Sermon, Easter V, Sunday 15 May 2022, the Vicar

You might have seen in the notices that we have our triennial visitation from the Archdeacon on Wednesday. It’s a mixture of pep-talk, Ofsted and gutter inspection.

Archdeacons don’t get the best press in the canon of English literature. Archdeacon Mr Theophilus Grantly, Rector of Plumstead Episcopi is described by his creator Anthony Trollope in the Warden as looking

like an ecclesiastical statue … as a fitting impersonation of the church militant here on earth; his shovel hat, large, new, and well-pronounced, his heavy eyebrow, large, open eyes, and full mouth and chin expressed the solidity of his order; the broad chest, amply covered with fine cloth, told how well to do was his estate; one hand ensconced within his pocket, evinced the practical hold which our mother church keeps on her temporal possessions; and the other, loose for action, was ready to fight if need be for her defence.

The Archdeacon of Hampstead is a rather different and more approachable character.

I hope you don’t mind if my sermon this morning takes the form of a letter to him, which I will ensure he gets. It arises to some extent from a set of online forms our churchwardens need to complete, and from the preparations for his visit, I draw in some thoughts about today’s readings as well so that the Gospel will indeed be preached.

Dear Archdeacon,

We are looking forward to welcoming you to St Mark’s.

Perhaps you might be asking us how we have fared during the Pandemic?

We might want to think about what we are discerning about the Church and its future.

We know that diocesan forms ask us to categorise all our expenditure in terms of Mission; we would certainly like a word about that with you.

There is a new General Synod, and there will be a Lambeth Conference this Summer. For the Church of England there is now a tight agenda in the debate and reception of the Living in Love and Faith process.

Looked at all together, what are the signs of the times and where might things be going? What does the significance of this moment in the Easter season spell for us as we turn towards what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel about his departure, the character of our love, and the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem in the lesson from Revelation?

How have we fared in this two years? This feels like a provisional answer because time is yet to tell in some ways. But as the parish priest, I remember closing the doors on Mothering Sunday 2020, knowing it might be a little while before we opened them again, but not guessing it would be anything like as long as it was to be. I felt perplexed, numb, fearful, and very sad. To think that a place of gathering, of refuge, of hope and communion, could be a place of danger, of infection and harm. Perhaps it is fruitless to regret the interdict, which meant clergy were explicitly banned from tolling their bells at times of prayer or even entering their churches. Did hope escape us? Was there a hesitation from our hierarchy when we most needed it? Thank goodness in the months that followed, when easing meant cautious return, and local decision-making was empowered again, that sense of super-caution dissipated. And hurrah, we were allowed to meet again. On that July Sunday, as we opened the doors ceremoniously once more, the utter joy of seeing friendly smiling faithful faces was the most deeply moving gift. In that time of terrible suffering, we lost virtually no one, but the shock, the remoteness, the pain of separation has left a mark. There was so little with which to compare it and prepare us for it. Not to have known trauma is not to have been human. All the more real the joy of return. All the more real the celebration of togetherness. Our virtual life was not bad, indeed aspects were fun, imagination was remarkable and we did not give up our coming together. We have been strengthened by it, tested in the fire perhaps, but so grateful for our return.

What have we learned about God, what has he taught us? Perhaps most signally that we are not as supreme as we might think. A virus of microscopic proportions has placed the life of the world on hold. It has illuminated dreadful and growing injustice at all levels of society. It has caused us to think of ourselves in relationship with others, and to value human relations more than ever.

As churches return to their former patterns or discover new ones, we realise that the Church itself is thinking again about its life and order. What is essential; what is extraneous. We cannot claim revival, we know we have been “the only show in Town” for much of the time since July 2020 when things re-opened, and healthier numbers may be a positive spin-off of that. But the fact people wanted to come to church, and were open to unusual innovations like garden micro-matins on the Sundays we were shut or when people did not want to gather inside, was an encouragement. When we could not sing, wow were were grateful for professional singers who could, and not least when two singers in one household standing together but at long distance from others in a big church meant for a bigger choir!

We find ourselves in this new moment completing forms which ask about Mission. It was quite hard to do this because worship and maintenance, all costly parts of our budget were separated out from mission – when we view them as at its core. Beautiful worship speaks to the soul, it invites, challenges, soothes, encourages – in short it does all the things we think Jesus told his disciples to do. It is an invitation. The mass itself derives from words which give us mission Ite missa est. When we are dismissed in the peace of Christ at the end of the Mass, we are missionised. That is what the term mass means. Dismissed – sent out into the world to share the Good News, which is encapsulated in our worship. Why have segmented mission from worship, or even from maintenance. This building is our mission. We beautify it and adorn it because from its heart springs forth our life. It is the well-spring of the Good News. Its spire is the confident sign pointing this community to God. Its bells ring out the wild joy of our faith and mark when bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ in this community, for the love of the world. Why cannot worship and love of this building be seen as missional?

We know that the wider Church is discerning God’s will in matters of great seriousness in relation to human and gender and sexual identity. There are to be debates and even decisions about this at the level of the National Church. We have engaged with this and our youngest ever preacher has challenged us to engage with not only the modern world but the younger generation in re-thinking how human love might be sanctified. Living in Love and Faith has been an impressive process. Might it not be cop out if in partial summary, and with liberal hearts on sleeves we admit that the traditional teaching of the Church about marriage must remain key, but perhaps cannot encapsulate all that Christians might want to say about human love. We can see that marriages do not always reflect Divine love and some do die. Divine love can be seen in the commitment of people in their lives together. In the discussions which will follow, we pray for the Unity of the Church, and the subservience of human will to God’s will. There is more still to learn and discover.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading comes from that moment after Judas has left the upper room – there is a chill in the last words of the verse which precedes today’s reading – And it was night.

Jesus says “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you. A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.”

Archdeacon, please know from the parish priest at St Mark’s, as we turn to Ascension that this community loves one another. They do so with tremendous care and tenderness and acceptance. Our mission is to live by word and sacrament, to be sustained by prayer and worship, and to extend God’s love into this community by loving service and a simple welcome.

We know that our attempts to be disciples fail, and we are beset with human frailty and personal shortcomings, but yearn for “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” As John depicts it.

In the Gospel, love that is shared, as Jesus says, is his legacy, as he departs: By this all will know you are my disciples. His remaining love is typified in the descending heavenly City. We cannot establish this by ourselves, many have tried, mistaking their human Jerusalems for the heavenly one. We pray that striving and hoping for that heavenly city may hasten its presence in our hearts and in our lives. Amen.

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