Sermon - Sunday, 4 June 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 4 June.

Scripture: John 20: 19-23 / Acts 2: 1-21

Text: Then Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: Fellow Jews, and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.                                                                                       (Acts 2: 14)


Iain Campbell is a painter and last year he was the guest artist at the General Assembly.

With his canvas and paints set up in the Martin Hall, Iain created a painting which featured many of the commissioners, the ministers and elders attending the Assembly.

Iain is also the Artist-in-Residence at St George’s Tron, the church in Glasgow’s city centre.

As part of a social enterprise project between St George’s Tron and Glasgow City Mission, Iain was commissioned to paint a contemporary version of the Last Supper.

The Last Supper, the meal Jesus shared with his disciples shortly before his arrest, has been an inspiration to many artists, notably Leonardo da Vinci’s great 15th century masterpiece.

As he planned his interpretation of this most fateful of meals, Iain wondered if the figures in his Last Supper might feature well-known faces from Scottish public life.

Instead, and given Jesus’ concern for some of the most vulnerable people of his day, Iain decided to use the faces of some of the most vulnerable people of our day, men who attend Glasgow City Mission and who have personal experience of poverty, alcoholism and homelessness.

And so Iain’s painting features the face of Arthur Curtis, who lives in a Govan housing association flat, and who attends the Mission twice a week.

It also features the face of John Wallace, another man who has been homeless, and who has been involved with the Mission over many years.

In other words, like the fishermen and tax collectors who were the original disciples, these 21st century disciples are real men with real names and real and sometimes difficult stories to tell.

The result is dramatic and as you look down the length of the table with the men - the disciples - seated on either side, you sense some brutally painful human experiences in the tired eyes and haggard faces staring back at you.

Hurt, betrayal, addiction, abandonment; there is nothing soft focus or sentimental about Iain Campbell’s depiction of the Lord’s Supper.

Rather in its raw intensity it is about real people living real, all too human, and sometimes chaotic lives – and the Christ who sits among them with bread and wine, signs and symbols of the healing grace and forgiving love in which he holds each one of them.

Of course, da Vinci’s celebrated masterpiece will always have pride of place, but the raw intensity of Campbell’s Our Last Supper captures something important about the occasion, that evening in the Upper Room which Jesus spent with his disciples, the disciples in whom he had invested so much of his time, effort and love, the same disciples who in the coming hours would betray, deny and abandon him.

Given the worldwide impact of the Christian tradition, it is sobering to be reminded Jesus slipped in and out of the world almost unnoticed.

Born in a stable and laid to rest in a borrowed tomb, we assume the greater part of his life was spent working as a village carpenter.

His ministry as the wandering preacher, teacher and healer in Galilee and Judea was brief, perhaps no longer than 18 months, and despite the subsequent world-wide influence of the Christian tradition, it did not merit mention in the Jewish or Roman records of his day.

The four gospels, written many years after the events they record, provide the only information we have about Jesus.

One of the important things the gospels reveal is that although Jesus drew upon the religious tradition of his day, he went beyond it.

You have heard it said an eye for an eye………….. but I say unto you.

However it is what they have to say about his death that really matters.

Other religious leaders from Moses to Mohammed to Buddha to Confucius have all died in ripe old age, honoured and respected, and having left instructions for their followers.

Jesus died a young man, betrayed by his own disciples, forsaken by God, executed on a Roman cross.

Yet fifty days later these same disciples were back in Jerusalem, back to the place and among the people who had crucified Jesus, back with a very different story to tell, a story not despite his death but because of it.

Fellow Jews, and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.

From the frightened, bewildered fisherman disciple, who to his shame had denied knowing Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard, to the man about to speak openly and publicly about Jesus whom God had raised from the dead, the transformation in Simon Peter is nothing short of remarkable.

It is a transformation grounded not in the strength or otherwise of Peter’s character and personality – Peter was an all too flawed human being - but in the dying and undying grace and love of the risen Christ.

In the course of the last year Margaret and I have travelled the world representing the Church of Scotland at home and abroad.

We have spent time in the company of some of the most privileged people in the world and we have spent time in the company of some of the least privileged people in the world.

We have spoken to some of the world’s leaders and we have spoken to women and men who are in prison, women and men who are homeless, women and men living in absolute poverty with little or nothing to call their own and no-one to call their friend.

We have eaten in some of the best restaurants and we have eaten in a church hall in Kibera, a stinking, wretched slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.

We have engaged in conversation with people of many different faiths and with people of no faith.

Quite simply, as we have travelled the world, the role of Moderator has brought us into contact with people from every walk of life and with people from every circumstance in life, because at its best the Christian faith embraces people from every walk and is concerned for people in every circumstance of life, especially those at the margins.

It is a concern beautifully expressed by Peter as he addressed the crowd on the day of Pentecost.

Fellow Jews……………….and all of you who live in the Jerusalem

Inclusive rather than exclusive, addressed not to some but to all, the message Peter was about to give, the message of Jesus crucified and risen, was not for a privileged few but for everyone who dared to respond in faith to the liberating promise of new life in Christ.

St Luke finds it hard to put into words.

He describes the experience as a sound like the blowing of a violent wind…………what seemed to be tongues of fire……………disciples suddenly speaking in strange tongues.

What Luke is trying to describe is an experience of transformation, one through which the disciples suddenly realised the healing grace, forgiveness and love they had known in Jesus had not died on the cross.

The stone had been rolled away, the tomb was empty, death could not hold him, Jesus had risen and God’s love was set loose in the world.

And it was Peter, Peter of all the disciples who knew and experienced the transformation more than all the others.

One of the things giving integrity to the Christian message is that it too was first proclaimed by a man with a well lived-in face.

As a Galilean fisherman Peter’s face was doubtless tanned and weather beaten, his hair straw like and dry from the ravages of the wind and the salt.

Yet his was also the face of a man who knew all about the human experiences of hope, friendship, disappointment, betrayal, despair, forgiveness, healing and love.

It is Arthur Curtis’ face, it is John Wallace’s face, it is your face, my face, the face of every woman and man who comes to sit at the Lord’s table and discovers to their joy Christ sitting with them.

Or to put that in other words; the Christian faith is not for people who are perfect, people who have never made mistakes, the plaster cast saints of this life.

Rather the Christian faith is for real people, people living joyful and sometimes all too flawed human lives.

So too the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and with it the invitation to take in our hands bread and wine, the signs and symbols of the healing grace and forgiving love in which Christ holds each one of us.

And in the taking, to discover the new life that is his gift.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen