Sermon for Easter 5
‘…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’
When I was starting to explore my call to ordination – a little while ago now – and meeting in clergy discussion groups, I remember having some provocative conversations when I would take what I thought was a radical view. ‘Who needs all these buildings’, I would say. ‘I would be quite happy to worship in a tent, focus on God and be rid of the anxiety of all that energy and finance spent on these old stones’.
And in time, I have indeed worshipped in all sorts of settings, from the garden outside a very rundown parish on the outskirts of a UK northern City to rocks by the sea on the Island of Mull, in Western Scotland, and even by the shore of lake Gennesaret in the Holy Land. God had the last laugh, and I have found myself involved with two churches with significant buildings needing much energy, care and attention.
For those who have been there, the Holy Land is a place awash with churches and shrines, with sometimes questionable authenticity, but pilgrims flock there to visit the many buildings that are connected to well know events in the life of Jesus – the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, these and so many others have become symbols and markers of the reality in the world of Christ himself.
For the Christians of the land called Holy, though, the challenge is to draw attention to their lives and tradition, and their plight in a society that is at best indifferent, and at worst hostile to them. I remember hearing Dean Hosam Naoum, of Jerusalem Cathedral, pressing the point that pilgrims should also make the point of encountering the living stones of the Holy Land, its Christian people, the beleaguered Palestinian Christian communities struggling to survive in a hostile environment.
Yet, we can never quite convey the message to the wider world that buildings are not the church, and sometimes we forget it ourselves. As we struggle with being unable to meet and worship in our sacred spaces, and as we, in our digital privilege, have been able to create an alternative meeting place online, we have been reminded powerfully of the reality of our community even without our cathedral home made of stones.
Many report that they have never felt so close to their fellow parishioners, and it is without a doubt that the experience we have been given to meet on Zoom has deepened our relationships with one another and with God in ways that we could not have predicted. Could this be an experience closer to that of the early church?
Our times of online prayers offer us community, connection, intimacy. Through Zoom, we can be active participants in our common worship, though the journey to this prayer space often involves distraction at finding the link and getting the computer to work as we expect it to. And the journey is designed to be safe.
True, we don’t enter into a different physical space, we are not confronted physically with people we don’t now, we cannot share greetings and hugs, we do not sing with quite the same gusto, we do not really sit around the table of the Lord.
And yet, we are better able to see the face of Christ represented in the many faces that look back at us on our screens, are better able to hear God’s words and be attentive to one another, even to people we have not encountered in church before and who have been there all along. Christ is in the midst of us, in one of God’s many rooms, this one online, still encouraging us in our Christian life and witness and community as we rediscover what it means for us to follow Jesus from the seclusion of our own rooms, or in places of work where we feel at risk.
Later today, we will be holding our Annual General Meeting – a time to reflect back and give thanks for all that has been in the previous year, and to look forward and ask for God’s blessing on all that will be.
I hope that you have received the Cathedral Annual report, which gives an account of the wide range of activities and ministries in the life of witness and discipleship of the Christian community of the Cathedral in 2019. At almost fifty pages, we have before us a real testimony to the dedication and creativity of members of our communities to living out the Gospel in the world today.
These are the footprints of the living stones of Christ Church Cathedral, at work in the world, these are the tales of commitments and sacrifices that are made in response to God’s love for us and God’s creation, these are stories that change lives and build community.
We could of course not have imagined, at the turn of the year, how radically things were about to change and the grief we would experience at losing our hold on all that we knew. For many of us, the boundaries of the world have shrunk to the walls of our homes. And for those of us who are physically leaving our homes to go to work, the experience is unsettling and fraught with danger.
And yet, in our Gospel reading today, St John quotes Jesus in this well known passage: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’
This is a passage that is often used at funerals because it gives us hope that, when we are grief stricken. It reminds us that Jesus has been there before and is waiting to bring us along with him too. The many dwelling places of God’s house might be an image of heaven where we in due course will live in perpetual communion with Christ. But they also include the so many places where we find ourselves now.
At this time, we are experiencing grief in many ways. Some have lost loved ones through this pandemic, and our community has not been immune. But as individuals and as a church community we are also having to deal with many other losses that are incredibly uncomfortable and challenging.
Education has been put on hold, many have been laid off and worry about the future, the many plans that we had made for this year have all had to be ditched, we are losing a sense of time and may lack a vision for the future.
Big questions are facing us too.
Deconfinement is likely to take some time and returning to the Cathedral for worship is likely to have to be staged. Many of our members will not be able to return because of their age or their immunity status. How can we rebuild a mixed mode analog and digital community that will live up to our core value of inclusivity?
We are yearning for Communion as we knew it and do not know when we will once again be able to share Eucharist together. Will we experience that Communion again if our current situation continues? Will we even be able to offer the Eucharist safely at any time in the way we knew it?
These are a few of the many losses and questions confronting us now, questions that bring us uncertainty and grief and to which there may not be any immediate answer, except faith that Christ is with us as we process them and pray.
To Thomas, who equally did not know the direction, Jesus replies: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also’.
He adds: ‘The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.’
Today, in a world changed beyond our imagining, we come to give thanks for the work that has been done by the living stones of this community in the past year – work motivated by their love for Jesus Christ and one another. The community of Christ Church Cathedral is remarkable, and has done remarkable acts of Christian witness to the God who loves us all.
So today, we also commit, each of us a living corner stone of this community, to continuing to follow Christ wherever that may lead, and to pledge to use our God given talents to find new ways of reaching out to the world, even beyond our own liturgical comfort zones. Because in our Father’s house, there are many rooms – and many of them currently are on Zoom.