Sermon for the Feast of Simon & Jude, Apostles 28 October 2020
How do I get to have a memorial in this cathedral? One of our guides asked me this last week. It was a tongue-in-cheek question but a good one, as we only recently drew up a policy on this very thing. When we were debating it there was a view that we would not add to our many memorials unless the person in question had made a really significant contribution to church, community, or wider world. Grahame, our Cathedral Archaeologist, agreed, with this qualification: as long as that did not mean only the great and the good.
Quite right. In his profession of archaeology the headlines are often grabbed by high-status discoveries, but at least as significant is the patient work of gradually building up a picture of ordinary lives in, say, Roman Bath or medieval Wiltshire. If you look at our model by the north porch door of this building under construction, you find yourself asking questions about how those tiny figures lived: what they ate, for instance, when they came off shift, perhaps after working that piece of stone beside you as, day by day, they shaped our life here just as did bishops and canons, the great and good of their day.
You might say that apostles are the blue-chip great and good of the church, but the church has treated some as greater than others. If one of these grand tombs around us here is the equivalent of Peter, then Simon and Jude, whom we give thanks for today, are just a couple of brass plaques in a side chapel. Perhaps not even that: the collect, the special prayer for their feast day, doesn’t even mention them by name. Who knows, though, how really significant they were, how much they helped the cause of their Master? A quiet word by Simon to restrain a celebrity apostle from doing something stupid, or the willingness of Jude to do something rather than be something.
Instead, their collect uses phrases from the letter to the Ephesians, our reading, which describe a corporate vision rather than one of great individuals: if the people of God together make up a building, then Jesus is the cornerstone; apostles, even our two obscure ones, are foundation blocks; and we are stones built upon them. But what kind of stones?
Three years ago I spent rather longer then I would have chosen waiting in the sun to get into St Peter’s great church in Rome. As the queue crept forward we at last got some shade from one of the huge colonnades built by Bernini to embrace St Pater’s Square (which isn’t square at all). I had plenty of time to study the Travertine stone that made up the 186 columns and pilasters of that structure. Each seemed all but flawless; and so bright, as if it was brand new. Had they recently been cleaned, I wondered, or did they always look like that?
Look by contrast at our columns here, made up of drums of Purbeck stone. The colours vary, some are rather blotchy; others look almost grubby; tiny fossils speak of a murky past. If Bernini’s columns look like they’ve floated down from heaven, these have definitely come up from the earth. One stone on its own doesn’t look much; but, joined together, they are make something beautiful. And they do a good job, each column supporting at least as much weight, I suspect, as its glamorous cousin in Rome.
Each of these great Christian buildings speaks to me of God. But I know which I find more believable as an image for the spiritual building that is the people of God – it’s this one, in which blemished individuals are joined together to make a thing of beauty and strength.
Never more than now has our society needed communities of people like that, who are prepared to give themselves to something greater than they are, who do not let their imperfections stop them from doing something significant, and who want to do something rather than be something.
Here by God’s grace we learn this, as living stones joined together on the foundation of these all but anonymous apostles, fed by the Real Presence of Christ, and built into a dwelling place for God.