SERMON 1 MAY 2016
Not far from where I live is a house, set back from the road a little, whose front steps and front garden is full of gnomes. Most of them have been there for a long time I suspect, because they are not cheerful little figures in red or green jackets, but faded, and so, rather weary looking. I feel very sad when I see this as I can’t help but feel that the owner must have been trying to create some kind of family, community, in which to belong. So rather than being a happy sight, it seems more about longing for something that now feels more lost than anything else.
We all need to belong, unless life has dealt such a hard hand that nowhere with others around feels safe. There are many who are homeless because they are not able to belong. Which does not mean they don’t have feelings or hopes or fears. But most of us get some of our sense of identity from belonging to a group of some kind. For younger people it is often connected to school or college, a sports club or dance group; then it may be to a workplace. Many people keep up these connections for years and continue to belong within the company of friends who have known them for years. Others may have lost much of this and find other ways of connecting, belonging. Open House offers a place of connection and togetherness.
Church is a fundamental community of belonging. It is different from many of the other groups we have contact with because in the Church community, when it is working as it should, we all come knowing that we do not need to pretend about who or what we are. We come because here we do some of our deepest searching; we bring our often unspoken hopes and fears about ourselves and those we care for, and our concerns for the world we share. Most of all we come because our souls hunger and thirst after God in whom, through Jesus, life finds its meaning. That meaning is rooted and grounded in the love which we have found in Jesus. Church is a community born out of the ceaseless activity of the Spirit, who so often surprises us out of our day to day complacency and opens up all kinds of new things. Now those are some big sentences which can, by no means, encapsulate all we might say, but they indicate, I hope, that this community of belonging here is something different from a social club. We belong here together, whoever we are, whatever cultural background, status in society, size of our house/mortgage or rent. In this community we are here because God, in whatever way, through the call of Christ and the activity of the Spirit, has led us here. And, as much as anything else, that has happened not just for our own sakes but so we can be part of something much bigger than ourselves. Now that should be exciting!
Many years ago there was a woman who was quite well-to-do. She was, it seems, a widow. At least she was not beholden to a man as her married counterparts were. She managed to support herself very well through her own business, owned her own house and had a group of friends who used to meet together regularly. In more recent times it appears she had been doing some spiritual searching and had found God in her life in a way that was different from many of her contemporaries, though her group of friends shared her belief. Hers was the one God, the God of the Jewish people. Her name was Lydia. One day she and her friends had gone outside the city to meet on the banks of the river. Along came three men they had never met before, foreigners apparently. They introduced themselves as Paul, Silas and Timothy. The talk quickly got around to God, because the men explained that Paul had had a dream, a vision, of a man who called to him to come to Macedonia, and so, here they were, in Philippi. They had been looking for a community of prayer, and here, they had found it in this group of women. As the time went on, Lydia saw how all the searching in the past had led to this point of understanding as she learned of Jesus, of his life and ministry, of his death and then his resurrection! And, so importantly, how everything he had been and done was still alive and happening through his Spirit. Her spirit found its place of belonging within the life of God’s spirit, at work in her. The one God now held so much more for her. And so she, and her household were baptised. Her home became the centre of a new Christian community in Philippi. It was to her house that Paul and Silas returned after ending up in prison for healing, and so liberating a slave who had been earning a lot of money for her owners as a fortune teller.
Lydia is one of the important figures in the early church, though it seems much of her story is untold. Hers is one of a number of stories about women that Luke tells, stories that indicate that women indeed played an important role in the early Church. Their importance would later be downgraded as the Church became more patriarchal. Lydia was the first Christian convert in Europe. Her house and the community of Christians that was based there, were held very dear by Paul who wrote them letters that are much warmer and friendlier than any of his others. I have put a purple cloth on the communion table in her honour as she was a dealer in the purple cloth, an expensive product for which the region was famous.
So there we have a little community that grew out of a group of women through the activity of the Holy Spirit. But let’s look now at John’s account. What we see here in this part of Jesus’ farewell talk with his remaining 11 disciples are words that help them, and later his own community, make a transition. I’m going to read it again because it is not easy to take in what is being said. (John 14: 23-39) Last week we heard Jesus give these shaky people whose world seemed to be falling apart a new commandment, to love one another. This was a big ask and a very important focus for these very human men and women who would be under all kinds of pressures. Now it seems hard that they are told that anyone who loves him will obey. It all seems to hinge on whether they love Jesus enough. If not, they don’t belong to God. This is the pointy end of things isn’t it? For us, hearing this from our distance, and with what we know of how the story would pan out, it can be hard to imagine ourselves back there in the disciples’ situation. They didn’t know what lay ahead. All they knew was what they saw, what they learned in these years of sharing their lives with Jesus. They knew that he had been demonstrating the kind of love that was different from anything they had imagined before: a love that had brought hope and healing, that meant real belonging and peace, that spoke of a wisdom that they knew was deeply needed. They were being asked to make a choice to live in that love. It was more about what they believed in than in an emotional response to each other. So it was more a matter, as Augustine much later would say, “Love and do what you like”.
Then Jesus tells them that although he will be going from them, they won’t have to carry on alone. God will send them the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And so John gives us this introduction to the Trinity. Jesus has already told his disciples “The Father and I are one”, one in the work, the ministry he has been living. This is a really important stage in the gospel. We read it as the lectionary is bringing us through these closing weeks of the Easter season. Next week is the Sunday nearest to Ascension Day. Jesus tells his disciples he is going to leave them and tells them, when it happens, to remember that he has forewarned them. Next Sunday we will think about the significance of the Ascension. The following Sunday we come to Pentecost and the promised coming of the Holy Spirit that enabled all the rest of the story of Christianity to continue, including the likes of Lydia and the church in Philippi.
The word that John uses for the Holy Spirit, “Advocate”, is important. It is another of the legal inferences that John uses as he makes his case for Jesus. The actual word in Greek, as in English, denotes someone who stands alongside to support, to enable someone to speak for themselves or to speak for them, to help them to make their case. The Holy Spirit will continue Jesus teaching of them. They don’t need to feel that they are supposed to know everything right away.
And then Jesus blesses them with his peace, the peace that is not the kind of peace the world can offer. And so, with all of this, he tells them they do not need to be afraid. Their hearts should not be troubled.
These things are not just remote words that Jesus gave his little community of disciples, or that John addresses to his own community. They are things that are really important to us in our Christian community here. They link us to what Christian communities through the ages have lived within, found strength and inspiration from and been grounded within. We are always asked to make the choice to follow in Jesus’ way of love by loving in our lives. We are to do that knowing that we cannot do it in our strength and that we should not try to, because Jesus did not disappear. The Holy Spirit is ever with us, to keep on teaching us. This is not about having a weight of duty put on us, but the freedom of knowing that nothing else in life can bring us peace or liberate us from fear. It is so easy for us to get caught up in all our 21st century commitments, the demands of our culture and stresses of life in general, not to mention the disillusionment of much that is done in the name of faith. What we hear today calls us back to the basic things of our life of faith: the community of love and respect that is fundamental to us as we journey on, whatever stage of life we may be. It calls us back to where we find our place of belonging, where we celebrate, grieve, laugh, pray and sing together. Our Church communities are to be places of welcome and openness, not communities that look inwards for self-preservation. Loving one another is not about forming a club with restricted membership. In any community we are offered and offer hospitality. In a moment we will do just that, share food. The bread and wine we share symbolise not just all that Jesus has done and all he offers us, but also the life of community and sharing that brings us together. So may we know God’s blessing. May it open our hearts and bring us together in love.