A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 15 May 2022.
I wonder how familiar you are with the idea of liminal spaces or liminal times or liminal places? I’ve mentioned them before.
Take a building, for instance. The hallway or porch is a liminal space because it’s an in-between place – either on your way into or out of the building. It’s not a place where you linger.
Another example would be an airport. You haven’t reached your destination when you get there, rather it’s a place that you pass through in order to arrive somewhere else.
The pattern is one of orientation when we’re in our familiar surroundings, to disorientation when we’re in a liminal space, leading to reorientation when we’ve found our bearings and are in a new frame of mind or place or time.
Because a liminal place is a place of transition, it’s often experienced by us as a place of tension and anxiety. They’re unfamiliar places because by their very nature we don’t stay there any longer than we have to.
But equally liminal places or times can be full of opportunity. On a flight back from the Middle East women wearing burkhas might go into the toilet to change during the flight and come out wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
We can reframe or rethink or redefine ourselves in a liminal space however difficult and uncomfortable such spaces may be to pass through.
I think we’re living through just such a liminal time now. Things are not how they were pre-pandemic, and the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis have meant that we’ve not yet arrived at a stable post-pandemic world. We’re living in an in-between place.
Life’s full of these liminal experiences and as a consequence so too are the scriptures. With this in mind, I want to reflect on two of today’s scripture passages.
First the gospel reading: it comes at a liminal time when Jesus is with his disciples at the last supper. The person who’s just left the upper room is Judas, gone to betray his master to the authorities. The atmosphere is full of foreboding as Jesus uses words that the disciples dreaded hearing:
‘I am with you only a little longer.’
With their master over the last three years, the disciples have only just begun to orientate their minds and hearts round his teaching and now he’s to leave them and inevitably they’ll be disorientated.
One of them betrays him, another denies him and they’re all scattered each to their own homes. And in this context what is the teaching that Jesus gives them?
Love one another. Be gentle with each other. Don’t underestimate kindness. It’s particularly important at times such as these.
Or take the period of the early church. It too was a liminal time. The old established ways of doing things had been completely upended for the disciples on Easter day; and it continued to be upended until new patterns and ways had been established – it took a few centuries for that to happen.
Bearing this in mind, perhaps light will be thrown on today’s first reading from the book of Acts. There we heard about Peter being criticized for going to the Gentiles and eating with them. This was something Jews were not permitted to do and so at least initially it was not something that the first Christians did either.
So why had Peter done it?
In his defense Peter first recounts a vision that he’s had of a large sheet coming down out of heaven and it has four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles and birds of the air on it, all of which were forbidden for Jews to eat. Yet Peter hears God telling him to do just that – kill and eat. This happens three times and the sheet is then taken up again.
Having his mind and heart prepared by this vision, Peter is receptive to what happens next. Three Gentiles turn up at his door and the Spirit tells Peter not to make any distinction between ‘them and us’ but to go with them.
Peter then has to face a deeply uncomfortable but transforming truth – Gentiles too are now becoming Christians and even receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Peter concludes his defense:
‘If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us
… who was I that I could hinder God?’
The first Christians were having their whole world thrown up into the air by Christ’s resurrection and they were stumbling into this new world that they found themselves in after Easter.
They were living through a liminal time, an uncomfortable time, a time full of difficulty, but also full of opportunity. What would happen if they gave up their dietary laws? Should Gentiles be circumcised if they became Christians? What was it that Christians should build their identity round if not round those things that they were so used to from their Jewish inheritance? Who knew?
Saint Paul did. It was his genius that provided the language and ideas for a new theological vision that built the identity of Christians round the death and resurrection of Christ.
‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation’ Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, ‘The old has passed away. Behold the new is born.’
These words greet us every time we come into church engraved round the cover of the font – and they are breathtaking.
‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, The old has passed away. Behold the new is born.’
Saint Paul was called to help lead the early church from disorientation to reorientation.
So liminal times such as we’re going through are not uncommon. Read the scriptures with this in mind and we can find rich spiritual and theological treasure to sustain us.
Such times are ones of discomfort and unease. All the more important to remember Christ’s teaching: love one another – be gentle with each other – don’t underestimate kindness.
Christ is with us just as he promised he would be. He’s with us not just to strengthen and sustain us, but also to offer new opportunities and fresh insights. That’s what those giants of the early church, Peter and Paul, discovered.
Pray God, we may discover that too.
Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.