“And so we came to Rome” (Acts 28: 14) The final chapter of Paul’s journeys, according to the Acts of the Apostles, brings him finally to Rome: journey’s end. Whatever else Paul was, he was a great traveler. When I was at school, perhaps aged fourteen, we studied Acts in our religious education class. I didn’t like religion much, but I did love drawing maps, like the ones you can find at the back of a Bible, maps of Asia and Europe, and drawing three lines across them. One line was in red, one in blue and one in yellow, each showing the route of Paul’s three missionary journeys. Paul traveled hundreds of miles, all over Asia Minor and Europe, preaching the Gospel. And the routes he took were very deliberate. He had a very clear idea of where he was going. In chapter 19 of the Acts we read, ‘Paul resolved in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.”’ And that’s exactly what he did. But the significant words in this passage are ‘in the Spirit’. For it was the Spirit of Jesus, his constant companion, who guided him at all times throughout his journeys. I love the story in chapter 16, where Paul is planning to go further into Asia on his preaching mission. He’s all set to go, until, we read, ‘The Holy Spirit forbad them to speak the word in Asia.’ And during the night he had a vision: ‘There stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”’ Macedonia of course is in Europe. Paul changed direction. Instead of heading east, he turned west. He completely changed direction. Maybe Paul remembered that earlier journey he had made to Damascus, and how the Spirit of Jesus had also stopped him in his tracks, and again totally changed the direction of his life. I remember at school poring over the map and imagining Paul arriving at the shores of the Aegean, at Troas. I imagined him staring out across the sea, due west, towards this new continent of Europe, my continent. I wondered how he must have felt. Scared, I think. But he trusted the Spirit of Jesus to guide him; this Jesus who had always been faithful. And for the rest of his life, Paul would trust completely, would place his life time and time again, in the hands of Jesus, his faithful companion.
There hadn’t been anyone there. At least there hadn’t been anyone there when I looked out the window as the coach pulled to the side of the road and slowed to a stop. There hadn’t been anyone there, as all 30 of us got off to stretch our legs. But suddenly people began to emerge from the barren landscape. At first, it was a young boy, and then a couple of other children. One or two adults came into view. Soon the whole community was there. Fires were laid. Tea was made. Various goods for sale were displayed on blankets spread out on the ground. As we drank our tea, we were invited to buy what was being offered for sale. If I remember correctly, I did but something, but now can’t remember what it was.
I was in the wilderness. It was the fall of 1998 and I had gone with a group of pilgrims from St. George’s College, Jerusalem, to Egypt. We had spent a few days in Cairo, and then made our way to St. Antony’s Monastery, the home of a thriving community of Coptic monks located in the place where monasticism began with St. Antony. We where now in the Sinai on our way to St. Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of the mountain where tradition tells us that Moses encountered the Burning Bush, and then later received the Ten Commandments, and where Elijah had heard the still small voice and knew it to be God.
Just as you would imagine, the landscape was barren and harsh, especially when the sun was at its height. Rocky outcrops seemed to be everywhere, and while there was evidence of plant life, it seemed mostly to be scrub, not much good for anything. But somehow, somewhere, this community of people seemed to make a living, tending their flocks, and no doubt doing what they were doing that day when I met them: appearing out of no where to offer strangers tea, and an opportunity to buy a few souvenirs. Clearly, they lived somewhere, but there was no evidence of village, or camp. There was certainly no sign of water.
When I was a parish priest in England, my church, St Mary’s, stood right in the middle of the town, and in many ways was at the center of the community. Every year on our Patronal Festival, we organized a week of celebrations, with a carnival and street market, and concerts and events taking place every day inside the church. A large proportion of the town community thought of St Mary’s as their church, even if they only worshipped there occasionally, or not at all! Many of them were baptized there, and expected to be married and buried there. We were open and welcoming to anyone who turned up.
The only other church in the town was one of the oldest independent churches in England. Its members were direct descendants of those Puritan men and women who set sail a few hundred years ago to land on these shores of New England. They took a very different view of the local community, having little to do with it, and certainly nothing to do with us. Those who worshiped with them had first assented to some very specific theological doctrines, and tended to keep themselves separate from the secular world, which they saw as essentially ‘fallen’.
It is probably strange to hear this morning’s gospel text in light of the current state of our world. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Scenes of evangelism may be a challenge for us all right now. Rather than being sent out into the world, we find ourselves compelled to remain at home and distance ourselves from those we might otherwise wish to serve, up close and in person. We are not presently going, there are no homes into which we might safely venture, no opportunities for face to face discussion, study, or prayer.
Yet we still hear Jesus’s call, even in the midst of a crisis that would see us shrink back and retreat from the world to which we have been called to bring God’s love. Go.
Thankfully various technologies—especially the internet—have afforded us valuable ways to overcome the sharpness of our physical separation from one another. Although I count myself among the world’s stubborn luddites, I cannot imagine rising to meet the present moment without the advantages of our own community’s presence on social media and other web interfaces. Much like those Christians of the fifteenth century, who experienced for the first time a new kind of evangelistic media (the printing press), we have heretofore unexplored worlds of potential set before us.
Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
Have you ever had one of those dreams when you’re trying to scream but you can’t? Or you try to run but your legs won’t move? It’s a real feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. I’m always glad to snap out of those dreams into the world where my voice and my body do the things that I want them to do.
When I read this passage about a mute demoniac, I sympathize. When I hear about people helpless and harassed my compassion is stirred. When Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few I want to raise my hand. “Here I am, Lord! Send me!”
