During this Easter season we retell the story of the early Church. First the shock, awe and disorientation of the resurrection, then simple joy as the reality of it sinks in and then galvanisation and organisation as the fledgling church begins the task of spreading the good news.
In today’s reading from Acts (2.42-47) we see an affecting picture of what it was like to be part of that early movement. These first Christians – although they were yet to call themselves that – shared their goods and wealth and clearly spent a lot of time together. More than that, they clearly enjoyed doing so and we are told that “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts’. And such was their happy and generous demeanour they enjoyed widespread good will.
It’s easy to think on reading this “ that was then and this is now” and that we are inevitably but a pale shadow of our forbears in faith and love. I believe that to think this risks dismissing or taking for granted the specialness of what we have here
What prompted this thought when I was preparing this sermon was reading those words: “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts”. Immediately, the breakfast after the dawn Easter vigil here at St. Mary’s came to mind. For those new to St. M’s or who haven’t experienced it, every Easter we proclaim the resurrection first at a service at 5pm in the morning. It starts in darkness with various readings tracing God’s saving acts in history. We then light a bonfire and with it the Easter candle before proclaiming the resurrection in a burst of noise and light. The whole service is deeply atmospheric – imagine it: darkness, candlelight, incense.
Having celebrated the first Eucharist of Easter we then sit down to champagne breakfast. This year we breakfasted at a long trestle table set out on the blue carpet area. Hard to describe the warmth and joy of it, though it goes without saying that a glass of champagne at 7am in the morning helped things along nicely, not to mention the sense of camaraderie of 50 or so people having got up at what some would term the “ungodly” hour of 4pm to attend the service. But there was something else as well and that was our participation in the shared story of Holy Week: the apparent triumph of Jesus on Palm Sunday; his betrayal by Judas and desertion by his disciples on Maundy Thursday; the unbearable agony and loneliness that we contemplate on Good Friday; and Jesus’ final, triumphant resurrection on the third day. By the time we get to Easter Day there is a sense of emotional exhaustion for the key elements of Jesus’ story are mirrored in our own lives as well. In his story, we see our story too and that’s why we are so glad to participate in his triumph.
I stress this because too often faith is presented as an intellectual obstacle course, that we must believe this or that doctrine and that if we won’t or can’t then we’ll be excluded from God’s love. Whereas faith is surely a matter of the heart more than the head.
Now of course the head matters. As the first letter of Peter reminds us:
“Always be ready to make your defence….. of the hope that is in you.”
It goes without saying that if you cannot believe in a power beyond you, if you’ve no time for mystery or ambiguity in life, then religious faith will never make any sense to you.
But important though they are, I don’t believe anyone was ever convinced of faith because of intellectual arguments. Rather, faith’s appeal ultimately lies in how it meets emotional needs in us, of which there are chiefly two.
Firstly there is forgiveness in broadest sense by which I mean both the unconditional acceptance of us despite our moral failings as well as those aspects of ourselves that we may not like but which God loves all the same.
Secondly there is the need for belonging and again, there is a dual sense to this. I’ve already alluded to how we find our own stories in the events of Holy Week but it’s true of the whole bible. The Psalms chart the highs and lows of human life and everything in between. In the Old Testament we find the lust and duplicity of King David – which didn’t stop him being God’s servant by the way – not to mention the jealousy and dim wittedness of the disciples and the faithful submission of Mary in the New.
As well finding a sense of belonging in the characters and stories of the bible there is also the important way in which we find a sense of belonging in the church community. For we are above all a community of the different in contrast to most other human groupings. We cross class, race and national divides united as we are in this shared story wherein we find our own story reflected. So there is an essential hope about our community, a hope for all mankind, because for all our differences we really enjoy each other’s company.
It’s all too easy to take this for granted and it often takes an outsider to see and appreciate it. A few years ago I was sipping a cup of coffee after the Parish Eucharist when a young Italian came in. “What’s going on here?” he asked. I explained that we’d just celebrated the Eucharist and were having a cup of coffee together. A look of surprise came on his face as he said “I thought some kind of party was going on” which, of course, in a sense it was.
Encouragingly, our young people seem to appreciate this quality of community too.We’ve long bemoaned the relative lack of young people here, especially those of teenage years. Over the past few months Miriam Skrentny, our wonderful church youthworker who, I’m glad to say, is going to be with us for another year, has been doing some great work talking to our young people about what church means to them and how we can make it work better for them. What’s she found? Well, yes, there are ways in which we can do things better but the big news is that they love being part of this community and feel positively cared for by it feeling, as they do, a great sense of belonging. Some of them will come to reject it for sure. That, after all, is what they often do but it will always be here for them.
And as for us well, we all have our moment of doubts too but the church will always be here for us as well – a place where we can admit of our doubts and wrestle with them, a place where we can rest awhile in the simple joy of belonging. And it’s that sense of joy at belonging that is infectious, much more so than any finely tuned intellectual argument. For what , I ask you, is more attractive in life than spending time in the company of a person with “a glad and generous heart”?