Sermon at St Michael St Albans
Sunday after Ascension 2022
Readings: Acts 16.16-34; Revelation 22.12-21; John 17.20-26
Friends, this morning we reach the final words, the very end of the testimony. With providential timing, our lectionary list of readings has set for today the culmination of the entire Bible, the concluding verses of the book Revelation. We heard in the words which Paul Barnes read to us a distillation of the whole of Scripture: Jesus as beginning and end, the one whose blood washes the redeemed, and whose second advent is imminent. ‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’
This sweeping vista feels somehow fitting on the Sunday after Ascension. Last Thursday we marked the return of Jesus to heaven. But then the disciples had to wend their way down the mountain with the nagging question, ‘what are we going to do now?’
Jesus had been preparing his followers for this moment. He had told them to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. Of course, there has never been a moment when God’s Spirit is not present. She is there on the first page of the Bible, working with Father and Son in creation and redemption. But at Pentecost, the feast we keep next Sunday, God sends new gifts of the Spirit like tongues of fire to turn disciples into apostles, pupils into missionaries. God knows all about times of change and into such moments he breathes fresh vision and energy.
Jesus had been preparing his followers for this moment. We also heard this morning from John chapter 17, part of a long priestly prayer which Jesus offered on the night before he died.
Friends, despite our faults and distractions, our mission together in St Michael’s and St Mary’s is… so that the world may believe. This is about growth – growth in inner holiness and growth in outward evangelism, tasks to which each and every one of us is called.
Some of our shared mission over the last ten years has been about hardware.
Complementing and crowning these necessary adaptations of hardware is soft stuff, precious qualities and values that are vital to blossoming communities.
The combined effect of these adaptations of warm fuzzies plus bricks and mortar has meant we together have been able to reach more people with the good news about Jesus and so positively move that vital metric of mission, bums on pews.
So please keep looking outwards – make sure that each and every one of you engages the person you don’t know before you talk with your friends. And please keep working on a culture of invitation. If there aren’t enough people in your team for what you want to achieve, please don’t dump the problem on a churchwarden but think whom you know who would respond to your well-worded invitation to get involved together.
The soft stuff of parish life is soft not only because it is difficult to define but also because it is never complete. It is the task of a lifetime. There is a particular need to re-establish healthy habits of regular worship, especially within families given the unprecedented assault upon normal patterns of social interaction in 2020 and 2021. A stepping-stone in this process will be your next Mission Action Plan due in 2023. Feeding into this is the discernment about your next Vicar. If you have not yet diarised the Informal Vacancy Meeting which will help shape the person specification for the new Vicar, commit this morning to attending. The Informal Vacancy Meeting will be here in St Michael’s church at 7.30pm a week on Tuesday, 7th June.
At my induction in 2012 I was told that at the induction of my predecessor-but-two, Hugh Dickinson in 1977, Bishop Robert Runcie declared this parish to be the ‘most ordinary and extraordinary’ in England. I have long pondered what this might mean and whether it is still true, 45 years on.
The ordinariness of this parish is perhaps more obvious than what makes it exceptional. After all, St Michaels and St Marys are modest-sized churches serving a medium-sized community with a wide demographic and political mix.
And then… And then I go into the Vicarage garden and I find oyster shells popping through the top soil. These are remnants of our Roman forebears. This oyster in my hand might have been eaten by a man named Alban. That same Alban will have seen the bricks in these arches in their former guise as part of the massive basilica of Verulamium, in which building he was likely tried for holding the crazy belief that a rustic carpenter who had lived three hundred years earlier and three thousand miles distant was God incarnate and Saviour of the world. If that link with Alban is true – and the claim of this site to Alban’s memory is stronger than any other – then St Michael’s is the oldest site of known Christian activity in the British Isles. Now that is extraordinary.
But the extraordinariness of St Michael’s and St Mary’s is ultimately not about the past but the present, and about people more than place. I realised this one Sunday in March 2017 as I reflected that that morning our pre-school children’s group had been led by a Viscount. And that another member of the congregation had attended worship dressed throughout as a stegosaurus. And nobody had batted an eyelid – it was just an ordinary Sunday in the most extraordinary parish in the Church of England.
It has been a huge honour for Anna, Alex and me to have lived here among you and to have shared your worship and service for a little under one per cent of the life of this building, and for less than half a per cent of the story of this site. And these are percentages which will only get smaller as the Church moves forward. The Church inherently looks forward. For we are gathered on the day of resurrection, the first day of the week, gathered as God’s Easter people, the ekklēsia, etymologically those who are ‘called from’, called from the mundane world to praise an amazing God, called from daily life to glimpse, share, and advance God’s amazing future.
Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.