That’s why this is such a well worn passage for ordinations and calls to evangelism. It reaches into the natural sympathy we have for those who suffer. And immediately after this passage Jesus calls his twelve apostles and gives them power over all these demons and diseases. It’s a stirring recruitment call.
“Let me hear thee softly speaking;
in my spirit’s ear whisper: ‘I am near.’ …
voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[i]
We have just sung this prayer for sleep and God’s safe-keeping. How is your sleep these days? Many of us are more tired from the stresses of our present suffering: changed work, isolation and separation, the pandemic increasing, so much death and loss, cries of injustice, racism and privilege further exposed. When is change? Where is healing? How do we sleep at a time like this?
Paul in his letter to the Romans acknowledges suffering. In today’s text he speaks of us groaning and not just us but all of creation, groaning as in labor pains, waiting for restoration in a new birth. He also speak of hope, of that which is not seen. What does having hope look like? Especially when we’re groaning, and when it is hard to sleep?
Earlier in chapter 4, Paul wrote about Abraham as one who “hoping against hope … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’” as God had said, with numerous descendants.[ii] Abraham believed despite overwhelming contrary physical evidence. Abraham was about 100 years old, and Sarah, his wife, was barren. Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do as promised.”[iii] Paul quotes Genesis 15 which says Abraham’s faith “‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[iv] Remember what happened at that reckoning?
The months-long suspension of in-person worship required in response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a disorienting experience for church-folk throughout the world. Added to the need for physical distancing in nearly every aspect of daily life, some experience the interruption of regular religious assembly and fellowship as a painful loss. Though alleviated to some degree by the use of technological capabilities for online gathering, the inability to partake of the sacraments is a profound grief for many. In the disruption of accustomed, habitual practices, the temptation to turn inward in despair and inertia is great.
But now our world languishes and groans in the midst of disease and death and the exposure of long-standing hatred, prejudices, injustices and inequities, all the result of human sin. Christians must relinquish self-concern and fear and give themselves, individually and corporately, to steadfast witness of our Creator’s goodness and love.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul points us to our baptismal death to sin as the source of new and abundant life in Christ, both for ourselves and for the world which Jesus came to save. “You also must consider yourselves dead to dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 6:11]
By our union with Christ in the baptismal mystery of his dying and rising we find our unity and meaning in life as his disciples. The Baptismal Covenant which we profess together in the Apostles’ Creed points to the present and eternal reality of our oneness with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Our re-birth in Holy Baptism through water and the anointing Spirit has marked us “as Christ’s own for ever”, a new creation reflecting the glory of God in our very being. Through three renunciations of evil and sin, and through three pledges to “turn” to the obedience of our Lord and Savior’s grace and love, we have been given power to be God’s children and messengers of the Good News of God in Christ now.
John 14: 15-21
As I write this sermon I am looking out of the window and seeing all the runners and cyclists passing by along Memorial Drive, and they are nearly all wearing masks. Gosh, how life has changed for us over these past eight weeks. How are you doing? How are you coping? Social isolation can be very stressful. Just a few days ago I got an email from the Church Pension Fund, who pay clergy pensions, and also care for their welfare. It was inviting me to a forthcoming Webinar on ‘Coping with distress – a psychological first aid kit.’ They have called in two experts to teach some ways to cope with trauma and stress of our changed lives, in these days of pandemic.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is with his disciples in the Upper Room. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, Judas has just gone out into the night, to betray him. And Jesus is talking to them, preparing them for the traumatic events which would soon unfold. Being together in that room, they must have felt so anxious, so bewildered, so filled with distress. Our life is about to change, our Lord is leaving us, we will be left alone. What will we do? How will we cope?
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
This reading is from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, an ancient city in northern Greece. The letter was written in the early 50s, less than 20 years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is probably Saint Paul’s earliest preserved letter, making it the oldest writing in the entire New Testament. There is not yet a Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. There is not yet the record of the Acts of the Apostles. There are no Creeds. There is no ordination process agreed upon. So there is some confusion how to practice the Christian faith, with rivalry among those who purported themselves to be leaders.[i] Lots of conflict, resentment, and inexperience.
In this letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Saint Paul is rather tough. He tells them “to stop complaining.” He reminds them “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders.” If we were to take Saint Paul’s words – from 2,000 years ago – and overlay them on our own Coronavirus circumstances, we find some good counsel for life together during our own conflicted time. Saint Paul’s words are not a perfect fit for today, but we can glean some help:
It is remarkable how much a saint for our times is the Lady Julian. Living in the latter half of the fourteenth, and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, on first glance one would think there was nothing about her life that would resonate with ours. However, like us, she lived at a time of much worry, anxiety, and turmoil. Twenty years before her birth in 1353, the Great Famine swept Northern Europe leaving up to 25 percent of the population dead. Shortly after her birth, the Black Death struck, leaving up to half the population of the city of Norwich itself dead, and killing an estimated 200 million people in total. It would take centuries for the population of Europe return to previous pre-Black Death numbers. Both these events lead to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when the city of Norwich was overwhelmed by rebel forces. At this same time early agitation for the reform of the Church, known as Lollardy, initially begun by John Wycliffe, was beginning to take root
It was in that world, not so unlike our own, that the Lady Julian lived and received her showings or revelations during a time when she herself was gravely ill, and expected to die. After receiving the Last Rites on 8 May 1373, she lost her sight, and began to feel physically numb. It was in this state that as she gazed upon a crucifix above her bed, she saw the figure of Jesus beginning to bleed, and received her revelations. Over the next several hours she received sixteen revelations. Following her recovery five days later, she recorded them, first in a short version, now lost, except for a copy, and then many years later in a longer version.