A sermon preached by Graham Low on Sunday 16 May at 10 a.m.
Three days ago we celebrated Christ’s Ascension, marking the time when Jesus blessed his disciples, withdrew from them, and was carried up into heaven. At this point the disciples began to understand at a deeper level that the person who ascended is human, one with us, and yet he is God, one with the Father. Luke tells us that the disciples then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God. And so the church began the life which we rejoice to share in today over two millennia later.
Our reading from the Acts of the apostles reminds us that the disciples, in a sense the original members of the church, felt that they should replace Judas to make up their symbolically significant number of twelve. Mattias was chosen, but we hear no more about him. Very soon the disciples realised that they could not possibly lead the very rapidly growing body of new Christians on their own. Influential though the disciples initially were, the early life of the church was rapidly shaped in complex ways by its origins in Judaism, by the testimony of those who witnessed Jesus’ ministry, and by evolving thinking, writing, worship and practical customs in more and more of the world.
By the time of the second century much had been written from varied points of view about the Christian life. Many of these important texts are incomplete and their authorship is not always known, such as in the now well-known second-century letter to Diognetus. The unknown author says Christians are ordinary people, going about ordinary lives. We do not dress in particular ways. We have no particular attitudes to food. We live in the places we find ourselves in. We do not form a tribal or ethnic group. But strikingly, he says that we reside in our countries as aliens. We take our part in everything as citizens, and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is our home and every home a foreign land.
There is a sense that these words mirror the words we have just heard in John’s gospel. Yes, we belong and live here in Iffley, or wherever we may live, and yet we also do not live here. Our true home, our final home, our kingdom is coming but has yet to arrive. Whenever and wherever we pray the Lord’s prayer we echo the same idea as we say “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven”.
This clearly raises the question of where we do belong. Our immediate answers to that question may be very different: quite a few people will say that they feel that they belong in the place where they were born, or grew up, or raised their family, or had their happiest holidays, or where they live now. But Jesus’ answer is that we are in the world, yet not part of it. Once Jesus’ ministry began we are not told of any particular place where he belonged. Early church thinking was that the world was a place of transit, of temporary residence, and thus not to be dwelt on too deeply. But this does not go along with what Jesus said. Jesus was sent into the world, and he reminded us that we too are sent into the world.
The gospels remind us constantly that we are in the place we find ourselves in order to be fully engaged in its life: in all its joys, muddles, sorrows, contradictions and needs. As we have been reminded in recent sermons, we are called to abide in our places. At the same time we are called to abide in God, who gives the resources we need to abide in our communities. In addition, we are to participate in bringing God’s blessing to those we encounter by our words and actions. We do this because we share in the divine nature.
In an ultimate sense Jesus tells us that although we do not belong to the world, we are to engage and care for it with love and joy and peace, and without any limit whatsoever. May God always give us the grace to do this.