A sermon preached by Peter Groves, on Sunday 21st May 2023
It was twenty-eight years ago that a callow youth of twenty-five, newly arrived at Westcott House in Cambridge, was sent on parish placement to the Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury. This ordinand had spent his previous six years in Oxford and had arrived at theological college having already completed a DPhil. He knew a lot about academic theology, and very little about anything else, except perhaps football. His tutors wisely sent him to a part of Cambridge a little more touched by the realities of human living than was the university, and to a young but already experienced parish priest who was more than used to the sort of nerdy ordinand with whom we are doubtless all familiar.
That ordinand was me, and that parish priest was Andrew. Among the many things I learned from my placement supervisor was how to preach, so if you have any objections to what you hear this morning, you know whom to blame. Andrew was endlessly patient as he introduced me to the life of the church. He listened to my frustrations with theological education, he coaxed my shyness into friendship, he taught me not to cross my legs when wearing a cassock, and he even forgave the time I bunked off singing with the parish music group at the old folks home because I had gone to London to watch Queens Park Rangers.
I will always be thankful for the welcome that Andrew and Sarah offered me, a welcome not just into their church but into their home. They fed me literally as well as metaphorically and taught me that ministry is grounded in the reality of Christian love. In the church of the Good Shepherd just as here in Iffley, Christians lived out the truth that people are what makes community, and that church is first and foremost about people because Christianity is the religion of the incarnation. The gospel of the word made flesh is the good news of the God who does not judge us from afar but comes among us in all our weakness and vulnerability to reveal the true beauty of human living as a sharing in divine love.
For all this, we give thanks, and we acknowledge that the celebration of Christian ministry is always a celebration of the love of Christ in action. In particular people with particular callings, both lay and ordained, Christ enacts that love in the communities of the church and the communities in which the church is placed. It is wonderful to see so many people here this morning as we give thanks for Andrew and Sarah’s ministry in this place. And at the same time, we all know that there are countless people who are not here who have benefited from that ministry, in the communities of your parish and far, far beyond.
Our scripture readings this morning echo our language of farewell. Our gospel passage, from John 17, comes at the end of a long series of discourses, but it marks a break and an ending of what has gone before. Jesus knows that his time among his closest companions is at an end. He commends them in prayer to the Father. He anticipates what we heard from the Acts of the Apostles, when he will be taken from the physical presence of the disciples. They have been told not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, and after Jesus’ disappearance, they are upbraided by the mysterious men in white, who ask them “Men of Galilee, why do you stand their looking at the sky?” The question parallels the resurrection challenge, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Something has happened beyond our comprehending, but the correct response is not to stop and stare, but to go and do something, to get on with living out the consequences of these earth shattering theophanies.
The doing which is now required of the disciples, is to wait. And at this time in the church’s year, the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost, we join with the apostles in their task of waiting. But if we understand waiting to be something merely passive, we are not imitating those first followers of Jesus. They gather in the upper room in prayer, to wait upon God by opening themselves to his presence and the working out of his purpose in their lives, and in the world. The promise for which they wait is the outpouring of the Spirit which gives birth to what we now call the church, but that outpouring, that decisive act of God the Father, is not the end of their waiting but the beginning. The fulfilment of God’s promise is the empowerment of the apostles to begin the task of preaching the gospel, the task which we have inherited.
Our understanding of what it means to wait defines our Christian understanding of what it means to bid farewell. For Jesus and for his disciples, the task of saying goodbye is never an ending. It is a prefiguring of new life, a gateway to the new existence which is the life of the church in the power of the Spirit. Jesus goes to his death and leaves behind his disciples, only because his perfect death is his perfect resurrection and his return to those he loves is not a magic trick of resuscitation but the revelation of and invitation into the new world of Easter which transcends the limitations of life and death and time and space. As the fourth gospel makes clear, it is precisely his going away which creates the space for the new life of the church which will flourish as his body on earth.
Now of course, comparisons between God incarnate and any particular Christian ministers are apt to be overdone. Andrew and Sarah’s departure is not a parallel of the Ascension of Christ into heaven, or at least we assume not: should they be taken from our sight at the end of the service, I will happily reconsider my theological opinion. But the coming interregnum does create the space in which you as a church community will learn in new ways all that Andrew and Sarah have taught by their ministry here, and the ongoing working out of the love of Jesus Christ will be the greatest testimony of all they have achieved. As you look towards these coming months, pray for your churchwardens, for your assistant clergy, for your church council and for all the countless people who contributed in unnoticed and unacknowledged ways to the ministry of Christ in this place and among your people. It is that ministry – your ministry, God’s ministry – which will make this parish such a blessing to the person whom God calls to become your new vicar.
This morning, we look back and we look forward, we give thanks and we say farewell, knowing that in so doing we are looking forward to new life. As we wait upon God we do so with rejoicing for all that has been given to and in this place in the remarkable ministry of those to whom we are saying goodbye. And at the same time, we acknowledge that the ministry of waiting is nothing other than the mission of God himself, the simple Christian activity of finding the presence of the divine in our neighbour, in our community, in the worship of the church and the needs of the stranger. Waiting upon God, far from something static, is a ministry of following, of seeking the will of God and walking confidently into the future guided by the cross of Christ. It is in that way which Andrew and Sarah have walked among you, and in which they continue to walk. If we follow their example we will not go far wrong.