Love makes a Saint

The Revd Canon Dr William Lamb
The Seventh Sunday of Easter


Choral Eucharist with Baptism and Confirmation

Acts 1.15-17, 21-26      John 17.6-19

Between the Feast of the Ascension, which took place on Thursday, and the Feast of Pentecost, which falls next Sunday, there are nine days. Nine days when Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the disciples gathered in the upper room. They must have experienced an overwhelming range of different emotions: uncertain and apprehensive, fearful about the threat of persecution, conscious of the precariousness of their situation, joyful at the sight of the risen Lord, who has invited them to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

These nine days are often a period when we pray for the mission of the church as we prepare for that outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These nine days form the prototype of what is often described in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England as a novena, a period of prayer when we take up a particular intention, a particular focus for our prayers, our longings and our desires. Prayer is both the grammar and the expression of our desire – and it begins with silence.

We live in a world which is not accustomed to silence, a world which is often noisy, where competing voices shout out for our attention, where the background din of a busy and tumultuous world often crowds out that still small voice, the expression which the prophet uses to describe the way in which God speaks to us.

Of course, there is a paradox in preaching about silence. As E.M. Forster observed, sometimes contemporary expressions of Christianity are simply too ‘little’, too ‘talkative’. Too easily, we forget that “the preaching of the gospel is a telling of the truth or the putting of a sort of frame of words around the silence that is truth because truth in the sense of fullness, of the way things are, can at best be only pointed to by the language of poetry – of metaphor, image, symbol….” As one wise commentator puts it, “Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it – meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful – but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery.” Remember that at his trial, Pilate asks Jesus “What is truth?”, and Jesus is silent.

There is a proper reticence in the face of truth. That silence creates a space in which we can begin to understand the density of meaning at the heart of what is good, what is beautiful, and what is true. In the gospel, we discover the sheer depth of God’s love and the fullness of God’s mercy. And this is something which takes a lifetime to discover, and which we struggle again and again to put into words.

[So take time in these days of Ascensiontide, to still yourselves, to be attentive to God, and to discover again the sheer depth of God’s love and the fullness of God’s mercy.]

In Chapter 17, John’s gospel offers us an extended meditation which takes the form of a prayer, the prayer of Jesus. These words come at the end of the supper in the Upper Room, the same place where Mary and the disciples gather during this period between Ascension and Pentecost. And these words must have come as a great solace and comfort to those gathered in the Upper Room. Jesus acknowledges that those who respond to the invitation to follow him remain in the world and therefore subject to temptation and persecution. He acknowledges the betrayal of Judas, and the precariousness of the lives of his followers. He teaches us that prayer is nothing if it is not real, if it does not acknowledge the reality of our lives, the truth of our condition, the complexity of our world, even the betrayals, and offences, and hurts we visit on those around us.

This is an observation, which perhaps our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles alludes to, when it speaks of the election of Matthias as one of the twelve. Matthias is appointed to replace Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus. The passage we have heard skirts over the betrayal of Judas and its consequences, but Peter says that the church must continue to bear witness to the resurrection, and remarkably, people like Matthias continue to come forward to bear witness, as members of this community of disciples. In the face of the betrayal of Judas, in the face of the destruction and violence and tragedy of Holy Week, this hardly begins to make sense. You would run before you would ever hide in that Upper Room. But then…. perhaps this story only begins to make sense in the light of the resurrection, in the hope of the resurrection.

In a few moments, the candidates will come forward for baptism and confirmation. They too will become participants in this community of disciples and of those whom Jesus has called friends. Note that the church is not first and foremost a building, a hierarchy, a clerical caste, or even an institution. It is first and foremost a community of disciples, a community of learners, learning how to live well in the light of the promise and the hope of the resurrection.

At the heart of this liturgical rite is a period of silence. We sing the Veni Creator and then we are silent. The candidates are invited to pray contemplating the sheer depth of God’s love and the fullness of God’s mercy, and we pray for them, that they may grow in faith and receive the grace which is simply given to them as a gift. They will declare their faith in God, they will receive the grace of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands and the anointing with Chrism, they will receive communion, and towards the end of the service, we will join with them in committing ourselves to be instruments of God’s love as we are sent out from this place in the light and peace of Christ, to love our neighbours as ourselves.

‘Faith in God, the hope of the resurrection, love of neighbour’ – as I have explored these three themes, you will have spotted either the three points of the preacher, or the three theological virtues described by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘faith, hope and love’.

One of my predecessors, St John Henry Newman, preaching from this pulpit, observed that ‘love is the motion within us of the new spirit, the holy and renewed heart which God the Holy Spirit gives us…. St Paul says that faith which could remove mountains will not avail without love, and in truth, faith is only half way (as it were) to heaven. By faith, we give up this world, but by love we reach into the next….faith at most only makes a hero, but love makes a saint.’

Jesus said, ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’ To be sanctified is to respond to God's call to be holy. As we ponder these words of Jesus, and as we pray for those who are taking the first steps of faith in baptism and confirmation,  remember that faith may make a hero, but love makes a saint….