Sermon 27 12 20
Christ Church Cathedral
St John the Evangelist
1 John 1
John 21: 19b – end
St John writes: We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christmas in a time of pandemic. Christmas when the world seems dark and the news full of shadow. Christmas when we hear as we did in this church just two days ago the great prologue to John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word …” and the good news that the darkness does not overcome the light.
And the first Chapter of the first letter of John deliberately echoes that prologue, with its themes of light and dark. Its mention of the beginning.
This Christmas I’ve been re-reading Lord of the Rings where the themes of light and darkness, and the struggle between good and evil is so strong.
It is, of course, a deeply consoling book. Good does triumph, the One Ring is destroyed, Sauron is vanquished.
There is consolation in the elves, the ancient ones, even in the Ents, those slow moving trees. And homely wisdom in the Hobbits. Not least in the grounded Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s friend. Describing the darkness of their time Samwise says:
“In the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”
But I want to think about another theme in 1 John 1 which we have just heard and which finds a strong echo in the title of the first volume of Tolkien’s story: “The Fellowship of the Ring”.
We know the word fellowship well. We use it here in this church every day at the end of Evensong when we pray the grace: the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
It has a more technical meaning in this House and in academic life generally. But in the New Testament this is one of those occasions when we have to go back to the Greek to really understand how crucial, how significant this word is.
It translates, of course, the Greek KOINONIA.
It’s not a word that appears much in the Gospels, just a cognate once each in Matthew, Luke and Acts. But Paul uses it extensively and intensely to describe the relationship between Christians and between Christian churches.
Here in 1 John there is something really quite extraordinary. The use of koinonia to describe the internal relationships of the Trinity. That of the Father and of the Son and the participation of the author and his readers in that koinonia.
The word can be translated in many ways. The Latin communio is often used, and in the current translation of the Roman Catholic Mass where the Grace may be used as a greeting at the beginning of Mass it is that Latinisation which is given. koinonia means a sharing in, participation, a partnership.
Nicholas King a Jesuit across the road at Campion House uses communion in his excellent translation of the New Testament, but suggests in his notes that it can also be translated as fellowship, union, partnership, community and solidarity.
I’ve been struck by the number of people who were deeply moved by the Queen’s speech this Christmas day. One phrase has been much quoted on Twitter: you are not alone.
This is the heart of the meaning of the word koinonia. By our baptism we participate in the life of the Trinity; we have a share in the divine life. And our relationships with each other as Christians are made of the same stuff as the relationship between the Divine persons.
Think about how radical that is. When I chat with members of the congregation here on Zoom, or talk outside the porch on Tom Quad, when I meet with my fellow Chapter members, the nature of the relationship is the same as the nature of my relationship with God, and even more startlingly the same as the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Now this presents us with two problems. The first is that we human beings are difficult; we fall out with each other; we irritate one another; we fall out and disagree. That’s not how we want to relate to God and not, surely, what the life of the Trinity is like.
But there is a second problem that I think is even more fundamental, more serious for us in our mission to the world, our ability to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the existentialist lie. The untruth that we are somehow individuals, that we are alone. This untruth undermines all Christian doctrine, most fundamentally the incarnation and redemption. Which simply lose all meaning if we are not all intimately connected by our common human-ness which God in Jesus has come to share in. His death and resurrection have an effect on me because we share in common humanity.
And this common stuff, this human-ness of which we are made precedes, of course, the incarnation. It exists because of creation, “In the beginning” as St John says, “without him, was nothing made that was made”.
I have been teaching the practice of Mindfulness meditation to children for over 20 years. Over and over again children report common experiences: a feeling of kindness; a feeling of connectedness, of belonging, at-homeness, and a feeling of Presence, that there ‘is somebody there’.
None of that should surprise us Christians. We are created in the image and likeness of God. We are hard-wired for God and the pattern of his being is reproduced in ours.
At the Eucharist when a little water is poured into the chalice with the wine many priests pray:
“By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
Just as Jesus shares in our human-ness, so do we share in his God-ness. And remember that koinonia has that meaning of sharing, participating in.
In the Queen’s speech she powerfully states a simple truth, we are not alone, we can never be alone; we are always part of something more than ourselves.
This is just as true of Jesus as it is of each one of us. Yes, in his divinity, but also in his, in our humanity. That is why it is so important that John who we celebrate today is loved by Jesus. It is Jesus that is doing the loving. Our ability to love is part of the God-given pattern in our very beings that draws us out of ourselves. It is why the church in these days after Christmas celebrates the saints: St Stephen yesterday, St John today, the Holy Innocents tomorrow. These are the comites Christi, the companions of Christ. When we celebrate the incarnation we are celebrating connectedness and Jesus is the ultimate connected one.
This connectedness is not just an abstract concept. I’ve been thinking about that connectedness a lot in my first four months here at Christ Church. In this building I have felt deeply connected with those whose memorials surround us. The dead who live in Christ.
Deeply connected to those living and working on this site in a time of pandemic.
And deeply connected to the hundreds of people who are part of the Cathedral’s community but who can’t be here. In some ways the grief at not being able to be here makes that connection all the more real. Absence, strangely, can be as much a presence as presence itself.
On Christmas Day Canon Graham organised Mulled Wine and members of Chapter made cakes for some of the international students who have been stranded here at Christ Church this Christmas. The gathering in the marquee in the Master’s Garden covered Egypt, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and probably more. It was a reminder to me of the profound significance of this joint foundation, our being both cathedral and college; and the gratitude of the students a reminder that simple gestures can reflect profound truths. “Micro-ecologies of kindness.” As Canon Graham put it just before the service today.
We don’t know how much longer lockdowns are going to continue, what it is going to be like living with this virus as part of our world. There are certainly going to be many weeks, months in which absence continues to be a reality. But that absence is not disconnection. As our Queen said: we are not alone.