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.