SERMON BY THE VICAR FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Sunday 3rd May 2015
Readings: Acts 8:26-end; 1 John 4:7-end, John 15:1-8
“ Stop the car. I want to be baptised.” Words from the Acts of the Apostles set for today, which could also come any growing Church. These words were spoken by the Ethiopian Eunuch to Philip as they were on their way to Gaza. If they were to do that same road today, they would arrive in Gaza to find its people in poverty and its infrastructure in ruins. Staying with that image today, we are also reminded of the apostolic origins of the Church in Ethiopia, and continue to pray for that church, especially after the brutal murders of Ethiopia Christians in Libya by IS. But the words of the Ethiopian also convey the urgency of the times, both then and now. The response was immediate baptism – no requirement to attend an Alpha Course, and as he was a Eunuch, we know it wasn’t about getting his children into a church school. The immediacy of baptism belongs in the immediacy of the Resurrection and Easter. In three weeks, we bring the Easter period of 50 days to a close when we celebrate Pentecost or Whit Sunday. The Easter period in the church’s year is the longest special season and it is no accident that this longest of the liturgical seasons of the Church’s year is immediately followed by almost six months of what is called Ordinary Time. This is deliberate placing, and has some deep and powerful symbolism, which I want to speak about today.
The central plank of the Christian faith is the belief in the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ that we celebrate at Easter. That’s the reason why this Easter Season is the longest of all the special seasons because we emphasise through this the centrality of our belief that Christ is risen from the dead. You could also say that every Sunday is an Easter Sunday so we continue with these Alleluias throughout this period and only stop using them at Pentecost. Now why does this have any relevance except for liturgical anoraks? Look at the placing of the Feast of the Ascension. If a central plank of the Christian faith is the belief that the tomb was empty, then we have no physical body of Jesus Christ. It’s not there. Scripture puts it like this: “He is not here”.
Nevertheless, the resurrection appearances of the Risen Christ to his followers were very real. They are also physical. This is partly why the New Testament record is keen to demonstrate that the Risen Christ eats and shares ordinary human activities with his followers. So it is with the Ascension. The symbolism of parting and withdrawal is the important one here. Again scripture poses it as a question in the phrase “why stand looking into heaven”? In other words, the New Testament is saying that the locus of action has shifted from “out there” to “in here”. The readings today show this.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles records the baptism of the Ethiopian. At the same time, The Acts of the Apostles is recording the European activities of Paul in Macedonia. This story is an interesting one and shows not only the geographical expansion of the church but also the fact that this is the radical new ekklesia into which all are accepted - women, men, children and slaves, from all parts of the world. And all members of the ekklesia are part of its identity and action. This begins to make the point I want to make. The locus of activity of the resurrection life is in the continuing life of the Resurrection Body of Jesus Christ that we call the Church. In other words, it’s now down to you and me. Christ is saying to the church “you are in the driving seat now, so drive”. Christ’s Resurrection leads to his Ascension. The cosmic Christ is now beyond space and time. The cosmic Christ has withdrawn, to use temple imagery, behind the veil and is beyond space and time yet is still fully engaged in space and time through his continuing life in the body of believers – again, you and me.
And in case we are still not getting the point the compilers of the lectionary make the point explicitly in the Gospel reading chosen for today from the Gospel according to John. John points out that we are connected to Christ as a vine is connected to its root. Again, the point is being made that the locus of activity of the continuing life of Jesus Christ is in you and me. The final piece in the jigsaw comes in three weeks on Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, with the sending of the Holy Spirit. If the locus of activity is in you and me as we drive the car of the church, its fuel is the Holy Spirit. We do not do this work in our own strength but we do it because we are empowered by the Holy Spirit and commissioned through our baptism to carry on the church’s work in the world.
Lest this sounds very theologically abstract, let me end by being a bit more specific. If the locus of activity of the continuing life of Jesus Christ is through his body that is called the Church, then we are commissioned to get on with it. The church in general is always reinventing itself and reforming itself. The shape of the church now is not what the shape of the church was. As Rowan Williams put it in his book Silence and Honey cakes “we are still the early church – what we call the early church is just the very early church and we don’t fully see how the church will be when it has grown more”. The Church in particular, and I am speaking now about our parish of St John the Evangelist in Notting Hill, is always reinventing itself and reforming itself. How we look now is not how we looked in the past and not how we will look in the future. Our Festival, or Mayfest is part of that process. New identities are created; new alliances forged, new ways of relating to the community in which we are set are established. It has, I believe, been an outpouring of creative energy and a real demonstration of the body working together and functioning in new and interesting ways. The locus of activity is now down to you and me as we grow into the responsibilities of our baptismal commission. The car, we hope, is still on the road and we are going somewhere. We are on the road.
This also may help in times of uncertainty and the new political landscape in which we find ourselves. The old certainties of the blue or red corner driving the ship of state appear to be gone, and we do not quite see what colour is emerging as we approach the General Election on Thursday. At the same time, our European monetary and political context appears to be more fragile than many had realised. As we move toward Ascension Day and the sending of the Holy Spirit, so our own plea remains, “Come Holy Spirit and Renew the Face of the Earth” And as we make our plea, we remind ourselves that divine help does not generally come through external thunderbolts, but through us, quietly open to the working of the Holy Spirit in the world. This will undoubtedly be uncomfortable – it will require us to engage with each other, to roll up our sleeves and do something to create the Church and Society we want. Our besetting weakness culturally may also be our strength, especially in the area of communications. Sending an email with recommendations for action is, I would humbly suggest, a very different thing from the rolled up sleeves and dirty hands that the Christian Gospel annoyingly needs. So as we approach the General Election, Ascension and Pentecost we pray for our church, our country and our world as we say, “Come Holy Spirit, and , through us, renew the face of the earth”