17th Apr, 2005

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, St Martha’s West Covina

The Induction, Installation and Collation of the Reverend Mother Alexandra Conrads
St Martha’s, West Covina,
Pontifical Mass Bishop Carranza Celebrant
Sermon preached by the Rector of St Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood,
Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Numbers 11: 16-17, 24-25a Moses gathers seventy elders
Psalm 133 how good and lovely a thing it is
Romans 12:1-18 one body, many members
St John 15: 9-16 abide in my love, love one another.

In my country only Bishops ever get to preach at Inductions- fortunately for you and me this is the closest that I will ever get to being a bishop- and I am extremely grateful to Mother for her very kind invitation to come and preach for you here! I have known your excellent new priest for just a few years and know her to be excellent and exciting- this will be a good and dynamic new ministry in this Parish.

Well, you know that there’s an amusing story- and you may have heard it all before- about a young family, a Mum, a Dad and their young, six year old daughter, spending the weekend with friends, friends who are regular and committed Christians, so come Sunday morning they all go off to Church and take with them the completely unchurchy young family. Church and all its really complicated paraphernalia is an entirely alien and strange atmosphere for them. Half way through the service at one of those moments when silence and meditation pervade the congregation, the six year-old girl loudly and entirely audibly remonstrates with her father, for all the congregation to hear “But Daddy, where are all the hypocrites you promised I would be able to see here in Church?”
Well, I think of all the things that Christians are meant to do loving is one of the hardest, and it’s the thing that we Christians can be most hypocritical about as well.
The reading we have just heard in this afternoon’s Gospel from the fifteenth chapter of St John is part of that great, long chunk of the Fourth Gospel known as the Farewell Discourse when Christ has celebrated the Last Supper, the first Holy Communion service and has washed the disciples’ feet in the Upper Room and then talks with them about his departure from this world, his glorification and exaltation on the cross, his promise of the Holy Spirit that will lead the disciples into all truth, everything that is in store for the future. They’re worried, nervous, lots of questions and doubts about the future- sound familiar?
But, “having loved his own who were in the world, Christ now showed them the full extent of his love.”
The love referred to in this context is the love of Christ for the disciples. However, and this is crucial in the Fourth Gospel that sees the life of God continuing here on earth in the followers of Christ, this is not the only love alluded to. [more dynamic than the immediately plain and simple]
A second kind of love, and just as important, is the love of the disciples for one another. Today you begin a new relationship with your Priest, and Christ tells us that it must be a relationship of love- each of you for one another and each of you for your new priest; and Mother’s new love that you and Dirk have for your Parish.
Christ tells the disciples that we are to imitate our Master and Lord by living in relationships of self-giving love for each other, indeed, this new commandment to love is not simply a result of being a disciple, it is of the very character and nature of discipleship, remaining in Christ.
(There ain’t no discipleship without it [suddenly sounding very un-British])
There’s a really posh phrase we use sometimes- “The Eucharistic Community”, which really means the Church, which is us, all who follow Christ, the body of disciples, those who are in Christ, this new yet ancient Body, demolishes the old boundaries, prejudices and distinctions; it is become the Community of Friends.

You are my friends” says Christ, “if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants (or slaves) any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (Jn 15: 14-15)

The early Quakers in the seventeenth century quite rightly described the Christian Community as a “society of friends.” Friends are free and equal, not divided by authority structures, by class or caste. One does not have to continually justify, pretend or placate friends. Friends and friendship are probably one of the more undervalued and less celebrated gifts Christ has given to the Church, a gift that each of you here this afternoon are capable of showing and living. You must support, love, nurture and pray for your new priest as she will daily support, nurture, love and pray for you. I know how seriously your new priest takes that calling.
We are friends, not acquaintances in some superficial, temporary manner, but we are inextricably linked and fused together, as branches are part of the vine; we’re in this for the long-haul; St John provocatively writes:
“You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”
That is the foundation, the bedrock of what it means to be St Martha’s West Covina, to be the Church of God in this place. And I think we should be careful here in using the term “Church”. The word Church seems to get muddied and confused and mixed up with all kinds of prejudices and worries about who is “in” and who is “out” of communion and fellowship;
“oh, they’re Roman Catholics or Presbyterians, we’re charismatic or Low Church,
“oh dear they are not quite the kind of Christians we want,”
what constitutes a “valid” ministry, and “genuine” apostolic succession…. these are all secondary questions, they are not central to the language that either St Paul or the author of the Fourth Gospel uses, remaining in Christ by loving him and his disciples is the central focus. The Church, the Body of Christ, is not intended to constitute a little group of saved like-minded consenting adults in the midst of a wicked world, eagerly beavering away at “holiness,” liturgy or some other esoteric pastime. On the contrary, the universal dimension of the language demonstrates and St John emphasizes over and over again, God intends nothing less than the regeneration of the whole human family in the friendship He shows to the world in His Son and the friendship we incarnate in our relationships with one another and with all whom God calls his friends. Concretely, painfully and practically this worked out in the breaking-down of the most intractable barriers in the first-century world, between Jew and Gentile, between slaves and free, and even between women and men. I’m not making some politically trendy point about “equal rights.” I’m talking about the most basic calling to which we are all to focus in the coming weeks, months and years.
A well-known priest and theologian was on holiday in Freiburg in Southern Germany and went to Mass at the Cathedral there on a Sunday morning. Coffee was served afterwards at the back of the Cathedral. One Japanese girl was left out in the general conversation and the priest discovered that she was in Germany on a two-year student course. The priest asked her if she was homesick for Japan. “No,” was her reply, “the Mass is my homeland.”
As we “learn Christ” in the education of this eucharistic altar are we not all called to seek an education for all, recognizing and respecting the variety of human ability, valuing gifts and individuals all made and being re-made in the image of God? On the one side the meal with the Risen Lord is a protest, of course, a critique of this world’s standards and illusions. It protests against unequal structures in our society. The Eucharist is meant as a protest against injustice and inhumanity, it is meant to disturb our complacency, as such it is an act of subversion of this world’s cynical assumptions and it is a protest against any kind of prejudice or racism. “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” And the Mass is a sacramental anticipation of a community in which people live for others, are true friends; this meal with the Risen Lord is an anticipation of the redeemed and restored human community living at peace.
Freedom to love and serve, to seek the good of the other, to live the self-giving love in a torrential downpour in a world that is parched and arid and yearning for friendship.
May God richly bless you Mother Alexandra, you Dirk,
and each of you Parishioners of St Martha’s West Covina.


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