26 May 2019

Are the boundaries of the church
too narrow and too exclusive?

A window depicting Christ the healer in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, depicts Christ healing the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda (see John 5: 1-9) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 26 May 2019

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

11.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick

Readings: Acts 16: 9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21: 10, 22 to 22: 5; John 5: 1-9.

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

This Sunday is also known as Rogation Sunday, the day on which the Church has traditionally offered prayer for God’s blessings on the fruits of the earth and the labours of those who produce our food.

The word ‘rogation’ comes from a Latin word (rogare), that means to ask or to beg. Historically, the Rogation Days – the three weekdays this week before Ascension Day – were a period of fasting and abstinence, asking for God’s blessing on the crops for a bountiful harvest.

This morning’s psalm (Psalm 67) is a song giving thanks for an abundant harvest and a prayer for a good harvest. In this psalm, the blessing God gives to the people is extended to all nations, for he is the universal just ruler and guide.

Even though fewer and fewer people today are directly involved in the production of food, it is still good for all of us to be reminded of our dependence on those of us do, and to be reminded of our responsibility for the environment.

There was a tradition or custom on Rogation days, certainly in England, of beating the bounds, a ceremony or procession of parishioners, led by the priest and churchwardens, walking around the boundaries of a parish, praying for God’s protection for the parish and the fields in the coming year.

Beating the bounds was also an effective way of passing from one generation to another the traditions and memories of the precise limits of a parish. In times before maps and written title deeds, it was important for clergy and residents to know the physical boundaries of their parish.

It is a tradition that continues to this day in Cambridge, Oxford, and other places in England, and although it is forgotten in many places, I have been involved in discussions with some other historians in Lichfield about whether this tradition could be revived there too.

But, please do not think for a moment that I am going to ever think of reviving that tradition in this group of parishes. I have no intention of getting on a horse and riding all the way from Ferrybridge and Kildimo in the east to Ballybunion in the west, and then down to Listowel and back through Astea and Newcastle West through Rathkeale and Croagh to the outer limits of Adare.

You would need more than one horse, you would take days to do it, and you would be saddle sore for weeks afterwards.

But it was a tradition that reminded us, long before ‘green issues’ were fashionable, that we needed to pray for specific elements of creation, including livestock, fields, orchards and gardens.

Beating the bounds was also an effective way of passing from one generation to another the traditions and memories of the precise limits of a parish – not only where was in, and where was out, but also who was in, and who was out.

In times before maps and written title deeds, it was important for priests and people to know the physical boundaries of their parish. Until 1834, the Poor Laws made the care of the poor the legal responsibility of a parish, and the parish was responsible for relieving the needy, supporting apprentice children and children in one-parent families, and caring for the destitute in the parish.

The parish boundaries embraced not only those who went to church on Sundays. The parish had responsibilities for all people within the parish bounds, and a greater responsibility for those who might otherwise be missed out on.

Our readings this morning are very much about who is in and who is out when it comes to God’s embrace, when it comes to God’s promises.

In our first reading (Acts 16: 9-15), Saint Paul and his two companions, Silas and Timothy, have arrived in Europe for the first time, in Philippi in Macedonia.

There, Saint Paul visits the Jewish community first. They meet for prayer ‘outside the gate by the river,’ perhaps because there is no synagogue within the bounds of the city, perhaps because they are excluded from the city because of their religious beliefs and ethnic background.

There he meets Lydia, a Gentile woman who already worships God and who is receptive to Saint Paul’s message. She is from Thyatira, a city in in the province of Lydia in Asia Minor, which seems to be an unusual coincidence of names. It sounds like meeting Clare from Clare or Kerry from Kerry. But, while Lydia may represent in many ways the woman who is an outsider, she is an independent businesswoman, selling purple cloth, which was a luxury fabric.

She and her household are the first people in Europe to convert to Christianity and to be baptised. Saint Paul and his companions are reluctant to accept her hospitality, but she insists, and they accept.

