St Bride's: Sermons

Trust in Adversity

John 13: 31–35

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Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.

32 If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him.

33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.

34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.

35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

Trust in Adversity
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In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen

As most of you will be aware, a group of us from St Bride's have just returned from a pilgrimage through mainland Greece, following in the footsteps of St Paul.

We had an amazing time, which was fascinating on all kinds of levels - including the rather unexpected things that one learned about one's fellow travellers.  For example, our Assistant Curate and I were somewhat taken aback to discover that 35 years ago, on 29th August 1981, we were both on the terraces of a memorable First Division football match, in which newly promoted Swansea City thrashed Leeds United 5-1.  I was a university student at the time, and Jeff was still in short trousers, but mercifully were both supporting the right team!

For me, the single most significant feature of our journey through Greece was simply having the experience of standing where St Paul had himself once stood; of seeing the same landscape, and even some of the same buildings that he would have seen.  Amongst other places, we took in ancient Neapolis, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, the site of the old port of Cenchreae, and the city of Athens, We renewed our baptismal vows at the stream where Lydia, the first Christian convert in Europe, was herself baptised; we celebrated the Eucharist amidst the ruins of Ancient Corinth.  And as we travelled, we followed the Biblical account of Paul's journey to those places in Acts, and we reflected on the letters he wrote to the fledgling churches that he founded there.  And I am sure that I was not alone in finding that when you stand in the very places where those events actually occurred, the biblical texts suddenly start to read very differently, and come to life in a new way.

It certainly gave me a renewed insight into the nature of St Paul's experience as the first great Christian missionary.  Because we know from his own testimony that he faced constant danger and difficulty on his travels, and in almost every place he visited.  He encountered savage opposition from the locals, both Jews and Gentiles, frequently spilling over into violence; and he describes how he was regularly beaten, stoned, and imprisoned.  The new churches that he founded were themselves subjected to persecution (as in Thessalonica), or riven by internal disputes and disagreements (as in Corinth).  

And if that were not bad enough, Paul himself was treated with grave suspicion by the other apostles, who never fully trusted him; he had to deal with groups of rival Christians telling his own converts that they had to become Jewish before they could become part of the Body of Christ, which threatened to undermine the whole basis of his distinctive ministry.  And a key part of his own message to the churches was that the Second Coming was about to happen at any moment - except that it didn't.  

So when one looks at all that evidence on a purely human level, far from being a success story, Paul's missionary journeys appear to be a pretty unmitigated disaster.  Except that they were not.  Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth.  Contrary to everything that one might expect, Paul's mission was in fact the most astonishing, mind-blowing success.  Which is why, two thousand years later, a group of Christians from this church in central London were there in mainland Greece, following in his footsteps, as members of a global Christian community - in no small part thanks to the astonishing effectiveness of Paul's mission and ministry.

So how on earth did events move from the difficulty, disaster, danger, and failure that Paul experienced on a daily basis, to the staggering success that was his ministry?  It seems to me that the answer is to be found within Paul's own words.  You see, Paul never viewed the adversity that he faced as a sign that what he was doing was pointless or futile.  On the contrary, he regarded it as an essential part of his calling.  After all, to put it simply, Christ suffered and died - so why on earth should his followers expect discipleship to be a soft option - a passport to an easy, stress-free life?  Struggle was always going to be part of the package for a disciple of Christ because we are called to engage with difficult and dark forces, which will at times feel far more powerful than we are.  Yet the important thing is, as Paul himself tells us, we must not be dismayed.  And he was, of course, absolutely right.  St Paul was absolutely and overwhelmingly vindicated in his astonishing and undiminished faith and trust in God, as revealed in Christ - because history has proved him right.

In this morning's Gospel reading from St John, which forms part of his account of the Last Supper.  Jesus says this to his disciples:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Now, at first sight that might appear to be a very nice, cosy little sentiment.  But it isn't.  On the contrary, I regard it as one of the most profoundly challenging of all the sayings of Jesus.  Because Jesus is not asking his disciples to try and be nice to each other, in a lukewarm Anglican kind of way.  He is commanding them to love one another, which is a very, very different thing altogether.  

Some of you will have heard me reflect before on the strangeness of this saying - because most of us don't regard love as something that we can be commanded to do - we think of love as a feeling which bubbles up inside us and is essentially outside our control.  You can be commanded to obey another human being - but can you really be commanded to love him (or her)?  

And we should also note that when he said this, Jesus had in mind precisely those people whom we find it most difficult to love - those who make us feel angry, or frustrated, or inadequate, or who treat us with contempt, or who hate us, or whose very presence in our midst causes us grief or disquiet.  Those are the people whom we are commanded to love.

Because for Jesus, love was not simply an emotion that exists outside our control, but rather, a way of life.  In commanding us to love he is saying, in effect, regardless of what you happen to feel about this individual, you must behave towards them as if you loved them.  

And the strange thing is that if you do that, then you will find, in time, that the nature of your relationship with that individual will start to change, and more often than not, your feelings towards them will change also.  Because that is the nature of the Christian gospel - a gospel that has the power to change the human heart, and the power to change the world - as we can see exemplified in the extraordinary story of St Paul's mission.

Paul's message to us, speaking across the centuries, is never, ever to lose heart.  Never, ever to lose our trust in a God who is always faithful, and true, and loving, even in those times when all the evidence confronting us tempts us to despair.  Live hopefully, and act lovingly, secure in the knowledge that you are held in the love and grace of God.  And I trust that Ludovic and Christopher, who have been welcomed into the family of Christ this morning by their baptism, will grow to learn and experience that most profound, and most precious of truths for themselves, and so discover the fullness of life that is theirs in Christ.

Amen.

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