Sermon given at St Mark’s Church, Philadelphia, USA on Sunday 6th May 2012
6 May 2012 at 9:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Acts 8: 26-40; I John 4: 7-21; John 15: 1-8
Where in the world could it be better to give a sermon on today’s bible readings than here in Philadelphia, a city dedicated for over three hundred years to the love of the brotherhood or perhaps we should say to brotherly and sisterly love? In the epistle reading, we have just heard St John say, ‘Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’ After three hundred years I am sure you are the experts. You should be preaching to me.
Sadly, as we know, it is not so easy. As human beings we are not that good at loving each other, try as we might. Sometimes it works out. At Westminster Abbey we have had our share of happy moments that celebrate the gift of love and of life-long commitment. The first anniversary of one such occasion took place only a few days ago. It was our prayer that the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, seen apparently by 2.4 billion people around the world, would encourage many people to love and to life-long commitment. I am sure our prayer was fulfilled many times over.
However, some of the most prominent features of the life of Westminster Abbey are not celebrations of love and happiness but recognitions of the harm human beings do to each other and the cruelty of the circumstances of many lives. At the west end of the nave of the Abbey, since November 11 1920, has been buried the body of an Unknown Warrior taken from the battle-fields of northern France and buried with full military honours in the presence of the King, the Prime Minister and the leaders of the United Kingdom.
On the west front of the Abbey are statues of ten Christians martyred for their faith in the 20th century, people from every continent in the world, amongst them Elizabeth of Russia and Manche Masemola, Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down at the altar in 1980, and Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Outside the Abbey at the west end, since 1996 has been a memorial to Innocent Victims, and there are frequently wreaths or bunches of flowers left in honour of victims of everything from street crime, to earthquake tsunami or flood.
In 2007, Her Majesty The Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair attended a service in which we celebrated the bicentenary of William Wilberforce’s act of parliament that abolished the slave trade. At the end of the service, The Queen laid flowers at the Innocent Victims memorial, recognising not only the suffering of the victims of that appalling trade but also the fact that although the slave trade and slavery itself were officially abolished long ago, many people in our own day suffer slavery of one kind or another.
In our personal lives too, our intentions may be good, the spirit may be willing,but the flesh is weak. Left to ourselves, we certainly prefer to please ourselves, to put ourselves first. To do anything else, to put others first, requires of us efforts often beyond our powers. I remember years ago, when I was newly ordained, an old priest leading a training seminar for young clergy. This old priest had the extraordinary name Gonville ffrench-Beytagh. He was rector of a guild church in the City of London but had been Dean of Johannesburg in South Africa during the worst days of the apartheid regime. Some years before I met him he had written a book Encountering Darkness about his experiences of arrest and detention in solitary confinement by the secret police, and of not knowing whether anyone anywhere in the world knew or cared. People did in fact know and were praying for him and he described in the book the inchoate awareness he had of being uplifted in the darkness. Now, talking to these young priests, he spoke about original sin like this. If you are sitting on the porch at sundown, he said, with only enough whisky left in the bottle for one more glass and your glass is more or less empty, and you see a friend coming towards your house, what do you do? Your first instinct is to hide your glass and the bottle before he sees them. It is only a decent upbringing or socialisation that turns that initial instinct into a cheery acceptance of sharing whatever little we have. Well, perhaps he was speaking for himself – but I think he was giving us a way into a universal truth.
So, if you are with me so far, we have a command to love one another – but we are not very reliable,either collectively or individually, at obeying the command or following the way. St John tells us clearly, ‘Beloved, let us love one another.’ Put this way, it seems as though the on us to love is on us, as though God were saying to us that we must jolly well stretch every sinew, make every effort, to love one another. But that is not the message of the beloved disciple. Rather he tells us that it is God’s love that comes first and it is God’s love that makes everything else possible. ‘Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’ And he goes on, ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ It is God’s love for us that matters. Our love for God and our love for our fellow human beings and for the whole created universe flows from God’s love for us – no stretch, no strain, no sweat.
Well, you might say, it can’t be quite so straight-forward or more of us would be better at it. How does it work? We find a way to the answer in this morning’s other two readings, from the Acts of the Apostles and from St John’s Gospel.
We heard the account of Philip the deacon being directed by an angel of the Lord towards the Ethiopian eunuch and then being led by the Spirit to unfold for him the vital and converting truth of the story of the love of God revealed in his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. The eunuch was already open to the Spirit and searching for meaning. This is one of the accounts in the Acts that gives later hearers – and indeed us – an ideal for the Church’s mission and way of life in examples from the early days of Christianity. The eunuch, having been given the good news, accepts the gift of faith for himself and seeks baptism. Philip the deacon baptises him and then moves on to other work for the Lord.
In St John’s Gospel, we hear our Lord speaking of himself as the True Vine and of his disciples as the branches. He is clear and strong in his expectation that the branches must bear fruit. ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ We have to abide in him. ‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers.’ Later he will tell his disciples that new branches can be grafted into the vine and they too can bear fruit. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing. In Christ, everything is possible. ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’
Unlike the Synoptic evangelists, St John gives no account of the taking and blessing of bread and wine at the Last Supper. He tells only of the washing of the disciples’ feet, with the new commandment to love one another. But his Gospel does show by what means we can fulfil the command. He recounts two of our Lord’s signs: the sign of the feeding of the 5,000 with broken bread dispersed and the sign of six water-jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons that become wine and enliven the wedding feast. We are surely to see in these two signs dominical authority for the sacrament of Holy Communion, the blessing and distribution to the faithful of the bread and wine that are the Body and Blood of the Lord. By these means, we abide in him, and with these gifts we too can bear much fruit.
The twin Gospel sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist are together the God-given means whereby we are grafted into Christ and sustained by him, so that his love is perfected in us and his life and love expressed through us. Thus we are born afresh of God, of water and of the Spirit. These sacraments are essential marks of the Church. We must respect and cherish them. Through them, we become what we truly are and are called to be.
‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’