He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Most clergy, and indeed many of you no doubt, chair committees. I have just become the chair of another committee and on Monday I had a meeting with the person who described herself as “the person who will keep you out of prison.” In other words, I was in a meeting which was briefing me about my legal responsibilities, the essential things which I needed to ensure happen in the right order each year in order to constitute, maintain and allow the flourishing of this little committee. And of course it’s all important stuff which I shall take seriously and try to do well. But it got me thinking about belonging. I left that meeting wondering how I would define the identity of that little group of people. Would it be the legal definition, the constitution, and if not entirely by that, what else would I want to say? It comes back to the question that we thought about in Lent – who am I? Who are we?
Throughout Eastertide we hear early sections of the Acts of the Apostles as our first reading at the Eucharist, and so what we are hearing are accounts of the very first Christians trying to work out what it means to have had their worlds entirely turned upside down by the events of Easter morning. At this point we’re not really talking about churches, just little groups of people coalescing around something, someone, and finding that this has given them an identity which surprises them and excites them, and for which they are willing to do and say some really rather extraordinary things. The twisted minds of the lectionary compilers thought it would be a good idea this morning to give us the seven verses from Acts Chapter 4, without the explanation of what happened earlier. So just to remind you, Peter and John have healed the man who was lying at the Beautiful Gate, a man who had some sort of disease or illness affecting his ankles and legs. He couldn’t walk. And Peter and John are able to bring about his healing, and the rulers, elders and scribes of the Jewish authorities bring Peter and John in for questioning over this incident and also over the preaching which they have been doing since the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
And they’re interested in this thing about belonging. Who are you? Who do you belong to? “By what power or by what name did you do this?” I preached about the importance of names last year – there’s no reason why you should remember that: I can’t remember where my keys are – but this does come up a lot in the Bible. Names matter because they identify you. They have power. They denote belonging. By what name did you heal this man? Who do you belong to?
And then in our Gospel reading, the words of Jesus to his disciples before his death and resurrection are also all about belonging. Why is he crucified? Because he is as a shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, for the flock which he has committed, promised to guard. And again the thing about identity: “My own know me and I know them.” What makes you a member of this flock – well it’s knowing and being known, which is a favourite theme of St Paul as well of course: “now we see as in a glass, darkly, but then we shall see face to face. Then we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known.”
Paul is clear, as is Christ in today’s Gospel, that God knows who we are. Jesus knows his flock, and that is what makes them the flock. And then there is of course that wonderful and curious verse which is one of the great proof texts for a more universalist approach to salvation: “I have other sheep, who do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.” Many sheepfolds, perhaps, all belonging to the same shepherd, all following the same voice, even if they have no concept that there might be others listening out for that voice calling to them, calling to us to follow. “The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never”.
So to whom do we belong? All of us of course have manifold and interlocking sets of identities. I am interested about this thing of Christian belonging not being about membership though, but about being known. So there are lots of different groups and organisations represented here this morning. Girls of Godolphin, how would you define your belonging to Godolphin school? Those of you who know for which political party you will vote in two weeks’ time, how do you know that your political identity belongs there? Or are you not sure? Will you be making a compromise? Aligning your identity and the identity of the party which perhaps least mis-represents you? What are the criteria for defining where those migrants in the Mediterranean Sea belong? People are keen to be able to define that, politically mostly, but also morally. And, here’s the really interesting one – what’s the difference between belonging to God, to the flock, and belonging to any one of the communities of Salisbury Cathedral, I wonder?
It’s so exciting to see the Sunday Club continuing, and wasn’t it lovely to see them process out from the font this morning. That’s a congregation right there, maybe only of two or three people, part of this flock here and part of the greater Flock.
Emma and I were worshipping two weeks ago in a church in Shrewsbury where the vicar at the end of the service told some truths to his congregation. It was remarkably powerful. One of them was that he related that several people had come up to him and asked him if he could “do something” about the children. Because they were noisy and excitable in worship, and they were saying Alleluia too loudly! He said to the congregation. No. I can’t. They are members of this family. And anyway Alleluia is supposed to be said loudly! It reminded me of a priest friend of mine in Gloucester who, one morning decided to send the adults out of church after the Greeting and keep the children in the building. So all the adults trooped off to the hall for their worship and the children did their Sunday Club in church. Wow! But why not? Different locations, different style, same flock.
And a flock with, when we dig down into the middle of it, one single defining character. That Jesus knows them. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me.”
You are God’s own. When the baptismal cross is inscribed upon your forehead, the minister says, “Christ claims you as his own.”
We’re going to sing one of my favourite Easter hymns in a few minutes, “At the Lamb’s high feast we sing.” I love it for a number of reasons. It’s ancient – am Ambrosian hymn in origin, and it ends with that hugely confident statement, “Easter triumph! Easter joy!” What is the triumph, what causes the joy? Being known.
We are going to hear a huge amount in the next fortnight about membership, identity, belonging. About where people belong, about which groups they deserve to qualify for.
The victory, the triumph of Easter, is that the defining feature of God’s interest in us is that he knows us. “I know who you are”, says the Lord, to you, to me, to the rest of the flock, whoever they are. I know who you are. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. Let us not make his love too narrow. Let us not collapse our belonging to the fold and flock of Christ into membership of one club or the other, even one as cherished as the Church of England.
Narrowness of vision is, I suspect, of little interest to a God who, for love of the flock he knows, will roll aside even a stone.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!