Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Sunday 18th April
Readings: Acts 3:13-15,17-19; 1 John 2:1-5; Luke 24:35-48
In the series The Essay on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago, the historian Diarmaid McCulloch reflected on his love of church-crawling, which he defines as like a pub crawl but without the beer and with churches instead of pubs. In one foray, into East Anglia in between lockdowns, he managed to visit some 35 churches in 36 hours. There was an air of reminiscence as he visited churches last seen when he was a teenager; among them were remote Illington in Norfolk and Wetherden in Suffolk where his father had been Rector. He reflected on how these return visits can help place the passage of one’s life in perspective. One cannot help but compare one’s situation now with how it was some twenty, thirty or forty years ago.
It is sometimes only in retrospect that we can make sense of the events of life, that we can see how far we have progressed, regressed or remained stationary.
That was certainly the case for the disciples of Christ, especially after the eventful last days of Jesus in Jerusalem. It had all been too tumultuous for them to make sense of it.
The risen Christ points to the scriptures to help them understand it, just as he had done with two disciples on the road to Emmaus when their hearts burned within them as he explained the scriptures to them. He teaches them how the scriptures have all been pointing to the suffering and death of the Messiah, but also to his resurrection. Looking back over their time with Jesus, they now understand what his teaching meant and they preached about it and recorded it in the gospels.
The risen Christ shows them the tragic inevitability of his passion and death. In the Acts of the Apostles St Peter does not hold back when he lays the blame for the death of Jesus on the people and their leaders. But he does not condemn them for it, because they did not really know what they were doing, as Jesus had said on the cross when he asked that they be forgiven by God. However they could not carry on pursuing this hate-filled course of killing those whom God sent to bring them his message of love and mercy to all; they had to repent.
We have passed through an intense time that we cannot yet properly comprehend. As we now start to do more things, we are reminded of what we have been missing. We will perhaps wonder when we were last in a certain place and what is the difference in us now compared to then; how have we changed?
As we begin to return to some sense of normality, we should not underestimate what we have passed through. We will not all be able to just switch back straight away. Even if we have not lost anyone personally, there are aspects of bereavement about our collective experience. We have lived through over a year of deprivation and loss. And as with any time of loss there is bereavement and grief, and this may be trapped or suppressed, but it may manifest itself without warning.
And so it remains important that we treat one another kindly and tenderly. For we may not know what toll this experience has taken on ourselves and on others. In the course of time, looking back, we will be better able to understand our experience.
The pandemic has made church-crawling rather difficult, as churches have become fortresses with ‘keep out’ signs on the porch, as it were. I visited one church in Yorkshire while on holiday in September, where the vicar padlocked himself in lest I have the temerity to try to visit the church. However the smaller, little used churches that Diarmaid McCulloch extolled are more likely to be open now, ( the ruined ones are an even safer bet) and they are tranquil places, conducive to prayerful reflection; and we are blessed in Norfolk with an abundance of them. Our ancient churches are a reminder of the continuum of history. Alan Bennett in The History boys wrote that ‘History is just one ******* thing after another.’ Our churches are places that have weathered centuries of history, and that history has left its traces like patina on brass. It can be exciting and reassuring to be in a place which has been a silent witness to all that, and still be there, able to hold us and our present preoccupations and help us to see that, as the comedian Kenneth Williams wrote in his diary, “our troubles are only scratches on the great periphery of cosmology.”
When in the midst of troubles it can all seem so intense, impenetrable and insoluble. It can create a maelstrom that churns away preventing us from making make sense of it all, but if we put ourselves in a position to admit the risen Christ through prayer, he can give us his peace, that peace which the world cannot give, that peace which passes all understanding. By looking back in his blessed company he broadens our vision and enlightens our understanding.