Sixth Sunday of Easter
06 May 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Acts 10. 44 – end; John 15. 9-17
There’s a story I rather like about a fairly tough and very down to earth inner city parish in Birmingham. The vicar had just retired. He had been much loved as a parish priest, though his sermons, delivered in impeccable Received Pronunciation, were usually way above the heads of most of his congregation. His successor was, by contrast, a local man with a broad Brummie accent. In conversation with one of his parishioners the new vicar was paid a rather backhanded compliment (I shan’t attempt the accent): ‘You and the last vicar are a really good contrast,’ the woman observed. ‘He was so saintly.’ The new vicar soon discovered that his predecessor’s reputation for saintliness was due, at least in part, to the fact that very few people could understand what he was talking about from the pulpit.
That story is a helpful starting point for some general remarks on the differences between St John’s gospel, of which we hear substantial portions in these Sundays after Easter, and the other three – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I have sometimes thought that the Jesus of St John’s gospel and the Jesus of the first three gospels can be contrasted in the same way as the two Birmingham vicars in my story. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus gives much direct and readily understandable teaching about God and about the demands which belief in God make upon all women and men: parables abound, the raw material for which Jesus usually takes from issues and situations which would have been of direct relevance to the crowds which followed him: agriculture, debt, relations with people regarded as religiously unclean and so on. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and its equivalent in Luke, the Sermon on the Plain, show Jesus giving much practical advice on human relationships and on prayer.
In John’s gospel, by contrast, Jesus’s teaching is much more enigmatic and, I think it is fair to say, difficult to grasp – at least at first. The teaching is full of image and metaphor. We heard some of this language from Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading: abide in my love, he says to the disciples; and, I appointed you to bear fruit …that will last. The Jesus in St John’s gospel comes over on occasion as being altogether other-worldly – perhaps unsurprisingly given that the Gospel starts in heaven: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. There is certainly, for instance, no hint of the aspect of Jesus’s lifestyle which occasions the crowds to comment in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus is a glutton and a drunkard, compared with the much more ascetic John the Baptist.
But we need – and we should value – a fully rounded picture of Jesus. It is a picture we are able to have precisely because we have four gospels. John’s gospel was almost certainly written a generation later than Matthew, Mark and Luke, towards the end of the first century when the church had been able to reflect theologically on the eternal significance of Jesus’s ministry. John’s account of this ministry is especially important in making explicit the link between past, present and future in God’s plan for human salvation. As I said earlier, the gospel begins in heaven. Jesus is the Word of God who has existed with God since the beginning; this Word is made flesh and reveals the truth about God to human beings in a particular time and a particular place.
Our gospel passage this morning comes from a particularly intense series of chapters in St John’s Gospel in which Jesus speaks such words of truth to his disciples. As this final discourse unfolds on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus helps his disciples to understand that the cloth of God’s love is both endless and seamless: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. When the disciples love in this way, their love will take on some of the characteristics of God’s love. They are being given an opportunity to grasp a future in which they can share in fulfilling God’s purposes for his world.
That opportunity is ours as well. Over the next fortnight we shall be celebrating the Festivals of the Ascension and of Pentecost. Ascension celebrates Christ’s reigning in glory with his Father, a reign which began with the resurrection. Pentecost celebrates Christ’s promise that he would not leave us comfortless, that he would send the Holy Spirit to strengthen, to build up and to encourage his Church. It is, perhaps, appropriate that after Pentecost there is a long period when there are no major festivals for us to get excited about in church. It is almost as though the Holy Spirit is testing our resolve to be open to his power when there is no liturgical ‘high’ on the horizon, when we have to get down to the day to day work of discerning the Kingdom of God among us, and of sharing in the task of making it known in the world.
Whatever our hopes and fears for the future in times that are increasingly febrile and uncertain I commend to you some words of a former Director of Christian Aid, Michael Taylor. Working for justice, mercy, and peace is the common task of all Christians. What that task requires of us is the willingness to give generously, act boldly, and pray willingly. Brothers and sisters, if we believe in the message of hope which arises from our Christian faith in the resurrection; if we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, celebrated by Peter in our reading and which we in turn will celebrate and receive at Pentecost, then we have all we need to play our part in discerning and extending God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace.