14th of the Year, 3 Jul 22
When I was an undergraduate the near-retirement Bishop, Stephen Sykes, would speak with great fondness of one of the reasons he thought we were such a close-knit college community. We were quite small by college standards, some 400 undergraduates, but it wasn’t the size of the community that Bishop Stephen thought contributed to how well we gelled together, no. It was because of the doors and there were definitely lots of them. The building was a series of Georgian houses knocked together and so there’d needed to be fire doors because of good old healthy and safety. But Bp Stephen said the doors slowed people down and you had to open them for each other and pass by each other, acknowledging the other person. It was this, he asserted repeatedly, that made the college such a friendly place, this simple act of having to hold the door open for another. It was a powerful image and it was true: the temptation is always to rush around and ignore those who don’t feature in the plans we’ve made or the friendships we have already formed.
Jesus says, “I am the door. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (St John 10:9). So, let’s have a think about doors because in our Gospel Jesus tells us what to say when we go in through doors to other people’s homes: “Peace to this house!” One of the real privileges of being a parish priest is to be invited in to people’s homes and it’s great since lockdowns ended to be able to do that once again. First, let me encourage us all to rid ourselves of any fear we might have about inviting other people in to our homes. We might be ashamed because of the mess, we might be fearful of disease, we might not have the sort of home we would like but that extending of hospitality where possible is an important expression of a shared humanity. Where we feel unable for whatever reason to offer that hospitality in our own home can I encourage folk instead to be part of the hospitality programmes we offer within the family of the Church. Like the refreshments we had on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning last week in our celebrations for St Peter and St Paul; like the Kemble Club on Sundays; like the Tuesday Lunch Club the Good Shepherd; like the Drop-in we have each Friday in the Vestry at St Mary’s; like tea and coffee after the 10am Mass at St Mary’s.
We might then not go in to others’ homes or we might indeed not want others to come in to ours, but there is still a need for us as Christians to welcome others in to our lives and to allow ourselves to be welcomed in to the lives of others. The isolation of the modern age is not natural. Keeping everyone at arm’s length is not part of God’s purposes for us: “It is not good that man should be alone,” God says of Adam, leading to the creation of woman (Genesis 2:18). This image of getting alongside another is what we see our Lord doing as He comes down to earth for us. Born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, He is born in the poverty and humility of the stable, its chaos, its shame and in the absence of social respectability. So we are called to get alongside others. This is what Christian ministry looks like.
And as we do that, as we let others in to our lives and try to help others, our conversation and our hopes should be about peace. Peace means we trust in the Lord, we are not afraid, we are not buffeted about as a boat in a storm. It means we do not judge nor do we go in to situations insecure because we preach not ourselves but the one who is the answer to every prayer ever made, Our Lord Jesus Christ. “He is our peace … [who] has broken down the diving wall, that is, the hostility between us,” (Ephesians 2:14). He gives a peace the world cannot give. We look in vain in our rest time and when we think we deserve a break for peace in things which will only give fleeting entertainment. Peace, in contrast, abides.
When we journey alongside people we are preparing a place for the Lord to come and dwell, for Him to be there in the midst of us. This is exactly what Jesus is doing in the Gospel when He sends out the seventy two disciples. The translation we heard said, “The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of him in pairs.” A better rendering would be that God sends them out “before His face.” We can only serve others truly when we have before us the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is part of the message of St Veronica, commemorated in the sixth Station of the Cross, who according to tradition wipes the face of the Lord as He journeys to His Cross. The cloth she used retained the impression of the face of the Saviour. Our service, our conversation is likewise to bear the imprint of the Saviour because we have offered ourselves here first, in the presence of God. When we minister to others we likewise are preparing a place for the Lord to dwell, marking it out as an area when the Lord is to come and and make His home. What a privilege it is! Remember at the altar then those whom you serve that they may know God making His home among them.
These places where we serve others and are attentive to their needs can be dangerous places to be in though. It will mean at our times we’re bored or uncomfortable or mocked or end up doing things we’d rather not do. And when we are engaged in acts of kindness and charity, devotion and worship, evil will redouble its efforts to lead us off course. Hence Jesus says, “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” We need to be on our guard. And further, the more possessions we have, the harder it will be. Isn’t that counter cultural? So much about life in our age is about acquiring stuff: there’s an assumption that we will be happier if we have this or that, or that some task will necessarily be easier as long as we have something else to help us. Of course, we know deep down this isn’t true. Hence our Lord says, “Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals,” never mind all the stuff we carry with us now: water bottle or coffee cup, car keys, bank card, face mask - just in case - phone, charger in case the phone runs out of battery, glasses etc etc. No wonder life feels complicated!
Jesus urges us to have stability in our life, hence the advice not to move from house to house. We’re not to be relentless in seeking something better, reluctant to put down roots. However there will be times when we need to leave: “Whenever you enter a town and they do no make you welcome, go out into its streets and say, “We wipe off the very dust of your town that clings to our feet.”” Wiping the dust off carries the image of mortality: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded on Ash Wednesday. The harsh consequence of being made in the image of God is that people are free to choose death. In some situations all we can do is pull out. Returning to the image of the door, St John received in his revelation an image of our Lord, saying, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knockinging; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me,” (Revelation 3:20). Doorways remind us of the choice we have to make and the choice others make one way or another, whether to let the Lord in or not.
At Epiphany each year we the Church bids us bless the entrance to our homes by writing the names of the Wise Men and chalk is blessed with which to do this. Epiphanytide is a season when it is traditional for priests to go and bless homes, though it can be done anytime. One beautiful verse from Psalm 121:8 for our doorway is “The Lord watch over your coming and going both now and for ever more.” Times of transition can be occasions when we let habits of piety slip or when we let the secularism of new surroundings rub off on us. I’m sure we all find ourselves saying things to one person which we might not say if another were present. Well, the problems when this dilutes our faith in particular contexts. Hence we pray that the Lord will watch our going out and coming in. In response to the vicissitudes of life, we need to be constant, faithful, unwavering.
The seventy-two return to the Lord and they can’t believe it actually works! Jesus reminds them, “I watched Satan fall like lightning from Heaven.” This reminds us Jesus is the Son of God, co-eternal with the Father. The Son of God saw Satan, who was created an angel and a good angel at that, like all which God has made. But the Satan chose pride and his own vanity over the worship of God and so he fell. Jesus saw this and His kingdom stands strong still despite Satan’s assaults. When Jesus says, I am the Door, it is part of his teaching the crowds that He is the Good Shepherd. Shepherds would have slept in the gateway of the sheep fold so no daft sheep could wonder out and no ravenous wolf could set upon them. Brothers and sisters, may we close our hearts to all that would lead us astray and find in Christ our safety and security, not so as to shut ourselves away, but so that we can be sent out by Christ our Hope knowing that He travels with us. We need not be afraid. Amen.