Sermon for 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B, 2018
1 John 5:1-6
John 15: 9-17
‘Becoming Compost – A Society of Friends’
Looking at the title of today’s sermon, you may well be asking “are we to hear more on the virtues of Burial as opposed to Cremation . . . or then again “perhaps we shall be thinking about The Quakers or ‘Society of Friends’ as they are otherwise known”?
Well the answer is neither – although the allusion to the Quakers is interesting given their commitment to Pacifism, for the words of Jesus which I wish us to listen to this morning are often found in public places, carved in stone. I am of course referring to their use on War memorials.
Jesus said ‘Greater Love hath no man than this, than that a man lay down his life for his friends’ – although the fact that these are the words of Jesus are not in my experience also engraved on the memorials . . . yet perhaps there is a significant connection? Perhaps, rather like Pontius Pilate declaring ‘Behold The Man!’ those who carved those words did not realise fully how significant they were??
Jesus said ‘Greater Love hath no man than this, than that a man lay down his life for his friends’
No one here I expect knows anything about Fred and Sid Jee. Fred and Sid were brothers who lived and worked in the South West of England in the early part of the C20. In 1915 (we think), they signed up and were put into the Somerset Yeomanry, with whom they served throughout the rest of the First World War. Many years later Fred would say that they only survived because they looked out for one another – frequently hauling the other out of the quicksand of the Hole of Hell that was Western Europe. We know Fred and Sid’s story, because Fred was Sarah’s maternal grandfather.
They were rural men of the South West. Up in the North of England though the story was very different. There the working classes from whom the infantry and the rest were drawn, lived and worked in far greater density, in the northern towns and cities of England. It was not uncommon in the early days of the war for hundreds to go off together to sign up, from their place of work – The dark Satanic mills – but for all that places of deep shared existence. It was as if the hardships of life presented the opportunity for deeper forms of living together. Having worked 5 and a half days, they’d leave for the pub and then the local football ground. Shared life, together and so when it came to joining up, it was not at all unusual for them to do so together, and they were formed into the so called ‘Pals’ Regiments. The Leeds Pals, the Bradford Pals, Accrington Pals, Salford Pals . . . these names continue to haunt for as they lived and worked together, they also died together in their hundreds of thousands. The records of the Somme alone make for the hardest of reading with sometimes as many as 90 out of every hundred men, seriously wounded or killed in the space of a few days. Pals. Friends, Living together and dying together
Although the war memorials would say, for God, King and Country, that wasn’t the experience of these men once the realities of war hit home. They looked after one another, they fought and died for the sake of each other. As is often mentioned, there was a loss of the sense of the self for the sake of the whole – a sense which is continued to this day wherever people are sent into war . . . the difference being now that such people often do not come from any form of shared ‘life together’ beforehand.
The Pals – this Society of friends had already experienced Life as a shared enterprise. Even in the soul destroying factories, there was a sense of mutual shared life, and responsibility. When you used the word ‘We’, you knew who you were talking about . . . At a deep level, you experienced life as a place where you relied on and needed others. Pushed to its deepest, Fred and Sid also Knew that they needed one another, because that was what they experienced. It was the form of Knowledge of which I spoke last week – participatory Knowledge, growing up as brothers. They hadn’t been taught it as an abstract principle – it was Real.
Wind forward to the present . . . Needing one another is not something that we so experience, certainly outside of extremis situations. Modern Life suggests to us that we are individuals, that the very goal of life is not to have to rely on others. Think of how often elderly folk say ‘I don’t want to be a burden’, of how the poor find it hard to ask for help, indeed that they do need to ask for help is understood as a failing on their part – not as a symptom of a deeper malaise
From time to time we may come across people whom we say ‘have a need to be needed’. This we say is a psychological flaw. “It is a pathology, this ‘need to be needed’”. But is it? Or is it rather that we are created to live in mutual dependency and now that life is so very easy for so many, and Independence is the goal, this need to be needed is, if you will, the loose wires left over from lives of mutual interdepence. For Why might people have a ‘need to be needed’ if it were not that each of us in truth need other people. That to be human is, to use the words of St Paul, to ‘bear one another’s burdens’
The ‘need to be needed’ is what is left over when we live with the experience of not needing anyone else. Like a hanging nail – It is pathologised and we try and ‘heal’ people of this psychological throwback to ‘something in their past’. Trying to ‘heal’ people of a need to be needed is no more nor less than making them even less human that the modern world has already done, trying through psychotherapy to ‘fix’ something in their past, not recognising that it is the past of us all, and that we have perhaps abandoned that which made us most human, Shared Existence and Life.
