What a fantastic set of readings we have this morning
Of course, I feel a particular empathy with Stephen
He too was a Deacon
Like him I have dared to preach the Gospel in the presence of a tough and unforgiving congregation
Like him I have been executed by the people of Epsom – albeit in a play
I am even considering a mission to Langley Vale – where of course St Stephen’s Church stands and going and asking people there about their faith.
The Vicar has warned me that I might get thumped – if not stoned – on the doorstep
Well – I have got a stone here to defend myself and also as a visual aid
Have you spotted the link in our bible readings this morning?
The Stoning of Stephen from Acts as he looked up to heaven seeing the glory of God and the ascended Christ, standing at the right hand of God (presaging the Ascension later this month)
In our Psalm, we heard the petition to ‘be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold’
Then in the first letter of Peter we read that Jesus was
a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and [we] like living stones, [should] let ourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Finally, in our reading from John we hear more about the dwelling place that is built with Christ as the cornerstone, his father’s house in which there are many dwelling places. Where ‘dwelling place’ draws on a word play with the ‘dwelling’ of the Father in the Son and so, ultimately, the dwelling of he in us and us in him which we will celebrate a little later this morning
This text – ‘in my father’s house there are many mansions’ as we know it in the more familiar King James translation – is of course one of the standard texts for funerals
In John’s account, the impending death of Jesus gave rise to a lengthy discussion with the disciples about who and what Jesus was and what the meaning of his life might be. His death and resurrection would force them to think afresh about the meaning of his life and indeed the meaning of their own lives.
Such is the way with funerals. I am sure we have all had the experience of attending a funeral and it forcing us to think about the finite fragility of human life against the infinity of the divine.
When we attend a funeral we are forced to look into the face of the almighty whether we like to or not. This is no less true of the minster taking the service.
I have now taken seven funerals and one moment has come to have greater and greater significance for me
Towards the end of the service it is traditional to stand at the foot of the coffin and say these words of commendation
Go forth upon your journey from this world, O Christian soul;
in the name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered death for you;
in the name of the Holy Spirit, who strengthens you; …
May your portion this day be in peace and
your dwelling place the heavenly Jerusalem
As I have come to know these words by heart I have raised my eyes to look across the coffin into what lies beyond and I have come to realise that, at that moment, I am looking across the body of the deceased, into the face of God. From whom all things have surely come and all things will surely return.
So what might it be to see God as Jesus did, to see Jesus as the disciples did, to see God and Jesus as Stephen did
John’s Gospel makes it clear that to see Jesus is to see the way
‘How can we know the way’ asks Thomas
Because you have seen me says Jesus and ‘I am the way the truth and the life’ .
So as we think about what our Gospel might be, what our mission as a church might be, we can find the answer in these great chapters of John’ s Gospel – the ‘final discourses’ that we have been working through this Eastertide.
Fundamentally, our mission is to do service in Christ’s name – forgiving , healing, loving – ‘as the Father sent me so I am sending you’ (Jn 20:21)
Indeed, we should do ‘greater works’ than Jesus as we remain on earth and he has left it (Jn 12:12)
Above all else, the way to live our lives is in love and peace with one another and so to build up the body of Christ here on earth as ‘living stones’ in the building of the Father’s house
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15:12)
We might use the prayer time of the Novena between Ascension and Pentecost to think what we might do to love one another better,
- what it may mean to love one another in these communities of Epsom and Langley Vale
- to think again about who are neighbour might be – do we even know them?
Have we invited them to church, have we shared our faith, have we asked them if they need anything
It might be costly – as it was for Stephen – but we should be like Stephen and always keep our eyes on God and look into the face of Christ and he will show us the way
If we can do that – continually looking and turning to Christ – then, and perhaps only then, we can be worthy of Peter’s call to be a royal priesthood, to be living stones – not dead pagan idols selfishly serving ourselves but ‘living stones’ built into a spiritual house so that God can remain in us as He remained in Christ.
In our Eucharist we receive Christ into ourselves so that we, the many dwelling places, may be where Christ resides. We receive Christ into ourselves so that we may use the power of his love to love in his name.
And so we pray:
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear son Jesus Christ
and to drink his blood,
that we may evermore dwell in him
and he in us. Amen.
Sermon delivered by Revd Christopher Hancock at St. Martin’s Epsom, 14th May 2017