‘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.
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.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is a time dedicated to pray for vocations. There are other days set aside four times a year to pray for all those who minister within the Church, these are called Ember Days, however today the particular focus of our prayers ought to be the sacred, or ministerial, priesthood.
But prayer, as important as it is, is not the only thing we can do to help with vocations. We should also support the training of priests, and we should encourage in every possible way those who are genuinely being called to this type of ministry.
When I was discerning my vocation to the priesthood, the people of St Botolph’s, my church in London, did precisely this; they helped me to understand what God wanted me to do and what level of trust would be placed on me at ordination. I was in my mid-twenties the, but quite often a sense of vocation (not just to the priesthood) accompanies people for a very early age; and in those years the loving support of family and congregation can go a long way. I remember, when my cousin and I were only young boys, people in our local congregation were ready to spot the “early signs” of a vocation to the priesthood, and how they encouraged us both to say our yes to the Lord. Things may have changed since then; my cousin is a diocesan registrar, whilst I resisted putting myself forward for ordination for a few years, and then have become the black sheep of the family by becoming an Anglican… but even now, we both have people from our home congregation who regularly check up on sense of vocation, and support us with their prayers.
If we want to foster and encourage vocations we must remember that priests do not exist in a vacuum. We all share in the royal priesthood of the Lord Jesus by virtue of our Baptism, and it is from among our number that God calls men and women to become ordained in order to serve his Church in a specific way. Ordained ministry takes its mandate from Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who from age to age shares the pastoral care of his flock with his priests. He calls them to feed his people with his Word and with the Sacrament of the Eucharist, to administer his forgiveness to those who seek reconciliation with God, to provide leadership and focus for mission in his name. In turn, the Lord calls each one of us to work with our local priests to transform our communities; to pray for the needs of the world, and to share the love of Jesus with everyone.
Another thing worth remembering is that priests do not grow on trees. Vocations arise and increase when they praying for them. Vocations are fostered within the parish context; they take time to develop in a well-informed and realistic sense of what God is calling the candidate to do, and they can only thrive through with support. As a consequence, you and I play a fundamental role in ensuring that anyone called to the ordained ministry is able to respond to this call as generously and as selflessly as they can.
It is always a great blessing to help each-other to fulfil our individual vocations and even more so to help priests in fulfilling their call. So let us commit ourselves to pray for and encourage vocations so that Christ, the Good Shepherd may raise more and more priests formed according to his heart.
Father, you gave us Christ
as the shepherd and guardian of our souls;
may your people always have priests
to care for them with his great love.
Father, give us priests:
to establish the honour of your holy name;
to offer the holy sacrifice of the altar;
to give us Jesus in the Eucharist;
to proclaim the faith of Jesus;
to baptise and to teach;
to seek the lost;
to give pardon to the penitent sinner;
to bless our homes;
to pray for the afflicted;
to comfort mourners;
to strengthen us in our last hour;
to commend our souls;
Almighty Father, give us priests!
We make this prayer, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
He took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him.
The story of the road to Emmaus is a familiar one for many Christians, and it is a popular illustration of Jesus’ interaction with the disciples after his resurrection from the dead. This story is set on the evening of Easter Day when a couple of dejected disciples find themselves on the road leaving Jerusalem. To their minds Jesus is dead, dead, and gone, and the rumours about his body having disappeared from the grave prove too much to take. They are leaving; leaving everything behind, walking away from their hopes and their dreams.
In the opening scenes of the Lord of the Rings Gandalf rebukes Frodo for his lack of faith saying, ‘A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.’ Now, although Jesus is by no means a wizard, his unexpected visit to the disciples does remind me a lot of this phrase. At the lowest point in in the disciples’ lives, when it seems too late for faith to be revived, Jesus makes a timely appearance, and eventually breaks down the dejection and the sorrow that prevent the disciples from recognising him, transforming their disappointment in uncontainable joy.
