Those of you who are of my generation are probably the last generation in this country to have been exposed to any thoroughgoing Religious Instruction / Divinity / Scripture at school. I make no adverse comment on the move to Religious Education with its emphasis on religious practice and belief, and on the place of religions in our multicultural society. There are great gains here, but, of course there are some equivalent losses. So some of us older people can probably repeat passages from the Bible in our sleep – indeed some have been known to do so, though usually claiming to be resting our eyes rather than actually sleeping.
So, those of you familiar with your Bibles, bear with me: you’ve probably heard all this before. However, other, equally committed and equally curious – typically, younger - Christians don’t have your advantage.
But now I ask all of you to imagine now you are a resident of the city of Ephesus, in Turkey, a long time ago. It is a sea-port (now silted up), one of the most important city-colonies in the entire Roman Empire, at the Mediterranean end of the old Silk and Spice roads that lead to India and China. You might be a wealthy merchant, living with your family and a household of slaves in a villa on the hilly part of the town, or you might be one of the slaves, or an ordinary plebeian person living in the crowded tenements downtown, nearer the docks. Let’s agree that you’re a Christian, part of the new religious movement that has grown out of the synagogues in your city. In your house church, meeting in the one of the big villas, there are born Jews, there are Greeks converted to Judaism, and there are people with who-knows-what religious background who’ve converted to Christianity. It’s the year 96 (though you call it the year when the emperor Domitian has just been assassinated). Domitian had persecuted all Jews - just for being Jews, imposing penal taxes on them. He was a great promoter of the Roman god Minerva, so no friend to Christians of whom he had a deep suspicion.
In all the uncertainty leading up to and following the assassination of the emperor, it seems like a good time to think about the future of your church. You’re a group of, what, eighty people meeting in the house of a well-to-do dried fruit merchant. Of course, you know there are members of other house churches, but these eighty people are the people you know best. You are confident that, with all the disturbing political and social upheaval all around you, you are reassuringly also a citizen of another Kingdom whose full realisation you believe is coming soon. However, you are also aware that you won’t be in this city forever – whether you’re nearing the end of your natural life, or fearing a pogrom against Jews and Christians. So the time has come to look to the future of your church. New people are joining who don’t know your traditions. What can you do to help them, perhaps after you’ve gone? Perhaps the time has come to get some of this stuff, your Christian stories, prayers and traditions, down in writing.
To do this, you have to look back to the beginning. Well, obviously, the beginning is the Resurrection of Jesus. Otherwise, you simply wouldn’t be a church. You wouldn’t be meeting in what the Emperor regards as a scandalous assembly: scandalous because all the social classes represented in your membership meet, in defiance of all social etiquette, as though they were equals. And it doesn’t stop there. They commit unpardonable social outrages. They eat the same food – unheard of in decent society. They even eat from the same loaf of bread, slaves and their owners, workers, peasants, aristocrats, merchants. And, horror of horrors, they drink wine from the same cup.
Of course, you know they don’t do this just to upset the Emperor. However, newcomers to your church – present and future – may have little idea why these things are done. You can’t expect them to understand that eating and drinking in this way is something instituted by Jesus. He set it up as a sign and as a means of enacting the Kingdom of God.
So where do you start to make a teaching pack you can hand on to the future church? The obvious place is the accounts told by your founder, Ioannes – a Jew, a member of the first ever group of Jesus’ followers. He’s dead now, of course: been dead over twenty years. Tradition says he came here with a woman, Mariam, who was a good fifteen years older than him. She died ages ago: Mariam, the mother he adopted in Jerusalem over sixty years ago, the day they killed Jesus.
Everyone remembers Ioannes’ stories, and not just the stories: sermons too, and things he used to discuss with the rabbis. Now, not everyone can read and write, but, among the senior members, those with the longest memories remember Ioannes well. There are enough people left to collect and organise this material. Whatever happens to you as individual Christians, that store of remembered things should survive, should stand the test of time. It should support the next generation of Christians. And, who knows, if the world lasts another thousand years, or even a thousand years after that, our collection of stories and sermons and hopes and dreams will also last.
Was that how it was? Of course, we cannot know the details for certain. But it’s not too fanciful. We know a lot about Ephesus – some of you may have been there. And we know quite a lot about those early church groups: after all, archaeologists found there one of the oldest Christian fonts. It’s shaped like a coffin in which people laid down to die to the world and got out again to rise in Christ. And scholars are pretty certain that John’s gospel with its golden literary thread about the Eucharistic feast of Jesus body and blood does hail from Ephesus. And there is a very ancient tradition that Mariam / Mary died there.
Ultimately, of course, the details don’t matter all that much. However, what we can know for certain is important. The gospel was committed to writing by our predecessors for us. It is written by people who gather under the name of John in a worshipping, Eucharistic group of people of all types and classes, united in a vision of how God wants the world to be. And he wants that so much that no price is too high for him to pay. He wants us all to sit and eat a meal he has prepared for us. It is a symbol of our common humanity and of our destiny to be – all of us – his friends together.
Amen, Lord. Let it be so. Alleluia.