All Saints Margaret Street | Sixth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 25 May 2014

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 25 May 2014

Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie

I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate.
I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.

Last Thursday’s funeral, of 64 year-old Robert Blott, was unusual in one particular: the only relative present was the deceased’s mother. Unlike Robert, most of us will eventually be orphans – in the sense that our parents will have predeceased us. Most of us emerge from childhood with one or both parents intact, and lose them in the fulness of time. Anything different is seen as misfortune. We probably assume, and may be correct in assuming, that, at least in this place and time, even those who lose their parents in childhood are well-provided for. But of course it was not always the case.

One of the oldest charities in England is what is now known simply as Coram. You may know of it because of Coram Fields, a sort of park not far from here, in Bloomsbury, where there is still a charming sign on the gate which reads, ‘adults may only enter if accompanied by a child’.

Captain Thomas Coram was born in Dorset. He spent much of his early life at sea and in the then American colonies. From 1694 to 1705, he operated a ship building business in Massachusetts, later becoming a successful merchant in London. He came from the middling sort in society and had what we could a philanthropic temperament, which found its most lasting expression in his work for orphans and abandoned children.

Returning to London after forty years at sea, he was appalled to see abandoned babies and children dying on the city’s streets. He began a twenty-year campaign to obtain a royal charter from George II to start the first Foundling Hospital for exposed and deserted young children. It seems an obvious piece of work now, but because it was a new idea, and because he was neither an aristocrat nor an easy man, it was a fight. He was 71 years old when his hospital at last opened; although he spent much time there in what remained of his life, his temperament was such that the other trustees ejected him from their number. You can visit the fascinating Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square if you want more of the story. Not only was his foundling hospital an early charity but it also benefited from a new form of fund-raising: Handel allowed the Messiah to be performed to raise money for it and the original manuscript of the Hallelujah Chorus was donated to the hospital by the composer.

Most of the children in the Foundling Hospital were abandoned rather than orphaned: their worldly status was even lower, as many judged them for the perceived sin of their mothers. Mothers would bring a child to the hospital, have their names and some minimal information entered in registers which can still be seen; they would leave pinned to the entry a scrap of cloth or piece of ribbon, matching a piece they would keep, to facilitate a possible later reunion. Sadly, such reunions happened only in about 10% of cases.

I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.

The biblical picture of orphans is very similar to the context which motivated Coram’s philanthropy. They are characterized as homeless beggars (Ps. 109.10) and at the mercy of thugs (Job 24.2, 9). The laws of Deuteronomy made special provision for them alongside widows, and what we would all ethnic minorities (24 & 27). This was Jesus’ context too. His promise not to orphan his followers, and to ensure that they will have someone to care for them, extends the alternative family structures of mutual responsibility which he proclaims throughout the Gospel. And the plight of Coram’s foundlings is the imagery Jesus is drawing upon this morning. Orphaning as an image of a teacher leaving his disciples was not uncommon (e.g. of the followers of Socrates at his death). In the alternative family structure which Jesus has built up during his ministry, and in a world where orphans and abandoned children are commonplace, it comes still more naturally.

I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate.

Then, to this is added another image, more often heard and unpacked at Pentecost, of the Holy Spirit as an advocate. Advocacy for vulnerable children is precisely how the modern Coram charity would describe some of its most important work. But what is it about here?

Today’s gospel points to Thursday’s feast of the Ascension, when the risen Jesus is no longer physically present, and to Pentecost, in which this promise of Jesus is kept. It was a well-remembered promise of Jesus that his followers, when they found themselves on trial for their faith, would be prompted by the Holy Spirit with the right words for their defence. But it is only in John’s gospel that this Spirit is called the Paraclete, the ‘Advocate’.

There is a court-room drama theme that pervades all of John: talk of ‘the judgement of this world’ is paralleled by the trial process of Jesus himself, and so on. This is an ‘advocate ‘ in the Scottish courtroom sense – what we call a barrister. But the parakletos, or advocate, in the ancient world, had a wider and less specialized role than that. He would appear in court for the accused, but he was not necessarily a trained lawyer and his role was not to present legal arguments or formulate a defence. His effectiveness depended on the respect in which he was generally held and his function was to persuade the judge that the accused was an honourable and deserving person whose word could be trusted and who was therefore not to be suspected of an offence. So Jesus is promising a mechanism of salvation, safety with God; the continuing presence with us of the Holy Spirit who is ‘on our side’.

In the context of John’s picture of the Christian life the metaphor can be further extended. The friend/advocate’s role did not come to an end when he had pleaded the cause of the accused before the judge; he might then have to go back to his friend, explain the verdict of the court and help him to accept it. He was, in fact, a kind of go-between, representing the accused to the judge and the judge to the accused. In this sense the ‘Advocate’ was also, as most older English translations render the word paraclete, the ‘Comforter‘. The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells us in John, is like that.

So, embedded in his command that we should love him, and show it by keeping his commandments, is a clear sense of preparing his friends for loss and providing for them in that loss.

Thomas Coram’s life of philanthropy, especially his final work at the Foundling Hospital, was an outstanding example of advocacy for the abandoned; an acted parable of the Gospel which endures. We may not think of ourselves as orphans. But then we may not think of ourselves as homeless either: yet, as I was suggesting last week, it is our faith that ‘here we confess we are strangers and pilgrims and still we are seeking the kingdom of God’. If our true citizenship is in heaven, then truly our family is God’s family; we should want more converse with our brother, Jesus, his mother, Mary, and our heavenly Father, to whom we relate intimately because of Jesus. What would that be like?

Jesus’ care for his church is yet another signal to us of how we are to be with each other, and how we are to feed that being together with prayer and sacramental communion. As we look forward to the celebrations of the Ascension and Pentecost the Gospel reminds us that, as the church, our adulthood with God requires a mature, not an infantilized, relationship with him, and with each other.