This service is best read on your computer so that you can click on the music and it will then play for you. I am sure by now you have worked this out and that all you have to do is put the cursor on the link, press the control button on your computer keyboard whilst left clicking on the mouse, the music will then follow. Make sure you have the volume turned up.
Seventh Sunday of Easter May 16th
The theme of today’s worship is discipleship. Not blind obedience, but true discipleship, when we grow and learn in faith, to fully become Jesus’ followers, and truly ourselves. You will have noted that over the weeks I have used hymns by various nations and the Lord’s Prayer in many tongues. This is to remind us we are not alone and that Jesus is for all and within that family we have a part to play.
Call to Worship: God’s mighty strength was seen at work when he raised Christ from the dead, and enthroned him at his right hand in the heavenly realm. Ephesians 1:20
Hymn: We are marching to Zion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFgduK6Daec
in whom we know the power of redemption,
you stand among us in the shadows of our time.
As we move through every sorrow and trial of this life,
uphold us with knowledge of the final morning
when, in the glorious presence of your risen Son,
we will share in his resurrection,
redeemed and restored to the fullness of life
and forever freed to be your people. Amen.
Lord’s Prayer in song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4O_8DBj99s
First Reading: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
About 120 of Jesus’ followers are gathered. Peter stands up and reminds them that Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures, and that Judas had been part of it. They must find a replacement for Judas. So they pray for guidance before casting lots, and Matthias is chosen.
Second Reading: Ezekiel 36:24-28
This is a beautiful, comforting reassurance to the people of Israel. God promises to bring them to their own land, clean from sin and idolatry, give them a new heart and a new spirit, and be their God.
Hymn: Jesus’ lover of my soul https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMPY0NAcdBM
Gospel: John 17:6-19
Sometimes known as ‘the prayer of the high priest,’ this is Jesus’ beautiful and touching intercession on behalf of his disciples, in which he asks God to protect them when he can no longer be with them.
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)
As you probably know, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recently celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary. Casting your mind back to that day just over 10 years ago, you’ll remember how their wedding brought out the patriot in many people. The supermarket shelves were stacked with bunting, paper plates and plastic cups emblazoned with the Union Flag and, on the day itself, streets up and down the country were festooned in red, white and blue. After all, what could be more patriotic, more traditional, more ‘establishment’ than a royal wedding in a historic abbey?
Similar to many great churches, Westminster Abbey is full of art, much of which depicts the disciples. As the royal couple knelt before the High Altar at their marriage ceremony, they would have had a clear view of an imposing statue of St Peter, as well as a mosaic of the Last Supper by the nineteenth-century glassmaker Antonio Salviati. Throughout the Abbey the disciples are portrayed in statues, windows, paintings and tapestries, and are central to Sir James Thornhill’s famous Rose Window in the North Transept.
So it’s strange to think that these men, the disciples, and now almost literally pillars of the establishment, were in their day part of a small cult as anti-establishment, marginalised and as subversive as any you’ll hear about.
It’s all about the disciples today. Jesus’ prayer in John’s Gospel is sometimes known as the ‘high priestly prayer,’ although ‘fatherly prayer’ might be more apt. We’ve often seen him talking sharply to the disciples – as a father might show ‘tough love’ to his sons. Underneath it, however, there runs a deep tenderness and compassion, which is evident here. It’s almost heartbreaking, and all the more poignant because he knows how vulnerable they are; that the world hates them because of their allegiance to him – and that he must leave them to fend for themselves.
Today’s reading from Acts could be described as a snapshot of the point when the Christian faith was at its shakiest. After Jesus’ death most people had fallen away, probably thinking that he’d turned out to be just another ‘flash-in-the-pan’ prophet. It was an age of cults and sects, and Jesus hadn’t been the only self-styled prophet to attract attention in that part of the world. John the Baptist had been another – in fact Andrew had originally been one of his disciples.
Only about 120 followers remained of the crowds who’d once turned out to see him preach, and even they must have been feeling depleted, shocked, and wracked with grief. Despite the fact that some of them had witnessed the resurrection and ascension first hand, and most had heard eye-witness accounts, how could they possibly carry on without their leader? Then Peter stood up and, ever practical, demonstrated why Jesus had chosen him to be the rock upon which his Church would be built.
In one way it’s humbling to realise that we’re the descendants of a small Middle-Eastern cult – that a simple upper room is our spiritual home just as much as an opulent abbey. At the same time we can be thankful, inspired and proud that 120 people rallied, pulled together, and went on to became the spiritual forebears of a faith which has inspired generations of architects and artists to create a place of worship as magnificent as Westminster Abbey. The Christian faith is wonderful for being so rich and able to absorb such apparent contradictions!
So what, then, distinguishes Christianity from some bizarre religious sect or cult? What vindicated the decision of those people to keep on meeting and praying in that upper room? Well, one crucial distinction is that a cult requires unquestioning obedience – and that’s something that Jesus never, ever, asked of his disciples.
Going back to the royal wedding, the bride’s brother read from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In it, Paul wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” It sums up the essence of what Jesus was praying for, and what Peter was appealing for. Whether we see ourselves as establishment or anti-establishment; whether we are inspired and awestruck by the grandeur of Westminster Abbey, or feel more at home praying in a simple room, what is asked of us is not conformity, but renewal. Because, ultimately, the deep joy is that it’s never about getting stuck in blind obedience, but all about renewal – aligning and realigning our true selves with what God wants us to be.
A time to reflect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CloOereb6SQ
1. Just ten years ago the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were married in Westminster Abbey, surrounded by works of art depicting the disciples. The whole scene is very ‘establishment,’ but in fact the men and women of the Early Church were part of a very small, subversive cult.
2. The poignant reading from John shows Jesus praying tenderly for his disciples. In Acts we see the group of 120 in the upper room; grief-stricken, leaderless and rudderless, until Peter stands up and steers them back on course.
3. It is both humbling to realise that Christians are the spiritual descendants of a small cult, and cause for pride to think that a marginalised group were to become the spiritual forebears of such a great faith.
4. The Epistle read at the royal wedding was taken from Romans, (12:1-2. 9-18), in which Paul makes a distinction between conforming to the world and being renewed. That is the essence of what God wants for us – not conformity, but renewal.
Prayers of intercession:
Let us keep God’s promise to the Israelites in our prayers – that God will put a new heart and a new spirit within us, and make us true followers.
We pray that, when we are lost and leaderless, we may hear the rallying cry of Peter speaking through the generations, and answer his call.
We pray for all those who follow false gods that they may find the true, personal fulfilment that comes from following Jesus.
We pray for the Church, that all Christians, wherever they pray, may move towards understanding, compassion and love for one another.
We pray that God renews us as true disciples – followers, yet free.
Lord, in our prayers we echo your beautiful promise to the Israelites; we shall be your people, and you will be our God. Amen.
Hymn: We finish with a child’s song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHg_0VPgBQI
May you grow in faith and by following,
May the Spirit be renewed within you each day,
And may you always show the love of God to one another.
When you do then the blessing of God almighty is within your grasp,
Just reach out and take it, - now! Amen
Now for something calming, thoughtful and spiritual, so I ask you to rest in the music before returning to the day.
Hymn of the Cherubim: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
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