THE CONSOLATIONS OF THE COMPANY OF JESUS CHRIST

Sermon delivered on the 4th Sunday after Easter the 14th May 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Acts 7: 55-60     1 Peter 2: 2-10     S. John 14: 1-14

1 Peter 2:4 "Come to Him, to that living stone, rejected by men but held by God chosen and precious."

TRUE STRENGTH
It is always good to consider that in the final analysis there might be a correspondence between what is good and what is strong. This connection, which is actually at the heart of the Christian Gospel, is I think achieved by the Bible lessons today. Now we may become used to the idea that it is evil rather than the good that is strong, because we do indeed perceive many evils that seem to be strong, and often the good is given what appears as a weak position from which it must proceed and overcome. Yet because of the inherent strength of what is from God and therefore good, the good is able to prevail ultimately. Part of that strength is a quality such as patient endurance. With such qualities the good is able to tolerate the appearance of being weak or powerless, for as long as it takes to prevail. And then, and only then for many, the true strength of the good becomes apparent.

THE MINDS OF MEN
Especially during the latter portion of our Lord's ministry among His disciples before the Passion, part of the disciples' difficulty was that His great goodness seemed sometimes to be out of weakness rather than strength. In today's Gospel two of the disciples contradict His sayings because, I suppose, they were not ready to suspend their own judgment about the sense of the sayings in favour of the trust that Jesus was calling forth from them. When Jesus taught that the disciples did already know the way He was going, Thomas said, "No, we don't know." And when Jesus taught them that they already knew and had seen the Father, Philip chimed in and said, "You show us the Father." The fact was that their minds were still the "minds of men" and not the "mind of Christ". The disciples, towards the end of Jesus' ministry on earth, were not ready, as quite often we are not ready, to move beyond their own perceptions of victory for Jesus and themselves, to the point of putting Him into the centre of their outlook, no matter what the external prospects for that position might appear to be.

THE "STRENGTH" OF JUDAS
This unreadiness might go some way towards explaining the mindset of the marginally and supposedly "Christian" leaders one has at times seen who consider that clearing out a large population of another religion or culture from their midst by a campaign of terror and butchery represents a victory for the Christian cause. Examples, to a greater or lesser extent, of this can be drawn from the days of the Inquisition in Europe, or from the progroms against the Jews in pre-Communist Mother-Russia, or from the more recent sectarian fighting in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, in which, in a hideous example, hundreds of Muslims were rounded up in Srebrenica and shot by an army of supposedly Orthodox Christians. These examples of state genocide are more akin to the supposed "strength" that Judas Iscariot is believed to have wanted Jesus to display, rather than the strength of the actual way of Jesus through the cross and Resurrection. Great harm is always done to the Christian cause in people's minds and hearts by misguided actions and progroms such as these, but it is also done by adversarial and triumphalist attitudes in general held in the name of Christianity. For this cause the Jewish people and others actually blame Christianity for the evils of the Nazis' Jewish extermination policy. These examples demonstrate that though the good may ultimately correspond with the strong, as we believe it does, what appears to be strong is not necessarily the good. What seems immediately strong may indeed be satanically evil.

THE MIND OF CHRIST ON VICTORY
So it is critically important for us to move beyond our own possibly quite flawed perception of victory for Jesus and for ourselves, to putting Him into the centre of our outlook, to baptise our minds into the death and Resurrection of Christ, so that the whole concept of Christian victory is converted to encompass the truth that God so loved the world, including our enemies, or for that matter ourselves, that He gave His only Son, that whoever will believe in Him, including those of the enemy camp, including ourselves in all our sinful frailties, should not perish but have eternal life. The cross and the Resurrection of Christ show us that this is the strong position the Church must take about every matter, no matter what the implications of it on the ground might be. The suspension of judgment that is called for by such a position involves trust, a walk by faith rather than sight, the walk that characterises all truly Christian positions. We are called, for instance, as children of the Resurrection, to take a position over any deliberate as well as in some cases unwitting secularisation of the Cayman Islands. We are called, as children of the Resurrection, to defend the Church in the Cayman Islands. But we should bear in mind that the positions and defences that we set up are diminished by attitudes on our part of superiority and contempt for the powers-that-be either of church or state. For thirdly, we are called, as children of the Resurrection, to walk consistently with our baptismal privileges and vows. These areas represent mighty areas of battle, and I suggest that all of us, being children of the Resurrection, are called to the battleground. It is necessary to have the correct strategy for our battles, because nothing less than ultimate triumph will do for the outcome, notwithstanding that suffering and humiliation for us may more quickly be apparent. We must perceive correctly the shape of Christian victory, being neither deceived by false substitutes nor deluded into foregoing the ultimate triumph.

THE STRENGTH OF THE FAITHFUL
As we were thinking at the beginning, the readings today remind us of the ultimate correspondence, no matter how things often seem to be contrary to it, between the good and the strong. Terror and butchery, as well as cynical deception, are evil, their appearance of strength is satanic and not real, and ultimately such things are mortally weak. Our first lesson, a portion of the account of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, reminds us that in a time of the direst personal subjection to terror, what prevails comes forth from the obedience that a person of faith renders to God. We know little or nothing of Stephen’s family or social life: just that, as reported and demonstrated in this account, he was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. It was this that prevailed over the fury of his persecutors, though in the eyes of those who appeared to be strong, it was he who appeared to be weak and foolish. But as the saying goes, he who has the last laugh, laughs loudest. At the close of his earthly life, Stephen was given a vision of the Christ, standing at the right hand of God, welcoming him into the courts of heaven. Then Stephen gave his attackers the ultimate challenge of words that might have recalled to them the words of the Christ they had previously condemned, and of forgiveness in a similar spirit to Christ’s. Stephen’s words as he was stoned are recorded to be, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And then he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” That martyrdom, we should recall, was witnessed by Saul, the great persecutor, who subsequently became a great apostle, and some of his key ideas as an apostle one can even see foreshadowed in the great speech that St. Stephen gave in the presence of his attackers. Our second lesson from 1st Peter refers to Jesus Christ as the “cornerstone laid in Zion”, applying Old Testament imagery of strength, security and defence to the Risen and Living Lord. So as St. Peter says, in a way so appropriate to the name that Jesus gave him, Christ is that living stone, to whom we are called to come, and be made ourselves living stones built within the spiritual House of God, God's holy and priestly people. We are called to be little rocks, little stones after the pattern of the Big Rock, the Big Stone that is Christ our Lord. The Christian position, the truly Christian world-view, is the strongest one of all, the one that endures through the failure of all others, no matter how strong they might appear, and no matter how weak and corrupted the Christian Church may appear at any time to become. For after all, even through the death of all deaths, the living Christ was raised, and will prevail. We too in our time are to be little Christs, and though called also to die to the things of the world, we are to conquer and prevail through Him.


QUESTIONS

1. Give some examples from your own personal experience of the good, in spite of appearances, being stronger than the evil.

2. List some biblical instances of good prevailing over evil.

3. Can the "truly Christian position" be distinguished from positions taken by the Christian Church, or do these positions actually define what Christianity is? Can Christians set themselves up in judgment over their Church?