Did you watch the Eurovision Song Contest last night? Are you one of the millions who call friends round, with a few bottles, and sit down in front of the telly for a fest of, well, something that is in a category all of its own? And the UK entry was a song sung by former X-Factor contestant Lucie Jones called Never give up on you. It has motivational phrases like “together we’ll stand tall”, “if you could see how far you’ve walked, you would see that all’s not lost”. There is passion and commitment with “I don’t care what I’ve got to lose”, “you’re the one I’m running to”. And “together we’ll dance through this storm”. As can sometimes be the case with love songs, the language of passion for our dearest love can mirror the language of religious longing, because it touches our deepest needs, our deepest hopes, and our ultimate purpose found in our true love, God: love, relationships and passion. Read the Song of Songs in the Old Testament if you are not sure.
This may seem a bit of a stretch at first, but those themes are in our readings this morning. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, has a vision of heaven opened only to find that his attackers have covered their ears and refused to hear or see it (Acts 7:55-end). And with a loud shout, note they make a noise to drown out any other option, they rush him and he dies in a hailstorm of rocks and stones being hurled at him. It is a violent death. His commitment and passion for the good news of Jesus Christ, his dedication to witness, comes above all else. In the words of Lucie Jones’ Eurovision song, he ‘doesn’t care how much he loses’ because this matters more; God is ‘the one he’s running to’. That is the witness of a martyr, as opposed to a victim. Stephen is a martyr because his witness proclaims the glory of God and in that he shines a light of hope and love even in the face of death. The vision of heaven opened is not shut out by the loud shouts and rushing, in fact it burns more brightly because of it and in defiance of it.
This is underlined in the second reading (1 Peter 2:2-10). Though rejected, those who follow the way of Jesus are chosen and precious in God’s sight. Built into a spiritual house, they become living stones, a holy priesthood. The juxtapositioning of the living stones and the stones used to kill Stephen is poignant. Stones can build; they can be thrown. Life can be lived in hope, love and trust, as our Archbishops reminded us in their pastoral letter for the General Election. Alternatively, life can be lived in fear, hatred and despair. The way of Christ is the one that leads to life in all its fullness, to truth and all that brings blessing received and shared. It opens us to others, rather than closes. We are God’s people and as such called to dance to a different song. As the Eurovision song put it, ‘together we stand tall’.
And then the Gospel reading (John 14:1-14), so familiar to those of us who go to lots of funerals, indeed take them, because it is so often the Bible reading used. It brings the motivational encouragement for hearts not to be troubled, but to trust in God. All is not lost, even when it looks like it might be. There is a place prepared for us in the eternal dwelling place of God. A room, or in some versions there is an upgrade to a mansion, a place with space to be, to delight and feel secure.
It is worth winding back a bit to understand this more deeply. The passage follows on from John’s account of the Last Supper, in which he doesn’t give us the words of institution for the Communion about taking bread and drinking wine as a remembrance of Christ. John takes a different line. In his Last Supper, Jesus takes a towel, washes his disciples’ feet and tells them to do likewise. He gives them a new commandment to love as he has loved. That, as we will see, as the Gospel progresses, is the love that leads to the cross and resurrection. It ‘doesn’t care how much it loses’ because the hope, faith and the love cannot be destroyed. And Jesus knows that the authorities are out to get him. They are plotting and Judas has betrayed him. These are words of comfort that come not in calm and tranquility but in the storm and declare that the Lord of the dance will triumph through the storm, ‘that together we will dance through this storm’.
Jesus has to spell this out for his disciples and Philip and Thomas are the triggers for this. When they want to know the way, Jesus tells them that he is the way, the truth and the life. If you have seen him you have seen the Father. Jesus shows them all that they can see of God and need to see of God. When we want to know how to follow him, we just need to look back at the story, at his sayings, at what he did. And if you want to know more about that, my new book is precisely on this theme. Called Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus it explores how we live what Jesus said in all the messiness and complexity of 21st century living. It will be available from the Cathedral shop next month and if you want to reserve a copy you can do so, at a special pre-release price. Details are in the notice-sheet. End of plug! Except, the e-book comes out tomorrow via Amazon.
The words of comfort in that Gospel reading are linked to the call to follow Jesus. We can trust because there is hope and the love that gives us life will not abandon us. In Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, God gives us new life which not even death can destroy the hope of. Because of that we can have confidence to live it, even when the fear which comes from an orientation more in the grip of death than they would like to admit, brings hostility and engenders hatred. Stand tall in the love, faith and trust of Christ to strive for cohesion with courage. Rooted in this we find our true stability because we are building on firm foundations. The Archbishops letter, which advocated love, trust and hope, cohesion, courage and stability, is well worth reading and there is a copy on the noticeboard in the south aisle plus the link is on our social media pages.
We may not have won Eurovision last night, but the UK song entry touched on some deep themes in our readings this morning. We have confidence in the love of God that never gives up on us, never lets us go, not even in death. The faith of martyrs like Stephen shines a light in defiance against those who close their ears to the sound and vision of heaven opened. Not caring what they’ve got to lose because what really matters is worth so much more and has true and lasting value. The way of Christ leads to life in all its fullness and in the hope, trust and love of God we are called to live it. In this we become living stones, a holy priesthood, chosen and precious in God’s sight. God is “the one we’re running to”, in whom life finds its true meaning and purpose. Being totally committed to this faith and hope is to walk in the steps of the one who is the way, the truth and the life, our true heart’s desire, who never gives up on us.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Easter 5, Sunday 14th May 2017