they had not spread the Word, if they had not followed Jesus’s instructions right at the end of the reading today. We are here because we believe that Jesus rose from the dead and by his cross and passion, he has redeemed us, gained for us forgiveness of our sins and set us right with God. And we only know about all that and believe it because countless others before us have born witness to it, right back to the disciples.
And we are here because the disciples, terrified though they were when they first saw the risen Christ; then had fellowship with him and followed his instructions.
I have no doubt that nothing short of an encounter with the risen Christ and the realisation that he was not a ghost, not a figment of their imaginations, but a living being, could have transformed such a broken, befuddled, frightened band of brothers and sisters into enthusiastic missionaries. Nothing else could have done that. Only their encounter with the risen Christ could have made that happen. They had been scared and frightened of what might happen to them. This was not a group who could try and dream up a falsehood, which they could all adhere to and stick to. They would not have so enthusiastically spread the Word of the resurrection so far and so quickly if they did not believe it themselves. They would not have devoted their lives so fully and, indeed, some of them given up their lives, if they did not believe what they had seen with their own eyes.
But it is not just their witness, it is the witness of two thousand years of followers of the Man from Galilee and, indeed, our own faith to which we too must witness. He calls us too – the message at the end of today’s reading is that the message of love and hope and forgiveness must continue to be spread, particularly in these unbelieving times. The wording of our Lord “You are witnesses of these things” applies to us as much as it did to the disciples.
This is clear and firm language, words that expect that the listeners will do something. To be a witness means you have seen something, know something but it also should mean that you are determined to share what you have seen and know. The disciples had encountered Jesus, but now Jesus tells them that they are to do something about it for the sake of the world. The Disciples must become do-ers, to tell others about him so that the church could establish itself, to grow, to spread the good news across every land and every people.
We sometimes think that Christianity is declining, perhaps not doing very well, even in our own land, especially in our own land, but it is still very rightly the biggest most flourishing religion in the World. People witness to Christ throughout the World and in some places they do it at considerable cost to themselves and their families – being imprisoned, persecuted and even martyred for their faith in this Man from Galilee, the Son of God. They perhaps understand more intensely than we may, that it is only in the act of telling others about Jesus that the World has meaning and our lives have purpose.
This is precisely the reason why the torch is transferred from the First Century disciples to each of us. We are called to continue the enterprise of witnessing to Jesus Christ … that the World may believe and be saved. Hallelujah!!
Just as an aside before finishing, something on which one could do a full sermon, but here just a few words. A further challenge of Easter is to appreciate the importance of Jesus asking his disciples for something to eat and being given a piece of fish. I think the symbolism of this has three parts – the proof that Jesus’ resurrection was physical. It was a tangible human being in front of them, not a spirit or some sort of phantom. Secondly, sharing food, resources and fellowship has always been fundamental to the Christian life and on this occasion the sharing of food perhaps recalls the last supper. And thirdly, the fact that it was fish that Jesus ate with them reminds us and them that Jesus called them to be fishers of men and women.
And finally, we as Christians associate Easter with the empty tomb. But Easter now has sadly become for so many people just an excuse for four days off and indulgence in chocolate. But even Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have very old origins – long before Cadbury’s and Lindt and Hotel Chocolat came onto the scene. Their origins may be pagan symbols of new life in the Spring, but they are symbols of new life. It is our duty as Christians to witness to people at Easter about our risen Lord, the true meaning of new life. Joy to the World! Christ is Risen!