Extract from Bishop Paul, Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham’s address to the Diocesan Synod
‘On Christmas Eve this past year in the afternoon I went to one of our smaller villages in the north of the diocese. I had packed far too much into
my diary that day and so was running a little behind when I arrived at the
church with 20mins to go. As I walked into an already packed building, the
churchwarden greeted me very warmly and led me towards the vestry.
As we made our way she said she thought I might like a cup of tea after
the drive from Southwell. Knowing how little time I had to get ready for
the service, I was about to politely decline, but at that moment I stepped
into the small vestry and saw that it had been transformed into a
delightful tearoom. There was a fine tablecloth, the best china tea cups
and teapot, a stunning table decoration, and the most delicious looking
home-made biscuits. And so, I said I would very much appreciate a cup of
tea! For the next ten minutes I sat with the churchwarden and another
church officer enjoying the feast set before us.
There was then only 5mins to get ready for the service and yet we still
managed to start on time. But it struck me that the unexpected kindness
and generosity I had just experienced was like a picture of the spiritual
feast that was about to be set before the congregation. The numbers in
church corresponded to a third of the population of the village, though
this included some who were visiting family for Christmas. The service was
full of joy and wonder. Afterwards someone said to me, ‘I didn’t know that
church could be like this and your words really connected with some
things going on in my life and I wasn’t expecting that.’’
Bishop Paul’s sermon
St Peter’s Clayworth
11am, Sunday 14th May 2023
Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:15-21
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever…he abides with you, and he will be with you.”
The setting for this passage is the final evening that Jesus spent with his disciples before Good Friday – its part of what is known as the Last Supper Discourse in John chapters 13-17. John is focusing on the things that Jesus said to his disciples in his final extended conversation with them before he went to the cross.
The important point Jesus is making in the verses we read this morning is that he promises that when he goes away he will not leave them alone, but will send the Holy Spirit to be with them always.
I imagine that nearly all of us in church today will have experienced a painful separation of some kind, either when a good friend moves away, or a child leaves home, or perhaps most painfully of all, when someone very dear to us dies. For some that might be a very recent experience for others a long time ago, either way the absence of that person makes all the difference to every day. We may adapt and adjust, and find a way to get on with life, but deep inside the loss is always felt. It is part of the cost of loving and being loved.
The Psychiatrist and New York Times best-selling author, Edward Hallowell writes that for most people the two most powerful experiences in life are achieving and connecting. Most of what grabs our attention and commands our energy falls into these two categories.
Connecting has to do with our relational world – things like falling in love, forming great friendships, being cared for when we are sick, or receiving words of deep affection and affirmation from a parent, spouse or child.
Achieving has to do with our accomplishments – ambitions that are realised, like a successful career, or becoming a parent, or gaining a certain life-style.
Hallowell points out that our society is increasingly devoted to, obsessed with, and enslaved by achieving, and increasingly impoverished when it comes to connecting. Achieving is not a bad thing – when it’s done in the right way and for the right reason. But it’s no substitute for connecting and in the final analysis the only really significant and worthwhile achievements are those that create and strengthen connection and build relationships.
Jesus understands the power of connection and all through the Gospels we see him drawing people into close relationship with him, often the people who least expected it. The disciples experienced the power of community in fellowship with Jesus and so it is no surprise that they are increasingly anxious hearing that Jesus is going to be leaving them soon. But Jesus understands their anxiety and promises that their relationship with him will not be broken even after he has gone.
He says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever…”
Jesus explains that this Advocate or Comforter, who will soon come to them and abide in them, is the Holy Spirit. And in the mystery of the Trinity, the Spirit is the one who draws us into the eternal divine embrace of God the Father and the Son. That’s what Jesus is getting at when he says, “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them, and send the Holy Spirit so my presence will be with them always.”
This is the promise of Jesus to all who put their hope in him and seek to walk in his ways, that we can know and experience his presence and his personal love with us and for us, and so we are never alone.
And this is very important to know when we live in a world where every other embrace, however tender and true, will one day cease to be. It is part of the vulnerability of love, which C S Lewis understood so well when he said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”
However much someone may achieve in life having an unbreakable and impenetrable heart is no way to live, locked up on the inside. All the way to the cross, Jesus showed his disciples a love like no other, where hard hearts can be redeemed and broken hearts restored. No wonder the disciples did not want to lose this love. And they would not lose it because Jesus kept his promise and sent the Holy Spirit to hold them and draw them into a divine embrace that is daring and dynamic and life-changing and will never be broken, not even in death.
This leads us to the very reason the church exists. It is what we celebrate in this communion. That it is possible to know deep connection with God through Jesus in a way that changes your outlook on every struggle, every loss and every success. This is the gift offered to everyone in this village and beyond.