Today's sermon was preached at St Albans Church in Bristol. At the 10.15 service on the 28th of May 2023.
Readings for today were:
In todays readings we hear of the disciples, who we go to know as the followers of Christ, his closest friends, his pupils. Fishermen, a taxcollector, a tent maker. Ordinary people like you and me, from all walks of life. And we see them gathered, together, after their friend and teacher has died. We do that, don’t we, when we go through tough times. We have a tendency to withdraw, to lock ourselves up to process our emotions, to protect ourselves, feeling too fragile, afraid to get hurt again. Yet at the same time we want to share; sometimes our grief is like a dam that bursts and spills over and once we start talking there is nothing that can stop the stream of words coming out: to family, friends and sometimes even strangers at a busstop. In our Old Testament passage we see the same, where the disciples receive the Spirit through tongs of fire and are suddenly able to speak to those gathered there. The words streaming out, heard by everyone around them, but not always understood.
We all respond differently to events, in fact, two people might be in the same place at the same time, witnessing the same thing, but have a completely different perception of what has occurred. Our brains are smart like that, through analysing and sensythising sensory information a reconstruction is made and stored safely in our cells. ready to be accessed when something similar happens. Which means that our reaction to any event, is impacted by our past experiences. Our whole being is involved.
For example, I found out that shutting myself off from the world after a bereavement, alone with my thoughts, sadness and pain; made it hard for me to return to the world. And the opposite was also true, when I fully immersed myself in everything and everyone to escape my thoughts, I did not allow myself to feel and heal. Which could only end with my emotions suddenly bursting out at the most inappropriate moment. I was heard, but not understood.
In order for me to not burst out, I needed to learn to take the responsibility for my emotions and feelings, and to be kind to myself and those around me. It was not their fault that I did not know where to go with my emotions, and I can’t make anyone else responsible for how I feel. Nor was it my fault that I initially kept all my emotions inside or hid myself away. We can only learn to deal with events, from past experiences, from trial and error, or from people modelling healthy behaviour. Therefore, I have learned from experience, that to process any big emotional event, I need a combination of solitude, reflection and quiet, as well as reaching out, fellowship and sharing.
Giving my and probably your own experience, it is not hard to imagine the disciples sitting in that room, in quite the same way. They respond from a place of hurt, pain and sadness, shutting the world out, locking themselves in. Suddenly their friend, their teacher is there. Reading the Gospels it is clear that Jesus was an example, his disciples followed him and looked up to him. And now he turns around, surpassing death, and says “it is your turn.” In his appearance he is once again displaying His leadership and taking up His responsibility. For throughout his journey with the disciples he has made the promise that they would follow in His footsteps, that He would come back and not abandon them, and that He would equip them for their task. By saying “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” He tells them that they are examples now, it is up to them to lead the way: He gives them authority and responsibility, and fulfils His promise by gifting them the Holy Spirit. Pupils become teachers, followers become leaders. I think the lovely thing about this passage from John is that there is no beating around the bush, it is clear that the disciples have a responsibility now, they are send on a mission, functioning as examples to others. Whereas in our lives, we never quite know how other people perceive us. Some examples are clear: parents, teachers, mentors, higher management. But what about those moments you don’t notice? There is not a clear instant when you know you are responsible, when you suddenly have the authority. It depends on so many factors and, is impacted by the past experienes of everyone that is involved in that interaction. I am training for ministry, and as clergy we have a mission, we are send out with a certain rol, a certain responsibility. If I think of someone in a dogcollar, I associate that with Christ’s love, the Good News, the person in that dog collar is someone I should be able to confide in and trust, they are after all the embodiment of everything the Bible teaches us. But a friend of mine has bad experiences with Christianity, the Bible was used as a way to tell them that they were different and not worthy of love by the very people they should have been able to trust. As such, any mention of faith triggered a reaction.
I did not know this when we became friends, and I am really open about the fact that I am training to be a vicar. After a while of working together they came up to me and said, “I fear religion because it has been used as a tool to hurt me, but you keep talking about love and kindness, and have made me feel safe in your presence and as such in your faith.” My friend knew their initial reaction was impacted by their past experiences, and took responsibility for that. I on the other hand, wasn’t even aware of the fact that my entire being was witnessed and measured. That my words were heard even when I did not consider it, and my friend’s understanding of those words was influenced by more than just conversations. And that is exactly it, in our passage the disciples are send out with clear instructions, as followers of Christ. As ordinary people like you and me. But being an example doesn’t stop at forgiving and retaining sins. Being an example is about the values we hold near, the things we truly believe in and therefore are implemented in everything we are and do. Everything we say. Not just the judgements we speak out loud, but every word that leaves our lips can be heard by someone, it is up to the rest of our behaviour to make those words understood. For how much weight do our words carry if we only act Christ-like when we are watched by our peers? How impactful can a message be if we shout or stamp our feet, but act opposite? How strong is a promise, if we don’t even think of keeping it?
Christ trusted his disciples to be able to carry this responsibility, and as His followers, as fellow Christians we are trusted to be capable of the same. He knows that we try, and that we sometimes fail, He knows what we say out loud and what lives in our hearts. He not only hears, but also understands. And He knows us, He is aware of our past experiences, and how that has moulded us into the present version of ourselves. He is with us, and we are with Him as we choose to do His work everyday, as we take up the responsibility of stepping out into the world as examples, lead by the gift of the Holy Spirit.