Year A: Easter 4 - Acts 2.42-end; 1 Peter 2.19-end; John 10.1-10
May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today is known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday, when the Gospel reading offers us one of the images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In particular, it contains the memorable saying that he came so that his flock ‘may have life, and have it abundantly’.
Fr Philip suggested to me that, as this is also the Sunday on which our Annual Parochial Church Meeting takes place and I have now been here for nearly a year, it would be a good point for me to reflect on and share some perceptions about the particular ‘charism’ of St Matthew’s.
Having checked the dictionary, I discovered that the meaning of charism is ‘a gift or power of the Spirit’. It’s a word used quite often in the church at the moment, as there’s a renewed interest in the work of the Spirit.
In his book The Go-Between God, Bishop John V Taylor wrote of the Holy Spirit acting on us as an inspiration to live life in all its fullness. In contrast to what he called ‘the death of slow extinction as all the energies are spent on getting and keeping’, it is the Spirit that leads us to spend our energies instead on ‘living and giving’. Not shutting ourselves off, but being fully alive in relationship to God and one another, giving and receiving, responsive to the joy and the pain and the need of others. ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ So the real question, which ties in with our Gospel reading, is: what gives abundant life here at St Matthew’s?
I began by looking at our PCC’s Mission Action Plan, the document that every parish must have setting out its vision for the next few years. It says of St Matthew’s:
‘The church seeks to develop an understanding of community at the heart of the city through a threefold ministry of prayer, hospitality and dialogue. The way in which the church seeks to become this sort of community is to focus its attention on the four areas mentioned in Acts 2.42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” ’
Well, all that has been true in my experience over the last few months. Prayer is central to the life of St Matthew’s. Hospitality is practised and celebrated in all the elements that make up our community - church, school, clergy house and conference centre. And dialogue happens naturally – not only in educational events such as our Lent courses, or in the contribution we make to debates within the Church, but also the welcome extended to people from all over the world, who visit us and engage in dialogue in the course of their stay here.
But what is giving abundant life here, life in all its fullness? I would like to suggest two things in particular.
First, a word about mission. Our PCC spent some time together last month discussing how we might develop our mission at St Matthew’s – in particular, how to connect more with the community around us. In preparing this sermon, I looked back at my notes and was struck by how passionately many of the PCC felt about this. There is a deep desire to bring Christ’s love to all who surround us, into the difficulty of people’s lives, and to build community here. We live in a world that often feels pressurised, fearful, out of control. To take an obvious example, here we are a whole year after the Brexit vote and no one seems to have any idea what it will mean for us, other than that it is going to be very expensive for the country. That is not a happy place to be, and Westminster is right in the middle of it.
So there was ‘charism’ at that PCC meeting – abundant life in how we want to minister to the context in which we are set. It shows through in the Annual Report which many of you will have seen, which (apart from containing some of the clearest figures I have ever seen in any financial document) tells of the different ways in which St Matthew’s tries to be an oasis of love in a world of uncertainty. It also echoes what was said about Frank Weston, the priest who worked here in the 1890s before going to Africa and becoming Bishop of Zanzibar. On his memorial in the church porch it says that he was ‘gifted with a vision of what might be’. That’s a gift of the Spirit. Life with open hands, not clenched fists.
Yet it’s not all. The second thing I want to say is about the people of St Matthew’s.
A phrase has often been used about the Church of England: 'lex orandi, lex credendi' - which roughly means: 'if you want to know what we believe, look at how we pray'. My first impression of our congregations, when I arrived as a newly ordained deacon last summer, was what a very nice group of people they were and how ‘sorted’ they seemed to be. The atmosphere was positive and upbeat, with the warmest of welcomes and a healthy dash of humour that suggested these weren’t the sort of people who tried to take themselves too seriously. No churchy gloom or hushed piety. (What a relief, I thought.)
Then I was shown the clergy’s Oremus list - the list of people for whom we pray here each day. It told a somewhat different story. I remember wondering: how is it possible that a group of people who have lived through, or are living through, so much individual pain can yet be so positive and so welcoming? Elsewhere I seem more often to meet people who are apparently stuck in a cycle of anger and bitterness at the things that go wrong in human lives – and now that I am wearing a dog collar I am sometimes challenged to justify the fact of the going wrong in terms of a God who could wave a wand and change it all but chooses not to do so and must therefore be a monster. (That’s the kind of God, incidentally, in which I do not believe. I believe in one who has been to hell and back, and is with us when we have to do the same. But that’s a sermon for another day.) Here at St Matthew’s I have gradually become aware of something very different from the sort of militant atheism I have just described. Here people seem to understand the value of quiet hope, the kind of faith that hangs in there when life is difficult and messy and everything seems out of control, and the transformative power of a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, whatever life throws at it. And that’s a rare gift, a gift of the Spirit.
St Matthew’s also understands the power of remembering. Each day we remember and pray for people on the anniversary of their death. The list of names is cherished here, even though many of the names are not of people we have known ourselves. I was reminded of how important that is last week, when I took part in a memorial service at a City church. A friend took me aside after the service and led me to a glass case containing a book of remembrance. It was open at the page that showed the name of his brother, who had died thirty years earlier in a light aircraft accident in the Far East. My friend had telephoned the church administrator the previous day and asked if it might be possible to see the name in the book. When he gave his own name, to his astonishment the administrator replied: ‘so your brother must have been Andrew.’ - ‘How did you know?’ my friend asked. ‘Well, I have worked here nearly thirty years and you get to know the names in the book.’ My friend said to me: ‘You see, for us this is like a gravestone. My brother died in a remote place and this is where he is remembered.’ We do that with our names here. How could it be otherwise? We were taught to remember by the one who said:
'If you would … remember me, … do this with bread and wine.’
If you want to know what we believe, look at how we pray. That’s a gift of the Spirit.
Finally, someone said to me here early on - rather apologetically - that when people thought of St Matthew's they thought 'party'. But how could it be otherwise? For, ultimately, we are an Easter people. We are fed daily with a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. And we were taught to party by the one who taught us to remember. It is no accident that so much of Christ's teaching was around a convivial table, to the tutting of the religious authorities. Bring on the tutting. It is there that we will find him still. Breaking bread together, as on the Emmaus road.
What I have come to realise is that, like the risen Christ, this is a community that bears its scars yet lives a risen life. It’s in our very buildings, as we shall celebrate on Wednesday when we recall how the church was almost destroyed by fire forty years ago and yet we are still here. We live in the hope of the resurrection, in the faith that suffering and death are not the end, and in the love of God and of each other that surrounds us as we journey on, until one day we will reach our destination and see Christ face to face.
‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ Thanks be to God.
 from Pray, Love, Remember, by Michael Mayne