Lydia and her household are baptised, and she provides lengthy hospitality for Paul, Silas, Luke and whoever else is travelling with them. The Orthodox Church gives her the title of ‘Equal to the Apostles.’ Her home hosts the first church on what we now call European soil. We might even think of her as the first woman bishop, the first bishop, in Europe.

Our second reading (Revelation 21: 10, 22 to 22: 5) continues the vision of the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and the New Earth, that we began reading last Sunday.

Once again, we have reminders of boundaries and who is counted in through God’s grace. The city lacks a physical temple, for the presence of God pervades the entire godly community, and they illuminate it. All peoples and all rulers will be guided by this light. The gates of the city are open to give everyone free access at all times, for they will live in perfect safety. People will, in entering the city, reflect God’s ‘glory … and honour.’

In the Gospel reading (John 5: 1-9), Christ meets the rank outsider at the Pool of ‘Beth-zatha’ or Bethesda, near the Temple. This man has been ill for 38 years and has been at the pool for some time. Only those who could get into the stirred-up waters first were cured.

Now, without having to wait for the stirred waters, the man is cured at Christ’s command. We are not told whether this man becomes a believer after his healing. Saint John wishes his readers to understand that the waters of life offered by Christ are more effective than the miracle waters expected spasmodically in a pool near the Temple.

This healing takes place on the Sabbath, yet the healed man is told to take up his bed and carry it away. This healing brings a new beginning. The man once counted out is counted in, the man once excluded from the Temple in Jerusalem for 38 years while no-one appeared to notice his plight is now called into the New Jerusalem where he finds the waters of life.

Where is home for you?

Do we draw our boundaries too tightly?

In the alternative Gospel reading for this morning, also from Saint John’s Gospel, Christ says: ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ (John 14: 23).

That sounds good enough for me as a definition of home.

When do you ever feel you are an outsider?

Do you regret ever having made other people feel they are outsiders?

For Christ, there are only insiders and potential insiders.

The Risen Christ invites all to be within the bounds of his Kingdom, his city, his church, his parish, the New Jerusalem.

We are all invited, each and every one of us, to be part of the New Heaven and the New Earth, and to feast at his banquet.

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Great West Window by Alan Younger in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth … illustrating the vision in the Book of Revelation 21-22 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

John 5: 1-9:

1 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralysed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ 7 The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ 8 Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a sabbath.

‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ (John 14: 23) … a village home in the countryside near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: White

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

God our redeemer,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
Grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life,
so by his continual presence in us he may raise us to eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect (Rogation Days):

Almighty God and Father,
you have so ordered our life
that we are dependent on one another:
Prosper those engaged in commerce and industry
and direct their minds and hands
that they may rightly use your gifts in the service of others;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A prayer for Rogation Day (Common Worship):

Almighty God,
whose will it is that the earth and sea
should bear fruit in due season:
bless the labours of those who work on land and sea,
grant us a good harvest
and the grace always to rejoice in your fatherly care;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

A prayer for Rogationtide:

Remember, Lord, your mercy and loving-kindness towards us.
Bless this good earth, and make it fruitful.
Bless our labour, and give us all things needed for our daily lives.
Bless the homes of our parish and all who live within them.
Bless our common life and our care for our neighbour.
Hear us, good Lord. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).


Above all we praise you
for the glorious resurrection of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
the true paschal lamb who was sacrificed for us;
by dying he destroyed our death;
by rising he restored our life:

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ gives the water of eternal life:
May we also thirst for you,
the spring of life and source of goodness,
through him who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer (Rogation Days):

God our creator,
you give seed for us to sow and bread for us to eat.
As you have blessed the fruit of our labour in this Eucharist,
so we ask you to give all your children their daily bread,
that the world may praise you for your goodness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!


350, For the beauty of the earth (CD 21)
643, Be thou my vision (CD 37)
294, Come down, O Love divine (CD 18)

‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life … flowing … through the middle of the street of the city’ (Revelation 22: 1-2) … the Vltava River flowing under the Charles Bridge in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Material from Common Worship and Times and Seasons is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England.

The West Window in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, illustrating the vision in the Book of Revelation 21-22 … seen from the Chancel and the East End of the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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