Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Sermon for Easter 7 A

You will be my witnesses

My older son is half-way through his year of pupillage as a baby barrister...It’s something he has wanted to do all his life, and though the combination of a daily commute from Cambridge to London with the insomniac pleasures of new fatherhood is undoubtedly exhausting, on the whole I think he’s enjoying himself. He’s had a few issues with papers that arrive too late from a client’s solicitors to be admitted as evidence, but his witnesses have been a largely co-operative bunch so far...so I turned to him to help me understand exactly what Jesus was asking of his friends when he told them “You will be my witnesses”
It seemed kind of important, really.
You see, during these days of focussed prayer as we ask “Thy kingdom come” together with Christians all round the world, the stated hope of the initiative is not just that we will, as individuals, families and churches devote ourselves afresh to prayer, but also that we will be empowered finding new confidence to be witnesses for Jesus Christ.

You will be my witnesses
That’s a direct commission from Jesus, but the thing about witnesses, says Giles, is that they have to have had a direct experience, they have to have BEEN THERE. There is no value in calling a witness who has only hear-say evidence.
They need to speak of what they know.
And that’s true for us as well.
WE need to speak of what we know.
If we are to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, then we need first to have experienced the wonder of his love for ourselves. Knowing about is one thing….but to be witnesses, hearsay is never enough.

That’s heart of this season…

Like the disciples, we have to face up to the physical absence of Jesus from our world. When he left that little group on the slopes of Olivet, that was it. No reappearance to tumultuous applause.
Jesus had gone...leaving his friends gazing forlornly skywards.
But he left that one time and one place so that, through the power of the Spirit, he might be present in all time and all places…With us always, til the close of the age.

We do not need to fear, then, that our testimony is invalid.
No, we weren’t present for those world-changing events in and around Jerusalem 2000 years ago, but we can be witnesses nonetheless... – because God is still active, a living presence transforming hearts, minds, lives through the power of the Spirit.

If you’re a regular worshipper, think about what first brought you to faith – and what encourages you to return to worship, week by week.
My guess is that it will have little to do with head-knowledge – the records of others, the received wisdom of centuries…though that has a huge part in helping us to root ourselves in the great traditions of the Church.
Most of us, I imagine, will be here because we met with God – perhaps in a precious moment when we experienced directly the touch of his love, or perhaps when we saw it poured out in the lives of another person.
That’s part of the paradox here.
We, God’s people, are not just witnesses but evidence as well.

And that can be rather a problem.
When we look at the world, we cannot say with confidence that humanity – even CHRISTIANITY as it lived out day by day – is an unmistakeable testimony to God’s power at work.
On Thursday we gathered to celebrate the reign of Christ – sang Joyously that the head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned in glory now – but we gathered in the ruins where we had stood in Vigil for the victims of the Manchester bomb just an hour before.
Eye-witness accounts in the media this week will have more to say about horror and fear at home and abroad in Istanbul and Jakarta, Minya and Manchester than about the visible signs of God’s kingdom of justice and joy.
How do we square that circle?
Where is the evidence of God’s just and gentle rule amid all the grief and terror?

As so often when we focus on the kingdom of God, we find ourselves in the territory of “now and not yet”.
Those of us who spend an unhealthy amount of time online will be very familiar with the words of one Mr Rogers, an American children’s tv presenter from the 1950s...They have been offered as reassurance to share with the children of today, who are struggling to make sense of what has happened this week – and they are good, wise words.
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers.
THERE is our evidence...but we are called to be part of it too.
There’s no escaping the responsibility. Each one of us needs to proclaim the truth of the words that we used a refrain at one point in Thursday’s Vigil “Good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death”.
We all believe it. I’m sure we do.
But we need to live so that it is clear in everything that we do and say and are.
That’s the only thing that can make a difference in these troubled and troubling times.
Living in the kingdom means living by the kingdom’s rules, as the vestry prayer puts it “Showing forth in our lives” those things which we proclaim with our lips.
Witnesses of and evidence for the Kingdom of God – you and me.

But you know, if that fills you more with panic than with joy – you’re in good company.
Think of those disciples on the hillside again.
Baffled and Bereft perhaps, but also hopeful...Jesus has made them a promise
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” and it is with confidence in that promise that they pray constantly in the days that follow

And that’s where we come in, as we too are invited to pray constantly in this “in between” season

Last week, the Precentor helped us to engage with just what “comfort” might mean as we look towards Pentecost...and quoted today’s beautiful Collect, one of the jewels of the liturgical year. I was reminded then of a scene in the Bayeaux tapestesty, with its caption “Bishop Odo comforts a soldier”...The comfort is being delivered with the aid of a large club...and sometimes being encouraged to live as evidence of God’s kingdom may feel a bit like that.
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name...will you go where you don’t know and never be the same
That’s OK to sing…music can be great at helping us to evade some of the more demanding aspects of faith, I find….but the comforter is coming...bringing the strength and inspiration we most need.

And the Spirit can and WILL make all things new – within our lives, within the Church, and within this broken, struggling world.

If this week has left you baffled and bereft – or just plain terrified – can I encourage you to join in this great wave of prayer that God will act...will draw us all, one by one, into his work of transformation and renewal.
Let us join with our brothers and sisters far and near to pray “Thy Kingdom come”, so that we may be both evidence of God’s grace at work and witnesses to God’s power to transform the world into the likeness of God’s kingdom, that God’s name may be glorified.

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