Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A disparate, despised group of Christians

The Antioch Chalice, lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, to the exhibition, Byzantium, in the Royal Academy, London, last year. Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Patrick Comerford

Acts 12: 24 – 13: 5a; Psalm 67; John 12: 44-50

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

Our readings this evening continue some of our threads in the readings for Saint Mark’s Day, which we heard at our Eucharist on Sunday evening.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about Barnabas and Saul bringing John Mark with them from Antioch to Jerusalem to join in their mission work.

And we can see how already that mission work was extending way beyond those nice, respectable groups some people would like to see our parishes being confined to. For, in Antioch, the Christians in the Church were not the sort of people many think we should be drawing into the Church through our mission work.

Just look at them:

● Barnabas, a late arrival in the inner circle, not mentioned in the Gospels, a parvenu who only arrives on the scene in the Acts of the Apostles.

● Simeon, who was called Niger – presumably a black African.

● Lucius of Cyrene, another African. Was he in Jerusalem before this, with Simon the Cyrene, but silently watching Christ carry his cross to Calvary, afraid to stand out from the crowd?

● Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler … some translations more accurately grasp that the word σύντροφος (syntrophos) means he was a foster brother of Herod the Tetrarch. I don’t think too many us would think kindly of one of Herod’s courtiers, never mind a close member of his family. Had he once, on behalf of his foster father, Herod the Great, ordered the soldiers to go into Bethlehem and seek out every male child two years old or under? Had he been complicit in the execution by his foster brother Herod Antipas of John the Baptist? Was he present when Herod Antipas questioned and mocked Christ at his trial?

● And, of course, Saul, the once snooty Pharisee who collected booty for the Christian martyrs he hunted down.

You are bound to find parishioners who object to perople like this – in 21st century modes – being drawn into the life of the Church.

They’ll get a surprise, won’t they, when they realise these are the very sort of people who turn up for selection conference, who end up as ordinands, deacons, priests, and even as bishops?

But our Psalm this evening (Psalm 67) shows how embracing and inclusive God’s vision, God’s mission, God’s love is.

Psalm 67, Deus Misereatur, was introduced into the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer as a Canticle for Evening Prayer, as an alternative to the main canticles. It is one of only four canticles that are provided in the traditional language in the Book of Common Prayer 2004 [see p. 134] – the others are Urbs Fortitudinis, Cantate Domino, and A Song of the Light, although quick thinking will allow you to find modern language versions either in the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer or in the Irish Church Hymnal.

This psalm is a plea for the mercy of God, for his “saving health” to be seen in all nations, for his righteous judgment, and for his governance of the world. When all of that is in place, “Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, and God, our own God, will bless us. God will bless us, and all the ends of the world shall fear him.”

God raises up his own, in the face of popular prejudice, and in spite of our prejudices, so that his saving health may be received and may be a blessing in all nations. Long before Paul and Barnabas arrived in Antioch, there was a disparate, perhaps even despised group of Christians there – two Africans, a former intimate of Herod … how many more?

Indeed, those who worry about people like this turning to Christ need to hear the Good News in our Gospel reading this evening. For Christ says that it matters not what background we come from, what the colour of our skin is, which tribe or country we come from, or what have been our past political or religious convictions.

What matters is that whoever believes in Christ, whoever sees Christ, whoever accepts Christ as the light come into the world. As another Canticle for Evening Prayer, Nunc Dimittis, reminds us, he is a light to lighten the Gentiles, a light and revelation to the nations, and not just for those who would keep him to themselves.

Keep that light before you always, then can God’s servants go in peace.

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

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life:
raise us, who trust in him,
from the death of sin to the life of righteousness,
that we may seek those things which are above,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Father,
who gave your Son Jesus Christ to be the good shepherd,
and in his love for us to lay down his life and rise again.
Keep us always under his protection,
And give us grace to follow in his steps;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the mid-week Eucharist on 28 April 2010.