Sunday 20 May 2012

The Kosmos-World

Sermon preached at St Mary's, Nenagh on 20th May 2012, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after the Ascension, year B

I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
 I apologise for my bad singing! But I’m sure you all recognise this song – it’s perhaps best known sung by Louis Armstrong. And it’s true isn’t it! We all know what a truly wonderful world God has made for us to live in - a veritable Garden of Eden, if only we would learn to look after it and use it rightly.

St John uses the Greek word ‘kosmos’, meaning ‘world’, no less than 13 times in today’s  reading from his Gospel (John 17:6-19). But this is not the beautiful material world which God made and saw was very good, as the 1st chapter of Genesis puts it. I shall call what John has in mind the kosmos-world, to distinguish it from God’s wonderful world. The kosmos-world is a place of spiritual death, filled with souls cut off from God: a place where greedy people trample on each other to grab more for themselves; a place where violent people kill and torture other people; a place where cynical people despise what is good and true and beautiful. And we all know the reality of that kosmos-world too, don’t we!

For John the very opposite of the kosmos-world is eternal life, as he tells us in the preceding verses, This is eternal life, (to) know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. And the author of 1 John echoes this in today’s 2nd reading (1 John 5:9-13), ‘This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son’.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples.
It is the night of the last supper, just after he has washed the disciples’ feet. It is immediately before he goes out with them to the garden of Gethsemane, across the Kidron valley, where he will be arrested by soldiers and police led to him by Judas Iscariot. Jesus is praying for his disciples, but he is also teaching them, for he prays out loud in their hearing. His words are dense with meaning - perhaps because he knows this is his last opportunity to speak to them before he is arrested, tried and executed.

It would take a very long sermon to tease out all the nuances of his prayer. So I shall pick out just three points about the relationship between Jesus’s disciples and John’s kosmos-world.
  1. Jesus’s disciples are in the kosmos-world, but they do not belong to it. God has given the disciples to Jesus, in the sense that God has made them able to respond to the word of God which Jesus has given them. They have been brought to know and believe the truth that Jesus is sent from God. That is what sets them apart from the kosmos-world, even while they remain in it.
  2. The kosmos-world has already shown it hates Jesus’s disciples because they do not belong to it. Those mired in evil, in cynicism, violence and greed, cannot co-exist with those who live by God’s values. So Jesus calls on his Father to protect his disciples from evil, when he is no longer there to do so in the flesh.
  3. Jesus does not ask God to take his disciples out of the kosmos-world. Just as God sent Jesus into the kosmos-world, so Jesus sends his disciples into it. God sent Jesus to redeem the kosmos-world from within. Jesus sends his disciples to continue his redeeming work there.

The kosmos-world is a metaphor for the evil we encounter all around us, day by day.
It’s hard to see evil for what it is in the abstract. It comes in so many disguises. I think it helps to focus on concrete examples. There are so many to choose from - but let’s focus on the child abuse which has so disfigured Irish society.

We were shocked to learn of the abuse perpetrated by a very few priests and religious in RC parishes and church institutions – a small minority, but still far too many. But lest we are tempted to believe it is not our problem too, we are now hearing the testimony of those abused in protestant institutions, such as Bethany Home in Rathgar and Westbank Orphanage in Greystones. 219 Bethany children are buried in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin. Many who survived were sent into dysfunctional and abusive situations in places like Westbank.

It is now clear that the evil of child abuse extended far beyond the abusers themselves. It extended to their colleagues and superiors who colluded in it by failing to stop the perpetrators. It extended to organs of the State which failed to exercise their duty of care. And it extended throughout Irish society, to all of us who knew there was something wrong, but could not bring ourselves to say so publicly, thus allowing the evil system to fester for decades.

We must not forget that more children have been abused outside the churches than within them. But it is almost incomprehensible how so many who professed to be Jesus’s disciples could have gone so wrong – but they did. And that must be a lesson to us all not to underestimate the forces of evil. Every one of us needs God’s grace to prevent the forces of evil overcoming us.

So to sum up:
·       The wonderful world God has placed us in is good. We should rejoice in it, and give thanks for it. But as Jesus’s disciples, we must always be on guard against the evil that spoils it.
·         As disciples we live amidst evil, but we do not belong to it, because God has given us to Jesus.
·         As disciples we must be ready to suffer personally when we confront evil and refuse to collude with it. But we can take comfort that Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to protect us from something much worse than suffering – that is, from being drawn into evil ourselves.
·         Our task as disciples is to continue Jesus’s redeeming mission. We have been set apart to confront and defeat evil wherever it is found, not to hide ourselves away like cowards in the face of it.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Little children, love one another!

Address given at Templederry and St Mary's, Nenagh on 6th May 2012, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, year B.

Little children, love one another!

If you find these words strangely familiar, you’re probably right! I am repeating the sermon I gave in this very church on the 5th Sunday of Easter three years ago. I make no apologies. It’s not just laziness. This message is crucially important for us today, I believe, when angry voices are raised in the Church of Ireland and the wider Anglican Communion, and even in our own Nenagh Union of Parishes.

The author of St John’s Gospel, John the Evangelist, was from early times believed to have also written the 1st Letter of John, from which today’s 2nd reading was taken. There is a lovely story told about him by St Jerome, that great Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into Latin. He was writing around 400AD, some three hundred years later. The story goes like this:

The Evangelist continued preaching even when he was in his 90s. He was so enfeebled with old age that he had to be carried into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to deliver a long sermon, his custom was to lean up on one elbow and say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when John was on his death-bed. When he finished, John would lie back down and his friends would carry him out. Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.” One day, the story goes, someone plucked up the courage to ask him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is, “Little children, love one another.” If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.” For John, once you put your trust in Jesus, there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over and over again.

Little children, love one another!

This is precisely the message that John gives us in today’s 2nd reading (1John 4:7-21). And he keeps on repeating it throughout his 1st Letter. 1John is quite short, only 5 pages in my Bible – you might like to take down yours when you get home and read the whole thing.

John tells us that the reason we must love is that God first loved us. God loved us so much that he sent his only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, into the world to be ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’.

What does this talk of an atoning sacrifice mean? We all know our own sins, don’t we? Our inveterate wilfulness – doing what we know we shouldn’t, and not doing what we know we should. That, and our own guilty consciences, cut us off from the love of God. It would be quite wrong to imagine the atoning sacrifice as a vengeful God taking out our sins on Jesus. Rather Jesus has shown us how to reconnect to the love of God despite our sins, through his example of self-sacrificing love, and by his teaching that if we repent God loves us enough to forgive our sins. This is Jesus’s atoning sacrifice, sealed by his victory on the cross. Jesus turned the apparent defeat of the cross into victory by his obedience to his Father’s will even unto death. No doubt this is the good news about Jesus that Philip proclaimed to the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s 1st reading (Acts -40).

John tells us that if we don’t love each other, people we can see and touch, then we surely can’t love God, who we cannot see and touch.

Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel (John ), ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’  Jesus’s love is not an easy, sentimental kind of love. It’s easy enough to love those who are lovable, but Jesus also tells us (Matthew: ), Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. That is the sort of edgy love that John reminds us Jesus asks of us. The kind of edgy love that is so very difficult.

We should make love our priority. Forget about ego, forget about career. Forget about political divisions and bankers’ greedy mistakes. Forget about the silly divisions that we constantly let creep into the Church. Forget about likeability too – we don’t have to like those we love, but we must love even those we don't like.

Love one another. God loves us. We ought to – no, we must – love one another. That’s what it’s all about.

“Little children, love one another … because it truly is enough.”