Eucharist Sermon - 16 May 2021

The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-end, John 17:6-19
The Rt Revd Olivia Graham, Bishop of Reading

Good morning. It’s lovely to be with you this morning on the 7th Sunday of Easter – the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. Ascension is a sort of cross-shaped moment as we look upwards to the God with whom we are joined forever through Christ, and outwards to the world in which we are sent to witness. And Pentecost awaits – that moment of outpouring of the Holy Spirit, when a flame is lit that nothing can quench; an irresistible force is unleashed on the world; the fire of love.

Faith in the Lord Jesus ceases to be just a little local interest for a handful of keen people in Jerusalem, and begins its journey to become a global movement of salvation. It spreads, over the next decades and centuries, through the faithful and courageous witness of ordinary women and men, throughout the middle east, into India and Africa, Asia and, round the eastern Mediterranean and up into Northern Europe encompassing the whole of the Roman Empire, and far beyond.

One of the hats I wear in the diocese is as the Chair of PWM - Partnership in World Mission. We are fortunate to have three linked dioceses, one of them Anglican, Kimberley and Kuruman in South Africa, which has a link with this Cathedral; one Lutheran, Vaxjo in Sweden, and one in the CSI, Nandyal. More than 100 of our parishes also have links with parishes in different parts of the world. I have started having conversations with 12 bishops from other parts of the Anglican Communion who we will be hosting next year for the Lambeth conference.

There are 2.2 billion of us across the globe who have felt the heat of this flame, the Christ fire, including us in the Diocese of Oxford, in this tiny nation that was once on the far northern fringes of the Roman Empire. Together, we are the body of Christ. Because we are all baptised into it by the one Spirit.

There is a powerfully true saying that it takes the whole world to know the whole Christ. Only together can we fully comprehend the length and breadth and height and depth of God’s love for us. Only together can we begin to apprehend the depths of the mystery of Christ, his life and death and resurrection and ascension. And that’s why we need each other, as Christians across the globe. Each of us bearing a small fragment of the whole.

I think if we’re honest, we would recognise that our churches tend to be full of people like us. And our concept of Christianity tends to be very Anglo-centric, filtered through the lens of our own culture and history, the theologians who write in English, the social structures of our society, the ecclesial structures which have come into being in England over the centuries. These have been shaped by human ambition, by the matrimonial problems of our monarchs, by statesmanship and politics and war, and also a little holiness, - we’ve grown a goodly number of our own saints and mystics in these islands.

In this time in between Ascension and Pentecost, it is very good for us to reflect that we are not the whole story; that we don’t possess the whole truth; that we are not enough, by ourselves, to incarnate the complete Christ. That body can only be complete when we all recognise and delight in the more than 2 billion people who are part of it. So it’s a time of great rejoicing, but also of great humility. And into this reality, Jesus prays his prayer that we might be one.

The way that we have tried to be one, I fear, is by associating in our churches with people like us, and viewing others as rather exotic. We have been greatly challenged in recent times by social movements that have helped us to see that there is huge value in diversity, and our church is trying hard to engage with humility on very basic questions of why we are so white, so straight, so middle class, and this is really important work.

We should think very carefully about how our vision got so small, and how we can enlarge it, so that we can see further, and comprehend more brightly and strongly what the Kingdom actually looks like.

And crucially we need to think more imaginatively about what it means to be one. No us and them. Just us.

That’s why our interest in, and commitment to, our sisters and brothers across the globe can’t be just a slightly niche concern, the preoccupation of those who like that sort of thing, and on whom we as a church can then, lay the responsibility for carrying it for us.

No, it is part of who we are, as disciples of Christ, that we must recognise and get to know the rest of the family. Because in them lies a part of the truth which we will never discover on our own. And we’re diminished by our lack of it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the whole world and continues very seriously to affect many parts of it. It’s not over. It has brought immense suffering and grief. It doesn’t recognise boundaries or status and although it is no respecter of rank or position it has been disproportionately born by the poorest and most marginalised people across the world, both in this country and everywhere. Social distancing and handwashing are not helpful advice when families are crammed 15 to a hut in a refugee camp under bombardment, or the township has only one tap for hundreds of families, or where in order to eat food today, one must go into crowded markets to work.

And if we map access to vaccinations, we will map the wealth and poverty of the nations. We have been horrified to see the catastrophic effect which the pandemic is having in India at the moment – a country which ironically manufactures most of the world’s vaccine supply but doesn’t have the resources to produce it for its own people.

Every time and place has its own challenges. We are acutely aware of some of them and woefully ignorant about others. This morning I have been speaking on Radio Berkshire about the terrible upsurge in knife crime in the Thames Valley and the tragic loss of young lives which comes in its wake. Families and communities devastated and traumatised; precious young people who will never reach their potential cut down.

How are we to be one, in this situation? In solidarity and love with people we have never met, and probably will never meet, who live lives very different to our own, some close to home, many in faraway places?

The same, of course, goes for the climate emergency. A global crisis, already seriously impacting our brothers and sisters in other countries, which we can’t begin to tackle unless we do it, not as us and them, but as us. Being one.

So we’re reminded, as we look upwards and outwards and towards the day of Pentecost that we belong to each other, transcending our ecclesial squabbles and fissiparous tendencies. The good pandemic of the Gospel created the world Church – the vast company of those who dwell in the grace of God and believe the good news that we are loved beyond measure, and that death is not the end. The company of the faithful, who know that after loving God, the most important thing in our lives is to love each other – not just those next door or down the street or in our church, but the whole of humanity, and to long for its flourishing, for our flourishing, that’s ALL of US.

We connect through the church; and we connect through the world. In prayer and friendship. We connect when we learn together and study the Bible together across cultures and languages. We connect when we understand each other’s hopes and fears and needs; We connect when we listen without judgement, and when we share wisdom and insight across faiths and with those of no faith.

As we emerge from this pandemic; as we recognise the ways in which our lives and our world have been changed through it, our task as the global body of Christ is to make sure that what we now build is a fuller and more complete expression of the Kingdom: a Kingdom of justice for all and peace for all and hope for all, in which all are accorded equal value and our planet is respected and cherished, and not abused.

And we can’t do this alone. It takes the whole world, young and old, of every race and colour and perspective and culture, working together as one Body, in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit: loving, learning, praying, challenging, planning, advocating, building for the sake of God’s world.

Jesus prayed: As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And so, Lord, send us and we will go. To live and work to your praise and glory, so that we may be one.