(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
‘Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.’ John 15:4
A couple of years ago, when it was revealed by the press that Justin Welby’s biological father was not the man who raised him, the Archbishop was asked how did this make him feel, how did it impact on his sense of identity. He replied, ‘There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.’
We might think of this response as very pious and archbishop-like but, of course, Justin Welby’s reply does not apply to him alone. Our family relationships and situations may be completely fine and within traditional parameters, but they could also be happily unconventional or sometimes even down right problematic to say the least, but like the archbishop pointed out, our identity should not be determined by where we come from, our birth certificate, how we were raised, or what society thinks of us. Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And from this point of view we are able to see ourselves as children of God, sons and daughters of the eternal Father, regardless of our background or social history. Only a couple of weeks ago we read a passage from 1John which said,‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ 1John 3:1a.
If we are in Christ the words of Scripture are fulfilled in us when they say,
‘Even if my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up’ (Ps 27:10).
‘Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you’ says the Lord (Isaiah 49:15).
Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And today’s gospel reading gives us a surprising picture of what it means to have our identity in Christ, as Jesus likens himself to a vine and each of us to its branches. This comparison might sound slighly odd to us, or a bit farfetched; “In what sense is Christ like a vine?”, but it comes from an image which would have been very familiar to the first disciples. In the Old Testament the vine was a symbol for the people of Israel, of all God’s chosen people;
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade… (Ps 80:8-10)
And today we here the Lord saying that he himself is the true vine; and so, like in times of old, God’s people are part of him, the new vine. We are the branches; by Baptism we have become part of the true vine which is Christ. We were grafted into Christ through the wounds that were cut into his body on the Cross. We receive nourishment from Jesus through the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, which is gifted to us by the Lord as the sap we need to thrive. And finally, as branches we are ‘pruned’ (John 15:4) by the words of the gospel; that is, we are directed in what to do, and trained in order to bear fruit.
Issues around personal identity are particularly strong in our society; maybe even more so than what they were in the past. And a lot of people, particularly young people, seem to be burdened by anxiety and social pressures stemming from simple questions such as “Who am I?” “What is unique about me?” “What is my sense of self-worth?” “How do I fit in or stand out?” “Where can I find home and acceptance?” To all these questions, Jesus simply and calmly replies, “I love you. Make your home in me, and let me make my home in you.”
Our sense of who we are is founded in who we are in Christ, and this means being inextricably part of him and to grow in him; it means being one in Jesus as children of God, one in him and God’s people, one in him as the beloved of the Father.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Be devoted to one another in love. (Rom 12:9-10a)
If we were to discern a theme for this Civic Service just by looking at the readings we could say that it is “Love”, and perhaps more to the point “neighbourly love”.
As we read together these verse I am conscious that probably most of us hold quite settled and quite diverse ideas already about what love should look like, whom would be worthy of it, and how love ought to be expressed. Perhaps our own perceptions of love resemble more the one described in our reading from Ecclesiastes which speaks of love as something that has its appropriate time and place, and can be just as easily replaced by hate should the right circumstances arise (Cf. Eccl 3:8). Or maybe we still nurture in us an undying romantic spirit and we think of love in the same way St Paul seems to express it in the First Letter to the Corinthians when he says quite clearly ‘Love never fails.’ – or in other translations ‘Love never ends’ (1Cor 13:8). Everything else in all creation might pass away, but love will remain, and it could never be replaced by hate. So what is this love-thing the scriptures speak of?
Our reading from Romans 12 is perhaps the best one to illustrate what love is, because it explains the meaning of love neither by contrasting it to hate, nor by painting an all too rosy picture of it, but by giving us a set of guidelines which describe how love should behave – or rather Romans 12 gives us clear examples of what people should do in order to genuinely love others. ‘Love must be sincere’ St Paul writes, or ‘Let love be without dissimulation’ (Rom 12:9a); which could be also translated as ‘Sincere love’ (maybe with an exclamation mark). And these two words form the heading for a series of instructions listed underneath. Yet, more than a “to do list” this reading is a charter, a mission statement, for those who love and there are many elements here that we can readily apply to our common life as fellow citizens of our town.
‘Hate what is evil’. Those who love are not asked to be pushovers or to turn a blind eye to injustice and wrong. Instead Scripture invites us to avoid the evils of our society in the same way we would avoid anything we deeply loathe.
