Sermon for Sunday 22 May 2022
Sixth Sunday of Easter 2022
John 14:27. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
We are made for life with God. We know this is true, because our lives are spent yearning for this other life, puzzling over it. St John tried to get across what he thought about this. He talks about the Father and the Son coming to make their home with us. St John puts this homecoming in the context of love, because love is an attraction we can’t help. Love is blind to bloodless fashionable arguments against religion; they are of no account. There is mutual attraction between God and humanity, or as Jesus puts it, we’ll come to you and make our home with you.
In St John’s Gospel there are over a hundred references to God the Father, and he doesn’t show up once. He never appears. Gregory of Nyssa said, “There is nothing by which we can measure the divine and blessed life.” So we can let God be God. Let not your hearts be troubled. The way to know God is through the Son, through the life and words of Jesus Christ, because He has risen from the dead and therefore can be known, by everybody, by anybody, any time or place. That’s what St John’s great Chapter 14, Jesus’s Farewell Discourse, is about, the way, the truth and the life open to all who believe. “Because I live, you will live also.” That promise is in visible form in this church twenty four hours a day in the sacrament, the consecrated bread, the Body of Christ, on or above the altar, and before which, on the altar, a white candle flame always burns. This is old wisdom which bypasses the critical modern mind. Those who see that light see a promise that God makes his home among humanity. This is, I think, why many people just come in here and sit and look, without thinking too much, and perhaps they don’t know why they do it. The image of God already in our souls recognises the image of God on the altar, and in that recognition, there is peace, there is a homecoming. Let not your hearts be troubled. It is as if we spend years exhausting ourselves re-arranging the furniture in our minds, trying to fit God in somehow, when all we have to do is look away from ourselves and look up. Our ancestors had an advantage when they placed heaven in the skies; it meant they got into the habit of looking up, at the stars and the clouds and the blue sky. But we can do it too, a sort of psychological looking up, away from the downward pull of the self, up towards the invisible things of God. That’s faith, looking forward, looking up. It’s a start anyway, on the breakthrough to a life of freedom which Jesus promises will be ours. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.
Have you had that gloomy general conversation about why nobody goes to church these days, or, what is worse, goes to church once and then never returns? Are our services too wordy and complicated? Probably, but that’s not the reason. After all, everyone is made in the image of God, everyone in the world is susceptible to holiness, and to spiritual longing, open to the mystery of life and death. But all too often visitors find our God unbelievable because the God we proclaim in the churches is a make believe God, behaving like a rather tired carer, or a bully, or the parent we would like to have had; there are Gods we create for our own use. We want our own God who’s on our side. That strange priest poet R.S.Thomas wrote about an Empty Church, describing the church as a stone trap, full of candles, trying to capture God as if attracting and catching a giant moth. What a horrible image. Bringing God down to our human level is not attractive. St John would have been appalled. It’s a hazard we all have to watch out for, the mistake of leading others to ourselves and our views, into the closed circle, instead of beyond us all, set free for a profound experience of God. God has come down to us of His own accord, out of love for his Creation; we don’t have to catch God. We can expect God to be with us.
How do we celebrate this hope in the Mass? The priest is not the president, holding the service together by the force of personality, technical knowhow and training. Personal qualities, or the absence of them, are secondary. The celebration of Mass is an act of the united Church. The priest celebrates the Church’s sacred mysteries, by which the people of God experience Christ’s gift of himself. Jesus Christ is the One who gave Himself for all. Then church life becomes self giving, not self assertion. We follow St John. Jesus says, “Because I live, you will live also.” Christ is risen, so we are risen and shall ascend with him (on Thursday), Let our hearts go up with him, as St Augustine said. We can do this because the imprint of God is on our souls, or as Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is within you. St John’s famous chapter 14, the Farewell Discourse, is an early account of what church life is like without Jesus’ physical presence. It’s the blueprint for our life here. For St John, it is a conservative position, preserving what Jesus has given. “Peace I leave with you.” The peace of Christ is his full and saving presence in all we do and say. This peace is not the absence of trouble, but rather a firm conviction that the Lord is risen. That’s what we have and that’s what we offer. Then we needn’t talk and worry about God, because we live with him, and he lives with us, and our hearts are no longer troubled, nor are they afraid. And maybe that is what others are looking for when they come to church.
Fr. Julian Browning