A sermon preached on Sunday 19 May 2019 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Acts 11.1-18; John 13.31-35)
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Where I am going you cannot come......By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ In other words, when I’m not here in person, people will know about me because you love one another.
When I saw that passage set for the gospel reading today, I immediately assumed that the anthem later in the service would be Thomas Tallis’ ‘If ye love me’. As you will soon find out, my prediction was worth about as much as the confident prediction I heard yesterday that Australia would win the Eurovision Song Contest; besides, as no doubt our musicians noticed but I didn’t, Tallis’ text is actually a quotation from the next chapter of John, not this one. Nonetheless it’s apposite, because because it embodies so much to which we are pointed today. The composer’s long life embraced most of the 16th century, and so he reached his maturity as a composer when worship in England was largely in Latin and included the most elaborate polyphonic music. He then lived through the traumatic upheavals of Tudor politics and religion, and spent the last decades of his life composing for a Church which worshipped in English, which gave primacy to the scriptures, and in which there was great suspicion of anything in worship which was highly decorated. The contrast is exemplified by comparing Tallis’ Spem in Alium, with its Latin text being sung in 40 different musical lines, and If ye love me, with its clearly heard passage from the English Bible.
And of course that anthem was written in a period when many English Christians demonstrably did not love one another. This was an era of fierce disputes and extreme positions in religion, when many saw no good in compromise and zealous passions could lead to very nasty outcomes. There have been many such periods in the two millennia of Church history.
Starting at the very beginning, in fact. We, the clergy here, have been meeting over the last few weeks to read together Paul’s letter to the Galatians; in there his rage at what he regarded as misleading Christian teaching is exemplified by this sentence: ‘I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.’ Not, I should say, a text I have yet felt the call to preach upon. But that passion was there too in Paul’s contentious relationship with Peter, as can be seen in both Paul’s letters and in the Acts of the Apostles. But if Peter was being harassed on one side by the likes of Paul, he also found himself criticised from another wing of the Christian community, and we heard something of that this morning. He went up to Jerusalem, we are told, and the first thing that people said to him was ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Theresa May has been facing comparable views about her recent overtures to the Labour Party. Neither religious nor political purists have ever liked the smell of compromise.
So no surprise that we are told that Peter trod warily through this minefield - he ‘began to explain it to them, step by step’. And his account, we are told, had the effect of silencing his critics, and changing their minds. No such luck so far for Mrs May.
Well, if there have always been people for whom tribal boundaries, purity and principle are the key, so too there have always been those for whom something much more immediate and practical comes first, and we have lost one such this week in the person of Jean Vanier. He met disregarded human need on a disheartening scale, and he simply befriended that need; he didn’t consciously set up a great movement, but simply acted as he was able. And the results have been transformative, arguably for millions of individuals and in the attitudes of societies. He did this not by shaming or criticising, but by loving.
In our times of political wrangling and confusion, when everyone knows what is wrong but none can reach agreement on what is right, we Christians, no doubt holding our own strongly-held views, have a lot to learn - and a lot to give - from the words of Jesus and the example of Vanier. Jesus tells us that his good news will be known insofar as we love one another; and Vanier showed us the power of love.
We are here this morning to take part in the meal that Jesus was sharing with his friends when he commanded them to love. If that is its outcome, who can predict its power?