It is of course like all Modern Stories, a story told by those who ‘have got it all together’ and tell others that they are unwell. It is a story told by those who have forgotten what it is to need others because the fortune of life has educated them in being Self Made – and we think that this is Normal, Well, Whole. Whereas it is a life that like an acorn which does not go into the soil, becomes hard and cracked and rots. Life alone.
Jesus said, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single seed’ The Greek is simpler – ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone’, or ‘it lives alone’, and so too, as we now realise, it dies alone, or of aloneness. Loneliness – all that is left when we no longer need one another – now kills us in our millions . . .
But the Gospel is of Life! Discovered in laying down our lives so that our lives are shared with one another, for it is in that Life Together that the Holy Spirit dwells
We see this shared life in the accounts of the early church, and again today in the account of the household of Cornelius. An account which flies in the face of the understanding of Christian Life, which after all is meant to be the Life of Jesus and therefore The Human Life, being something which we can know apart from others. Rather it is a life that is amongst the people of God. So although the account begins with telling us that Cornelius himself was ‘a god fearer’, who regularly prayed and gave alms, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard!
Peter doesn’t then wade in to test the truth of the faith of each individual present. No, he baptises the whole lot! (It is only in a world where we have lost sight of life as shared existence as more than simply something we know about, only in a world in which we Experience life first as individuals, that we might erroneously think ‘you have to come to your own personal faith’) Interestingly it is not unusual to hear of modern missionaries going to ‘convert the heathen’ and being faced off by a tribal chief who says, ‘no! You baptise all of us or none of us’ (see ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ Donovan) We ‘who have got it together’ have come to view our lives as independent. We’ve lost sight of our mutual dependence, we might say of Life itself. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Church withers and dies in such a context where we are taught to be individuals, and flourishes in contexts where people have to depend on the help of others, given and received – for the Life of the Church Must be shared, or it dies. Can you have a Church of individuals??
This is perhaps the greatest challenge that the Church faces, that of Shared Existence. Needing one another in an age when that is seen as a pathology, as weakness, as a failing of education or more.
I said that those mills were soul destroying. The Age of the machine has done much to destroy our humanity and with it, the Creation which depends of our loving service. Not least it has done this by reducing Churches to a collection of functions, and our Needs to anything apart from the very life of God shared amongst us.
‘We need a treasurer’, ‘we need someone to run the fair’, ‘we need a Vicar’, ‘we need someone to do the flowers and pray the prayers and operate the projector’ . . . but these needs are wants, not Needs – what we Need is each other. We need Life together. For it only in our shared existence and life insofar as it exists that Christ is manifested. ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples . . .’ ‘by your fine worship?’ ‘by your website?’ ‘by your well ordered accounts?’ [ and here as I write the sermon I have to fight with the temptation to say ‘of course we need all these things as well . . .!! Because we don’t . . .] Any Church can exist without any of these and fully manifest the Life of God. You can have them all and run like . . . well run like a machine, and be aliens to the Life that is from above. How is the Life of God revealed amongst us? In that we love one another as Christ has loved us, in that we lay down our lives to discover the Life that is from above. But this is so very very hard for us who have been trained by The World in so many subtle ways to be Individuals. It goes against the way that we are taught by the World. It goes against the driving force of wider society. It goes against the wider life of the Church which has become so institutionalised that it cannot obey Jesus without a law, a rule, a standing order or motion.
The only way to know it, to begin to lay down your life is, dare I say it in a mechanised world, to ‘waste time’, to drop our personal agendas, to give up on the story of ‘our life’. Yet what else can we do? If the Life that we share comes from the bread and wine, the Life of Christ given to us. Every Sunday. If he pours out his Life for us – how can we not let go of ‘our own (individual) lives’ and set out to discover life with one another in him
Or, to put it another way to become compost. To fall into the ground and die. Thus we truly become a Society of Friends.
We come back to the Cross. We planted our acorns . . . let us lay down our lives for one another. For this in truth is what it is to love one another. Let us learn to need one another, to learn to depend on one another, in real ways – it is of course very very hard. It is the way of the Cross. Which is the Way of Life.