Sermon - Sunday, 27 May 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 27 May 2018.

Scripture: Isaiah 6: 1-8  / John 16: 12-16

Text: But when the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth                          (John 16: 13)

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, Canada, the United States and the Middle East: with visitors and delegates from throughout the world, the annual meeting of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is a truly international event.

The Roman Catholic Church, the United Reformed Church, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Welsh Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army, the Church of England,  the Baptist Church, the Congregational Federation and the Religious Society of Friends; the General Assembly is also a truly ecumenical event.

One of the overseas visitors was the Reverend Rola Sleiman, a minister from the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon.

For the last two years Rola had been refused a visa to attend the General Assembly.

The matter was raised in the House of Commons and this year a visa was granted.

A quietly spoken, unassuming person, Rola lives in Beirut and you could have heard a pin drop as Rola described life in that troubled part of the world and the challenges of being a woman and of being a Christian and a minister.

And in a week when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women as ministers in the Church of Scotland, there was a thunderous round of applause when it was announced that last year, 2017, Rola had become the first woman ordained in her church.

The Assembly also listened with rapt attention to the Rev Dr Lee Jae Cheon.

Dr Cheon is a minister with the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea and, as well as receiving wide-spread coverage in the press, his speech praising the Assembly for its call for peace in the Korean peninsula was warmly received.

Also present at this year’s Assembly was the Reverend Peter Gai, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in South Sudan.

As people of various tribes took shelter in Peter’s church in Juba, the capital city, government soldiers stormed the church grounds.

Knowing they would abduct and kill people from one of the tribes, Peter stood at the door of the church refusing the soldiers entry.

As the terrified men, women and children cowered inside the church, they heard gunfire as the soldiers shot at Peter’s feet and all around his head.

Peter refused to move and eventually the soldiers gave up.

Inspiring, humbling; if there are no words to adequately describe the experience of meeting and listening to some of the present day saints of the church, I hope at least it gives you the sense of the Church of Scotland belonging to something much bigger, something much greater, a small but important part of the community of Christian people the world over.  

This is a sermon abut community.

Holy, holy, holy we sing, God in three persons – and drawing on the various ways God is revealed in the Bible, the doctrine of the Trinity points to the community of relationships that exists among Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

God the Father; creator of the universe and source of life.

God the Son; made known in the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth, the wandering preacher, teacher and healer, who died on Calvary’s cross and was raised to life on the third day.

God the Spirit; God’s presence and purpose revealed in the lives of the first disciples who set out to make disciples of all nations, baptising and teaching people to obey everything Jesus commanded.

God over us, God beside us, God within us………blessed Trinity…..…God in community.

And at its best, one of the things the church aspires to be is a community, a community of people of different nationalities, backgrounds and life experiences, a community of people of different views, beliefs, thoughts and ideas, a community of people who don’t always agree with one another or see eye to eye, yet a community of people drawn together by the grace of our Saviour Christ.

All four gospels report that early in his ministry Jesus gathered around him a group of disciples.

We hear a lot about the inner group of twelve but there was clearly a much larger group of women and men who followed, supported and provided for him.

What is also evident is that in the immediate aftermath of the first Easter, the group broke up in a state of bewilderment as fearful disciples met behind locked doors, the news of an empty tomb simply adding to their confusion.  

Could the women be believed?

Perhaps they had gone to the wrong tomb?

Perhaps the body had been moved……..or stolen?

Thomas wasn’t going to take anyone else’s word for it.

Would you?

Reading the gospel accounts of the aftermath of the first Easter, it is noticeable that slowly but surely the mood of the first disciples changed.

At first frightened, bewildered and upset, as people encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, in Jerusalem and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee they were drawn back together again.

Here is one of the dilemmas posed by the Easter gospel; its startling assertion that not only was the tomb empty but the one who was crucified was alive again, free, beyond death’s reach.

And of this the gospels are adamant; it was no ghost nor figment of their imagination the disciples encountered but the same Jesus whom they had always known and who now bore the marks of the crucifixion on his hands and side.

The risen Christ speaks and is heard.

It is possible to touch him…… did Thomas actually do so?

And he eats.

Rowan Williams puts it well when he says the beauty of the Easter gospel is that it describes the most extraordinary thing in the most ordinary way.[1]

And I think Williams is also right to suggest the experience of community is the key to understanding it all.

In his ministry, Jesus created and sustained the community of his friends by speech and touch and the sharing of food: so after his resurrection, that community is maintained in the same way. [2]

What we observe is that on the Emmaus Road, in a locked Jerusalem room or on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, fears were turned to freedom and despair to hope as once more a frightened group of women and men are transformed into a vibrant community of faith, people who would again risk everything to follow Jesus.

And I think this takes us to the heart of the matter; our faith that the one who was crucified and rose from the dead is inextricably bound up with the life and community of the church.

It was a community evident in the meeting of the General Assembly as ministers, deacons and elders gathered on the Mound and sought to discern something of the mystery of God’s presence and purpose in our lives and in the life of the church and the wider world.

It was a community evident in the international presence of delegates and visitors who came to Edinburgh from partner churches throughout the United Kingdom and across the world.

And it is a community evident in Cramond Kirk as Sunday by Sunday we gather to worship.

A community of people drawn together by the grace of our Saviour Christ – what a wonderful picture of the church.

And one of the things this picture calls from us is a much greater vision.

You will have your way of expressing your faith, reading and understanding the Bible and trying to live the Christian life.

And given no two of us think or live exactly the same, doesn’t it suggest there is no single true and pure path of belief and understanding and practice?

St Paul puts is well when he reminds us that on the journey of faith and life we but see through the glass darkly and know only in part.

Indeed from the evidence of the New Testament, and the debates which raged within the early church, far from being a communion of like-minded saints, the church has been and always will be a community of people from different nationalities, different backgrounds, different education and life experiences with a whole variety of thoughts, views and ideas on a whole range of subjects…………….but people brought together by God and united in a common journey of faith, hope and love.

One of the gifts of the General Assembly is the realisation that as members of the Church of Scotland we belong to something much bigger.

And one of the gifts of Cramond Kirk is to discover you belong, with all your hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows, successes and failures, wandering and wondering and longing, you belong, welcomed, accepted, valued and loved by the God who is over us and beside us and within us.

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

 


[1] Rowan Williams Resurrection : Interpreting the Easter Gospel, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 2002

[2] ibid, p92