by Revd. Susan Allman
One of the more unusual legacies of my predecessor Bill Day is the curious selection of stones he and Carol left behind in the vicarage. The wind can blow quite fiercely through the vicarage if too many doors are left open so we use them as doorstops to stop various internal doors from slamming shut when this happens, which is probably what Bill and Carol used them for too. This was all very well until our youngest granddaughter came along and started hurting her little feet on them. Now I also have a broken toe to protect so the stones have been replaced with various weighted cuddly animals; an owl, a cat and a sausage dog.
Our rugged stones have been rejected for softer options.
There are a lot of stones in our readings today; did you notice? Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith, was stoned to death. The church where I did my curacy had a statue of him over the doorway holding a large stone in his hand and looking rather wistfully, I always thought, in the direction of the youth centre opposite which was often the launchpad for a whole variety of stones and other missiles which would be aimed at the windows on the south side of the church, leaving us with rather a mess to clear up.
In our second reading, from the first letter of Peter, Jesus is described as, “A cornerstone, chosen and precious…rejected by the builders of Zion, the holy city, but raised up to become the very head of the corner.” (From down there to up here!)
“A stone that makes them stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” No fluffy substitutes here.
The risen, ascended Lord challenges us to change. He is the one before whom no secrets are hidden, the one who searches our hearts. When we gaze into his eyes we cannot escape the often uncomfortable truth about ourselves and the things about our lives that need to change if things are going to be different; if things are going to be better.
What does he have to say to us this morning?
What is he saying to the world?
Day by day, week by week, we pray Your Kingdom come….what does this mean?
Alleluia. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Here we stand, in the season of Easter still, trying to understand what this means. Jesus is alive. The stone rejected by the builders has been given the highest place. He lives to disturb and to bless us so that God’s kingdom on earth can become a reality.
Our Archbishops have issued a call to prayer to all our churches as we move closer to the feast of Ascension and the Feast of Pentecost so that we can prepare ourselves to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. God making his home within each one of us so that we can help him build his Kingdom here on earth.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus….in my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places…I go to prepare a place for you.”
I always associate these words of Jesus with the funeral service and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By dying and rising again Jesus has overcome death. Our loved ones who have gone before us are safe with him in heaven. We need have no fears about our own death; we know where we shall be going when that time comes. That helps us to be brave.
I wonder what Jesus meant at the time though. Was he talking about death? Well yes, he was. He was talking about his own death. This was the last supper he had with his friends before he died. His death and resurrection would have huge consequences for them and for us.
He had just washed their feet so that they would understand how we are to witness to God’s love through acts of love and service. In that moment it was not so much about how it would be for his friends when they died but how his death would shape the way they should live.
Jesus speaks about heaven as his Father’s house. In the first letter of Peter we find another building analogy.
As Christians we are to be “Living stones…” “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood,” we are told.
Our job as Christians is to be the living stones with which God can build his Kingdom on earth.
Stones which can keep doors open so that the mighty wind of God can move freely without obstruction. Stones that can be awkward and trip people up when evil and injustice needs to be challenged.
“The one who believes me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father…if you ask for anything in my name I will do it.” Nothing is impossible with God.
“Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.”
Here are some thoughts about priesthood from the former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard.
“Priests are multi-lingual interpreters. They interpret the faith to the wider culture, and the culture to the faith community. It’s a fascinating and demanding task that puts them on the front line of mission every day….There is (however) a danger, renewed in every generation, of the Church becoming so absorbed in its own internal redecoration that it forgets the majesty of its calling to be an agent of universal transformation.”
This time last year I was in East Timor; in fact I flew out of East Timor on the feast of Pentecost to come back here.
East Timor is quite a place, stunningly beautiful and filled with tree-covered mountains. The capital city, Dili, stretches languidly along a beautiful beach where dolphins, whales and crocodiles can sometimes be seen. Despite the fact that the majority of the population are Roman Catholic, the crocodile is a sacred animal and there remains an animist belief that crocodiles are inhabited by the spirits of the Timorese people’s ancestors who visit to warn them when troubles lie ahead.
This sense of foreboding is not surprising in Asia’a newest nation, whose independence was declared in 2002, after a David and Goliath struggle with Indonesia, who invaded on Christmas Day 1975 with the backing of the United States.
As the only provider of higher education during Portugese colonial rule, which ended in 1975, the Church was instrumental in preparing both political and future religious leaders for the bloody conflict that would lie ahead.
Christian leaders took their lives in their hands during the Indonesian occupation, supporting and shielding the local population during the civil war that claimed the lives of one quarter of the population.
The Church was, at times, the only safe place; even hospitals were regularly raided; the injured taken away and killed. We passed a church in Liquiçá where scores of people were massacred when they attempted to take refuge there.
When the struggle was over and independence was declared in 2002 the Church played a leading role in the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (2002-2005)
People had been pulled in many different directions during the conflict. Some had been collaborators, others resistance fighters; many had lost loved ones, perhaps quite literally, among the many who simply disappeared. Now they had to learn to live peaceably together, side by side.
The only way forward was to leave the bitter experience of the 1975 civil war behind, to find it in their hearts somehow to forgive and to move together into a new future.
When we visited the Museum of the Resistance in Dili our guide was a young man called Pedro. He was a child during the conflict and often had to flee from the violence and make up convincing alibis when questioned by the Indonesian authorities. He and his friends would climb trees and tie themselves to the branches so that they could sleep, hidden among the branches, without falling.
But we mustn’t hate Indonesians, he said. “We have had enough of war and fighting. We want peace now. This is the only way to have peace.”
This is in no way to underplay the severity of the trauma and loss people continue to experience on a daily basis; that is all too evident when you talk to them.
The church’s part in enabling this process has had a powerful effect. One of the Bishops, Bishop Carlos Belo, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The number of people claiming affiliation with the church rose from 25% at the beginning of the war to 90% by the end.
The journey of forgiveness is costly; the people of East Timor are being called upon to dig deep, in peace as in war. God’s work of healing and reconciliation continues.
What is impossible for us is possible for God.
To be a holy priesthood means to be a bridge between God and the world. Jesus is our great high priest. He has made it possible for us to be in a right relationship with God so that we can be that bridge which enables the things of heaven to be carried over into the world.
As we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost we hope you will join in with our 24 hours of prayer from 30th- 31st May; our part in a global wave of prayer.
Your Kingdom come, O Lord; your will be done on earth.