Luke often tries to locate the stories of his gospel with some degree of accuracy. But in this case we are not told by the evangelist where the meeting between Jesus and the two disciples took place; all we know is that it was somewhere at a short distance from Jerusalem, on a dusty road which the sorrows and the disappointments the disciples bore made even more slow and difficult to walk. Yet, this Luke’s inaccuracy about a specific location proves to be for our benefit; so that we may be able to relate a spiritual meaning of the story to our lives.
We may not know where the village of Emmaus was but ‘the road that leads there is the road every Christian, every person, takes.’ (BXVI) At various points dejection towards the Christian life can take hold of us, or maybe serious doubts can make the practice of religion more taxing. It is in these moments that we must seek the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus in the twofold ways highlighted in our gospel.
First, we see that as Jesus walked along the road with the disciples he explained to them the Scriptures pointing out to them all those things that the Old Testament, and particularly the prophets, foretold about him. Likewise we ought to nurture our faith with regular study of God’s Word, through prayer, discipleship courses, and reading religious publications, so that our faith may become grounded, rooted, in the soil of the Scriptures.
Secondly (and more importantly, I should add), we see in our reading that the disciples only recognise the Lord for who he really is in the moment of self-giving, in the moment in which he breaks for them the bread of eternal life. ‘The eyes of those who receive this … are opened that they should recognise Christ; for the Lord’s flesh has in it great and ineffable power’ (Theophylus). We too must approach Holy Communion as often as we can in the same way; as the encounter with Jesus who gives himself to us so that we may recognise him as the Lord, living and present in our midst.
The story of the road to Emmaus is a familiar one for many Christians, but it is more than just the narration of something that happened after Jesus’ resurrection. It is a simple pattern we readily apply for living the Christian life in the best way, by reading and praying the Scriptures, and receiving the Eucharist. And if we follow this pattern, our faith too will be transformed in the uncontainable joy of knowing the Risen Lord.
Which of the three men, do you think, was a neighbour to the one who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer replied, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’.
A couple of weeks ago as we were planning this service, we decided to steer clear of the word “community” as the theme for this celebration. And there are very good reasons for this. “Community” has become a buzzword to signify everything and anything that might bring or hold people together. Here at All Saints’ we are responsible for this as anyone else, given that the description on our website says, ‘A friendly and welcoming Christian community…’ But by overusing, and misusing, the word “community” we deprive it of any real meaning.
Yet, the gospel encourages everyone (Christians and otherwise) to consider a different approach towards bringing people together; not in terms of being a community – although the Church could be understood as a community of sorts – but in terms of coming together as good neighbours. This approach is somewhat different from what we have been used to hear over the last few decades, and it is definitely more challenging to embrace.
In the gospel passage that the Mayor has kindly read for us Jesus gives us an example of how belonging to a community can sometimes hamper the flourishing of other individuals. We see this in the priest and Levite who belong to the same community that served in the Jerusalem temple, and led the worship for the people of Israel. These two characters, seeing the man left for dead on the side of the road, cross over to the other side in order not to be defiled by coming in to contact with him, and so lose their sense of belonging to their own community. “He is not one of us”, the priest may have said to himself. “If I become ritually impure by touching this man, my community would banish me from service”, the Levite may have thought.
Their strong sense of belonging to a certain group of people prevents them from helping a stranger they encounter, giving him the time of day, and showing mercy towards his sorry state. Their inaction, which from their point of view is perfectly justifiable, becomes for us an example of how an inward-looking impersonal idea of community can actually do harm, by setting membership as a higher priority than doing good to others.
But to this example of strict adherence to a community Jesus contrasts the behaviour of another man, who would be cast as “the Good Samaritan” happily ever after because his actions. This remarkable man is not part of Israel’ society, in fact he and his fellow Samaritans are despised by the Israelites and considered the least trustworthy people around. Yet, he is the one who helps the man in his troubles, cares for him, and gives him back his human dignity; he sets aside his belonging to any specific community in order to help a fellow human being needing his attention. In short his is the one who acts as a good neighbour. The priest and the Levite are also neighbours in the sense that they find themselves in close proximity to the poor man, but they are bad ones and they do not do anything to help.
