Easter Day sermon from the Bishop of Sheffield.
Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18
One of the great figures of the Quaker movement, Isaac Pennington, wrote these words in a letter to his friends in 1667. He is trying to describe what it means to be a Christian.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”
To be a Christian is to live a life of gentleness and peace and tenderness and mercy and love together.
Paul writes to the Church in Philippi, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4.5). As a community we are to be known for our tenderness. He writes to Timothy, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6.11).
As I have read the story of the passion of Jesus in John’s gospel this year, I have been struck very powerfully by this theme of the gentleness of Jesus Christ: it is a robust gentleness, a gentleness combined with steel but gentleness none the less.
There is gentleness in the way Jesus receives the gift of Mary, the sister of Lazarus. She anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. There is gentleness in the washing of the disciples feet. Jesus moves around the group of his closest friends to wash to cleanse, to serve.
There is gentleness in his teaching at the Passover meal. Jesus speaks of their grief and fear, about the comforter who will come, about sorrow turning to joy. He tells his disciples not to be afraid. He prays tenderly for them and for us.
There is gentleness combined with strength even in the terrible narrative of crucifixion: in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in Jesus’ care for ‘his mother Mary and for the disciple whom he loved, in his final cry: “It is finished.
And the same theme of gentleness and kindness flows through the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene, stands weeping, alone outside the tomb. Jesus appears tenderly to her. There is no bright light, no clap of thunder, nothing to distress a woman’s grief. Jesus listens and enters her sorrows through soft questions. He tells her he is alive as he speakers her name with love and joy: “Mary”. He gives her a new calling to share his risen life: “Do not hold on to me….go to my brothers”.
Jesus appears gently to the disciples, in the upper room. His first word to them is peace and his second word to them is peace, calming their fear and healing their grief. He gives them the promised Holy Spirit but in John there is no mighty wind, no earthquake or fire. In John, the Spirit is given through a soft breath on the forehead, almost a kiss.
Thomas is not there, of course, but there is gentleness too in the way the Lord deals with his unbelief, a tender irony, a smile, an inner joy. And there is gentleness in the final stories by the Sea.
Jesus stands as a stranger on the shore. “Children you have no fish have you”. He gives them instructions, he blesses their labours, and then reveals that he has been there ahead of them. The risen Son of God makes breakfast for his friends. He came and took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish. He is taking them back to the feeding of five thousand.
And then after breakfast Jesus deals gently with Simon Peter who at the last denied him and who is broken by grief and by failure. Jesus restores him with his questions: “Do you love me more than these”. To Peter also he gives a new task: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.
The risen Lord we celebrate today is gentle, merciful, tender and kind. His character is consistent. It is not spoiled and made bitter by the terrible suffering he endures, by denial or betrayal. It is not changed by his resurrection, by his new and risen life.
Before the cross, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, washes the feet of his disciples. After the resurrection, Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, cooks breakfast for his friends.
Here is something to ponder deeply this Easter morning. Jesus Christ calls his Church, his friends to be like him in his gentleness and love.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”.
It’s very simple. At the foot washing, Jesus hands on the manifesto for the life of the Church: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this shall everyone know that you are my disciple, if you have love one for another” (13.34-5).
Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples with these words” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.
Jesus commissions Peter to the same gentle ministry he models: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy in a world which is often harsh and often violent.
We have been reminded again this week of the terrible violence inflicted on the innocent when religion is twisted by forces of evil and destruction. This week the world witnessed terrible violence in Brussels. This week the world remembered the genocide in Bosnia committed against Muslims over 20 years ago. These acts of violence are renounced and condemned by all Christians, all Muslims, all Jews in the name of God as well as by all people of good will. As Christians we must commit ourselves to working for greater understanding between our faiths and communities in the name of our Saviour who washes his disciples feet.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of mercy in a world which neglects those who have nothing. There is a challenge in our own day to care for the displaced of the world, to welcome the refugee and to care for the stranger. There is challenge to serve the most vulnerable in this city, through the Cathedral Archer Project and in many other ways. There is challenge to campaign and be involved in political life so that the tears in the net of Welfare in this country might be mended again.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness in a world in which so many are hurting and broken. Here in South Yorkshire we know a great deal now about such brokenness following the child sexual exploitation scandals. There are many lives and many communities which need gentleness and care.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of mercy even as we face together issues on which we might disagree one with another. Our Church is currently wrestling with the immensely sensitive issue of human sexuality. My prayer for that conversation is we will be gentle one with another and bear with one another and help one another up with a tender hand.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness in our stewardship of the earth: to live gently and respectfully in creation, to be faithful disciples in our care for God’s world.
And the vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy in the ordinary and extraordinary details of our lives: in the way we greet one another; in the ways we offer hospitality; in the questions we ask one another; in the time we give to listening; in the friendship we extend to others; in the way we restore people to fellowship; in the way we tell others of Jesus Christ;; in our welcome of little children. “By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another”.
We are the Church. We are called into being by Jesus Christ, who was crucified and rose again. The gentle, risen Lord. We are called to reflect his love in a world of violence, hurt, hunger and confusion.
If you own the name of Christian, you are called to reflect this gentle strength in all you do: in your work and in your leisure, in your actions and in your character, in your words and in your deeds.
We are called together to be like him in his gentleness: at the anointing, at the footwashing, at the cross, in the garden, in the upper room, by the lakeside.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against another and helping one another up with a tender hand”