Sunday 7 May - Patronal Feast - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN: Patronal Festival 2017; Exodus 33.7-11a; 1 John 1.1-9; John 17.20-25

Among the many tributes to the Duke of Edinburgh last week, there was a story about his time as President of the World Wildlife Organisation. Discussing the theme for a world congress to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the organisation’s officials said that they were thinking of something on conservation and economics. “Well, if it’s economics”, the Duke responded, “I’m not coming”. “But you’re the Organisation’s president, you must be there” the alarmed officials said - or at least thought - and asked him what he would suggest. “Well,” the Duke said, “the two things that really matter to people are the arts and religion”; and so, he proposed, they should invite leaders of all the faith traditions to meet with the gathered conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists. And when the officials asked where they should hold the congress, the Duke replied: “Well, it’s obvious: Assisi!”

Well, amid all the referendums, elections and relentless politicking boiling over at the moment, it’s good to be reminded of what really matters to people.  It’s especially good perhaps, when today we celebrate our Patronal Festival, to be reminded by our Scripture readings of how deeply our religion reaches into what has really mattered to people in every past age and stage of history. It’s not of course that the history of our faith has avoided the entanglements of politics: our Old Testament reading for example is the version of their history or mythology that Jewish priests and prophets edited to endorse their inspired vision of their nation’s destiny under God; and the New Testament is not innocent of politics either: but there is more to be said about it than that.

The first epistle or letter of St John and the Fourth Gospel were traditionally thought to have been written by St John the Evangelist, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples and the patron saint to whom this church is dedicated: but most biblical scholars now think that the Epistles and Gospel of John were written rather later, in and for a group of early Christian communities who, like this church, associated themselves with St John. Unlike this church with its ecumenical approach however, these communities were in the midst of the difficult and sometimes dangerous process of divorcing themselves or being expelled from the Jewish synagogues to which they had originally belonged. This was happening also to the Christian communities in and for whom the other three Gospels were written, and the bitterness of the divorce is reflected in the negative things that are said in all the Gospels, but especially John, about ‘the Jews’- sayings that in later European history would be misused, with fatal consequences, to endorse anti-Semitism.

At the time when the Gospels and Epistles were being written however, these Christian communities had a more positive task: to tell others about their overwhelming experience of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus and of his Spirit in and among them. The different Gospel writers, as well as St Paul and others, did this in different ways. These were not so different that the same man Jesus could not be seen behind them all, but different enough for the different writers, and for readers ever since, to draw different lessons from them about what to believe, how to live and what to hope for. Important in creating these differences was how the writers interpreted Jesus in the light of the Old Testament, for example as the long-awaited but unexpectedly different Messiah of the prophets; or as the new Moses, who, like Moses in our Old Testament reading, spoke with God ‘face to face, as one speaks to a friend’, and for Jesus as Father. But John’s Gospel interpreted the meaning of Jesus in terms far beyond those of Jewish Messianic prophecy. Jesus, its first chapter tells us, is ‘the Word’ who ‘was in the beginning with God’ and in whom is ‘life… the light of all people… The true light, which enlightens everyone’, the Gospel tells us, ‘was coming into the world’.

Now the meaning of these philosophical, even mystical words about Jesus as the Word of God can be difficult to grasp, especially if we think that we know what the word ‘God’ means, if we think that God can be understood in terms of our thoughts about God. But ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts’ says the Lord; and as the mediaeval Cloud of Unknowing puts it, God ‘can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought never.’ But if God cannot be thought, can he be recognised? John’s Gospel assures us that God can be recognised, and potentially by everyone. The life and light which his followers experienced as coming into the world in Jesus, John says, is also ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’. Each one of us, that is, has in our own experience, actually or potentially, some glimmer of that ‘true light’, sufficient to enable us to ‘greet him the days that we meet him, and bless when we understand’.  There is, in ordinary human experience, in the glory of the setting sun, or in the glory of a beloved face, enough to recognise the glory of which Jesus speaks in our Gospel reading. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one”. This ‘glory’, again, is not alien to ordinary human experience – the experience of someone who has fallen in love for example, or the experience told to me on Easter Sunday by a man who the day before had stood in awe at the summit of one of the high Lakeland fells. These and many other glories of ordinary human experience can hold such a sense of being at one, with others or with the world, that even when they have faded into the light of common day, they are still enough to enable us to recognise something of what Jesus meant by ‘the glory that you have given me’ and ‘I have given them… so that they may become completely one’. What St John is trying to get across to us here, I believe, are not obscure sectarian secrets or even theological concepts: what St John is trying to get across is how the deepest pattern of all human life is reflected in the life, death and yes, in the resurrection of Jesus – reflected in ways that can enlighten and enliven our ordinary living and enable us to die in trustful hope.

But if all this still sounds too mystical, let’s hear again some other words from the Epistle: ‘if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another’.  Christian faith in practice, is more about walking than talking, about following the light of conscience than understanding difficult theological concepts. As the 17th century theologian Ralph Cudworth observed: ‘no man shall ever be kept out of heaven, for not comprehending mysteries that were beyond the reach of his shallow understanding, if he has but an honest and good heart, that was ready to comply with Christ’s commandments.’

What then, among other things, our Patronal Festival and readings today remind us, especially at a time of political upheaval, is not to be so consumed by political passions that we fail to recognise either our political opponent as our neighbour, or the ultimate hope beyond all political calculation. When society is politically divided, sometimes bitterly, Christian people, followers of the Prince of Peace, have a particular duty not to add fuel to the flames, by becoming emotionally blinded to the more we have in common than divides us.

Let me end by quoting Ralph Cudworth again: three hundred and seventy years ago, in the midst of the English Civil War and not long after the Scots to whom Charles I had surrendered had handed him over to the English Parliament, Cudworth was called on to preach to the members of the House of Commons. Quoting St Paul’s praise of love in his first letter to the Corinthians, he added, ‘Let us express this sweet harmonious affection, in these jarring times: that so, if it be possible, we may tune the world at last to a better Musick.’ The message is no different in ‘jarring times’ today. As St John the Evangelist so often repeated: ‘Let us love one another, for love is of God and God is love’. Let us love one another, ‘that so, if it be possible, we may tune the world at last to a better Musick’.