Two lovely services this morning at which I preached. Delighted by the positive response to my challenging sermon…
First Reading: Acts 10.44-end
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
Gospel Reading: John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
We are the family of this Church. It’s my third sermon and I’ve said that little phrase in each of them. I rather fancy it as a sort of catchphrase. And I feel now like I should explain why that phrase is quite so important to me. Many of you are aware from my first sermon in January that the phrase was spoken by Fr Simon as the congregation stood together in a circle on my very first Sunday here in 2009, but the phrase “we are the family of this Church”, does not to me just refer to the people who come every week to St Michael & All Angels Church in Bramhall. If it had meant that, then that first time I came here I would have in a sense as an “outsider”, a newcomer, felt rather excluded. What that phrase said to me was, you are welcome. Here celebrating God’s presence in our lives, Love’s presence in our lives, we warmly acknowledge that all of us are brothers and sisters of the same family.
I came back the following week, and have rarely missed a Sunday since. But even if I hadn’t come back that day would have completely changed my perspective of life, of religion, it would have reminded me that despite the chaos of religious wars going on in the world, it is not all like that. It would have told me that there are religious people that love. As a student of Marple college I have found that my “missionary work” if you want to call it that, has not come in converting the students to Christianity. It has come in me raising their awareness. In my first English Literature class I was seated with some people who have become quite close friends. And all of them were then either agnostics or atheists, or I should say, anti-theists. They completely opposed religion, even the agnostics who thought there could be a God, because they saw religious institutions as oppressive, archetypal chaos. As I had done before I met all of you. Now, those in my Literature class have a changed attitude to religion. They see that some Christians actually love people rather than condemn them. The Church of England is far from perfect. But there is a great deal of beauty in it, and I have hope for the future. So the phrase “we are the family of this Church” taught me about community, about peace.
Now then, what do you all think of the baptism services here? Do you love coming to them? Do you write the date down from the noticeboard in your diary with eagerness and show up early to get a good seat? Or, do you actually write the dates down so as to remember not to come that day? That would sadden me, because I think we all should come to them. Once a month in alternate services is not a lot to ask for. And before you start creating a counter-argument to get me with next week when you see me un-robed let me present you with this thought: do you remember my baptism? Were you there for that? The date of my baptism was not up on the noticeboard, whether or not that’s why the 9am congregation showed up for the service I’ll never know. I had one row of supporters from outside this house. Just one row. Imagine what it would have been like for me if you’d all noted down the date and not showed up. Imagine how alone I would have felt, how much I would have doubted that the family of St Michaels Church cared.
Now many of you are thinking ah well that’s different, you’d been coming for a few months before then, the usual baptism crowd is huge and doesn’t actually care about Church. But that can’t be right can it? Otherwise they wouldn’t have been there. At least the parents of the child being baptised must care a bit. And if the rest of them actually wish they were still in bed or watching the football highlights because they don’t want to be at church with a bunch of grumpy people that don’t want them in their church, that frown upon them as outsiders, that make assumptions about them, then maybe we should be showing them that we do want them in our church, that we are nice, friendly people, and even if they only come once we should show them that they are welcome in our family.
Why am I talking about baptism? Well it’s in our first reading today from Acts, and there was a baptism here at the 10:45 service 2 weeks ago, after the Newala breakfast – I had a sausage butty, it was delicious. It was a lovely baptism service. I wouldn’t want to be at a baptism service every week, but every month or two, as it is, is great. There were two young boys sat in front of me. At one point they both ran off to the corner to grab a box of goodies. It was as the service ended that one got hold of a whiteboard and a pen, and he didn’t draw a giraffe or a dog. He drew a cross with stars around it. He grinned as he showed to his parents, and then just before I left he showed it to me. Pointing he said “the light of the world”. You know, I think that even if they all didn’t that boy cared about Church.
The Gospel reading today is divine, and I think sums up why I love the phrase “we are the family of this Church” so much. Jesus said As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments – to love God and to love ourselves and one another – you will abide in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
Rowan Williams recently preached in Canterbury Cathedral about the divisions in the Church. And he said that what we need to do, is make the walls that divide us into windows. What he meant was, the walls, the divisions we have between one another, between churches, between religions or none, we don’t all need to suddenly become the same kind of person. What we need to do is look through the windows into one another’s different world views, and we need to communicate. Then the windows can become open doors, and to borrow another of Rowan’s phrases, God can become the framework of our beautiful world, rather than an idea we make an unclear mess of. God can become the framework. A surrounding, encompassing, ever-present embrace, that holds us all together in love.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. That was Jesus’ commandment. He wasn’t about laws and oppression, he was about openness and compassion. May we really live to be the family of this Church. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. We are the family of this Church. The Lord be with you.