Community Day sermon

May 6, 2018

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Preached by The Dean, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle using John 15.9-17 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 6th May 2018, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Community Day.

Jesus says to his disciples, ‘as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.’

With these beautiful words Jesus continues to teach us about our life with God.  Jesus describes himself as the vine, through which life flows.  Jesus wants his disciples to abide in him, so that just as branches of the vine grow and produce fruit, the disciples can grow and be fruitful, with his life flowing through them.  Cut off from the vine the branches wither and die.

Abiding, remaining connected, is then, a dynamic image of growth.

‘Abide’ is a rich term: to stay, remain, and tarry.  Perhaps we don’t use this word quite so much now, although we still use the term ‘abode’.  Our abode is the place where we make our home, and earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus says that God seeks to make his home in us, so we have a mutual indwelling, God in us, us in Christ.

Well, today is the Cathedral Community Day, where those of us who worship regularly and are members of cathedral community roll have the opportunity to spend the day together, beginning and ending in worship to deepen and focus our shared life.  And I’d like us to reflect this morning, for a while, on what does ‘community’ mean here?

Many communities gather around a common interest and – on the surface – that’s what a church might look like.  People who like to worship, coming together. But that’s not the deeper reality here.  We are a community because we are called and gathered by God.  The activity and the initiative is always almighty God’s, not ours.  We live by God’s grace.

Jesus says, ‘Abide in my love’.  You’ll remember how Archbishop Rowan said that we receive God’s love as we receive sun-light.  We lift our faces to the sun, to receive, and we can’t receive more sunlight by screwing up our faces and trying harder. We receive God’s love. It is all grace. And so we come to worship, turn our faces to God, and expectant, we receive in word and sacrament.  We come with outstretched hands, we know our need.

We are Community of grace.

Second, we are a community unlike any other.  The universal church stretches around the world, across space and through time, embracing people of all backgrounds, races, cultures, and ages.  The local church is a part of this greater communion.  To remain true to our calling we must always be open to other people, to push back against being a narrow community only for one sort of person, because the church is for everyone.  Our lesson from the Book of Acts, reminds us of the revolution that goes on in the early church, championed by Paul, and enacted by the apostles, that changes their world, – the realisation that the good news was for gentiles as well as Jews.  That great wall of division, so much part of their identity, was to be brought down.

Archbishop William Temple, wrote in 1939, (in a time of war) how fellowship in Christ is a reality more profound and effective than earthly fellowships of family, school, party, class, nation, race and that Christ can unite us in love across all natural divisions and hostilities.  A community like no other, all-embracing.

We are a community of grace, for all God’s people, as the gospel is for all.

And finally, we are a Community called to bear fruit, be God’s love in the world.  To respond to all we receive with lives of love.  

At his Ascension, which we mark this coming week, Jesus commissions his disciples to be his body in the world, to continue his work of love.  This is the astonishing privilege of our Christian calling: God wants us.  As St Teresa of Avila said, ‘Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours…’ ours are the hands, the eyes, the feet the hearts with which Christ acts in the world now.

Just a small part of the body of Christ in the world, part of that great universal church throughout place and time, but a vital part.  Not in our own strength, but in God’s grace.  We receive so that we can give and take part in this great activity of love.  This is an astonishing responsibility. We won’t do it perfectly, but we can abide in him, and keep learning and growing.

Some of you will have seen the recent article in the Southern Daily Echo, recounting the experiences of an overseas visitor to the cathedral, who came to worship here and stayed for coffee and wanted to talk but no one spoke to him.  The article and two subsequent letters were illustrated with an image of the cathedral.  I don’t want to talk about that particular event, but let’s take it as an opportunity, to think about some underlying issues.

I’m sure that all have personal experiences of our own, both positive and negative, of attending a new church.  I have a strong memory, some 30 years ago now, when I was looking for a church to join in Leeds. I went to my local Anglican church, on my own, and after church went for coffee in church hall, hoping that someone would want to talk with me. I hoped to become part of the church.  I did this for three weeks…went across to the hall after church, picked up a cup of coffee, stood on my own….no one spoke to me.  Three weeks of that really undermined my confidence, (and I had the strong sense that I didn’t matter) and I couldn’t do it anymore.  So I went to the next Anglican Church down the road.  And there someone spoke to me, and not only spoke to me but found out about me and gave me a job to do!  Over the next three years that church fostered my vocation to ordination.

The matter of welcome is deeply significant.  As those who have been embraced by Christ, and gathered by him as friends, we welcome strangers and extend friendship in his name.  And because I see letters of thanks and praise, I know that we get this right time and again, and of course sometimes we don’t.  But we must keep trying because as we gather together in worship, as we meet over coffee, we are no longer a group of individuals, we are a community representing the cathedral, the Christian faith, Christ and his welcome. It’s an awesome responsibility.  The task of welcome, of showing people that they matter, is our shared task, as members of the body of Christ.

We are a Community with the highest calling.  To be the body of Christ in the world, part of the universal church.  As we have received, by God’s grace, we are called to give, and through this obedience to grow in love and to know true joy.  Amen.