Sermon on 10th May 2015

Revd Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster

Sometimes people wake up to find that the world has changed completely – and find it hard to find their place in that new world order they now see. Everything they believed to be solid and dependable had now gone, to be replaced with uncertainty, fear, and suspicion.

No, I’m not talking about what many people felt when they awoke on Friday morning to find that an earthquake had overturned the political establishment in the UK –

I am actually talking about the disciples as they had to deal with the loss of Jesus, their Leader, their Lord, their Teacher, and their Friend, when he departed from them on Ascension Day – a feast we shall be celebrating this coming Thursday evening.

How would they survive without that rock they had clung to, the leader they had faithfully followed, the Lord they had honoured, the Teacher who had given them so much information they could hardly digest it all, let alone teach others all that he had taught them. But above all, they would miss Jesus, their Friend.

That can be a bit of a divisive word when we talk about Jesus. ‘Our Friend’ may sound a little overfamiliar when we talk about the Word Incarnate, whose hands flung stars into space. Some people, I know, have a dislike of the hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus” for the same reason.

Back in the year 2000, after the introduction of the new “Common Worship” prayer book for the Church of England, I was part of a team which travelled around explaining to clergy and to deaneries about the changes to the liturgy, and how it can be used, and people were not slow to complain about the new form of words in the liturgy. One of the key phrases most marked out for disapproval was the line from Eucharistic Prayer D, which we use for our All Age services. “On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he came to table with his friends, to celebrate the freedom of your people.” Again, it is the “F” word that people found so difficult.

What I said in response to that complaint was to point people to our gospel reading for today, in which Jesus says quite clearly: “You are my friends”, and “I have called you friends.” It is the word which Jesus himself uses to describe the relationship he seeks to have with all his people.

But the friendship does come with a rider… “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” We are specifically no longer called servants (as in the Lord and Servant relationship) but friends, as we have been allowed into the knowledge of the will of God, (The servant does not know what the master is doing). But as Jesus has let us know everything that the Father has told him, he calls us friends.

So the responsibility as friends is to obey the command of the Lord (who is now our friend). And Jesus is clear as to what his command is: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And this command he gives extra weight to with the following sentence: no-one has greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. With the hindsight that we are given, the emphasis becomes greater still once Jesus himself gives his own life for his friends – all of those whom he calls friends, so all of those who obey his commandment to love one another, and after his example of total self-giving, even to death itself.

But that phrase, “one another” is a bit off a problem – for how do we interpret this? Was that just the small group of disciples who should commit to obeying the commandment, and being the ‘friends of Jesus’, or is the circle to be drawn even wider?

If we look at the first reading from today’s lectionary readings, from the Acts of the Apostles, that will provide is with a clue. A controversy had been raging about whether the Good News of Jesus was just for the Jewish people, or could it be even for those who were not among the chosen people of God?

Some said that only the Jews should be welcomed into the fold; others that others, “Gentiles” could be welcomed into the fold if they were circumcised and followed the laws of Moses, while others still argued (and yes, they really did argue!) that anyone could be welcomed into the fold of those who were the followers of Jesus.

In the reading we see the Holy Spirit falling on “all who heard the word” – to the amazement of the Jewish believers, who were pushing the line that believers should be circumcised. But here, even the uncircumcised were receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit – who showed no partiality, but instead fell on all who were open to hearing the Word of God. Peter – who himself had needed some convincing on this matter – could not argue with the Holy Spirit of God, and ordered that the new believers should be baptized and be welcomed into the fold.

So, yes, the circle should be drawn wider still, and wider, as more and more people received the indiscriminate generosity of the Holy Spirit’s gift.

In the Second reading from John’s 1st Letter, this is again confirmed, as we are reminded that “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God”, and that when we love God, we obey his commandments, and, in obedience to Jesus’ commandment, we are to love the children of God.

And who are the children of God – but the whole population of the world! The advantages of the world we live in today is that it is a much smaller place than it was 2,000 years ago! If only in the sense that we are all the more aware of people in distant lands through the miracle of modern communications. We heard almost instantly of the earthquake in Nepal, just as news travels fast across continents and islands in a way that previous generations could not have imagined. And in this small world in which we live we are more than ever dependent on each other across the immense distances that lie between us.

Christian Aid, which begins its annual focus on the needy across the world this week, is one of many agencies which works to bring Christians together in prayer and mutual support. It raises our awareness of our brothers and sisters in the Gospel , those on whom the Spirit of God has fallen, though their lives and experience of the world are very different from our own. But this remarkable week gives us the opportunity to open our hearts to our fellow Christians in their need, and by a simple gift of money, (which we have in abundance, a fact that is proved by the fact that we can actually buy things which we don’t really need to survive), and by our generosity we are able to show our love for our Christian brothers and sisters who live in the sort of poverty we cannot begin to fathom.

This year, Christian Aid’s campaign focuses on a woman in Ethiopia called Loko. If you have the means, and the time, I urge you to look at Christian Aid’s website, where you can see a short video which tells her story – how she has to walk several hours every day to collect wood, so that she can sell it, in order to buy food to give her children a small meal every day. As she walks, she prays that she may someday have enough money to buy a goat or a cow, so that she can feed her children – this is just one example they have chosen to give as an example of so many millions around the world who are living in poverty on a scale which is beyond our imagination.

But these are the people whom God calls us to love – as he has loved us, and in our generosity, and these acts of love, he promises that our joy may be complete in obeying his commandment.

So, may we hear the words of Jesus calling us to love – and my our hearts be prompted to respond with generosity and in love to those who have nothing, except the hope that their Christian sisters and brothers from distant lands may be moved to generosity so that they may have enough so that they might live with dignity.