Rogationtide

Sermon at All Saints, Coddington, Easter 6 2017

Ecclesiasticus 17:1-14; Acts 17:22-31

Hymns (Ancient and Modern New Standard):
4 Christ, whose glory fills the skies;
131 Love divine, all loves excelling (tune 464);
123 Jesu, lover of my soul (2nd tune);
149 Ye servants of God, your master proclaim

Jesus lives. This is the last Sunday in that period of 40 days between his Resurrection and Ascension when at several times and in various situations Jesus was seen to be alive by his close friends. Then on Ascension Day, which we shall celebrate this coming Thursday, Jesus led them to understand that they would no longer be experiencing his being with them in such a vivid way. Now they would have to recognize his living presence simply by faith. As Jesus said to doubting Thomas, “Because you have seen me you have found faith. Blessed are those who find faith without seeing me.”

For centuries this Sixth Sunday of Easter has been known as Rogation Sunday, named from the Latin rogare – to ask. It’s Asking Sunday. It’s got nothing directly to do with those momentous events in Jesus’ life. It’s simply that it’s the appropriate season of the year to be asking for God’s blessing on the rising crops in the fields. And of course in an agricultural, pre-industrial age this was something of literally vital concern. And it was another of those ancient pagan, implicitly religious customs which the early Christians took over and made their own.

It came to involve a formal procession along the boundary of the parish – beating the bounds it was called. The crops were blessed; evil spirits were banished, and the precise extent of the parish was re-established. But it wasn’t all solemn: there were handbells and crosses and banners and all sorts of fun and games, fuelled by quantities of ale and cider.

A few times recently in Colwall we’ve held and enjoyed a Rogation Procession on Rogation Sunday – in a much muted form of course, no larking about and no ale or cider. And what a grand circular walk it is – from the church, over Oyster Hill to Hope End; from there swinging down to Petty France; over the railway to the Ledbury Road; back across the fields to Evendine Corner; up to the Malvern Hills Hotel and along the ridge to the Wyche Cutting; down The Purlieu to Mathon Road , and then across more fields back to St James’. In total it’s 13 miles; so one year we did just half of it, with the other half the following year.

But of course it’s more than just an enjoyable walk. With a hymn at the beginning and at the end, and with three or four pauses for a reading and a prayer, it becomes an act of worship offered to God. And if we like, we can imagine as we walk along that someone is walking with us, just as he did with those two people walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the afternoon of Easter Day itself.

It’s a bit like John’s Wildflower Walk yesterday, which unfortunately we had to miss as we were on our way back from the Lake District. And I did just wonder if, without taking anything at all away from the Wildflower Walk, next year some aspects of Rogationtide could be incorporated within it. I reckon that the Coddington boundary is about 6 miles, and of course the footpaths don’t actually follow it, but a route could be devised that includes sections of it.

It all fits in with those marvellous words of St Paul which we heard in our second reading: God, who created the world and everything in it and is the universal giver of life and breath and all else, made us to seek him, and, it might be, find him and touch him. Indeed he is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.

All over the world and throughout human history, people have been searching for God, a god, any god, someone they could worship, someone they could pray to, someone they could trust in. There’s that universal, instinctive feeling that there must be a god somehow, somewhere, and that it’s right to want a personal relationship with him.

As believers, as members of the Church, we’re told we should be evangelists, helping other people to be believers too. On occasion, when we’re with others we could use the essence of St Paul’s words to suggest to them that all the good and beautiful and loving things around their lives can be attributed to a good and beautiful and loving God. He wants us to look for him and find him, and indeed he’s not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being.

As well as Ascension Day there’s another significant day this week, a day with a very strong connection with evangelism. It’s May the 24th, the Commemoration of John and Charles Wesley. How good and proper it is that our Book of Common Worship recognizes many – what do you call them? – lesser saints and provides a date and a collect to commemorate them and that the Methodist Wesley brothers are included.

In the mid 18th century there was among the bishops and other superior clergy a dreadful complacency and worldliness. They were concerned with their own and their family’s privilege and further advancement in society, leaving the church with little spiritual leadership. And this at that time of transition, the beginning of the industrial revolution with its migration from the countryside to the towns, with their rows and rows of back-to-backs. In the end the faith and life of the church was saved not by its official leaders but by a handful of individuals who dedicated themselves to evangelism and welfare. And the greatest of these was John Wesley.

He was born in 1703 at Epworth in Lincolnshire where his father was Rector. He was the fifteenth of nineteen children. Well, being Rector of Epworth wasn’t exactly a busy job. After Oxford he was ordained, becoming his father’s curate and later a Fellow of Lincoln College back at Oxford. There he joined his younger brother Charles and others in what was called The Holy Club, a group of students who met together for worship and also good works – visiting the sick and those in prison and so on. And it was their strict and methodical religious practices that earned them the nickname Methodists.

While on some missionary work in America he met some German Moravians and was much impressed by their simple and quiet faith. Back in England he attended some of their meetings, and at one on the 24th May, note the date, 24th May 1738 he had a profound spiritual experience, and wrote in his journal: I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine.

Next year he began preaching outdoors, and he founded the first Methodist Society. Initially it was an add-on for members of the Church of England who had experienced a conversion and Wesley expected them to continue going to their parish church. But little by little, as Methodism developed its own structures and practices, it grew away and became a church in its own right.

Without Wesley this great religious revival would not have happened. He was an amazing preacher, sometimes delivering as many as five sermons a day to enormous crowds all over the country, travelling on horseback between five and eight thousand miles each year.

And his essential message was this: salvation and personal assurance is available to everyone through Christ. “Every man can be saved,” he said, “and every man can know that he is saved.”

John was by far the dominant brother, but it’s Charles who has more connection with our Sunday by Sunday worship today. He was totally involved in the evangelistic work and looked after Methodist churches in Bristol and London, and he wrote hymns, not a few of which we still sing and enjoy singing. He was an extraordinarily prolific writer. Almost unbelievably he wrote over 6,000. I’ve worked it out that if he wrote one every, that would take him 16 years. Not all of them are good, but some of them are belters, like today’s four, and Come, thou long-expected Jesus; Hark, the herald-angels sing; Rejoice, the Lord is King; O thou who camest from above; Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go, and so on. We’ve got 27 in our hymn book: the Methodist hymn book has 243, but then they’re prejudiced.

Charles Wesley’s hymns were and are not only great aids to worship but also tools of evangelism. So we give thanks for him and for John: they have both helped countless thousands to seek and hopefully to find him in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire
and still stir up the gift in me.