Sermon podcast: Easter 58 May 2017 By Sheila Banyard
Sheila Banyard, Rural Dean of Droitwich and Interim Rector of the Seven Parishes, 14 May 2017.
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I’m one of those people who’s not much good at heights, particularly if there’s nothing very solid between me and a long drop down. So I’m not sure how I’d get on with the Grand Canyon glass skywalk, advertised with great razzmatazz as offering a view which has nothing but ‘2,000 feet of air between you and the bottom of the Grand Canyon’. But I’m quite proud of having managed to cross a narrow plank over a rushing Moroccan river (admittedly with a helping hand) and navigate a swaying rope bridge over a gorge in the high Andes on the Inca trail. But those experiences, fearful for me but not in any way ultimately threatening, paled into insignificance when I recently came across someone’s reflection on a time in their life that was desperately difficult: ‘Faith is the footbridge that you don’t know will hold up over the chasm until you’re forced to walk out onto it.’
This Sunday’s readings have a thread which is all about confident faith. The gospel passage is loved by many for its promise of Jesus’ abiding presence and God’s boundless love – ‘There’s plenty of room for you in my Father’s house’, says one version. And equally treasured are Jesus’ words ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ If God flings wide the doors of his house, Jesus is the one who shows us that limitless place where God is. Then in the Acts of the Apostles we hear Stephen’s vision of Jesus at the moment he’s committed himself to the possibility of death and then, in the reality of that, both his prayer for himself and for his attackers remind us of Jesus’ words from the cross. But of course, Stephen’s whole story has been one of faith – he was one of those chosen to assist the apostles as the church grew and spread, chosen precisely because he was recognised as a man of faith, full of God’s grace, power and wisdom, and he lives that faith to the end. And lastly the first letter of Peter describes how God’s beloved people might grow to maturity in faith, to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people declaring his praise. This is the joyful experience of the Easter faith, being on ‘the way’ with Jesus, discovering God’s truth and life. It’s no coincidence that the first Christians were known simply as people of The Way, the way of Christ.
But there’s another, much more tentative, strand here too. Any kind of growth needs the right kind of nurture and nourishment, and faith is no different. St Paul famously wrote to the church in Corinth that Christians ‘live by faith, not by sight’ and whilst we might appreciate his encouragement to set our minds on God, rather than on anything less important, we know that, sometimes, finding enough faith, courage, determination, to take the next step, to set out across those chasms in our lives, can be hard, if not perhaps impossible. So I always have huge sympathy for Thomas when he says to Jesus, ‘We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ and for Philip when he says, ‘Show us the Father and it will be enough’. We hear not unwillingness, but puzzlement, uncertainty, and yes there’s a lack of insight too, so no wonder Jesus sounds a bit exasperated in his reply! And all of that helps us see why we read the Acts of the Apostles so consistently in this Easter season – we hear about the excitement, the struggles, the fears, the joy and the dawning understanding of Jesus’ followers that what he has shown them is real, even though it might look like nonsense to some. And with them we can be drawn deeper into the meaning of Jesus’ life, drawn deeper into the mystery we call God.
One of the great spiritual guides of the 20th century, Henri Nouwen, always wanted people to discover that the most important thing about them was how loved they are. It was one of God’s most profound truths, he said, experienced by Jesus at his baptism – ‘You are my Son, whom I love’ – and that in each of us there is also an inner voice of Love which says we are beloved of God. If we can hear even just a whisper of that voice we can begin to understand the invitation, the assurance, in the first letter of Peter: ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God, called out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ I never fail to be inspired by those words, with their reminder that we are loved and called, held and nurtured, especially at life’s lowest ebb or when faith has faded to the merest glimmer.
But glimmers can be nurtured. Henri Nowen says: ‘Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert.’ He calls that listening ‘prayer’, to go back time and again to the place of solitude with God and discover who we are – his Beloved. Knowing ourselves as Beloved may not make us less fearful of the chasms we have to cross, but it may give us courage to take another small step on the way of truth and life, which is also the way of great love.
- Which person in the gospel reading do you find it easiest to connect with, and why?
- Can you think of a ‘chasm’ you, your church or your local community have had to cross, and what part faith might have played in this?
- What can help people feel that they truly are God’s Beloved?