The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s086bg15  All Saints   1/11/2015   All Saints Prebbleton

‘Unbind him, and let him go’   John 11:44

The feast of All Saints reminds us that ‘our’ faith is never ours alone, we share it with a multitude of others.

I often think of those words of St Paul that: ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and .. he was buried, and .. he was raised on the third day .. and .. he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.’  (1)  I think of these words, because I suspect that Paul actually disagreed theologically with most of these others.   Whoever was the actual author of the letters of Peter, he comments: ‘So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.’  (2)

We, each and every one of us, have a different perception of the faith.   None of us hold it in its entirety.   One of the reasons I continue to prepare sermons is that it forces me to read scripture again and again, and to react to it differently again and again, as I talk to others as well.   It is what feeds me.

And I have commented before that we ‘know’ Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul, but we don’t know who invented the Aspirin or Omeprazole that we take each day to keep us alive.   Our continuing health is much more dependent on the research and discoveries of a multitude of anonymous people, many of whom were too busy to profess the Christian faith than the saints the Church bids us remember.

And we keep the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul in our bible, even though they have different takes on the person and ministry of Jesus and we should rejoice that this is so, because this fact removes scripture from being an infallible edict passed on from someone who had a complete picture of the ‘real’ Jesus, to a book that invites us to experience Jesus in our own way and see resonances in the experiences others have had.   Each and every one of the writers of the New and Old Testament book would be horrified if they realised their words would become so sacred that they precluded the experiences of others.

If you were to come to our home for a meal, you would look at me rather strangely if I said that first you had to confess your sins before you ate.   Even though I would explain that you didn’t have to go into any detail and would affirm that you would definitely be forgiven, it would be a strange way to begin a dinner party.   Perhaps after this you wouldn’t be surprised if you had to put up with a 10 minute dissertation on my perception of the faith.   But it would be even stranger if I then expected you to affirm that you worshipped the same God as me, calling the divine by the same name as me, by reciting a creed.   Then, and only then might we shake each other by the hand and sit down for the meal.   My guess is that you would find excuses before accepting another invitation!

We as Christians are supposed to believe in unconditional acceptance and love, and I note that I haven’t mentioned about making discrete enquiries about who you choose to share intimacy lest you be gay or lesbian before inviting you! 

But these things are what we regard as ‘normal’ in our service of worship.   It is salutary to realise that ordinary humanity actually love rather more unconditionally than the ‘god’ we worship.   And we wonder why people aren’t coming to church any more!

And, of course, a really successful parish has lots of home groups where we fellowship with other suitably qualified parishioners, extending our holy excommunication to our lives beyond the church walls.   We have conveniently forgotten that command of Jesus: ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. (3)

It is interesting; I was speaking to a New Zealander recently who was living in Australia but back on holidays.   He was saying that one of the stark differences is that in New Zealand it would not be at all unusual to have Māori and Pākehā around the same dinner table.   To have Indigenous and Europeans at the same table would be most unusual in Australia.   And I would have to agree.

Yes, I guess we all ponder how we can love the rapist, the terrorist, the criminal in our midst; but fail to perceive that each and every day, at the principle act of worship we portray a very pernickety and pedantic God.   Our Holy Communion is really defined by who may not partake.

The ultimate retribution on our enemies is that they will have to look on us as we are fed by God at the heavenly banquet.   As the psalmist says: ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.’  (4)

In a teaser entitled: ‘In forgetfulness of the Kingdom’ Hugh Rayment-Pickard writes: ‘The Church has cut Jesus’s teaching from the heart of its worship ..  I used to officiate at a weekly communion in a geriatric hospital, many years ago.   It was a depressing establishment, Victorian both in its architecture and in its approach to its patients.   But one of the uplifting aspects of this ministry was seeing some patients, who could barely remember the faces of members of their family, recite perfectly every word of the Prayer Book service.   I found it achingly touching as the congregation joined me in repeating the prayer of consecration: …  (5)    I confess I do not know how the article goes on - I don’t have a subscription to Church Times - but I have had this happen to me, and I have had precisely the same reaction, but actually this should cause us alarm.   Is this what is the most important part of our Eucharist?   Reciting the words of institution?

I personally have deep suspicions that ‘Messy Church’ and ‘Fresh Expressions’ are actually regarded by long-time worshippers as playing at religion, acceptable for children, but when they grow up they’ll have to recognise what real worship is like: 1662 sung in Nicholson in C !!!   I guess that this really hits home for me at Pentecost when some congregations suggest everyone wears red.   What a lovely, innocuous idea to make Pentecost more ‘real’, but simultaneously differentiating between the regulars and interlopers!

So for me I think that the world would be a better place if we held more secular dinner parties rather than more people attending Sunday Communion for we wouldn’t be perpetuating the image of a very pernickety and pedantic God.   I guess that at some stage or other, most of us have been in the situation when someone higher up the slippery pole of success has made it their business to criticise one and all and expect his or her minions to smooth over the ruffled feathers.  Yet really isn’t this an accurate picture of christianity, us making up for and trying to commend an irritable god to all and sundry, and being criticised and made to feel inadequate if we don’t?

Lazarus in that tomb, religiously wrapped in cloth to keep him dead, is freed to live.   So the question for me is: How do we find grace to divest ourselves of the religious wrappings that keep our affections restricted to straight, baptised, communicant, tithing, Anglicans of our own particular persuasion - and in so doing witness to a God of unconditional love actually worth worshipping?

1.  1 Corinthians 15:4-7
2.  2 Peter 3:15-16
3.  Luke 14:12
4.  Psalm 23:5