Sermon at St James
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
I’m a great fan of the various Sunday night drama serials on television: Victoria, Les Misérables, the latest: Gentleman Jack. We don’t watch much television otherwise, but it’s a good way to end the weekend. But these days it’s harder to remember what has happened from one week to the next, so I’m always very grateful for those flashbacks at the beginning of the episode which remind you of the significant events of the previous week.
We had something of a flashback moment in our gospel reading this morning. Though it’s Easter tide and Jesus is risen, soon to return to his Father in heaven, here we are with him and his disciples around the table again on the night before he died.
Picture the scene: the moment which Jesus has been trying to prepare his disciples for has arrived. The evening began with a demonstration of what humble self-giving love means, as Jesus knelt to wash their feet. Now as they share bread together, they realise he is serious. Very soon, Jesus will no longer be with them.
They are full of questions. What will that mean for them and for the mission of God in the world? How will they manage to live out the lives of love as Jesus has shown them without him beside them to teach, correct, encourage and reassure? Jesus seeks to allay their anxieties in these words and in the chapters which follow, known as the farewell discourses of Jesus.
Every year we live through the episodes of the divine drama: the birth of Jesus at Christmas, his baptism, life and ministry, the events of Holy Week and finally his death on the cross on Good Friday. At Easter we celebrated the resurrection and Jesus’ renewed presence with his disciples, though in a strangely different way. The next episode of the drama will be the Ascension of the risen Jesus to the Father, which the church celebrates this coming Thursday. Today’s flashback reminds us that Jesus has spoken of this time beyond his death; it reminds us of the promises Jesus has given.
It’s hard for the disciples to imagine their lives without Jesus. They have lots of questions for him.
The words we heard in the gospel reading are Jesus’ response to a question which came from Judas (
not Iscariot – he has already gone out into the night to set in train the events which will lead to Jesus’ death) ; the other Judas asks a question which perhaps we have all asked at one time or another:
‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ In other words, why is it that some believe and others don’t or won’t recognise Jesus for who he is?
To be honest, Jesus doesn’t really address the question directly. Because for him it’s not really the issue. Instead he comes from a different starting point: that of love - as the basis of our relationship with God and with the world; Jesus will be revealed through the action and prayer of a community of love.
‘Those who love me will keep my word, my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them,’ he says.
If the world needs evidence of the divine indwelling of God, then it will be found in the faithful living out of his love by those who follow Jesus. When the disciples keep his word by living in his love, they will know and experience the love of God and that love will dwell with them.
They will continue to grow in love by committing themselves to the living out his passion for truth and justice, for his care for the poor and oppressed, his willingness to challenge the status quo and make present the transforming presence of God in the world. This is how God’s love and Jesus’ abiding presence is revealed.
So we might have thought that the Ascension is the final episode of the story of God’s incarnation in the world and that all we have to do in the coming months of so called ordinary time is to wait for the re-run at Christmas.
But it turns out that it’s not. Rather it’s the unexpected prelude to a totally new and exciting series, an as yet unfinished story, in which we find we have become central actors, not mere spectators
Jesus is no longer physically present in the world. But we, the church throughout all generations, are. The flashback reminds us that we have been told by Jesus not only to expect his departure, but that his absence paves the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
So - spoiler alert:! After the Ascension comes Pentecost when the action is thrown open to us, working with the Holy Spirit. Jesus has said that it is the Holy Spirit who will make Jesus present to us now, who will teach, correct, encourage and reassure.
It is the Holy Spirit who will empower the church to continue to do his work, not just in one time and place, but throughout the world and throughout the ages.
It is the Holy Spirit who draws us into loving communion with the divine and with one another and in doing so gives the peace which the world cannot give.
The story of the incarnation doesn’t come to a grand finale with departure of Jesus, but continues as he continues to live in us through the Holy Spirit. Like the disciples, we too are commissioned to make his love present in the world through our openness to his presence with us and in the actions of our lives. It is our open, faithful hearts which reveal God’s heart to the world.
This is God’s invitation to a way of living in which we trust in his presence with us through the Spirit as we are led in ways of compassion, generosity and commitment to the wellbeing of others. This is how we keep God’s word and so become ever more deeply rooted in his love.
This is an invitation which I have seen this church responding to over and over again as individuals and groups selflessly give their time and skills to help others in less fortunate circumstances. The recent opening of the Admiral’s café for those with dementia and their carers is only one example among many.
The gradual deepening of our love and trust in God, which grows as a result of knowing our trust has not been misplaced as we risk reaching out to others, is only a foretaste of that final episode without end promised in the words we heard from the book of Revelation. At that time all wrongs will be righted, there will be forgiveness, healing and peace, and perfect union with the divine. In St. John’s vision of the holy city of Jerusalem, all are welcomed home to dwell with God forever. In that place there are no barriers to knowing God and being with God. It’s a place of light and healing and life.
As we come to the communion table now, let’s open our hearts to receive the love which God has freely given in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, offer ourselves back to him in faithful, loving service and know for ourselves that precious gift of peace which the world cannot give.