Today I preached my last sermon at my home church before moving from North London to Kidderminster in a fortnight. It was an incredibly emotional experience, much more than I expected. The last time I was in that church as a preacher was almost exactly a year ago when I went to finish my training by doing a full-time year of study at Cambridge.
This is the very first totally thematic sermon I've ever done. I very rarely deviate from the lectionary, but it seemed appropriate today. Paul Fiddes' concept of the Trinity meets Miroslav Volf's concept of embrace; add a bit of St. John's Christology and shake thorougly until mixed.
Texts: Esther 2: 17-23 and John 17:17-23
In 1990, a playwright named John Guare wrote a play entitled Six Degrees of Separation. The play was based on the idea that any two strangers in the world are separated from each other by an average of six other relationships. So, if I wanted a personal introduction to George W. Bush, in theory, I should know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows George W. Bush.
This theory is absolute true. Something like it was first proposed in 1929 in a short story called Chains.
Then in the 1950s, an American sociologist attempted to solve what he called ‘the small world problem’ by measuring the ‘degrees of separation’ between two people. He randomly selected people in the mid-West to send packages to a stranger located in Massachusetts. The senders knew the recipient's name, occupation, and general location. They were instructed to send the package to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until the package was delivered to its target recipient. The sociologist actually thought that there would be hundreds of intermediaries between the two strangers. But, in fact, the usual number of intermediaries was between five and seven.
The experiment was repeated using email and the internet in 2001. Using the internet allowed many more people to participate in the experiment, but again, the average number of intermediaries was six.
It is indeed a small world.
Who we are, what we do and how we treat others is important, because our lives affect the lives of those around us.
In this morning’s Old Testament reading, Esther’s well-placed relationship with King Xerxes put her in a position to plead with him that her people be spared. Elsewhere in the story, her uncle Mordecai reminds her to think of the fate of her people and not to be complacent simply because she herself is resident in the King’s house.
For good or for evil, our lives as human beings are intertwined. As Christians, we would expect that our lives would not only be intertwined with other people but also – in some way – with the life of God.
I think that this is what Jesus is saying and praying in this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about how his own life is caught up in the life of the Father. Earlier in this same discourse, Jesus talks about how the Spirit is in the Father and the Son and will be sent to the disciples – and to the church – after Jesus’ departure from this world. This is an image of Father, Son and Holy Spirit relating to each other in movements of love – or as one theologian has put it – in a dance of love.
There are dynamic relationships between the persons of the Trinity, expressing Divine love – a love so vigorous and dynamic that it does and must pour itself out into the world. And I think that Jesus is saying here that the glory of God’s self-giving love is poured out to the church so that the church can be the bearer of God and of God’s love in the world. In some very limited sense, when we are Spirit-filled, the church gets to participate in the very life of God
Of course, we have had a relationship with each other. All of you and I. In speaking with someone after the evening service a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that you all ought to know what you have meant for me on my journey to becoming a minister. Because I honestly don’t think I would have even started on this journey to ministry if I hadn’t ended up here at xxxxxxx.
I really do believe that God brought me here in order to open up the pathway for me to studying for the ministry. When I came to xxxxxxx, I found that I was quickly able to be myself. People were open and courteous, and sensitive and caring. For me, the thing that I think that xxxxxxx does really well is care for and about people. And that was obvious as a new-comer.
You welcomed me, and as I joined activities I didn’t feel like I was stepping on anyone’s toes by joining without knowing hundreds of unwritten rules. For me, what I found at xxxxxxx was an attitude of openness that I particularly needed. You let me ask my difficult questions without getting too upset with me. You supported me – as did xxxxx and the rest of the circuit – in becoming first a Local Preacher and then in applying for Foundation Training.
For me, having the opportunity to become a Local Preacher before applying for Foundation Training was important. It was a step along the way and allowed me to test my call. What if God was calling me to be a Local Preacher but not to be a minister? Again, God’s hand seemed to be in the situation by putting me in the place where I needed to be.
For five years we worshipped together, talked together, prayed together and cared about each other. Your openness had a healing and encouraging effect on my life and I hope that I was able to encourage some of you in some way too.
I think that openness is an important part of the Christian community and that it’s an important part of living out God’s love.
If you think about the image of the church universal participating in the community of the Trinity, I don’t think that there can really be a community without openness. In order for the church to invite others to participate in its life in the Triune God, openness is necessary. It is simply not possible to be closed in on ourselves and to expect to invite others into our dance with God.
To show an open heart and mind to others is to say: ‘It is not enough for us to be alone. We need to be in relationship with you.’ This is true for the church’s relationship with God and it’s true with the church’s relationship to individuals outside the church. Our openness invites others into our community life.
And just as God holds out his hand to us and then stands waiting for our response, so too are we called to wait. I don’t mean that the church waits passively for something to happen because it has failed to issue an invitation to the world around it in the first place. I mean that, having issued the invitation, the church waits without overwhelming those we have invited. We’ve invited them because we are besotted with our communion-dance with the Trinity and we want to share this marvellous miracle with others. We don’t pull them into our building by force because we need more people to fill the pews.
When our invited guests join the dance, they join the dance floor and interact with us and we with them – we’re in now in relationship. Our community is going to be changed in some way. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a genuine relationship. We enter each other’s space, each other’s life. We remain ourselves but the other person’s style of dancing is going to have an effect on the way we dance. Ultimately, of course, the church looks to the dance of the Trinity and prays that God will teach us his perfect way of dancing.
And finally, of course, every genuine relationship on this earth means that there will be an ending. Some dances end because God calls that particular community to dance a different dance. Some endings come because God calls people to dance elsewhere. Other endings come because God calls the person home to dance with the Trinity in the New Creation. But one way or another, genuine relationships between human beings must end. Genuine love risks everything.
And so we are here together this morning as a community of believers, worshipping God as we come before this communion table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
Here we come together to proclaim our unity with all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord
Here we come together as the church to meet our Saviour and our brother who charged us to do this in memory of him
Here we participate in some small way in God’s dance of life.
May the blessing of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - be with us all. Amen