Sermon by The Reverend Trevor Jamison
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields
Based upon a sermon preached at
Brentwood United Reformed Church, April 27th 2008
A poem, written in 1971 by an eleven-year-old boy, looking back at his first day at school in the mid-1960s:
The first half hour
Seemed to be a
One girl launched
Herself at the window
When she saw
Her mother walk down the drive.
I felt the rattle of the
While I was leaning against
I was alright,
My mother had assured me
She’d come back,
I only had a vague uneasiness.
TREVOR JAMISON (11)
They seem to manage things more smoothly these days, or is just that it is now much harder to identify one’s first day at school. Many children who appear for the first time at infant school already have a substantial education and childcare career under their belts, courtesy of attendance at nurseries, play groups and spending time with child minders. Perhaps they are spared that sudden feeling of being left behind by a loved one, that terror of being left bereft by someone you trust and love. Or perhaps the experience just comes to them a little earlier in life, or it builds up gradually rather than being experience of one traumatic moment.
Like a wise parent, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. In this Gospel passage he is preparing them for his death on the cross. But John’s Gospel looks beyond the cross – crucifixion and resurrection – anticipating Jesus’s return to God, the Father. Unsurprisingly the disciples are worried about what all this might mean and so Jesus reassures them, “I will not leave you bereft; I am coming back to you.” (14: 18)
Now Jesus anticipates Pentecost, speaking of his presence with the disciples in terms of an advocate who will be with the disciples for ever – the Spirit of Truth. (14: 17) How important for us today, disciples of Jesus, to feel the presence of the Spirit, a comfort, advocate and guide, in difficult times that leave many of us feeling bereft.
And we do, many of us, to some extent feel bereft, living in this land in this time. If you were been born here or grown up here you have experienced the acceleration in the pace of change that marks so many aspects of life in twenty-first century Western countries – technological, economic, and social. The older you are the more challenging it is to keep up. Each generation enters into world different from that experienced by their parents.
For others here today the shock of the new comes from having moved from our native land to a new country. People seem to have a different outlook, different practices, different beliefs to those of the land from which we have come. Change can be stimulating. Diversity can be exciting and enriching. Too much, too quickly, though, and we feel overwhelmed, bereft of the customs and rules that provided the framework which guided they ways we lived the old life.
The additional twist to these experiences is to be part of the Christian Church whose status and numbers have declined, whose standing in society has diminished. No wonder some Christians feel they have been left bereft. Either the church they have known has declined or disappeared, or the new church they have encountered in a new land seems a strange institution in comparison to the one they have left behind.
How important then to look beyond the discomfort of the present situation, comforted by the belief that wherever we are and in whatever situation, Jesus promises that he, that God, will be with us: “I will not leave you bereft; I am coming back to you.” (14: 18) Comforting words, fine words, but can they inspire us to deal with the situations we face? How helpful it is also to have a reading from the Acts of the Apostles where St Paul is having to find his way in an unfamiliar setting, relying on God’s guidance, relying on the presence of Jesus. Paul is relying on the Spirit of truth to enable able him to speak to the people around him concerning the hope that is within him.
The method that Paul employs is to make connections with Athenian society whilst at the same time remaining confident in Jesus. Paul takes a look around him and observes what is important to the Athenians – the gods. He makes this the starting point for what he has to say. He remarks that they are scrupulous, even to the point of leaving space for gods that they have not yet heard about. He takes care to speak their language, quoting their poets and philosophers in support of what he has to say. Even as he connects with others, however, Paul retains confidence in Jesus, staying true to the “God who created the world and everything in it, and who is Lord of heaven and earth, [who] does not live in shrines made by human hands.” (Acts 17: 24)
Paul’s confidence is not in the church but in Jesus. There’s not actually much of a church around to be confident in at that point in the Christian story, and what there is seems to be in a state of flux and conflict. That’s a lesson for us: in a time of change and upheaval we will be best able to weather the storm if we place our ultimate confidence not in church, but in Jesus. It’s not that I think the church is unimportant, but it’s a matter of priorities.
One saying that has stayed with me and I’ve found useful in this regard comes, I think, from the 20th century English Congregationalist, C J Cadoux. It concerns ministers and churches. He said, you can have as high a view of the ordained ministry as you like as long as you have a higher view of the church; and you can have as high a view of the church as you like as long as you have a higher view of Christ. In a time when society, the United Reformed Church, its ministry and congregations are in flux, that’s a helpful saying to remember.
Such is Paul’s confidence in Jesus that, whilst remaining aware of the need to connect with others, he is prepared to be contentious, even if it loses him part of his audience: “God has overlooked the age of ignorance”, he tells these Athenians, “but now he commands men and women everywhere to repent, because he has fixed the day on which he will have the world judged, and justly judged, by a man whom he has designated; of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (17: 30-31)
For the majority of a Greek audience, understanding the soul to be distinct from and superior to the body, this talk of bodily resurrection is the breaking point. Most depart, some scoffing, some prepared to talk again. Only a few become believers – Dionysius, Damaris and “others besides”, so at least four of them. Some people today read this passage and say, “this is where Paul went wrong”. If he had stuck to making connections rather than being contentious the speech would not have been a failure. I know Paul’s preaching will be held to a higher standard than mine (which is a considerable relief to me) but if I ever preached a sermon that resulted in four or more people coming to faith I’d regard that as an unprecedented, rip-roaring success and that I had got something right for once, not wrong.
For our time we really need to share Paul’s conviction about the continued presence of Jesus as the basis of our confidence, both to connect to the concerns of this society and to confront some of its values. In one sense our task is easier than that of Paul and in another it is harder. On the one hand this society is not completely strange to us because we live in it and are, in some sense, a part of it. On the other hand Paul spoke from one religious perspective to another one; talking of God to a religiously observant people who talked about ‘the gods’. We inhabit a society which may have its gods or idols, but these take a very different form to what we would call God and they are not part of any organised religion, so there is a greater gap to be bridged.
If you are thinking ‘that sounds a bit much for the likes of me’; if you are afraid to tackle the big evangelistic challenge that faces us, well think back to the first day of school. For some of us, that was frightening, for many a little worrying. Yet it was also the gateway to learning, exploration, imagination and being equipped to live in today’s world. Jesus tells his followers that they are not alone when facing the challenge of being faithful in a strange world; the Spirit of Truth is with us. As Paul put it on another occasion:
There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.
There are varieties of service, but the same Lord.
There are varieties of activity but in all of them
and in every one the same God is active.
1 Corinthians 12: 4-6