Sermon given at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue NYC on Sunday 13th May 2012
13 May 2012 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Acts 10:44-48; John 15: 9-17
When I was an undergraduate, my circle of friends delighted in a recording of a speech made in the Oxford Union some ten years earlier. The speaker was a musician with an extraordinary sense of humour, who was passionate about the arts, but who is little remembered now. His name was Gerard Hoffnung. In his speech he gave advice to people visiting London from overseas. The good people of St Thomas Church do not generally need advice about visiting London, but this advice they should, certainly, not follow. On entering a railway compartment, be sure to shake hands with all the passengers. Ignore all left and right signs on the roadways; these are merely political slogans.
He also quoted letters his wife had received from Tyrolean landladies in response to requests for accommodation. Dear Madam, I am honourable to accept your impossible request. Unhappy it is I here have not bedroom with bath. A bathroom with bed I have. I can, though, give you a washing, with pleasure, in a most clean spring with no one to see. I insist that you will like this...I can offer you a commodious chamber with balcony imminent to the romantic gorge, and I hope that you want to drop in. Sorrowfully, I cannot abide your auto.
I cannot abide your auto. The word abide is an Old English word, not, like so many words in our common language, borrowed from French or Latin. An abode is a home, a place in which you abide. It was only in Middle English that the word acquired a transitive use meaning put up with or tolerate, a use first recorded in the 1520s. In modern usage, the word is generallyin the negative when used transitively: I can’t abide mess or this heat or that piece of music or person.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find the word abide in its older intransitive usage: abide in. ‘If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love.’ Our abode, Jesus says to his disciples, will be in his love, if we keep his commandments. Last Sunday, the Gospel reading was from the first few verses of chapter fifteen of St John’s Gospel, where it seems clear that our Lord is saying that we can and will keep his commandment to love if we are open to receiving the gift of love he first offers us. God’s love takes the initiative; our love for God and our love in God for one another are both part of one and the same response to God’s love for us. God’s loves comes first. Our love is a response. St John says in his first Epistle,‘Herein is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us.’ [4: 10]
The word abide in today’s Gospel reading: ‘Ye shall abide in my love.’ Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to abide in him, to be at home with him, to make our home in him. He promises that we can truly live in him.
The word abide also appears in one of the most powerful and evocative accounts in the New Testament, the story of the road to Emmaus, in St Luke’s Gospel. You know the story. On the very day of our Lord’s Resurrection, in the evening, two of his disciples, despairing of their Master, thinking him dead and buried and soon to be forgotten, are travelling away from the city as fast as they can and walk the road to Emmaus. The risen Lord Jesus joins them but something prevents them from recognising him. He asks them what troubles them and opens to them the Old Testament prophecies about himself. It was intended that the Son of Man would suffer and die but on the third day rise again. They reach Emmaus where the two disciples plan to stay for the night but Jesus makes to go on. They say to him, ‘Abide with us, for it is towards evening and the day is far spent.’ [Luke 24: 29] Jesus stays, and having opened the scriptures to them on the journey, now he breaks bread with them and their eyes are opened and they recognise him. ‘Did not our hearts burn within us?’ they say as they return to Jerusalem with the glad news.Abide with us. The disciples, full of the word of truth in the scriptures, invite Jesus to abide with them, ask him to make his home with them, in them, and our Lord agrees.
So, we have seen through the Johannine passage that a Christian’s home is in our Lord; that we can abide in him. Now through this Lucan passage, we also see that our Lord can and will make his home in us.
The two ideas inform the wonderful Prayer of Humble Access, written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury in the late 1540s, such a familiar and powerful part of the traditional Anglican liturgy for the service of Holy Communion. As we prepare to receive the bread and wine – that through the prayer of the Eucharist have become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord – we pray that ‘our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.’
The high point is of course the moment at which the communicant receives the bread and wine which are the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The Eucharist is richly powerful symbolically and in its interpretation. One of the most potent images for me is that, in the Blessed Sacrament, we receive a little insight into the ways of heaven. Here we receive a foretaste, a promise of what is to come; hereafter, we shall enjoy the heavenly banquet to the full.
In the midst of this great city with all its passing glory and glamour, its throb and thrum, the mission of St Thomas Church, in its serenity and certainty, is to say to the people of New York and to all who will listen: here we have no abiding city; here we have no true home. No less than that has been the message of Westminster Abbey to the people of England and of the United Kingdom, of the Commonwealth of Nations, and the world, over the past thousand years. Our homeland is in heaven. Our home is in Jesus and his home is in us.
Sorrowfully, we must abide here on earth a little; the true glory is hereafter, when we shall fully abide in him. Then we shall truly hear the words, ‘I was glad, when they said unto me, we will go into the house of the Lord.’