Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 17th April 2016
Acts 9:36-43, John 10:22-30
Last Sunday I was in Bristol visiting my elder daughter Emma. I went to her local church, Saint Paul’s, Clifton, where I am always made very welcome. It’s a Victorian church where the University choir sings during term time and where there are some lovely mosaics, which are said to be of national importance. They have a congregation of all ages where all sorts of backgrounds and professions are represented.
Not all the congregation is human! There is a lovely dog called Bonnie, who comes with two older ladies and sits between them in the third pew. She is a sort of mix-up terrier and she is 13 years old. She is always very well behaved. She doesn’t bark and she wags her tail as you pass on your way to receive communion. Bonnie stays in for the sermon, but the children go out. They are called the Fishes.
As well as the Rector and a couple of curates, together with my brother Reader and now friend, Derek Jay, there are also a couple of retired ministers in the congregation, and it was one of them, Father Paul Hawkins, who took the service last Sunday. He has had a distinguished career in the church. He retired to Bristol from being vicar of St Pancras, Euston Road, where he ministered among others to the students and dons of UCL. Before then he had been chaplain at Eton and at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
So our preacher was definitely someone who was used to addressing a congregation of reasonably learned people. The service was advertised as being a ‘creative Eucharist’. I should say to you straightway that St Paul’s is what I would call a ‘normal’ church. It’s middle of the road; fairly traditional, with 8 o’clock Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer, the Eucharist at 10:30 according to Common Worship (order one), and they regularly have Evensong and Compline. There aren’t any weird and wonderful services or worship songs, so far as I know.
So I was not quite sure what ‘creative Eucharist’ was. I debated with myself whether I could risk going, but in the end, based on all the previous times I have been to Saint Paul’s in Clifton, I came to the conclusion that it would not be too weird, and I went along. When I got the service sheet and the hymnbook and everything, I realised that it was a normal Eucharist, at least so far as the liturgy was concerned. Common Worship, order one, no problem.
Bonnie the dog was there as usual in the third row, and she seemed quite content with the idea of creative Eucharist. What was the creative bit all about? Well, of course, it was the sermon. To some extent we all had to create it.
Father Paul was preaching about the earlier part of Acts chapter 9, the end of which we had as our New Testament lesson today. Last week, just as we did, they had the story of Saint Paul being struck down on the road to Damascus, and the gospel was the story in Saint John chapter 21, the story of the disciples going fishing and not catching anything, until they were met in the morning by Jesus standing on the seashore suggesting – giving them the hottest tip – where they should cast their net.

Bonnie, the faithful dog, is ready for the sermon, at St Paul’s, Clifton.

The disciples suddenly recognised that it was Jesus. Peter put his clothes on and jumped into the sea. (Previously he had not been wearing anything. I’ve always thought that this was rather strange because I thought usually you take your clothes off to go swimming, rather than the other way round. Be that as it may.) The people with Saint Paul on the way to Damascus were speechless. They could hear the voice speaking to Paul but they could see no one.
The point was that in St John’s Gospel and also in the Acts of the Apostles, there are a number of instances where people do not recognise that it is the risen Jesus who is present. Think, for instance, of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, thinking that Jesus was the gardener.
Then came the creative bit. Father Paul asked us all to turn to our neighbours – even to people we didn’t know, which was pretty revolutionary for normal Anglicans – well, certainly creative – and to talk about whether we could remember any occasions when we had been conscious of being in the presence of the risen Jesus. He gave us five minutes.
Then Father Paul went round with a microphone asking people to share their stories. Pretty terrifying – but fortunately, he didn’t pick on me. Actually he didn’t pick on anyone – there were enough keen ones putting their hands up anyway.
What would you have said? I had the rather prosaic thought that I can’t really imagine bumping into Jesus Christ these days, for example in Waitrose. He’s been dead for 2,000 years. Yes – I know. ‘Dead’ as we would understand it in the normal way.
The congregation’s views were pretty varied. Another retired minister in the congregation put his hand up and said, ‘This is a pretty difficult question.’ Father Paul said, ‘Okay, let’s move on’. But he did let his colleague say a few more words! But for other people, it was clear that they commonly did feel the presence of the risen Jesus, even in commonplace circumstances, such, indeed, as in the supermarket.
