Vicar's Sermon - 26th July 2015
Many years ago I spent some time studying in Switzerland. The course I was on was run by the World Council of Churches and was based in a Swiss Chateau that overlooked Lake Geneva. We were some miles from the city itself so I didn’t travel in very often but I remember visiting St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva and being quite taken aback by what I saw.
The building is long and tall, an impressive piece of architecture. At the back, filling the whole of the West end there is a magnificent pipe organ. There were no pews in the Cathedral when we visited: maybe as with some of our own Cathedrals the Cathedral authorities remove them at set times of the year to help with cleaning but also to offer visitors a different view or experience of the building.
Towards the front, rising up one of the pillars on the left of the nave there was a pulpit: Apparently this was John Calvin’s pulpit: Calvin, a Scotsman who had made his name in Geneva as one of the great Protestant reformers of the 16th Century. At the East end of the building, there were some choir stalls: not at a 90 degree angle like our own but actually facing the nave. There was not a lot else to see, the walls were bare, there was not a lot of colour around.
What shook me though, was that, as far as I could make out, there was no altar or communion table. The church was focussed around the pulpit and the preacher: the Reformation principal of living under the Word of God had been made manifest in the way the liturgical space of the building had been arranged.
Contrast this arrangement with the layout of the Metropolitan cathedral (the Roman Catholic Cathedral) in Liverpool. There, if you know it, the congregation is gathered ‘in the round.’ There is an altar – I’m not sure whether there is a pulpit – but the altar is set right in the middle of the congregation – something we have done once or twice here in the church. The altar, the visible reminder of the sacrifice of Christ, is not positioned far away at the east end of the nave rather it is amongst the people.
Last week, we heard St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, speak of our unity in Christ. The passage we read from chapter 2 of the letter reminded us of Christ having broken down barriers between people – Jew and Gentile. He (Christ), according to the apostle, had made peace between these two enemies through his death: Jew and gentile were now one, one new humanity brought into existence by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The important thing to remember is the truth that is expressed in the layout of Liverpool’s RC Cathedral – this unity is not ‘man made’: it is created by Jesus and built around Him. It comes about in and through Him. The church is a divine creation, a miracle if you like, that is brought into being through the cross of Christ. Whereas most human institutions (clubs and societies) have a membership that relies on people being likeminded or getting on with one another or wanting to do similar things the church is different.
It may well be the case that we like one another, that we share similar outlooks on the world and so on but these things are not what bind us together as Christians – in fact they can sometimes get in the way of true Christian Community. If you expect to like everybody in this room this morning you are going to be disappointed. No. All our relationships as Christians pass through (or are mediated by) Jesus Christ. Think again of the altar set in the middle of the church – as we relate to one another within this congregation (but also in ever widening circles out to the deanery, the Diocese, the wider communion, other denominations and so on) we are challenged to see one another ‘through Christ’ and ‘in Christ’: His sacrifice stands between us. We cannot create true community ourselves however hard we might try because, quite simply, we are all sinners and our capacity to fail is immense. One of the foundations of true community, is knowing that I will sin and be sinned against – but that I will be forgiven and that I will forgive. We fall so far short of our true humanity in God’s eyes that we don’t realise just how difficult each one of us is to get on with! We need the grace of God. We need Jesus to stand between us – to soak up the intentional and unintentional hurt we can offer to one another. We need him to take the blows that our sharp elbows or rough edges inflict, to soften them before they fall on those less able to carry them. When we speak we need Him to take our words and to fill them with grace. When we listen we need Him to help us hear the other person and to do so graciously, to give them the benefit of the doubt should their words come across too abrasively. The person next to us is the object of God’s love: Jesus died for them (as well as for us). They have been bought with a great price. They are God’s gift to be treasured and received with a grateful heart.
What I’m getting at is writ large again in this week’s lesson from Ephesians where Paul prays that Christ may dwell in our hears through faith. Put simply, we cannot be Christians without Jesus. He is the one who holds us together. He is the source of our life and our love. He is the vine remember, we are the branches: we need His life and love to flow through us. That altar in the middle of the church speaks of the centrality of His sacrifice, of the cost involved in enabling us to love, and of the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s love for us. Paul says that it is out of our own knowledge and experience of God’s love that we are, in turn, enabled to love others: and at heart we know this. The altar, the place of the hurt and pain and death borne by Jesus becomes the source of a love that cannot be overcome, love that sustains and strengthens us.
Last week I married Matthew and Fiona here in church. When a couple exchange rings they say these words: ‘I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. With my body I honour you, all that I am I give to you and all that I have, I share with you, within the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ I used to think that those final words – ‘within the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ – were a sort of ‘Holy Filler’, a neat way to end the ring giving but now I see that they express a deep truth, we cannot love unless we know love ourselves and we cannot love as Jesus would want us to until we know His love for us deep down in the depths of our being. Our love flows from His love for us and the more we know of His love the more we can love others ourselves.
So the call from today’s sermon is to pray: to take Paul’s words on the pew sheet and to pray them this week for our church, for this church. That our heart as a congregation might be enlarged and that we might grow in love for one another as we are filled with the knowledge that surpasses understanding of God’s love for us shown in the person of Jesus Christ.