The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-14, 16,17,20,21; John 17.20-26
We are living in transitional times.
Those European elections, which we thought we wouldn’t be having, became something of a watershed when hurriedly we headed for the polls. However you read the results – and we are, I suppose, all reading them to suit our own Brexit narrative – they may potentially change the shape of our politics.
The Tory hopefuls are now lining up to walk through the door of Number 10 as Mrs May leaves through the back door. The Labour Party is in its own turmoil, members being evicted from the party for voting with their conscience, the struggles with charges of anti-Semitism ringing around the ears of the National Executive. Nigel Farage is celebrating another success at the polls and UKIP have been crushed in the stampede to get in line with that so called man of the people. We live in strange times and none of us knows what tomorrow will bring.
But as Christians we’re also living in transitional times, these great ten days between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, these days are days of prayer, these days are days of waiting. The truth is, of course, that the church always lives in transitional time, a time of waiting for the fulfilment of all things in Christ, for the ‘Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus’ of St John’s vision to come true.
But it has to be said that waiting is not the easiest of experiences – it takes patience but it also takes a real confidence that the thing that you’re waiting for will come. There’s dignity in waiting as Bill Vanstone so wonderfully described in his great book, ‘The Stature of Waiting’. And I am conscious that each one of us here will be waiting for something – for news, for a forthcoming appointment, for a change of life, for the end of a piece of work – we all wait and we get used to waiting.
When I was a curate there was a coach depot opposite the church hall and a house where the old lady of the family who owned the coaches lived. She’d had a stroke long before I arrived – and all she could now do was stand at the gate and watch people go by and all she could say and all she did say was ‘waiting, waiting...waiting, waiting.’ And none of us knew what she really meant, especially me a fresh-faced young curate – but as I get older I know that there’s truth in this, that we’re all in the waiting game, in this transitional time.
But that doesn’t mean that life stands still. The Acts of the Apostles, which we read throughout Eastertide, the account of the life of the early church, is a story of constant change, of growth, of development, all lived out in this time of waiting for all things to be fulfilled.
And Acts is full of wonderful vignettes, of characters who step onto the stage for a few moments, for a few verses and then disappear, people caught up in the momentous business of being the church, the people of the way, the people of the resurrection. And so often, when those people step back into the shadows, their lives have been transformed.
Take the slave girl in the First Reading for today. She’s locked into this relationship with her Master for whom she’s making money because of this spirit of divination which is in her. But out of this profane spirit she speaks the truth. There’s nothing wrong with what she says – ‘These men are slaves of the most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation’ – Paul gets sick to death of her but because she’s irritating not because she’s wrong.
This girl describes Paul and his companions as slaves, just as she’s a slave – but what the spirit in her doesn’t recognise is that their slavery is different to hers. They’ve been delivered through the resurrection of Jesus into a slavery to perfect freedom as St Ignatius of Loyola would later describe it; she awaits deliverance from the slavery to her Master who exploits her. And Paul, in the name of Jesus, delivers her.
And to mirror this, the story of Paul in Philippi ends with another deliverance.
Having been thrown into prison the Lord delivers them into freedom but it’s the jailer who experiences true freedom. The one who’s kept the apostles captive is the one who in reality was captive himself. The chains fell off those in the prison cell but the real shackles fell from the jailer and from his family and through baptism they all experienced that true release, that true deliverance which would place them within the true freedom of the resurrected Christ.
Charles Wesley so wonderfully wrote in his hymn ‘And can it be’
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
The irony is that it’s not so much the song of the apostles but of the jailer.
The gospel for today is part of what we call the High Priestly Prayer in St John’s Gospel. It’s a high point in that gospel in which Jesus, turning his face and his thoughts towards the events of his passion, death and resurrection, prays for his friends, prays for the church, prays for us.
In that prayer we hear him pray,
‘I ask .. on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.’
There are a great many slave girls and jailers out there, people locked into destructive ways of life, people exploited, people for whom others hold the keys to their metaphorical chains, people looking for release, for freedom. Like that slave girl many know the truth already, but something keeps them back, they can speak the words but the truth has not yet set them free.
And that’s where we come in. In this transitional time, in this waiting time, we’re the ones who are called to make known through our words, in our lives, the truth of the death and the resurrection of Jesus and what that means for all of us. We’re the ones who are bearers of the good news in the places where we find ourselves day in day out, that we may all be one, and may all be free.
And in this Eucharist, as in every Eucharist, we’re given the grace to be the agents of God’s liberating love, for here, we, bit-part players in the drama of salvation, are drawn to the centre, to the table, to the altar and to Jesus, our great High Priest, who with his own hands, feeds us with his own self. The jailer knew that it was true for it says
‘He brought them into his house and set food before them’ – he created a Eucharistic community, a house church for the church.
The slave girl knew it was true as with profound words she cries
‘These are slaves of the most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation’.
Jesus prays that they may all be one, he prays and we pray that the kingdom will come, that this transitional time will be over. The great praying hands that stand in the nave for these ten days are the focus for all of this. We pray that the divisions in our politics and the divisions in our nation will be healed, we pray that those in chains will be set free, we pray that the kingdom will come.
We pray with St John, who ends the account of his vision with a very simple prayer and his prayer becomes our prayer ‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’
And then the waiting will be over.