Sermon on Passion Sunday
Lent 5 Passion Sunday, 29 April 2020
The Revd Canon Prof John Rodwell, Hon. Associate Priest
It’s a bit of an open secret among preachers that, provided you change the catchy introduction, you can preach the same sermon year after year. In fact, of course, congregations often know this, like many things preachers assume are secret to them. And why not repeat a sermon, Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say because, if a message is worth hearing, it’s worth being reminded of it. Actually, if I look back at the last time I preached on Passion Sunday at the Priory, I find that my theme was that God loves an open door. In these strange days of closure, door after door, even those of churches, this sounds now a somewhat unpromising way to start thinking about God’s generosity and our awareness of it.
What I said then was meant as a mild reproof to my mother who provided my catchy introduction. ‘As one doors shuts…’ she used to say, ‘As one door shuts, another closes’. Well, she’s certainly been borne out these past few weeks as museums, art galleries, hotels, shops, care homes and even churches have closed to us any easy prospect of diversion, inspiration, recreation, escape, comfort, and praying and worshiping together in the same place. And, for some people, what’s happening now has closed off the prospect of life itself, as they have succumbed to the coronavirus.
One thing in our shared life at the Priory that we thought best to stop early were our Lent study groups, losing the chance to open the doors of our homes in hospitality to one another and to share our appreciation of the natural world and our need to care for it. However, our ‘Thought for the Day’ has continued through Lent, celebrating the wonders and terrors we find in nature as signs of God’s generosity. Even in these times when we cannot get out and about among nature and see things for ourselves, we go on believing that, from before the beginning of time, God opened the door of his creative desire and called all that there is into being. He made room, as it were, for things other than himself so that they could share his very presence, a flux of life from which emerged eventually my mother, you, me, Archbishop Michael Ramsey, every one and every thing. And the coronavirus? Is that part of God’s desire, another gift of his generosity? I don’t think so. It moves within the freedom which he has given his Creation, but it does not bear the mark of the life enhancement which he yearns for. God loves an open door and he says yes to life. That is the mark.
An open door goes on being the mark of the welcome we offer as people at the Priory. Even though, for the moment, the door of our church remains shut, yet the Christian life we share is open to all comers and, though we are in one way and another in isolation at the moment, we are flexing our arms ready to embrace. We can see these days the power of that unquestioning welcome in the way doctors and nurses don’t ask who the people are who need their urgent care. We can see it in the way streets and localities are organising themselves to attend to the needs of people they’ve never spoken to or noticed before. We can learn from that open-heartedness. The depth of it, its spontaneity and its sacrifice, these can challenge the extent of our own welcome. They can help us see again, see afresh, see more clearly, that this is what God’s welcome is like, spontaneous, sacrificial, deep. Surely people will measure Him and the extent of his embrace by how open is the door of our own heart, of our own church, and how bright is the light that beckons others through.
Last time I preached on Passion Sunday we were thinking about ‘Outreach’ as one of the key aims of our Parish Strategy. When we open our door again, we will remind ourselves that God’s welcome is not into some sunlit enclave. We don’t want to swell in numbers at the Priory as an ever more comfortable and confident coterie. Of course, we all gain encouragement when the Church can gather together as a vibrant community to hear God’s Word, be inspired by the music and the ceremony, get fed around the altar as one
body in the Eucharistic feast. And we can go on feeling that fellowship while separate through our landlines, our mobiles, our iPads – and through our bible reading and our prayer. Though we are physically apart, we can be digitally connected, and linked through our thoughts, our desires. And that desire reaches out beyond our own numbers because we long to share our common life with others, more and more. In these days, we find ourselves marooned among others who may know nothing of that kind of Christian life, nothing at all of the welcome God offers. In our outreach now, maybe as anonymous helpers, ‘just’ as neighbours, ‘just’ as strangers, without an obvious Christian badge, may others see in what we do something of the welcome that awaits them when our actual door is open.
Shut out ourselves now, sharing this predicament with everyone, this is to be part of a world which God himself already knows. In the person of Jesus, God himself lived and moved in a world where he found, over and again, that doors were closed to the expression of his divine desire for his people, for all that he had made. Jesus was conceived to a nobody; born in a place that was shut out from the warmth and conviviality of the inn in Bethlehem; denied a welcome by most of the religious and proper people of his day; written off as an upstart provincial trouble-maker by the authorities; on the receiving end of meanness, slander and betrayal; dying an outsider’s death outside the city wall; ‘As one door shuts, another closes’. This is the story we rehearse again this Lent.
In the Gospel for Passion Sunday this year (John 11, 1-45) we hear the story of Lazarus, a close friend of Jesus now lying dead in a cave, a stone lying against it. It is a kind of rehearsal of the climax of the Lent and Holy Week story which we shall see played out again in the coming fortnight. Then we shall see Jesus himself, shut behind a tomb’s door lifeless and alone. Holy Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Day, can seem nothing more than an impatient wait for what we know will come. But the first disciples did not know what would come after the door closed on Jesus. Mary and Martha and the friends of Lazarus did not know what would come. Faced with the closed doors we see in these peculiar days, we also do not know what will come. We hope for a speedy and favourable outcome from the pandemic. We hope for renewed life. We hope for survival. But all we know at the moment is the difficulty of proclaiming the presence of a God we have been told loves an open door. This makes Lent real for us in a very particular way.
Though isolated, we will stay with one another these coming days. Though far flung in space and time from the first disciples, we will stay with them. All together, we believe that it is in God’s power to call us through doors that now seem forbiddingly shut. That is something which we shall celebrate definitively on Easter Day with the discovery that the stone can be rolled free of the now empty tomb in which we thought all our hopes had been done to death. ‘As one door opens, another opens’.