I have to confess that my mind went a complete blank, and I was saved by Derek, my fellow Reader, who was sitting behind me. He too was thinking about Waitrose: but he had a lovely story of a customer ahead of him in the checkout queue, who was perhaps a little mentally disturbed, or who was at any rate rather muddled, and who was beginning to hold up the queue. Before anybody could say anything, or become impatient or rude, the lady manning the checkout gently took over emptying the person’s basket and totting everything up, in a kindly way, so that the slow-moving customer was not embarrassed. She made her feel that nothing was wrong and that what she had been doing was perfectly all right. You could see the face of Jesus in that checkout bod.
It seems to me that this question is such a big question it is well worth carrying on looking at it this week, in the light of today’s Bible readings as well. St Peter was perhaps a bit like one of those super Christians who put their hands up in the service last week. No doubt in his mind: no doubt in theirs.
No doubt in St Peter’s mind. Tabitha, Dorcas, was a leading Christian. She was described as a disciple. All those people, who suggest that the church should be led only by men, should remember Dorcas. She was one of the leaders of the early church, one of the innermost circle, the disciples. Her name in Greek means ‘gazelle’: you imagine her to be a gracious and graceful lady.
But she had been seriously ill and had actually died. The story is very like the story of Jairus’ daughter whom Jesus raised from the dead in rather a similar way. He said, ‘Talitha cumi’, which is Aramaic for ‘damsel, arise’ – or, if you must have it in the stumbling prose of the New Revised Standard Version, ‘Little girl, get up.’
‘Talitha’: very like ‘Tabitha’ here. And the story is rather similar. Jesus and Peter are both doing roughly the same thing. Both are doing something miraculous, raising somebody from the dead. We have no idea how it worked. But you can say that God was at the heart of it.
‘Talitha, cumi.’ ‘Tabitha, arise’. ‘Damsel, arise.’ Compare Mark chapter 5 with our reading from Acts, chapter 9. So do we meet the risen Jesus, and if so do we recognise it? Well, things happen, and you realise that God is in them. My fellow reader, Derek in Bristol, was much better at doing the creative sermon than I was. He realised that, in the kindly face of the lady at the checkout, you could see the face of Jesus.
Then again, there is this rather strange story about the Archbishop of Canterbury which came out this week, that a newspaper thought that it is terribly important that they should find out who his natural father was. They persuaded the poor old Archbishop to have a DNA test which proved that his natural father was not Mr Welby but someone else. I can imagine that it must have been very unsettling, to say the least, especially since the whole story was played out in the full glare of publicity.
But Archbishop Justin took it all in his stride. This was perhaps not because he was, or rather is, some kind of superhumanly strong individual, but simply because he quietly told us that, for him, the most important parent is his heavenly father, and the most important family for him was the family of Jesus Christ, the church. What a nice man. But is it, also, another of those moments where perhaps we can glimpse the face of Jesus himself?
I am not going to make you be creative today, because I am sure that you are all much better at it than I am. But the church moved from the experience of those early disciples, the ones who had actually encountered the risen Jesus face-to-face, including Mary Magdalene, St Paul and doubting Thomas and the disciple whom Jesus loved and St Peter, recognising Jesus on the shore; for them it was straightforward. If a preacher had come up to them and asked whether they had experienced the risen Jesus, they could say ‘Yes’ to that.
We could understand that without any kind of explanation. But then Jesus eventually left, at the Ascension, and then came Pentecost, Whit Sunday, when the Holy Spirit came among them. Now is the period when we are looking forward to those huge steps in the life of the church.
We are a bit like those early church members in Joppa – and we are a bit like the Jews that Jesus encountered in the portico of Solomon, who didn’t get who he was. ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the messiah, say so plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, but you do not believe.’
It’s not something that everybody can see. It’s not something which is easy to understand. It needs people like Archbishop Justin and my friend Derek Jay, the Reader in Bristol, gently to point out how Jesus is really still with us. St Paul called it being ‘in Christ’. What he meant was, having Christ in him.
Remember what Christ himself said in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you a drink: A stranger, and took you home: naked, and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?’ And the king will answer, ‘I tell you this, anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.’ Jesus is there. He is there for us to meet. You do not need to be particularly creative. You just need to keep your eyes open.