Sermon preached by Revd Karen Charman for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 16th May 2021, via Zoom.
You can listen to an audio recording here:
Last Thursday, the Church celebrated Ascension Day – the day upon which the risen Jesus ascended into heaven and returned to his Father. After Jesus’ ascension, his disciples returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they were staying, and constantly devoted themselves to prayer, as they waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
We wait, with the disciples, for the Holy Spirit to fall upon us anew at Pentecost – and I urge you, like those first disciples – to devote this time of waiting to prayer, prayer, and more prayer.
In our Collect, we asked God to send the Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and to exalt us to the place where our Saviour – Jesus – is gone before. And, I believe, the church, our Benefice, our country and the world are in great need of the gift of the Holy Spirit just now.
I’m not sure why – I suspect it’s just the accumulation of almost 15 months of a global pandemic, and the associated lockdowns and restrictions, though it could – as Paul writes in Ephesians 6.12 – be caused by “the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil” – I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen and heard much over the last week or two to suggest that people are struggling, at the moment, to obey Jesus’ new commandment – to love one another as he has loved us.
We see it in the escalation of fighting and conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. We see it in our national news, where four people were injured and 17 arrested after a fight broke out at London Luton Airport on Friday. And, sadly, this past few days, I’ve seen it closer to home too.
Maybe we’re all fed up of restrictions. Maybe we’re all fed up of bureaucracy. Maybe we’re all fed up of politicians. Maybe we’re just weary, and tired of restrictions? Maybe that’s contributed to the increasing reluctance I’ve noticed among people to wear face-masks, and practice social distancing, to keep each other safe? Maybe that’s contributed to the needless arguments or conflicts which seem to be breaking out across the world and, perhaps, closer to home. People, it seems, have – temporarily, I hope – lost the ability to love one another, and to be kind.
I hate conflict! I know I need to get better at managing it effectively. I know I need to get better at living with conflict – at accepting that conflict has always existed, and always will.
In some training I attended last week, we were encouraged to see conflict as an opportunity – as a place of creative possibility – rather than as an unwelcome challenge.
In our first reading, from Acts, Peter and the other disciples model this. In the – rather carefully edited, I admit – passage we have from Acts, Peter and the others don’t dwell overlong on the fact that Judas betrayed Jesus. Instead, Peter acknowledges, “the scripture had to be fulfilled.” Judas is gone, but rather than view this as a disaster, Peter sees it as an opportunity for another to take his place: one of those who accompanied Jesus from the beginning of his ministry must become a witness to his resurrection. The loss of Judas becomes an opportunity for growth – though, perhaps, greater growth could have been achieved if both Matthias and Justus were added to the eleven apostles!
In our Gospel reading, we are taken back to the Upper Room on the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus says farewell to his friends. The Farewell Discourses are drawing towards a close, and Jesus is praying for his disciples. In verse 11, he prays, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost …”
Jesus’ desire for us – for his disciples and his church – is that we should be one. He desires unity, that not one of us may be lost. This is apparent not only in the Farewell discourses, but also in many of the parables Jesus told: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost – or prodigal – son. God is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out and save the sheep who has gone astray (or, perhaps, been pushed out). God is the woman who searches everywhere for the coin she has lost. God is the Father who runs out to meet the son who has broken his heart, and throws a party on his return. God’s desire is that we should be one – that not one of us should be lost. But – in the Parable of the Prodigal son, at least – if we choose to walk away, God respects our freedom of choice. He doesn’t stop his son from leaving home – he merely waits and, I expect, prays for his return.
In this novena, the nine days between Ascension Day and Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, we are encouraged to pray for five – to pray that five people we know, who don’t yet believe in God, should come to faith in Jesus. This year, on social media, I’ve seen many Christians – clergy included – expressing reservations about this. Is it ethical, is it honourable, to pray for the conversion of people we know, some of who may have made a conscious and free decision not to follow Jesus? Arguments have been put forward in defence of ‘praying for five,’ but some remain unconvinced. Many prefer general prayers for the growth of God’s kingdom and church, rather than for the conversion of specific individuals. I’m not quite sure, without further reflection, where I stand on this issue. But I wonder, for the remainder of the novena – as we wait and pray for the Holy Spirit to fall on us again – whether we might pray instead – as Jesus does in today’s Gospel reading – for the church … for our Christian brothers and sisters … for each other.
Perhaps we could each choose five people in our Benefice – five Christians – perhaps people we struggle to get on with, or find it difficult to love, or perhaps our churchwardens and others with leadership responsibilities – and pray that the Holy Spirit might come and bless them – that their faith might be strengthened, that God might protect them, and that they might know God’s joy and God’s truth in these challenging times.
Let’s pray also for the coming of God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, and for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And let’s pray for growth and fruitfulness in our churches –
- for spiritual growth
- for growth in the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
- for growth in confidence
- for growth in loving service and outreach
- and, finally, for numerical growth
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Acts 1.12-14.
 Galatians 5.22