Acts 16: 9-15 John 14: 23-29
A sermon preached by the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
It must be a Salisbury thing: this is the second time in nine months that I have found myself preaching from the underside of a giant orb suspended from the spire crossing. At Christmas the Star of Bethlehem twinkled above my head; now, Luke Jerram’s Gaia floats above us and proclaims that the Salisbury International Arts Festival has begun. I have the strange sensation that I’m preaching to the southern hemisphere…
This year’s festival draws its inspiration from two significant anniversaries. In 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon (I began with his words on looking at the Earth from space). In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. Both were occasions when a boundary was crossed. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins traversed the vast expanse of space that separates this planet from its nearest satellite. The stark concrete barrier that symbolized our continent’s division for more than thirty years was torn down. The crossing of these boundaries in 1969 and 1989 were both occasions when our understanding of ourselves was changed and enlarged. A new capacity to penetrate the heavens meant that we were no longer confined to the Earth or in our view of the Earth. We could see it, in Armstrong’s words, as the size of a pea. The collapse of the Wall meant that we were no longer confined to the West or to the East, to the Two Tribes that my generation sang about in the early 1980s. We were no longer confined by the ideologies that they represented.
Well, this morning’s first reading recalls another occasion when a boundary was crossed. It’s arguably every bit as momentous as the two that the Festival celebrates. Troas, where St Paul is staying when the readings opens, is on the northern tip of Turkey’s west coast. He has a vision of a call to Macedonia and he acts upon it. He crosses to Philippi, in northern Greece. I’m well aware that Eurovision stretches the boundaries of our understanding of what is European. Australia? Who knew? But this is indisputably Paul’s first visit to mainland Europe. It is the first recorded moment when the Gospel of Jesus Christ reaches our continent.
Surely that counts as momentous? Think of the massive historical impact that the Christian faith has had on this country and on our European neighbours, a massive historical impact for good and for ill. This is the moment that it all begins – outside Philippi, down by the river, with Lydia, who Paul meets at the place of prayer where the local Jewish community gathers. Lydia is the first named European Christian. How ironic that we read of this momentous occasion today, as we await the results of elections to the European Parliament that may be the last in which we ever participate, and as we contemplate the fate of another Prime Minister who has fallen victim to our country’s pathological uncertainty about what it is or where it belongs.
“Is God still an Englishman?” asked one author nearly ten years ago. It’s good moment to recall that Christian faith did not originate in mainland Europe. It was brought here from the East, from beyond our shores. That’s worth recalling as we reflect on the political debates of the last three years and the controversies that are undoubtedly erupting even as I speak. The story of Lydia is the story of a gift of incalculable value, a gift that is brought from a far-away place. It is the story of a gift unlooked for and unexpected. It is the story of a businesswoman of independent means who is open to receiving that gift. In the story of Lydia, the notion of self-sufficiency, which has played such a fundamental part in our recent national discourse, is exposed and found wanting. It is exposed and found wanting because it is antithetical to the Gospel.
“If you loved me,” says Jesus “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I”. Those words caused huge controversy among the Fathers of the Church. They threatened the delicate ecosystem of the Holy Trinity that was under construction in that era, an ecosystem which assumed three divine Persons, equal in majesty and equal in worth, co-existing eternally in one perfect Godhead. But “…the Father is greater than I” insists Jesus. What can it mean for one divine Person to claim that another divine Person is greater? After all, nothing gets any greater than divinity.
But Armstrong stood on the moon’s surface and saw that the Earth was tiny, one beautiful heavenly body among other heavenly bodies. And the people of East Berlin and West Berlin stood on either side of the wall and determined that it would divide them no longer. With his words Jesus explodes the delusion that to be is to be self-sufficient, and that to be great is to be self-sufficient. He explodes the delusion that to be great is not to need anything from anyone, that to be great is to stand alone in noble isolation. Jesus has come from the Father; Jesus is going to the Father. It is the coming of the Son, and the going of the Son, that makes the Father a Father. Greatness and relatedness are inseparable.
Surely this has massive consequences for how we understand ourselves and for how we behave? Andrew Smith, a speaker at this year’s Festival, writes in his book Moon Dust that the crew of Apollo 8, the first to leave Earth’s orbit, saw the Moon as “an awesome globe, cool and remote, without sound or motion, magisterial but issuing no invitation whatsoever”. Apparently self-sufficient, perhaps, and in stark contrast to the vivid blue and green of Earth, which Luke Jerram has captured so well in Gaia. “The Earth sang to them from afar” writes Smith.
Jesus promises that he will make his home wherever he is loved and wherever his word is obeyed. He promises that he will make his home wherever he is welcomed, wherever he is invited. That’s what home is. It’s where we are made welcome. The Earth invited the crew of Apollo 8. It invites us. This planet, Earth; this continent, Europe; this United Kingdom; this city; this Cathedral: home, not because we can shut ourselves away in any one of them and believe ourselves to want for nothing and no one. But home because we have been made welcome. The dusty itinerant rabbi Paul was made welcome in the home of the successful merchant Lydia. East Berliners were made welcome in West Berlin, and West Berliners were made welcome in East Berlin on the day the wall came down.
Home, where because we have been made welcome, we can make others welcome. Amen.