Sunday, 2 May 2010

The new commandment is to love one another

Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 2 May 2010 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter):

Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin: 10.30 a.m., Morning Prayer (2)

Patrick Comerford

Acts 11: 1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21: 1-6; John 13: 31-35

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

It is very good to be here in Holmpatrick with you this morning.

Ever since my school days, Skerries has been a favourite place for me. When my two sons were much younger, they too enjoyed days in the sun in Skerries. Over the last few years, I’ve rediscovered the beauty of the beaches and the charm of the town as I’ve come out here at weekends for walks on the beaches, strolls along the pier or a late Sunday lunch.

I work in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, where I am Director of Spiritual Formation and teach Church History and Liturgy to the future clergy of the Church of Ireland.

Only two weeks ago, in a small tutorial group with some students, we were looking at the Bible readings for the coming weeks. I asked how many of them would preach on the readings that had been chosen from the Book of Revelation.

And – with consistency – each one of them said they would run a mile before preaching from the Book of Revelation. For some, it was full of chilling visions and apocalyptic imagery that they found too difficult to deal with, to take in, to integrate in their thinking.

But the reality is that if we dismiss the Book of Revelation – if we leave it to marginal cults and allow it to be hijacked by people with extreme political views – then we miss out on one of the great and beautiful pieces of Biblical literature.

Over the past few weeks, as a post-Easter treat if you like, the Sunday readings have taken us into a beautiful summary of what the Book of Revelation is about.

Last week and the week before, the readings from the Book of Revelation invited us to join the whole church, the whole Communion of Saints, in paradise, worshipping God before the eternal throne on which sits the Lamb of God.

And then this morning we have this beautiful image of God’s plans for a New Heaven and a New Earth.

The design for a two-light window in Holy Trinity Church, Sunningdale: the left-hand light shows the New Heaven – the Holy City descending through tears of purity from the universe beyond, like a bride; the right hand light shows the New Earth amongst the elements of air, fire and water

I find it so appropriate that the Bible opens with a description of God’s creation of a beautiful cosmos in the Book Genesis. And then, after the whole story of redemption in the New Testament, that the Bible should close with the dramatic account that we have in the readings this morning and for the next two Sundays of God’s promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth.

And if we ignore it, if we leave that promise to those who want to indulge in the strange and the weird, we are missing out on part of the great Christian promise of hope and of love that should be to the fore in our faith in this season between Easter and Pentecost. For those who are coming to the Church, exploring Christianity with real vibrancy and real questions, if we ignore that promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth, then we are in danger of relegating all of Christ’s promises, all of the promises waiting to burst forth with Easter joy, to what Joe Hill in his song parodied as “pie in the sky when you die.”

God’s promises are not of “pie in the sky when you die.” For, “the home of God is among mortals.” God will dwell with us; we will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21: 3, 4).

And it is the responsibility of the Church, of Christians, of each of us, to see that the Church is a sign, a reflection, a sacrament of that promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth.

What is your idea of heaven?

At times, as I walk the beaches of Skerries, or look out at the rocks, the sea and the mountains from Red Island, as I stroll along the pier and around the harbour, I imagine I have a little glimpse of what the promise of a New Heaven means.

But what about a New Earth?

What would a New Earth mean for someone who is unemployed?

What would a New Earth mean for a woman who is battered and beaten?

What would a New Earth mean for a child who is going to go to bed hungry tonight?

What would a New Earth mean for an immigrant or a refugee family who find themselves unwelcome or listen daily to racist taunts?

Would they feel God has wiped every tear from their eyes?

When they hear about the Heavenly Banquet, when they see us gathered around the altar or the Table for the Eucharist or the Holy Communion, will they know too that they have been invited to be here?

When they look to the Church, will they look to you and me and see that we too have a vision for, that we live in hope for, that we reflect and are signs of, sacraments of, that New Heaven and that New Earth?

For to the thirsty he gives water as a gift from the spring of the water of life (see Revelation 21: 6).

The Apostle Peter’s Vision (Acts 11: 1-18) illustrated in a stained-glass window

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, tells of a time when the Apostle Peter has gone back to Jerusalem and finds that the Church there is suspicious of outsiders, Gentiles, people from other nations, people who are different in language, colour, ethnicity and nationality.

And he tries to deal with their exclusivism, their fears of the outsider, their far-too-tight drawing of the boundaries of the Church by describing a vision he had in Joppa.

What he provides is not some exotic recipe page from an apocalyptic cookery book. This was a time when one of the most visible marks of difference when it came to ethnicity, nationality and religion was what people eat.

I said in all earnestness to some friends recently that the variety of restaurants here gives Skerries the potential to be the Kinsale of north Dublin.

When it comes to food, variety truly is the spice of life. What Peter is saying is: no matter what they eat, no matter what their ethnic, national or religious food is, all are invited to eat at the Heavenly Banquet in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

The Promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth is a rich promise that draws on the images found in the writings of the Old Testament Prophets. The Prophet Isaiah paints one such beautiful image: “For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, says the Lord; so shall your seed and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (Isaiah 66: 22-23).

Saint John on his death bed, from the Saint John window in Chartres Cathedral

The early church writer Jerome tells the well-loved story of how the author of Saint John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation, Saint John the Evangelist, continued preaching in Ephesus, even when he was in his 90s.

Saint John was so feeble in his old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a full sermon, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, Sunday-after-Sunday, even when the ageing John was on his death-bed.

Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out of the church.

Every week in Ephesus, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If we want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All we need to know is: “Little children, love one another.”

That is all he preached in Ephesus, week after week, and that is precisely the message he keeps on repeating in his first letter (I John), over and over again: “Little children, love one another.”

There is no such thing as “loveless Christianity.” It’s like saying you can have a meal without eating anything.

Where there is no love there is no Christianity. And John says it over and over again to his readers – in his Gospel, in his three epistles, in the Book of Revelation – because it’s worth repeating, because, indeed, it is enough.

Christ’s love for us shows that it is enough. That is the real hope in the promise of a New Heaven and a New Earth. And that is the message at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning: “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” (John 13: 34-35).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, at Morning Prayer on 2 May 2010.

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