Easter 5 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday May 15th

Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35

And it was night. And it was night.

We are still in the season of Easter but we are taken back this morning by our gospel reading from John to the night before Jesus dies – to the Last Supper. Here Jesus gives the disciples the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is at supper, like so often before; a feast to foreshadow the heavenly banquet. But whereas his earlier meals had so often included those others wished to leave out, and that had got Jesus into trouble, here some one has left the meal, the building, the fellowship.

We heard it in the first words of our reading, “When Judas had gone out…” Judas has left to betray Jesus. The sentence before our Gospel reading begins, is that most redolent of comments on Judas’ departure: and it was night.

I wonder whether, at this last supper, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment that the disciples should love one another, any one of those disciples went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back, to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?

We don’t know. But to ask the question and imagine what that might mean, is to ask how far that love we are asked to inhabit extends: “love one another as I have loved you.”  It’s a question and challenge that has haunted and shaped Christianity ever since.

Our reading from Acts describes the first disagreement, argument, in the rapid expansion of the early church. The Church in Jerusalem summons Peter to give an account of himself. For Peter (before Paul will argue so eloquently and forcefully for it) has recognized the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing to baptism those who are not circumcised, those beyond the boundary of those previously counted as part of God’s people. Peter describes how he felt asked to partake in something beyond the pale; a fundamental taboo, something that goes to the heart of his identity, is put aside – in the name of God. He describes his confusion; and yet his overriding sense that the Spirit was at work where he thought it could not be: ‘The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.’ Peter’s confusion only begins to be clarified when sees the workings of the Holy Spirit on someone who should not be part of things.

Today is the start of Christian Aid Week. Through its more than 50 years of existence, Christian Aid has constantly challenged the churches with that question of how far our love extends, where do we imagine the Holy Spirit is at work? It does that by focusing on particular people, bringing their struggles and joys and humanity to our attention, and getting us to recognise the Holy Spirit there. If you go to Christian Aids website this year you will encounter Jessica and Janet, women from Zimbabwe. Janet Zirugo, who is now 70, describes what makes her smile: it’s seeing her grandchildren’s faces light up, she says, as she hugs them tight. For Janet has a big heart. Many of the children in her family are orphans, and she is their sole provider. ‘In my family, children look up to me and I must give them food. I am more than glad to share what I have,’ she says. In her village in Zimbabwe, Janet has seen how drought pushed her family into desperate hunger. ‘One year, there was so little food. Rains had not fallen. We ate things which we wouldn’t eat in normal times. My heart was so painful thinking that my family would die. By God’s grace we did not die. We soldiered on.’ With faith, hope and love, Janet brought her family through this painful time. Christian Aid has now provided her with drought-resistant seeds that can grow in this harsh climate, so that farm is now bursting with life: . She proudly shows us the food she has grown – bowls full of groundnuts, wild fruit, golden corn; a rainbow of colour is proudly displayed. She has built a storeroom to keep her harvest safe and secure, to help her bounce back in future droughts. As she reflects on how her life has changed, Janet sings with joy, and we are invited by Christian Aid to do so too. We rejoice with her. For night has turned to day.

‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ The gift of the Risen Christ is that love. The Christian story always places a question mark against drawing the circle of that love too tight. Peter has the grace to discern the Spirit where he thought the Spirit was not. For the Spirit is the bond of love, that which places someone inside the circle rather than outside. And we should be constantly surprised by the Spirit.

In Revelation 21, on the very final pages of the Bible, in that great vision of the consummation of all things, we hear how some day, one day, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a bride approaching her breathless husband, God will set out a great marriage feast. God will throw the party to end all parties at which God will wipe away every tear. Then will all mourning come to an end – no more tears, no more pain.

Will Judas be present at that great feast, along with Jessica and Janet, and you and I? Dare we hope that? I suspect we can. He will sit amongst all the rest of us who bear the scars of our own betrayals beneath our white robes. For so long as Judas remains out there in the night, wandering alone or swinging lifeless in the breeze, there will be tears and aching in the community where his place is still set at the table, but where he does not sit. When he has been found, then I know that I, too, shall have been found, and forgiven, and loved.

A foretaste of that heavenly banquet is set before us today. We will shortly remember once more that night of the new commandment, as we also look ahead to the day of its fulfilment. And we gather with Janet, singing for joy; we celebrate our reconciliation one with another,  and we live in hope while we wait for the day when every place at our table will be filled. Amen.