Sermon for All Saints’, Ryde
7th Sunday of Easter, 16th May 2021
Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-end; John 17:6-19
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
When I was a keen youngish Christian, training for ordained ministry at Cuddesdon 20 years ago, a wise Welsh woman said to me:
‘James, you don’t need to try to be holy. You are holy already.’
You don’t need to try to be holy. You are holy already.
We might often fall into the trap of thinking that we claw ourselves up to being good enough to be holy by our own efforts; but actually this is the opposite of our Christian truth and hope. As we hear this morning in Jesus’ farewell prayer for his disciples, for us: he asks God to ‘sanctify them in the truth.’
It’s God who makes us holy, not we ourselves. That is God’s gift, and what makes it possible for us as Christians to be joyful and hopeful even when we face difficulty or darkness of any kind.
This gift from God, as Jesus says, does not take us out of the world. Rather, we are sent into the world.
And our Christian faith, as our great Archbishop William Temple put it, is perhaps ‘the most avowedly materialistic of all the great religions.’ The faith of the incarnation, the Word made flesh, God with us and among us. It is practical. Down-to-earth.
And I was touched to notice, on my first day here at All Saints’, near the west door, an inspiring, down-to-earth charge for our faith in action, a charge that I first found more than 20 years ago in a remote chapel in the Surrey countryside, when I was fearfully and excitedly exploring God’s calling for me – the charge of Bishop Frank Weston from 1923, which goes like this:
You are Christians
Then your Lord is one and the same
With Jesus on the throne of his glory,
With Jesus in his blessed Sacrament,
With Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, With Jesus who is mystically with you as you pray,
And with Jesus enshrined in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down the world.
Now go out into the highways and hedges,
And look for Jesus in the ragged and the naked, In the oppressed and sweated,
In those who have lost hope,
And in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and when you find him, Gird yourselves with his towel of fellowship, And wash his feet in the person of his brethren.
We are called to use the gifts God has given to us in the world. In the same way as we might not notice our own holiness, because we might think that we haven’t earned it, or we’ve fallen short of it, when it is actually a gift from God; so too we might not notice that, in Jesus’ prayer for his disciples – for us – the greatest gift is the gift of people. We are each a gift, offered within the constant state of generosity between God the Father and God the Son. And this gift is earthed in what we have done and said and thought in our homes, and in church, in our work and in our caring, with our time and our money, with our families and friends and strangers, in our community and in the wider world.
Perhaps for some of us we might be quicker to remember the times when we have made a mess of things, and other things, or people, have made a mess of us; but even and especially in the messiness of human life, and community and church, this cycle of grace keeps going; and we are invited to participate in it again, day by day, through the gift of God.
Even as we can be aware of often falling short of our callings, we can be greatly encouraged by those things that we have been and done, those humble everyday actions at home and work and church and out and about where we have served others, shown love and faith and hope, noticed them in others, and joined in.
And now, in the present and immediate future, what is your place, your share, in practical, down-to-earth ministry with God’s gifts? Or as our weekly church bulletin puts it: How is God calling you?
A third and final bishop, this time in the present day, my former bishop Nick Baines, now bishop of Leeds, might shine a light on that question for us individually and together. Bishop Nick just this week has written this – and I quote him at some length:
We are back in those in-between times that are so familiar from life experience and our reading of the Bible. We are walking the road from Easter to Pentecost (via the Ascension), working out afresh the impact of Jesus’s resurrection on the world, on the shape of our lives and worldviews, and on our discipleship as followers of Jesus. But, as churches emerging from a pandemic and its hard impact on life, worship and community, we are also navigating uncharted waters physically, relationally and communally. None of this is either straightforward or obvious, is it?…
This is a longwinded way of saying that whatever faces us as a church in the months and years ahead might be challenging, but it won’t be definitive.
If we have to regroup and reshape how the church operates, then so be it. We won’t have the luxury of being sentimental or nostalgic about it; hard realities will make sure we can’t duck hard decisions. However, how we go about all this will matter most, and will indicate the reality of our Christian commitment and exercise of leadership.
So, what are we to do? What about financial uncertainties, if the parish share does not come in? What happens if we can’t afford the number of clergy we think we need in the diocese? What do we do if our congregations do not return in such a way as to ensure the viability of our parish church or buildings?
Well, we’ll face those questions squarely and in faith. We will go about re-shaping how the church is. And we will all be involved, doing our best to keep our focus on the Kingdom of God – our fundamental purpose and raison- d’être. And we will proceed with confidence, hope, faith and mutual service. We will continue to pray and worship, reach out to our communities in the name of Christ, and encourage one another as we walk this road together. We will also keep our eyes open to the possibility of surprise by a faithful God who has demonstrated that the end is never the end – death does not have the final word, but unless there is a death a new life cannot be born.
We have weathered a challenging year and, no doubt, learned much about the church, ourselves and the God who calls us. I hope also – says Bishop Nick – that the experience might have stripped us of some of our pretensions, nostalgias and illusions, leaving us better prepared for a new way of serving together in Christ’s church … which exists to serve God’s world.
Good stuff I think from a tough-minded, straight-talking Scouser and compassionate Christian leader.
As your parish priest here and now, may I thank you for your ministry and commitment, in the past and the present. For your holiness and your stewardship of the good gifts that God has given and continues to give each one of you.
Now, as we emerge into a new world – May 17th tomorrow, June 21st next month, whatever that may hold for our country and the world – let us emerge with bold confidence, humility and simplicity – all in the name of Christ who lived and died and was raised to new life.
Have a look at the words of Frank Weston’s charge to us again, on your way out, or on your way in, as we prepare to celebrate the renewed gift and spark of the Holy Spirit with us and among us to make us holy, to nourish our love and faith and hope, and to help us to serve others in the name of Christ.