Reading(s): John 17: 20 – end. This sermon was given by Vanessa Lawrence at All Saints and St Mark.
The Kingdom by R. S. Thomas
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on: Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look At themselves and love looks at them Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured By life. It’s a long way off, but to get There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering Of your faith, green as a leaf.
This Sunday wears many hats. For some it will be the observance of the Ascension of the Lord, which as a deanery we celebrated in Romsey Abbey on Thursday evening.
For those of us who mark the seventh Sunday of Easter, it is the in-between time, between the Ascension of the Lord and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. These 9 days are days of prayer and preparation as we wait to celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is this outpouring of the Holy Spirit that allows us to have a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven that R.S Thomas was referring to in his poem. The Kingdom of Heaven is the unity that Jesus refers to in our gospel reading today and the Kingdom of heaven is demonstrated in the actions of Paul and Silas in our reading from Acts.
The gospel reading appointed for this “in-between” time, the seventh Sunday of Easter, turns to the Gospel of John. This passage is the conclusion of Jesus' final prayer before departing for the Garden of Gethsemane and the events of the Passion. We read this as a part of Holy Week during the retelling of the final supper that Jesus celebrated with his friends and followers.
But as we read this passage today those events are in the past; several weeks in fact. And since that meal we have travelled through the Easter season and story – we have walked the path to the cross; prayed as Jesus gave his life for us and stood with Mary outside of the empty tomb. We have celebrated the resurrection and now the Ascension. Jesus was victorious over the grave and now has been raised to sit at the right hand of God. But the disciples, and we, are trying to make sense of all of this. So in this new time, this in-between time as we await Pentecost, we return to Jesus' prayer.
It is a prayer that looks to the future. Jesus was praying not only for the people seated around him at table that evening but also for his future followers, which thanks be to God, includes us. And it is a prayer that focuses on unity, on all being one.
I suspect that as the disciples gathered for what would be their final meal with Jesus (although they did not know it at the time) they did not feel like one. They were no doubt frightened, uncertain, insecure, scrappy, and squabbling. Peter was petulant, Judas plotting, and James and John were probably still jockeying for promotions. Did it change after the Ascension? Probably not. We are after all, only human. We still live in a chaotic broken world that continues to be broken, in church as well as in the world.
This week Sally and I went to Romsey Abbey to hear Bishop Andrew Rumsey speak. He was fascinating, and I recommend you look him up. He said that church is a rehearsal space for the kingdom of heaven – that we are sketching out what is to come. We spent some time thinking about rehearsals – most of us have done one at some point in our lives. I can remember being in school musicals and the rehearsals changed the atmosphere of the school. There was a tangible sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. Mostly these days the rehearsals I am part of are for weddings – and there is a similar sense of excitement and anticipation in the air, and for the couple for the first time things feel real – the reality of getting married in just a few days after all the months of preparation hits home.
Rehearsals change the atmosphere. The interactions we have with each other and the world around us makes a difference. So how are we rehearsing for the Kingdom of Heaven? How are we creating the kind of space in which as R.S Thomas describes where society is a very different place one underpinned by love and compassion not greed and wealth? – the one in which we are authentic about what we need and our faith is fragile and green as leaf.
Rehearsals are about remembering lines, inhabiting new ways of doing things, trying out different methods of being. So perhaps for us, our rehearsing is about remembering we are God’s precious children, remembering that the Holy Spirit inhabits our lives and our being, reminding ourselves time and time again of the joy and the love and the compassion of God that brings all of us into the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace – and living every day as that rehearsal space for the Kingdom of heaven.