Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter, 24 April 2016, St Matthias

Readings  Acts 11.1-18, Revelation 21.1-6 and John 13.31-35

Preacher  The Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP

It has been quite a week both locally and nationally. Locally, in terms of our life here at St Matthias, some of us went on Monday to Gloucester cathedral to say farewell to David and Sarah at David’s licensing service as Chaplain to the Bishop of Gloucester. It was a lovely occasion, and the sermon given by Bishop Rachel was uplifting. She compared the role of a chaplain to that of a court jester and encouraged David to challenge her if from time to time he felt inclined to do so. I thought that showed a real mark of humility in Bishop Rachel, as she emphasised the mutuality of what would be their working relationship. I came away feeling that David and Sarah were in good hands.

But of course what it means for the Richmond Team Ministry is that we are now experiencing a double vacancy – no Team Rector and no Team Vicar here at St Matthias either. And that can seem hard. It means an extra challenge for all of us. We will all need to work together as a team even more effectively than before, and be willing to lend a helping hand where it is needed.

As we await David’s successor I hope we will not allow ourselves to feel too discouraged or even abandoned. We have Wilma’s arrival as the new Team Rector in late July to look forward to in the meantime. A time of vacancy in a parish can often be a time of growth, as people discover gifts that have been latent, and realise they can do things they hadn’t done before, and do them well.

The event of the week nationally of course has been the Queen reaching her 90th birthday. As Britain’s longest reigning monarch she holds a unique place in our history, and her example of faithful duty and service is a real source of inspiration. She and her family have had their difficult times, but she has come through it all and is still going strong even at the age of 90. She seems to have a special gift for carrying on calmly, no matter what adversities present themselves.

I remember once myself some years ago at a particularly difficult time walking along the street and meeting a young person wearing a t-shirt that had written on it in large letters,

“Keep calm and carry on”.

At the time it was both amusing and helpful. God can use anything to encourage us – even a message on a t-shirt worn by a stranger.

The Church throughout its history of course has always had its difficulties. One of its major problems early on is addressed in our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter goes to the church at Jerusalem and tells them what had happened to him sometime earlier on. The Jewish Christians have already heard that the Gentiles had become Christian believers – a truly momentous moment of breakthrough in the early Church. They criticise Peter for eating with the Gentiles. So Peter explains to them his vision in which God had already clearly revealed to him that, contrary to Jewish law, all foods were clean. In just the same way, there was no longer to be any distinction between Jews and Gentiles. The message of the risen Jesus was for all. So Peter had visited the household of the Gentile centurion Cornelius. Cornelius and all his household believed Peter’s preaching and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and were baptised. Peter recounts this great water-shed moment in the life of the very early Church. The message of the risen Jesus, proclaimed in the power of the Spirit, breaks down all barriers of cultural and racial distinction and division. As Paul puts it so eloquently in his letter to the Galatians,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The Jews who had become Christians in Jerusalem are convinced by Peter’s account, and praise God, exclaiming,

“Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

This was a truly momentous change in the life of the early Church, a change of heart and mind that brought about a completely inclusive attitude to the Gentiles – a change that was profoundly life-giving for all. We can often show resistance to change. But change can be life-giving and liberating, and at such times change needs to be embraced whole-heartedly.

Our gospel reading today from John shows the gospel narrative at a turning- point. Judas has just left the scene of the Last Supper in order to betray Jesus to the authorities. It is a stark moment.   John writes,

“And it was night”.

Jesus knows exactly what Judas is going out to do. Is he fearful? No, not yet – that will come later in the Garden of Gethsemane. First he must encourage his disciples. In an extraordinary moment of calm authority he pronounces,

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”

Jesus knows that his betrayal and terrible death will lead to resurrection and the forming of a new community of love with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. There will be a cosmic dimension to his death. By it the whole world will be redeemed. And so Jesus goes on to give a “new commandment” to his disciples – “that you love one another”. There is nothing new about the commandment to love. But Jesus continues,

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

To love as Jesus has loved – that is what is new. For Jesus will love even to death, to the point of accepting a cruel and unjust death, while at the same time completely forgiving his enemies, his tormentors, those who plotted his death and those who executed it. His forgiveness and acceptance is for all. That is what is new. No-one – nothing – is beyond the scope of the work of his redemptive love.

So we can be encouraged. Jesus faced the worst that life can throw at anyone, and he resolutely endured, and overcame. On a different scale, the Richmond Team Ministry may be facing a double vacancy, but that can offer us fresh challenges to take on in a positive spirit. As our Queen once said,   “Change is the one constant”.   Change, even when we don’t like it, should not defeat us but rather be an opportunity for us to draw more deeply on our own inner resources of strength and adaptability.

The inclusion of the Gentiles in the early Church was a remarkable change that met with resistance, but which brought about an inclusiveness that was entirely life-giving.  This Eastertide may we be encouraged rather than disheartened by any changes we face, and endeavour to live in a spirit of hope and resurrection joy.

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