A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
Christ Church St Laurence – 28 May 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Jesus looked up to heaven and said: ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ Today’s passage from St John’s Gospel could be described as the ‘famous last words’. In what seems slightly out of order on this Sunday between the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, Jesus is making his final prayer before his arrest and crucifixion. His work, or his earthly ministry, is now complete, and as he prepares for his trial and crucifixion, we encounter this profound moment of private prayer; a prayer completed concerned with unity. There is a certain element of voyeurism in this prayer. It is not like the mountain-top teaching that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. It is not like the memorable parables intended to challenge the listener or the reader in Luke’s Gospel. This personal and private prayer is something quite unique to John’s Gospel. And although it is personal and private, the evangelist shares it with us because it is about us. As Christ stands on the threshold of unimaginable pain and horror, his final prayer is not a prayer of release for himself; it is not an expression of hatred for those who will betray and persecute him. Rather, it is an outpouring of love and concern, not only for those who have shared in his earthly life, but also for countless others who will never even meet the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
In this parish, on an ordinary Sunday—if there is ever such a thing as an ordinary Sunday at Christ Church St Laurence—Solemn High Mass concludes with a rather controversial prayer that most of us refer to as The Angelus. The Angelus or the Memorial of the Incarnation (to use its slightly more politically correct title), contains the prayer known as the Hail Mary. For some faithful Christians, the Hail Mary crosses the line of heresy because it suggests to the that Mary, the Mother of Our Lord has been elevated to a divine being in her own right—a status that she never claimed for herself. Most of us in this parish do not view it that way—at least, I hope we don’t. For most of us this prayer, above all else, affirms that we are called to pray for other Christians. It also affirms that we need other Christians to pray for us. Over the course of a typical week, 25 services are held in this church. For most people who are familiar with this parish, Christ Church St Laurence suggests sumptuous, well-ordered, reverent liturgy and splendid music. Every so often, someone is kind enough to say something positive about the preaching as well. Although CCSL is renowned for grand occasions, the reality is that most of the services or liturgies that take place during a typical week are small and intimate gatherings. The offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are mostly attended by two, three or four people. In our fast-paced world, this seems rather illogical. A little while ago, one of my clerical colleagues from a neighbouring parish asked why we would even bother to maintain this tradition of daily services. Very occasionally, I find myself at Evening Prayer on my own. Suddenly, on these very rare occasions, I am reminded of Christ’s solitary prayer that we are privileged to overhear in John 2 Chapter 17. The prayer of one is not offered for the benefit of others who may be listening. Rather, it is the outpouring of a soul. As we see in the final words that Christ offers before the crucifixion, it is the prayer offered on behalf of others—particularly those who may not be able to pray for themselves. When daily prayer is offered in this place, it is not offered for the benefit of those who are here. Rather, it is offered for this community of faith, and for the city that we seek to serve. The prayer quietly offered here day by day, is prayer for unity in a bitterly divided world.
The period between the Ascension and Pentecost is traditionally a week of prayer for Christian Unity. The Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby, has called for a Novena of Prayer for Christian Unity during this period. I am not aware of another Archbishop of Canterbury who has dared to encourage Anglicans to pray a Novena; the fact that the current Archbishop of Canterbury is generally labelled as an Evangelical makes it all the more remarkable. Before we all jump to conclusions about an impending trip across the Tiber, a Novena is simply 9 days of prayer for a particular purpose—in this case, 9 days of prayer for Christian Unity. Christian Unity is certainly worthy of our prayers, particularly as this was the final prayer that Christ offered before his passion, death and resurrection. The prayer that we offer day by day, whether it be in splendid and elaborate liturgies, or silent prayers offered in heartfelt simplicity, is our way of saying that we want to be united with other Christians, and indeed with all humanity, regardless of race, creed or culture. Today, in this church, we have the very great privilege of baptising four young people; four new Christians being received as members with us of the body of Christ. They are committing to a life-long and challenging journey of faith and prayer. They need our prayers, and as we pray for them, we are saying that we want to be united with them. We want to be a part of their journey. At this difficult time in the history of our planet, we join with people of every faith to pray for those affected by recent violent acts of hatred. We offer prayers for the people of Manchester; we prayer for Coptic Christians in Egypt; we prayer for all who suffer through violent and completely distorted expressions of religion. Although these situations may seem far removed from us, our prayer says that we do not want to remain at a distance; we want to share in the suffering of so many in our world; we want to be united with those for whom life is unimaginably difficult.
Jesus looked up to heaven and said: ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ There can be no doubt that we live in disturbing and unsettling times. Angry voices, emerging in virtually nation on earth, encourage us to retreat in fear; to distance ourselves from the rest of humanity. These angry voices encourage disunity and division. Nothing could be further removed from the final prayer that Christ offers before he begins the journey to the cross. It is not a prayer for himself; it is not even a prayer for those close to him; those who were like him. Rather, it is a divine prayer for all humanity; a prayer that humankind will be united by the only thing capable of breaking down every barrier. It is a prayer that humankind will be united in love. As his prayer remains unanswered, it has become our prayer too. Christ is risen, Alleluia! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!