Sermon for High Mass Easter 6 Sunday 26 May 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Acts 16.9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5; John 14.23-29
“Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
`It is ironic, but entirely coincidental, that today’s reading from Acts speaks of the beginning of the Church’s mission in Europe at a time when as a country we are in a complete mess about how to leave.
Paul and his missionary team had been planning another journey around Asia Minor, but Luke tells us they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit. It was then that Paul had the vision in which the man from Macedonia, the nearest part of Europe, makes his request. And so begins the Church’s mission in Europe.
One of the things any Christian community considering what its mission might be must take into account is that the Holy Spirit might take it in unexpected directions: like Paul to Macedonia, or St. Augustine uprooted from his Roman monastery by St. Gregory the Great and sent off to a cold and damp island of the north west coast of Europe; the edge of the known world.
Earlier in Acts, we hear of Peter also having a vision which leads to the conversion and baptism of Cornelius the Centurion and his household. When Peter is challenged by some in the Jerusalem church about this crossing of an ethnic and religious boundary, he defends his action by telling of the Spirit descending on this Roman office and his household, just as had happened to them at Pentecost. While this was accepted, the issue was not settled once and for all, but recurred – that would be too much to expect in the Church! The mission of Paul and Barnabas among the Gentiles also stirred controversy which was the subject of what is known as the Council of Jerusalem, the first synod if you like, which ruled in favour of that mission and not making converts accept the Jewish Law.
In all this, Luke gives us a picture of the Spirit doing what John speaks of in today’s Gospel passage: “…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
That “everything” is often thought of in terms of doctrines like the Incarnation and the Trinity expressed in the Creeds, but it also includes the universal scope of the Church’s mission.
Last Thursday morning, I was at Hampden Gurney School, the parish school of the Church of the Annunciation. It was a special occasion because ten children and six parents were being confirmed. As we heard their names read out and I looked at their faces, I realized that they represented the effects of that universal mission – as hardly any were of what we call these days “British heritage.” They represented the fruits of that universal mission.
Paul and his companions begin their European missionary venture in the city of Philippi, named after the father of Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedon, who had first built it. The emperor Augustus would later make it a Roman colony. Such places were in effect outposts of Rome, Italy beyond Italy; settled by veterans of the legions, governed under Roman law, and enjoying privileges like exemption from taxes imposed on other conquered territories. So this move by Paul is the beginning of the evangelization of Rome and its empire.
“A place of prayer” was a term sometimes used for a synagogue; which Paul and his team – following his usually missionary practice – seek out on the Sabbath Day. There they encounter a group of women. Paul sits down among them – the posture of the teacher – and speaks to them of the Gospel. Among them is the woman called Lydia – who like Cornelius – is a “worshipper of God” – or a “God-fearer” – that is a gentile drawn to Judaism.
Originally from the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor and a “dealer in purple cloth,” she is a clearly a woman of status and substance. Purple dye was eye-wateringly expensive, so purple cloth was definitely part of the luxury goods trade: more Bond Street designer boutique for the super-rich than the mass market shoppers of Oxford Street.
We are told that the “Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Again, the initiative is the Spirit’s. She and her household are baptised and she invites Paul and his companions to stay in her home. “And she prevailed upon us.” This independent and prosperous businesswoman was clearly someone who did not take “no” for an answer.
As Paul continues his mission in Greece, the church in Philippi will be a source of financial support and the closeness of the bond between Paul and these first European converts is clear from the Letter to the Philippians. Their response to the gospel they had received issued in support for its spread to others; even though most of them did not enjoy the wealth of a Lydia.
What we see in the story of Lydia are several of Luke’s regular themes in addition to his concern with the universal mission of the church.
There is the positive attitude, in a very patriarchal society, towards women: Mary and Elizabeth and Anna the prophet in the birth stories; those like Mary Magdalene who accompany and support Jesus in his ministry, who watch at the cross and mourn at the tomb, and who are the first witnesses of the resurrection. Paul is often thought of as what we would now call a male chauvinist, but it is clear from his letters that he too had a number of female collaborators.
Luke also stresses God’s preference for the poor and marginalized and stresses the spiritual perils of wealth – “the rich he sends empty away” Mary sings in the Magnificat; while the hungry are filled with good things. He does not say that the wealthy cannot be saved but salvation has a transforming effect on them. So, Zacchaeus the tax collector, wealthy from exploitation, is transformed by his encounter with Jesus: he too extends hospitality to Jesus and the disciples and gives generously to the poor, and compensates those he has defrauded.
Some of us have known this parish long enough to remember when it was more the centre of the rag trade than it is now – but we are still set in the midst of a part of our city devoted to the fashion industry and the buying and selling of clothes – so Lydia is an appropriate patron saint for us.
For over a century and a half, this church has been “a place of prayer.” Like the heavenly city, which this building represents, its gates have stood open for people– if not day and night – at least day by day. This has been a place where they have been able to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ; a place where troubled hearts have been able to find healing, where fearful souls have found their fears relieved by that peace of which Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”
That peace, that healing and wholeness, is proclaimed and experienced day by day as we worship before “the throne of God and of the Lamb;” as we hear Jesus speaking to us in the gospel as he spoke to the disciples in the upper room; as he invites us to share the hospitality of his table; as the penitent in the confessional hears him say through the priest: “Go in peace, the Lord has put away your sins.”
When this church was built its parish was a slum with 5000 people crammed into even fewer streets than we are now responsible for. All Saints was built to be a mission to the poor streaming into London from across the country in the hope of a better life; yet finding that the streets were not paved with gold.
Well those thousands have gone and hardly any one lives here anymore. But over the years, this church has been a haven for others on the margins of society and who still have reason to feel excluded from the life of the wider church. It has been willing to cross boundaries to include the excluded. And, there is still material poverty around us, amidst the designer clothes and super-cars. There is, too, a less visible poverty – of the spirit and of relationships – the loneliness and mental ill-health which so many experience in our city.
This church’s mission to the poor was funded by the generosity of some very wealthy people. Its life ever since has depended on generosity of both the living and the departed. Its congregation is no longer as socially grand as it once was, with a Duke and an MP as churchwardens. But the restoration of this building in recent years has been funded to a large extent by the generosity of those who worship here. People would say to me, you must have a very rich congregation to fund all that, and I would reply: “No, but a generous one.”
We may not be a rich congregation – but nor are we – as I heard one parishioner say recently – a poor one. Poor congregations, as the Archdeacon of London is wont to point out, do not get to spend £100,000 a year on the kind of music we have. Now you might join me in saying to the archdeacon that there are quite enough philistines in the Church of England without us joining their ranks. We are not about to give up Mozart who captures so brilliantly that “eternal joy” of which today’s collect speaks. But when you learn that the archdeacon has to deal with some parishes who spend tens of thousands on their music – but do not pay for their priest – you might see that he has a point!
On Tuesday evening, I will be at a church which really is poor: St. Paul’s Rossmore Road, in the unfashionable bit of Marylebone – the Lisson Grove Estate. The congregation cannot afford to pay for their priest and diocese and deanery do not expect them to. We will be celebrating the completion of the church’s new roof. Under that new roof, paid for by some energetic and inspired fund-raising, a whole variety of services to those in need will now be able to continue. St. Paul’s may be a church poor in financial terms, but in spiritual ones, it is like the Church in Philippi, rich.
May the same be said of All Saints!