St Francis, Terriers - Trinity 12 (03.09.2017)

Tony Dickinson

It is said that towards the end of his long life St John the Evangelist became unable to walk; so members of the church in Ephesus, where he lived, would lift him onto a stretcher and carry him round the city. As they carried him, he would bless the people in the street, repeating over and over again the words: “Little children, love one another!”

That was his message. That is St Paul’s message in today’s first reading: “Love one another with mutual affection.” In the words that follow he spells out what that means in practice. Don’t do anything – anything! – that harms a fellow human being. Don’t treat other people badly. Be outward-looking. Be open, inclusive, welcoming – to everybody! Never mind the harm that others do to you. Don’t do the same to them. Do good instead. Leave the last word with God. Don’t try to put yourself in the place of God.

That’s a challenge. What Jesus says is in today’s Gospel is even more of a challenge. If we are serious about following Jesus, life is not going to be easy. Sitting back and editing out the unpleasant things, the dangerous things, as Peter seems to have wanted, is not an option. Jesus makes that very clear in the way he replies to Peter. But at the same time, being busy, busy busy, doesn’t really work, either. What matters is how we relate to one another, how we get on with one another. “Love one another with mutual affection.”

There’s a story (you may have heard it) about monastery that had fallen on hard times. Once it had been full of energetic monks, working, studying, praying, laughing. Many pilgrims would come to pray there. The church was full of local people and people came from far away to attend the abbey's beautiful Easter and Christmas services. But that was now long ago. No one had joined the community for years. There were about half a dozen grey heads left. No more pilgrims came. And the great church was empty, even for the major feasts.

Now, the Abbot's oldest friend was a rabbi, a hermit who studied the Torah alone in a hut in the woods. Often the Abbot would visit him, to share a simple meal¸ or to talk, or to share silence.

The Abbot made the journey to his old friend. He unburdened himself about the shrinking of the community, their poverty, their fear that the monastery would close. Then they sat in silence a long time. Finally, the rabbi looked at his friend the abbot, and said, "Always remember, the Messiah is among you." Then he was silent. After sharing in the silence, the abbot took leave of his friend and returned to the monastery.

The monks asked him, "What did the rabbi say?" The abbot replied "He said, 'The Messiah is among you.'" The monks looked at one another, wondering what the rabbi had meant. They thought, and prayed. "The Messiah is among us. Where? What can that mean?"

Surely the rabbi doesn’t mean me, thought the abbot. I know I am not the Messiah. And surely he does not mean Brother Egbert. Brother Egbert is not the brightest soul. But he always has a smile on his face, and is capable of being cheerful and of raising our hearts, no matter how hard life gets. It can’t be Father Fabian - he is the grumpiest monk. But, although, he is the first to complain, Father Fabian is also the first to show up and to work at a difficult task, and he never leaves until the job is done.

As the abbot, and the others, thought about all this something changed. The monks began to treat one another with more respect, more reverence. And somehow people noticed. They began to come back for the great festivals. A few pilgrims began to visit the shrine. Then a few more. Then a young man came and asked to become a member of the community. And more followed him. Within a few years young monks were working in the monastery. Pilgrims were coming. The monastery was a place of hope and love and joy – even when times were difficult.

The Messiah is among us, too. The Messiah is among us, in the gifts of each member of our congregation, and in the bread and wine of our Communion. The Messiah is among us, and will open a rich future that we cannot yet imagine. To him with the Father...