A Sermon by The Revd Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close
Acts 10 v 44-end and John 15 v 9-17
If you would, I’d like you to imagine the scene and the setting when Jesus was speaking these truly wonderful words that we have just heard from St John’s Gospel. For me these words are at the absolute heart of our faith and our very existence, and describe the very purpose of our lives, lives created by God in love.
Imagine the scene – where these ‘farewell discourse’s are given to the disciples over the course of that Maundy Thursday supper. The disciples are gathered around a low table, eating supper together as friends. They’ve been together for some three years or so and they know each other’s foibles and preferences – what makes them laugh and what makes them cry; their backgrounds and their trades and skills and so on. They know something about each other’s families - dependents that have been left behind when they were called from their fishing boats or tax collecting desks. So initially they would be happy and relaxed, no doubt looking forward to a socially rewarding and convivial time together with their leader away from the mobbing crowds. Perhaps with a sense of optimism that this new way of faith and belief in God really was becoming established; after all it was only four days since the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. For some perhaps of the disciples there was a growing sense of the significance of the occasion – some of them sensing that something new and special was about to happen; something that was to change their lives even more than anything in the past three years had. Relaxing on low cushions and eating just when they wished with their hands as was the practice then and perhaps commenting on the goat stew or the lovely figs and grapes and the bread and the wine. But it was like no other meal they had shared together – because Jesus had just done this most remarkable thing – he had washed their feet – the role of the lowliest person in the household and furthermore he had told them that they had to wash each-others’ feet too – a practical and living metaphor of the serving nature of our faith and the Christian life.
Now compare that to the setting here and dare ask the question of ourselves: do these astonishing words – indeed commands, sit comfortably here in what is at first glance the very opposite of that cosy dimly lit upper room somewhere in Jerusalem? This amazing place, built to the glory of God – approaching 800 years ago with it’s vast spaces and high ceilings and wonderful windows showering God’s creative light on us; and all sorts of robes and inspiring and soaring music – especially the Langlais setting of the Mass that we shall hear shortly, but contrast that to the Durufle’s Ubi caritas – ‘where love is’. They are in their own ways a ‘musical cathedral’ and a musical ‘upper room’
This Cathedral Church and the Upper Room may seemingly be physically extreme opposites but they both have the ability and purpose to corporately and privately centre our lives on the reason why God came to us as his Son: to share our lives and to change us - to suffer, to die and to rise again – and all this to demonstrate God’s abiding love for us and that we may love each other even to the point of giving our lives to each other.
With this in mind this weekend’s commemorations and celebrations of Victory in Europe - VE Day - are testament to the sacrifice of so many civilians as well as military people in the cause of freedom and democracy and the victory over the evils of Nazism at that time. It is right to commemorate and give thanks for the hardships bourn over those six years up to 1945 and the triumph of good over evil. Serving and sacrifice are an intrinsic aspect of the love Christ commands us to have for each other.
But to continue the topicality theme for a moment and do forgive me for mentioning the General Election we have all just experienced – as you may have had enough of it. I was gratified by the graciousness of a number of those who lost their seats and those who lost their leadership roles. There is here a reminder of the inherent fragility and strengths of the democratic freedoms that we enjoy – the freedoms of choice. Whatever our choices of our representatives the opportunity to choose is as a result of those who lost their lives and those who survived who gave so much of their lives – their love and service and it is their legacy that we enjoy today.
If we go back to glow of the Upper Room again - I’d like to think that John had that sense of the overwhelming significance of what Jesus was saying and doing. Remember John’s context – Jesus had not long before raised Lazarus from the dead and the Jewish authorities were out to kill him and Jesus. Jesus was building up to something – John had been on the mountain when Jesus was ‘transfigured’. It was a clear sign of God’s affirmation of his purposes of Jesus’s ministry - demonstrating that loving service and sacrificial death and resurrection were at the centre of his reason for coming amongst them and indeed us today. Look at the large amount of space John devotes to this one event – this ‘farewell discourse’ as it is often known by theologians – five chapters – a quarter of his Gospel. In it Jesus’s and through him God’s purposes for us, are revealed. And as our Epistle reading from Acts Chapter 10 reminds us, Christ’s love is unconditionally for everyone. It was a revelationary moment for Peter to discover that the Holy Spirit was given for non-Jews – Gentiles, and on discovering this, he did as he often did, he immediately embraced the new reality and he baptised them. The message here is again that the love of God is for every-one of us.
This Sunday - the Sunday before Ascension Day on Thursday, is sometimes celebrated as Rogation Sunday – when traditionally, and certainly in my experience of rural ministry, the crops in the fields and watercress beds and the fish in the rivers were blessed and prayers said, asking God’s blessing on the forthcoming harvest. Rogation comes from the Latin word ‘Rogare’ – to ‘ask’.
Today in this inspiring and ancient place and in the Upper Rooms of our own hearts and minds, God is asking us, indeed commanding us to love one another as he unfailingly loves us.