The gospel here teaches us that being good neighbours is something that transcends any idea of community each own of us might have; crucially it goes beyond religious creeds, political affiliation, nationality, or everything else. Being a good neighbour is about seeing the person next to me for who they are; another human being endowed with infinite worth, and, as such, seeing them also as worthy of my time, dedication, and care.
Our town is changing rapidly but this is by no means the first time that dramatic changes have altered the appearance and dynamics of this place. Indeed the town has been transformed many times beyond recognition since it started out as an Anglo-Saxon village over one thousand years ago. Nevertheless, as new roads and infrastructures are built and new people come to live here we, who already live here, have an even bigger chance to show ourselves as good neighbours to newcomers and old residents alike.
The gospel poses us an indirect question. What kind of neighbours do we want to be? Ones who care only for likeminded people, for members of our own little communities? Or ones who are there to help anyone we may find on our way?
The likelihood that everyone in Houghton will be part of the same community (whether through creed, nationality, or ethnicity) is very small indeed. But by learning to be good neighbours we will learn how to bring people together in a broader, more personal and lasting way… one small act of mercy, one cuppa, one generous offer of help at a time.
‘…he saw and he believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.’ John 20:8-9
Perhaps surprisingly, the gospel reading set for Easter Day presents us with the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord, without featuring Jesus himself. Instead, this passage is marked by frantic search for some tangible explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body; there are rumours of something having happened at the tomb overnight, perhaps fears that the resting place of Jesus has been vandalised, that the body has been stolen… There are witness statements to be confirmed, and a certain degree of shock to be overcome. But among all this uncertainty we encounter an example of faith which should help us in our own faith journey. This example is given to us by the Saint John, described in the gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In verses 8 and 9 we are told a peculiar phrase that has puzzled theologians ever since, we are told that John ‘saw and believed; Till this moment [Peter and himself] had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.’
John believed without understanding the Scriptures? Then what did John believe in? Can there be faith without full understanding of the Scriptures? A few Christian writers affirm that the words ‘saw and believed’ mean that John finally believed in what Mary Magdalene about Jesus’ body having been taken from the tomb (Cf. John 20:2). In a world where female witness counted very little, John and Peter run to the tomb to verify Mary’s story; so when John’s sees that the woman was right, he eventually believes in her statement – Jesus’ body is truly gone.
However, I would stand with other gospel interpreters in suggesting that John’s faith is actual faith in the resurrection as a mystery; faith in the inexplicable victory of Christ over death. John sees the grave clothes left neatly behind, he recalls the words of Mary, and something clicks in him – this cannot have been the work of very tidy grave robbers. John believes. He may not be able to articulate his faith very well at this stage, but an embryonic faith is already there; a faith which will later be confirmed in his sighting of Jesus – later in the gospel John is the first one of the disciples to recognise Jesus from afar and to shout with joy, ‘It is the Lord!’ (John 21:7). John believes in the very mystery of what happened; he may not be able to explain his faith using Scriptural references, yet he believes.
I believe John’s experience may be quite common among Christians. Oftentimes, people think that, as believers, we have everything figured out; that we have the answer to whatever theological question and extreme moral dilemma we might be face by. But the truth is that we don’t; we are works in progress not just in terms of how we behave, but even in terms of how we believe. In this sense, for many Christians having faith in a constant prayer saying, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24), and this is a good place to start.
But we go even a step further. For example, this morning we welcome James into the family of the Church, as he comes to the Lord supported by the faith of his parents and godparents, and by the faith of all God’s people in this place. James cannot articulate faith in God, but God accepts our faith, however great or small, on his behalf, and welcomes him in the number of his children. As James’ family, and as a wider congregation, all we need to do next is trying to grow in this faith, along with him, through grace, study, and prayer. Like Saint John, James will have occasions for his faith to mature, be strengthened, and confirmed in his own words; but in the meantime, we just need an open heart to believing and to be constant in prayer.