Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter, 24 April 2016, St Mary’s, morning

Readings  Acts 11.1-18 and John 13.31-35

Preacher  The Revd Alan Sykes

In the manner of Neville Chamberlain I have here in my hand a piece of paper. If you remember, when Chamberlain came back from Munich, that piece of paper only had two names on it – that of Chamberlain and that of a certain Herr Hitler.

This piece of paper that I’m waving aloft is a lot bigger. It has to be because it contains the names of well over a hundred people – people who perform various jobs in this church.

This church couldn’t function without them. And of course they perform these jobs voluntarily – without payment though not without thanks.

So we have here, for example, bell-ringers, servers, flower ladies, junior church leaders – a whole host of different activities.

In our hymn before the gospel we asked God to bind us together. It’s not the only way but so often it’s by doing things together that we are bound together as a church

Over the last week I was toying with the idea of sneaking in as our first reading this morning that passage in Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians in which he talks about the body of Christ.

In the end I didn’t dare. Or we could have had three readings but I didn’t dare do that either. Canon law got the better of me. So, in my cowardice I’ll just describe the passage to you briefly.

Paul likens the church to a body. All the parts of the body with their different functions are essential to the body. Each part goes to make up the whole.

I’d guess that we all need to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

And by the way I don’t wish to imply that you need to have a job in the church to be part of the body of the church. We all have our role to play, whether or not it’s an officially designated task. And that’s entirely the way it should and must be. No-one is a spare part. No-one is superfluous.

But the body of Christ is different from an ordinary human body in at least one respect. The analogy of the church as the body of Christ is a very fruitful one but like all analogies it breaks down eventually.

The analogy breaks down in this way: the human body cannot be added to. The body of Christ can always be added to.

A human body has two arms and that’s your lot. A human body has 10 fingers and that’s your lot. The human body cannot be added to. You can’t put on extra limbs here or insert an extra eye there.

The body of Christ can always be added to and the fundamental reason, as always in the Christian faith, is love.

The church isn’t merely a utilitarian institution. Of course there are jobs that need to be done and thank goodness there are people prepared to do them. The church includes all that but the church transcends all that as well.

In our gospel Jesus commands his disciples – he doesn’t merely suggest or vaguely hope – he commands his disciples – and that means you and me – to love one another.

The church is a diverse, remarkable, beguiling and, at the same time, impossible organisation. We all know its imperfections. We all know how exasperating it can be.

We all know how diverse, remarkable, beguiling, impossible, imperfect and exasperating our fellow church-goers can be. And, if we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, these are the very people we are called to love. And we can only love people as they are, not as we might want them to be.

So how do we do it? How do we love? Well, if only I knew, but I think I may have spotted a few clues.

It’s often said that we aren’t able to love unless we have previously been loved. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s difficult to see how a child, for instance, could learn how to love if it doesn’t know what love is, if it hasn’t experienced love.

The ability to love is passed on to us by the fact of being loved.

So love is transmitted. It’s like a benign, divine disease that we catch from other people.

But we catch other things as well from people that aren’t so benign. So the love we offer is rarely unalloyed. Better than nothing by a long chalk but rarely perfect.

But, if we could experience the perfect love that God has for us, perhaps that could transform us more completely.

I do believe that putting ourselves into the presence of God, in whatever way we can, does transform us. Again we catch something of that benign, divine disease that we call love.

It’s a circular kind of thing: the more we enter and remain in God’s presence, the more we love. And the more we love, the more we come into his presence. It’s the ultimate virtuous circle.

Jesus calls his followers inside the church to love one another but I don’t believe for a moment that he meant that thereby we shouldn’t love those outside the church.

There is a temptation to keep this thing ‘in-house’, to get into a holy huddle so that no-one else gets a look-in.

But that can’t be right, can it?. So thank goodness for our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning. The early church was entirely Jewish. Not surprisingly. Jesus was a Jew, the apostles were Jews, the early converts were Jews. The whole extraordinary enterprise was happening in a Jewish context.

But through this episode involving Peter and some gentiles in Jorra, the Church learnt that God doesn’t restrict his love to just one group of people. God’s love, God’s salvation – and they’re the same thing – extends to all people.

Because love, perfect love, divine love knows no boundaries. It is never exhausted, it never excludes, it never draws the line, it never diminishes. That’s why the body of Christ can always be added to.

Because God’s love is infinite, there’s always room for one more.

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