Easter II, 19 Apr 2020
It’s always nice to get home, we might usually think, though perhaps less so in these days of lock down. Perhaps as a result of our enforced and long period of time at home, I hope we will move to a greater appreciation of ‘home’ as something as more than just the building in which we live and see it as involving the surrounding community, valuing to a greater extent the importance of our neighbour, the people on our street, our local shops, our local church, etc.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we’re given a foundational insight to the life of the Church and so an instruction as to what our life should look like today. Read again that first reading from Acts 2 and you’ll see certain qualities of the life of the Church: there was a commitment to remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles; the Breaking of Bread, such as Jesus had done at the Last Supper, had persisted in expressing their identity; they prayed; their signs made an impression on others; their lives together weren’t just prayer and worship, but included what they did with their money and how they viewed their possessions; they grew in number. They also had to make compromises in some things in that they were breaking bread in their homes, not because that was ideal but because they were not welcome to do so in the Temple, which was run by the Jewish authorities, of course. How does your life match up to that?
The first Christians were all Jews but the events of the past two weeks shows us that the teachings of Jesus could not have continued within the context of Judaism and so a new religion is formed, a new cult. The word ‘cult’ traditionally didn’t have the negative connotations it had today, but meant something more of a complete and sufficient system for religious devotion. This new faith was to be treasured in the Household of God’s people, the Church. And so we see the first Christians worshipping both in the Temple in Jerusalem and in synagogues throughout Judaea, like in Capernaum presumably, as well as in folks’ homes. Eventually the Jewish community did not permit Christian groups to worship in these places, and we se this begun in John 9:22 after Jesus heals the Man Born Blind. So, more and more worship began to happen in people’s homes.
Have you got a sacred space in your home? Since our son’s birth one of the corners that has become a bit holier in the Vicarage is a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Jesus which is on the stairs. It’s not a particular beautiful statue: I bought in a second hand shop ages ago I seem to remember and it was so bad that I’ve had to paint a few bits here and there. It fills the space nicely. But as I carry Henry past it I make sure we stop at least once each day and we wave at the statue and I say, ‘Say hello to Jesus and Mary,’ and then I might say something like, ‘Because they’re celebrating Jesus’ Resurrection today.’ It has become therefore somewhere that we stop and recognise God’s authority and reorient ourselves. It is becoming more and more a sacred space. Could you have such a place where you pause and say hello to Jesus and Mary?
But it is hard worshipping in our home and this is one of the big reasons the Christians stopped doing it as early as was possible. They worshiped at home initially because it was safe and because they were less likely to be caught by the Roman authorities, who would imprison them, if not worst. But there were problems with it, largely because whoever’s house you met in, they set the rules, of course and if the house was large enough for everyone to meet in, then that person was probably rich. This skewed the Christian community to being too much like society where the rich set the rules. We see this problem in Corinth, to which Paul wrote at least a couple of letters, of which we have two in the New Testament. In Chapter 11 of the first of these, Paul condemns those who rock up for worship in someone’s home and they get drunk on all the wine, or they’re stuffing their faces and only thinking about the physical food they need to eat. For such reasons there were many who breathed a sigh of relief when buildings could be built that were properly given over for Church use, such as we have at St Mary’s and the Good Shepherd.
In our Gospel, we’re also reminded that the first Christians had to meet behind closed doors, for fear of those coming to kill them. Many Christians today have a similar experience and we might be glad that ordinarily in this country we are able to worship without fear of persecution. When we arrive in Church on a Sunday or during the week, let’s give thanks for being able to be here. Let’s try not to be late to Mass to show our gratitude for the freedom we have.
There’s a lot of fear at the moment about the pandemic and there’s a lot of fear in our country more generally, especially a fear in being left behind, of becoming irrelevant. Fear must never be something that influences our decisions. Jesus enters beyond the locked doors but it is worth us recognising that in the ordinary course of events the locked doors were there to keep the Christians safe but that would have also managed to keep Jesus out! When we lock doors to keep us safe the likelihood is we too will keep Jesus out of our lives because we’ll have kept out the poor or the immigrant or the person from whom we need to learn what love looks like. Jesus needs to come and speak peace and that will break down some of the barriers we have erected to protect ourselves.
Many churches have house groups, whereby people meet in each other’s homes to pray and read the Bible. They’re not an essential element of the Church and the problems that the early Christians encountered earlier in our shared life are still dangers, in particular the problem of those hosting exerting an undue influence on the Christian and this being something only the financially better off can offer. But it is important for us have groups within the church whereby people can grow in love of the Lord and know a sense of others caring for them. These two priorities should be central to the Men’s Fellowship, Mothers’ Union, the Choir, the Boys’ Brigade, the Sunday Schools, the Servers, Kemble Club, Study Group and they do great things already. As I’ve been saying for a long time, I hope there will also be established a structure of support groups. I envisage these support groups simply being a means whereby people commit to seeing if someone is in church and then if they’re not, then reaching out to them and then letting the priests know if there is a particular need to for concern or indeed rejoicing.
Above all things the Church building is to be the House of God, where His Sacramental presence is kept so as to encourage God’s people and be a focus for prayer. From that, it flows that it is also our home because we are God’s people, set apart to sing His praises. Our giving helps to maintain it as such. But is is also kept as a home by all those people who wash things, vacuum things, mend things, buy things for our shared life. Being a Christian is an invitation to sharing in the life of Christ and the life of those others whom He has called, even when that’s problematic.
Bp Philip North, one of the Bishops of the Society of St Wilfird and St Hilda, of which our parish is a member, has wisely compared our current predicament of lock down as being like an exile. Exile is an important theme running through the Old Testament. The Assyrians arrived six hundred before Jesus was born and destroyed Jerusalem and deported people and removed treasures. People were removed from their home and this pain comes out in books like that of Jeremiah and the Lamentation. It is also why we are to be amazed at the faithfulness of Daniel, Jonah and Ruth because they are away from home. We’re all separated from God’s home at this time and we may read these books afresh through this experience. They all look forward to that time when they shall once again return to the House of the Lord. May that same joy burn within us wherever we encounter the Risen Lord today, speaking to us His words of Peace.