‘Cling to what is good’. The words cling or cleave are not strong enough to illustrate the point Paul is trying to make. ‘Become glued to what is good’ might be a better way of putting it, because those who love others are not called to have pretty, well-meaning thoughts and leave it at that. We are called to pursue everything that is good (justice, integration, people’s welfare, religion) with our whole being.
‘Be devoted to one another’. The context here is family life and the domestic sense of care that each member of a family should have for the others; which means that those who love ought to consider other people as member of their own household, and therefore care for them accordingly.
The list goes on, but we can get the flavour of it with these three short lines. The key point of Romans 12 is that love has little to do with cosy feelings, pink love-hearts, and butterflies in the stomach. Love is the constant and intentional pursuit of the good, honour, wellbeing, and encouragement of others. As such it should hold the highest priority among believers, and it should be at the heart of our civic life.
Our neighbourhoods desperately need to hear this interpretation of love, when snobbery or rivalry between different parts of town risks hampering and fracturing the flourishing of our town. Our children should learn of it – value-focused schools especially should highlight love as that virtue which binds good habits such as respect, generosity, and forgiveness together. As adults we should strive to become role models of love; avoiding evil, injustice, crime, and wrong at all costs, and daily pursuing what is ultimately good and makes a positive difference in our common life.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Be devoted to one another in love. (Rom 12:9-10a)
May God, who reveals himself to us as love, help and bless us in our pursuit for genuine love. Amen.
1 John 5:1-6
Who can overcome the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God: Jesus Christ who came by water and blood, not with water only, but with water and blood. (1 John 5:5-6)
During Eastertide we begin the Parish Mass with the sprinkling with Holy Water which replaces the usual introduction and prayers of penitence. As we receive the water we are reminded of our Baptism and we sing praises to Christ, who says in John’s Gospel, ‘The water that I will give will become in [believers] a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14b). This rite of sprinkling is properly called the “Vidi Aquam” (Latin for “I saw water”) because the chant that usually accompanies it sings,
‘I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple, alleluia;
and all they to whom that water came were saved,
and they shall say, alleluia, alleluia.’
This chant and the sprinkling are clears echo of the words of the prophet Ezekiel which we read during the Easter Vigil where the prophet has a vision of the Temple at Jerusalem and says this, ‘there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple … south of the altar’ (Ezekiel 47:1), and that water brought life and healing to all.
This idea of flowing, life-giving water finds its fulfilment on the Cross. The first three gospels describe the moment when Jesus died as the moment in which the curtain of the Temple is torn from top to bottom. As this barrier rips we can glimpse directly inside the sanctuary, inside the holiest part of the Temple, and look, as it were, upon God and his mercy. However, this dramatic moment is not reported be the evangelist John, who at that time was standing near the Cross of Jesus; instead he focuses his attention on something else; the piercing of the side of Jesus with a spear. For John this is the very moment when the true curtain of the true temple is torn. As the skin and flesh of Jesus are cut by the spear blood and water pour out, and here we can genuinely look upon God and upon his mercy.
Time and again the gospels tell us that Jesus himself, his very body, is the true Temple in which we are able to encounter God – because in that body divine nature meets and joins our human nature. The Letter to the Hebrews testifies to this saying, ‘we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’ (Hebrews 10:20). And as the spear cuts into the side of Jesus it is as if the tide of God’s mercy and love is released over the whole world purifying and giving life to all whom it reaches. This is the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s vision, and this is what our sprinkling during Eastertide celebrates.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure…
This Sunday in particular, the second Sunday of Easter, is sometimes called “Divine Mercy Sunday” and, among other things, it leads us to reflect on the marks of the crucifixion, which the Lord Jesus bears of his body even after the resurrection. These are the “visible identification marks” by which the disciples are filled with joy in recognising the Lord, but more importantly, these are the points from which Divine Mercy streams for us, the springs of God’s love.
Are we struggling with something? Let us look at those marks and see the wounds through which every strife has been overcome. Are we suffering? Let us approach those scars which have inflicted a fatal blow to every sorrow. Are we weighed down by guilt or feeling undeserving of love? Let us approach those marks which have brought us divine mercy and love.
Jesus said to Thomas: ‘Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ (John 20:27b) The apostle Thomas approached the marks of Jesus’ passion as a way of testing the Lord, but just by seeing them he was restored to faith. We should approach them with full trust in Jesus, knowing that it is through those wounds that we are saved.
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with water flowing from thy side.
…deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.