In the last few weeks our Gospel readings have all been about love and forgiveness – A couple of weeks ago we heard the story where Jesus forgave Peter for denouncing him 3 times by affirming his love and forgivenss 3 times – Peter do you love me – feed my sheep.
And last week we were given a new commandment – To love one another as I have loved you.
We have thought about what it is to love one another as Jesus loves – not that flippant kind of love we can often talk about – the love of home, I love that tv programme, I’d love a cup of tea – all things we do love but not quite what Jesus was meaning.
We have thought about the love that Jesus commands us to perform. Not a material love or even a romantic love: but a love that is at first sacrificial
Christ loved us so much that he gave up His life so that we may have life in all its abundance. And we too are called to love others in this way – to give up our prejudices, our likes and dislikes to love others. A love that is not directed just at those whom we love anyway – our family and friends, but one that costs us, changes us, challenges us – a love directed towards those marginalised by society.
And secondly a love that is unconditional;
There is nothing we can do to deserves the love of God and conversely there is nothing we can do to lose the love of God. He is a constant and his love comes with no condition. It is there for all people to turn to – our choice is whether to truly turn to Him or not and whether we do that at age 5 or age 95 he still welcomes us with open arms. Our challenge is to welcome all people in the same way – with open arms no matter how unlovable, how unsanitary, how ungodly we might think they are.
And thirdly a love that is practical.
That we meet the needs of others in every way we can. Yes with money, but also with our time and energy, Caring and doing just as Jesus did.
A new commandment to love as He has loved us – Sacrificially, Unconditionally and Practically.
These few weeks follow on from one another, and as we have just said we are just about to celebrate Ascension on Thursday. Time is running out. Jesus wants us to know what is most important before he ascends back forever to the Father. But he also wants to assure us that he will never leave us completely. Whilst we may not see God now in a physical body, God will be with us in the form of another. The Holy Spirit – the Advocate – the Helper will come and teach us everything he says, and then he leaves by giving them peace, not as the world gives…
Passing the peace; something we do every time we meet for communion – I wonder if you have ever thought about why we do it?
The ritual of the giving of peace, the peace of the Lord goes back to that first Easter as we’ve just heard, “Peace be with you.” He says as he appears to the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection. Peace I leave with you he says in our Gospel reading this morning. He then sent them to bring peace to the world by forgiving sins in his name.
It is interesting to know that in the early days of the Christian Church the peace was given not as a handshake, but as a kiss. This kiss of peace is spoken of at the end of several of the letters of the New Testament. In the early Church all who received and gave the kiss of peace then received the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament, as we still do today. In their gatherings and still today in the Eastern church, the kiss began at the altar and was passed around the church. Only those who receive and gave the kiss are welcomed to the Lord’s table.
In a document called the Didache from the early third century A.D. we read of a scene where the kiss of peace comes to a halt as two people refuse to kiss each other and therefore pass it on there’s a disagreement. We don’t know what it was, but it was probably much like the kind of disagreements we have between people in congregations such as ours today. The service then stops and the presiding minister has to leave the altar and goes to where the kiss was blocked. Only after reconciliation did the peace continue on its way around, and only then does the liturgy proceed.
It says much about how early Christians lived in a congregation. To them the peace of God was a real thing, expected to be received by everyone, and shared by everyone. There was to be no withholding of forgiveness between the gathered flock. If two people would not share the peace, no one could until those two were brought together.
Now of course we are talking about the Middle Eastern and Continental world in our Gospel this morning not the very English world that we live in this morning – it is still not quite the thing to go around kissing everyone – after all we are not French! So in our civilized (and maybe slightly uptight way) we shake hands – and maybe that is why it has become more of a ritual of greeting our friends rather than the passing of God’s peace, forgiveness, reconciliation and most importantly Holy Spirit. But maybe now we can be more aware of the importance of passing God’s peace to one another is .
And then at the end of the Service the doors are thrown open and the peace (the Spirit) is taken out into the world.
And that’s when it becomes trickier – we can love one another here in this building but how do we then take that love through the door and to those outside?
It is excruciatingly difficult, sometimes, to talk to people about our faith. We get tongue-tied, we feel foolish, we feel that no-one could possibly be convinced by what we have to say. And maybe that’s true. But as this gospel tells us – er as this reading from Acts tells us they can have their hearts opened by the Spirit, and maybe those people are just waiting for a Christian to put into words, or better still into actions, the meaning of our faith in Jesus. We don’t have to convert people, the Spirit does that. All we have to do is speak honestly and openly about what faith means for us.
So also today in our reading from Acts we hear about the meeting between Paul and Timothy and a woman called Lydia in the city of Philippi. We are told that Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth.
These days we’re very used to being able to get any colour clothing we want. But it’s obviously hasn’t always been like that. Dyes were natural, not synthetic, and the dye for purple was made from a juice found in minute quantities in shellfish. It took thousands of crustaceans to make a yard or two of purple cloth. It was very expensive, worth its weight in silver it was said. It was a statement of status and wealth, the Gucci handbag or the Rolex watch of Roman times.
But Purple wasn’t just an indicator of wealth. It was a symbol of political power. The more important you were as a Roman senator, the more purple decoration you had on your tunic and your toga. The emperor, and only the emperor, would wear a toga made entirely of purple cloth. It was the colour of the Roman elite.
You might like to ponder on why a Bishop – a servant, might wear purple, but perhaps that’s a sermon for another time!
In a way which isn’t explained, Paul felt the Spirit had forbidden them to go back to Asia. Wherever he tries to go he feels he is rebuffed, until finally he is called in a dream to Macedonia. And he goes across land, across sea and land Philippi, on the outer fringe of the Jewish diaspora, where he finds no gospel (synagogue) to preach in. Philippi had remained an insignificant village until Emperor Augustus ‘rediscovered it’ as an ideal place for retired army officers who had faithfully served him and It became a cosmopolitan town for the elite with over 50% of the population being pensioned colonists and merchants, the rest being service providers and farmers.
So having no synagogue, it is outside of the city walls that Paul and Timothy have to go to find someone to talk to . On the day of the sabbath the only place of prayer they can find was outside the city gate by the river. Not a large crowd to address as was usual for Paul, but a small group of women, but a group who are willing to hear.
And there he meets Lydia, this rich, confident woman. Lydia who has had her heart opened by the Holy Spirit, so that she can hear the message that Paul is about to bring. Remember this verse: ” The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”
Paul, who seemed this time to be on a mission that was going nowhere, meets the woman who will be the lynchpin of the church in Philippi. Lydia will become the first Church Leader in Europe. Other churches give him nothing but grief, but Phillipi the Philippians are a constant source of support for him, financial as well as spiritual. His letter to them is one of the warmest of the epistles. He’s founded a church in what seemed an unlikely place, and it has become a great success
And so here is the inspiration for us. Inside this building we share love and forgiveness between us, and here in this building we receive the Holy Spirit in the form of the peace. At the table we receive the body and blood of Christ to feed and sustain us in our Mission. And then we go outside the city walls, through the door of this church and we take with us the love of Christ which is Sacrificial, Unconditional and Practical and we share it with all we meet.
In us they will see that the love of God does not judge them for their misdoings, their lack of faith, their way of life. But shows all people through us that God can and does love everyone – and all we do every Sunday we do nothing more than come together to celebrate that love.
May the peace of God be always with you,