Welcome + Worship + Witness

Revd Jonathan Cain: Towards our common future

Fourth Sunday of Easter
22 April 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Jonathan Cain
Acts 4: 5-12; John 10: 11-18

In a break from usual practice I am going to begin this morning by setting you all a challenge. I’m going to read the first paragraph of a statement to you that was made by a prominent public figure on 12 March this year, leaving out one key word.  If you know, or think you know what that key word is, then I would like you to raise your hand.  OK, here goes …

We all have reason to give thanks for the numerous ways in which our lives are enriched when we learn from others. Through exchanging ideas, and seeing life from other perspectives, we grow in understanding and work more collaboratively towards a common future.  There is a very special value in the insights we gain through the [BLANK] connection; shared inheritances help us overcome difference so that diversity is a cause for celebration rather than division.

… that’s right the missing word was Commonwealth.

What I have just read is the first part of the Queen’s statement, made on Commonwealth Day 2018; part of the backdrop to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Towards a Common Future that has been happening in London over the past few days. On the radio on Thursday morning I was interested and a little surprised to hear the Director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies.  He described the Commonwealth quite disparagingly as a talking shop; an institution he remarked without purpose, which duplicates the work of other bodies.  He went on to describe the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting as a modern equivalent to a Medieval pilgrimage, where people come together to pray; and anticipated that the final declaration would be a long set of prayers about democracy, equality and safeguarding the environment.

Another part of the backdrop to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has been the 25-year anniversary commemoration of the murder of Stephen Lawrence and of course, ‘the Windrush Affair’. Stark reminders perhaps of what happens when diversity – in these instances of skin-colour and of birth-place – is a cause for division rather than celebration.  The murder of Stephen Lawrence has a particular resonance for me because it happened about a mile from where I went to school.

The Gospel passage that we heard this morning begins with a familiar statement from Jesus about himself: “I am the good shepherd,” he says. The image of a shepherd, sheep and flocks is one that resonates strongly in our context here, surrounded as we are by fields full of new-born lambs.  The verse that struck me from the passage this week however was verse 16 …

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

To understand this verse I think we must first accept that Jesus’ ministry was directed first to the house of Israel, the Jews, those with whom God made a covenant through Abraham. It follows then that the other sheep were non-Jews, and what Jesus anticipates in this verse is the future wider mission of God to the gentiles, to all nations, and to the ends of the earth.  Within the same generation the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the church in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus sets out a vision for one flock. Paul proclaims that this vision is a reality even while divisions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female persisted through the time of the early Church and continue today.  What Paul was speaking of, what I think Jesus was speaking of is the reality of our common humanity, the truth of our common and equal status as beloved children of God.  The question for the Church, the question perhaps before the Commonwealth Heads of Government, is what happens when we take this reality, this truth seriously?

In the snippet we heard from Acts this morning two of Jesus’ disciples, Peter and John, were on trial. “By what power or by what name do you do this?” their interrogators ask.  Peter is clear.  They speak and act in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead.  Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd the one who invites his followers to see the world as God sees the world, as one flock.  The lives and often untimely deaths of those first followers of Christ was rooted in the world as it is: beautiful, and divided.  In the face of serious questioning, trial and persecution; in the face of challenges, including huge inequalities between rich and poor, the Church in Acts met, worshipped, prayed, and then turned outwards in witness to the name of Jesus Christ; sharing their possessions with each other, and Jesus’ gift of life with all.

The problems that beset our own times, are complex and include inequalities between rich and poor, and the impact of human activity on our planet. Perhaps it will be difficult to discern positive impact resulting from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, but I’m not sure we should write it off as the Director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies appeared to do, just because the members come together to meet and in his words, to pray.

In this place we are blessed to receive pilgrims from across and beyond the Commonwealth. We welcome, we worship and we pray that we bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, the one who leads us towards our common future as one flock.