EYES ON THE NEW AGENDA

Sermon delivered on the Fifth Sunday after Easter (Easter 5), the 1st May 2016 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England (Cayman Islands) in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Acts 16: 9-15     Revelation 21:10, 22 - 22:5     S. John 14: 23-29

Revelation 21: 10 “In the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God ... ”

I was driving into town one day many years ago now, when I heard on the car radio about a bomb scare on a cruise ship, and how those in the Kirk Freeport area should be ready for evacuation. The talk show hostess was saying that the streets in that area should be kept as free as possible for any emergency. If I had not had an appointment with someone and if the church office was further downtown I might well have changed the plan for the day, and gone back home. As soon as I had dealt with the appointment I turned my radio on in the office just at the right time to hear that the matter was completely contained, and indeed, it was a false alarm. I think of how many people’s course of action that day would have been changed by the event or perhaps non-event, how the police and others would have got up in the morning expecting to deal with certain matters, and then having to be involved in something quite different. If there had been a real bomb, the changes we would have been involved in would have been far greater.

All of us I am sure know what it is to have the course of our lives changed by some event or circumstance that we had not expected. There is scope at this time for serious reflection on how the peculiar characteristics of the current political line-up, following the rather unusual defections of government members last December, has potential for changing the course of our lives here considerably. The same thing might be said about the historic British decision soon to hold a referendum on whether to stay in the European Community or not. Might these things be for a long term good, or might it only be to postpone an evil? Perhaps the Church will look back on these events as a biblical “But God” moment - a moment in which God has seemed to intervene in the regular human course of things and set them off in a new direction. The Scripture readings today speak of visions, and visions when obeyed do often also change the normal course of life. We hear today of a vision of S. Paul in the night: a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging for help. Paul and Silas had not planned to go to Macedonia. They had planned to go elsewhere, but we read that the Spirit of Jesus prevented them. From the vision they conclude that it is to Macedonia that God is directing them, and they make their headquarters at Philippi, the leading city of the district of Macedonia, though not the capital. From this vision, then, which brought about a change in their plan, comes the very significant Philippian ministry, albeit accompanied with violent persecution, and eventually the epistle to the Philippians, which is considered to be one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the New Testament. The Christians at Philippi formed the first congregation established through the apostle on European soil, and the epistle to the Philippians is one of the most cordial and affectionate letters that survive from Paul’s hand. Our first lesson shows how this ministry develops in a seemingly informal and unplanned way at first. When they have been in the city some days, they go on the Sabbath outside the city gate to the riverside where they suppose there is a place of prayer, and speak to the women who have gathered together there, and one of them, Lydia, especially receives what is said, is baptised along with her household, and then presses upon them her hospitality. From these small and seemingly not very promising beginnings a lot developed later, and it became a founding root of European Christianity. Imagine that, then: our Western civilisation in one of its Christian roots can be said to have started out with an unexpected vision of a man saying to the apostle Paul, “Come over here and help us.” It is good to reflect, I think, that such a significant element in our Western culture started out as a positive response to a plea for help. That, I believe, is an important consideration in the Christian witness to society today. Whatever challenges we may have to offer any society, the Church should be found most content to serve it in a helping role. This characteristic element of the Gospel is nowhere more emphasised than in the writings of St. Luke, who of course wrote the Acts of the Apostles. We should see the witness to Christ that the Church has to offer to be a fundamentally helpful thing to the society, just as it was at the beginning, because in part the Church herself incorporates a vision of what the society truly is and may become. And not by any means all the various diverse influences that may seek to make their mark upon a society will be as helpful as this element, the witness to Christ that the Church has to offer, or even helpful at all.

In the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God ...” The text today forms a case in point of a vision that both affects society positively, and incorporates a vision of the society as it truly is and may become. This Jerusalem comes down out of heaven from God, yet it is still called Jerusalem, that flawed city whose name speaks of peace, but whose house Jesus declared to be forsaken and desolate. What the connection is in time between the earthly Jerusalem and the new glorious Jerusalem we cannot altogether say, but so it is that the vision and witness offered by the Church when she is most true to her calling will connect our fallen and desolate world to what by God’s grace it may still become.

The visions of the book of Revelation are to be those of all the people of God, not just of John. It is good to reflect that the new Jerusalem is also described, as in last week's reading, as prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. So it is that at the end of the biblical story of man, just as it is at the beginning, the division of the sexes is fundamentally significant in their complementarity. Here, at the end of the story, the meaning of this complementary division is shown to be primarily theological, for which the biological division is revelatory. The new Jerusalem is described as coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, a Bride adorned for her Husband, in which the glory and honour of the nations will be brought in but nothing false or impure. The church as we know it is far from being that now, but from the vision, the reality will one day appear. Jesus, even as an unknown stranger, says to His frustrated children, as do the apostles following Him, “Rise, take up thy bed and walk.” The Apostle Paul obeyed his vision, the crippled men and women encountering Christ and the apostles obeyed theirs, and we must obey ours.

In today's Gospel Jesus promises, “If a man loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and we will come to Him and make our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words.” If this is true for an individual it is true also for a congregation gathered in His Name, and it is true too for the society that acknowledges His reality. God has set us off upon a new direction. Loving and cleaving to the Lord Jesus, we will make our home with Him; we will keep His word, and come to know that the Father and the Son are dwelling among us, and so, even in spite of diverse and sometimes contrary influences upon us, we will not be afraid.