Sermon from Sunday 15 May

Storytelling as the heartbeat of faith


Reading(s): Acts 11 1-18 and John 13:31-35. This sermon was given by Vanessa at All Saints and St Mark.

One of the joyful things about running a toddler group is story time. It’s one of the things that I love best – I love the way children engage with the characters and the stories. Last week we had a story about a dog, whose best friend came to visit and broke his favourite tea pot. It was story about friendship and love, a gentle introduction to pain and redemption. Stories are powerful and stories are encounter; we hear our own stories reflected back to us, and we grow and learn. Story telling is one of the things that makes us human.

It’s one of the reasons why I am so excited that our Benefice is hosting the North Baddesley Community library. Reading is vital for us and our communities – if the church is the heart of the community, then story telling is the pump that makes it beat.

Storytelling is at the centre of any faith community, and the oral tradition of storytelling has been part of society since the dawn of time. In our reading from Acts today, Peter is telling a story. He is telling the story of the acceptance of the gentiles – how those who were not Jewish came to faith in God, and how those followers of Christ who thought that Christ was the Messiah only for the Jews came to accept, through Peter’s story, that this world changing and hugely significant event had occurred.

It must have been deeply, deeply shocking for them. That suddenly, a whole group of people whom they thought were outcasts and far away from God they discover are actually loved as God’s dear children. It means that they need to make a shift in their world view, and a shift in their understanding of who God is. I wonder when that last happened to you – sometimes God takes our breath away and we have to think again about something we believe, or feel, or think we know. It’s a vital part of growing in our thinking, but it can take some processing!

Peter’s response to the Christians in Jerusalem who questioned him is more pastoral than argumentative. There are no fancy theologically-loaded words. He does not argue Scripture with them, it’s all about relationship. Verse four says that Peter “explained…step by step” his experience of God’s work among the Gentiles. Peter engages with his listeners by appealing to experience — his experience of God and of the Gentiles' reception of the Spirit. “Let me tell you a story…”

In Acts the public sharing of personal experiences of God is a vital part of the ongoing proclamation of the good news. Peter’s experience would be of limited value unless he shared it with the rest of the community of faith. When you think about the question I asked you earlier – the last time God took your breath away – who did you tell about it? How did you share this experience of God?

Peter’s telling of the story makes public his personal experience and his experience of others' faith. Sharing experience in this case transforms the people of God into a new thing. God’s gift for all is not always communicated through high-brow theology. But Peter here testifies to the fundamentally human nature of the way God connects with us. At its root, the story of Jesus is not a theological concept to be believed, but an encounter with God that draws us ever closer into relationship with God and with each other.

In our gospel reading, we have an intimate and dramatic portrayal of that encounter with God bringing the disciples – and us – into an ever closer relationship. It’s another story, but one we are right in the middle of, and one in which Jesus changes the ending – rather like those books that were very popular in the 80’s, where you could choose what happened next!

The passage opens with Judas literally leaving the room – we basically hear the door bang behind him. We know where he is going, and what he is going to do – the question is, how does Jesus respond to the dark narrative that he is in the middle of. Jesus knows Judas will betray him. He knows the power of evil that is present in the world, that can consume the world and all the people he loves and cares about. We know too something of that evil – of humanity choosing to turn away from God and focus instead on selfishness, greed and power. It’s the reason foodbanks are necessary, it’s the reason why we as a benefice provide meals for hungry families over the summer holidays, it’s the reason women in Afhanistan are unable to go to school or leave their houses – it’s the reason so many in our world are starving, oppressed and living in fear.

Jesus changes the narrative. In a tender and compassionate way – slightly reminiscent of the toddler group – he refers to his disciples as children. He is telling them a story of pain and redemption too, but here the pain and redemption are beyond our imagining. He wants to prepare his disciples for that reality, and give them a tool to use to change the world around them – the knowledge of God’s love for them. He takes the very familiar commandment to love and infuses it with new meaning. For Jesus, love did not mean a sweet sentimental feeling. It meant action. It meant actively loving — putting one’s love into real world activities. 

Jesus is reminding the disciples that they will be known to others by their acts of loving, and it is through the radical love that the early followers of Christ had for each other, for the gentiles, for anyone they connected with, that Christianity spread throughout the globe. We would do well to listen to this commandment. We also are called to love others as a mark of our own discipleship – and we are called to love through words and action – to have our breath taken away by our new knowledge of God, to tell our stories by the way we speak and by the way we live our lives. We are called to stand out as different to the world around us by the way we love and act.

How will you live out the story of your faith this week?