Sermon preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Sunday 3rd May 2020 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)
Acts 2.42–end; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2.19–end; John 10.1–10
Every day at the moment I ring a parishioner or two, or someone who usually comes to the Hive, and I find out how they’re doing. While many of us are coping quite well with the current situation, quite a few people are struggling. These are often people who live alone, or who already had mental health problems before the pandemic arrived, and they’re finding the isolation, the uncertainty, and the fearful atmosphere difficult. Maybe quite a lot of us have days like that, not only during this lockdown.
Psalm 23, which we said earlier, includes this line: ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’. We are in the valley of the shadow of death. Death is close at hand, casting a shadow over our lives, and fear, isolation, and uncertainty are making that shadow even darker. As the days, weeks, and months stretch out in front of us, we try to look on the bright side, but we don’t always manage it. What does the gospel of the risen Christ have to say about this?
First, it says that our suffering is given new meaning in the light of Christ’s suffering. Our second reading, from the first letter of Peter, is addressed to Christian slaves who are beaten unjustly by their non-Christian masters. The author reminds them that in the end God vindicates those who suffer unjustly, giving Jesus as an example. The author hopes that they will be strengthened by identifying themselves with Jesus.
Does that help us, or the depressed people on the end of my telephone? I don’t think I’d be comfortable telling someone simply to remember that Jesus suffered too, and God is on their side. And of course that’s not what the author of First Peter is doing. He’s writing this letter to read out at a meeting of local Christians, at church. The slaves he was addressing weren’t left to deal with this on their own – they were part of a Christian community.
So let’s turn to our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles. Instead of focusing on how suffering individuals can cope, the reading from Acts looks back with rose-tinted spectacles at the early church, and describes how a community sustains and takes care of itself.
The author, Luke, lists four things that the community are ‘devoted to’: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. Could these help us too?
First, the apostles’ teaching. We can sustain ourselves by bringing God into our thinking. Some of us find faith easy when times are good, but difficult when times are hard – we might find it hard to find a place for God at times like this. But God is God at all times – we need to ask where God is in unpleasant experiences.
Second, fellowship. Luke writes: ‘All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.’ Fellowship means helping each other: telephoning, doing the shopping, looking out for one another. This could help make someone’s darkness a little brighter, and perhaps yours as well.
Third, the breaking of bread. This means the Eucharist. We’re doing our best at this, but it’s incomplete when only the priest consumes the bread and the wine. Still, we continue to proclaim our faith: ‘Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life: Lord Jesus, come in glory’.
Finally, the prayers. Prayer will help us through. When I was homesick in Japan at the age of 21, one of the things that kept me going was praying Morning and Evening Prayer every day on my own, sitting on my bed. I particularly remember the line from Psalm 61: ‘From the end of the earth I call to you with fainting heart’.
So these are four things that might help: teaching (thinking about our faith), fellowship (helping one another), the breaking of bread (the Eucharist), and prayer.
But the most important thing that the gospel of the risen Christ has to say to our situation at the moment is:
‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’
God’s desire for us is life, abundant life. I chose this verse to put on the card I used to invite people to my ordination as a deacon. For me, it sums up what God wants for us and what Christ came to bring us: not just the forgiveness of sins, or life after death, or political liberation, or anything else you might want to narrow salvation down to, but ‘life in all its fullness’.
The Lord is my shepherd;
therefore can I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
Lush, green grass and still, refreshing water are images of that ‘abundant life’ that God wants us to enjoy. This is God’s purpose for us, and this gives me hope.
Yes, we are walking through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’, but we do so together. Let’s not neglect the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers – let’s think about God, help each other, celebrate the Eucharist, and pray – and then perhaps we will be able to say:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me
in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil
and my cup shall be full.
Surely goodness and loving mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.