Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
21st Aug 2016
“What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God” Hebrews 12. 22.
The wonder of modern travel is that we can experience the great cities of the world as never before. They have all become so accessible. It now becomes possible to clamber aboard a train from King’s Cross Station, a mere eight hundred metres away from here, and find ourselves in the centre of Paris in the space of a little more than two hours! . The visiting of countries at shorter and longer distances from one another invites an experience which provides not only for ‘a change of air’ but often a different dialect or a different language, history, architecture and mood. Such experiences of change can ‘take us out of ourselves’ and reinvigorate us.
This morning’s second reading is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, and it takes us to a new and revitalising city destination. The Letter to the Hebrews was written early - in the year 63 or 64 and before the Destruction of the Temple and it speaks about Jesus as the mediator between God and Man. This was new. But it used language and thought forms which were old, Jewish and traditional (‘coming to Zion and to the Temple and its tabernacle) and yet combining them with thinking that was new and radical. The writer sets out the provision for the transformation of the Christian community as it was emerging out of its Jewish inheritance. Now it had appeared on the world scene as a divine society, and Mount Zion, a former holy place name, now becomes what the writer calls ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’, which now promises a radical social inclusion never before seen before. The ‘New Jerusalem is envisaged as a divine society, the City of God. The city where God’s life is being lived. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, twenty centuries later was to speak of the Church of God on earth as “A divine society, with Christ as the glory in the midst of it and the Holy Spirit as work within it”.
This emphasis is important. This new Christian community emerges like a butterfly from a chrysalis. To speak of the outworking of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and of the hope of glory is to establish once and for all a church is dynamic. It moves and grows and expresses itself fully involved in the contemporary world. Its calling is to be Christ in the world for all time. It must be both unchanging and strong in its faith so that it can adapt to the changes and chances of this fleeting world. In this country, our modern cities, London, Manchester, Birmingham dominate the economic life of the country where for centuries the all the important cities were also centres of Christian influence with their Cathedrals: Canterbury, York, Lincoln, Exeter, Durham. The one kind of city displaced the once dominant influence of the other. Our English Cathedrals remain important as spiritual centres, but it is the parish church, and especially one like ours, which speaks of the relationship ‘on the ground’ with the local society, and which has a care for all people who live within its boundaries. In our case Holy Cross Parish is a dynamic multicultural social hub, and the Christian Faith, our church’s reason for being is one which reaches out, which welcomes the traveller and the needy and proclaims the Christian Faith day in and day out.
In this church we have a group which meets here every Friday. What started as a church-sitting group soon turned into one which felt itself closer related to our visitors than we had at first thought. It was decided that we should offer a service and provide for guided tours, offer tea and coffee and even counsel and advice. This grew not from some kind of plan worked out by a church committee but grew out of our keeping company with one another.
It has become a mark of this group’s recent existence that we regularly find ourselves asking about those who have not come or who are away for a while, and wonder how they are? There is a ‘looking out for one another’. This is a small group of people out of whose regular and dedicated meeting has emerged a looking outwards and a genuine reception for the outsider. It has not been planned to the nth. degree! Now we welcome Iraqi refugees and a visiting priest some while ago was delighted to be able to converse in Arabic. There are some American expressions which are not easily translated into (proper!) English language but which nonetheless put things more succinctly and say things in a much more laid back way while conveying the real essence of things. One of these is a favourite of mine:
“We just get to hang out”
Yea, ‘we just get to hang out’. But for the writer to the Hebrews and Christ’s own telling of the guests and their place at table, this is Christian teaching about the quality of community life that it expresses. And the influence of God runs through its life as a golden thread.
I always feel blessed by the Eucharist when I go to foreign countries and hear the Mass said in a different language. Despite the language barrier, the shape and form and substance of the service remain the same as for here Holy Cross. Even though a foreign language is being spoken, the experience of receiving Christ in the Holy Sacrament is always powerful and resonant and immediate. Despite the difference in sound, and like a blind man seeking inner sight, I have seen and heard and felt the sensation of a Church at worship, and I come to know that this is no ordinary of vague thing, but the Church of God at work, reconciling the world to itself. I remember these words of TS Eliot from ‘Little Gidding’:
If you came this way,
Holy Scripture has reminded us today of the City of the living God, a place of radical inclusiveness, of generous welcome, and of the wonder that resides in the communal and of its capacity to look beyond itself and the narrow confines of its own desires and to give itself purposefully, patiently and expensively for the world God loves.