January 24, 2021 – 3rd Sunday after Epiphany – Sermon by The Rt. Rev. Donald Phillips

   by Yanna Courtney

Let us bow our heads in prayer.  Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of your presence in this time and place and within each one of us in our various places.  Help us now to open our minds, our hearts, our whole lives, to receive the gift of your living Word for us this day; and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

You may have noticed in the opening prayer that I lead in the beginning of my sermons, that even though there are slight variations in the wording, there is always a “thanks to God” for God’s presence in this time and place and within us.  It’s interesting because today’s readings, even the hymns, are full of references of being near to God, to Jesus, and today we’re participating in the global Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – whose theme this year is “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit.” 

Now there’s no doubt from the witness in Scripture that God’s will and desire is for us to be close with God.  The Collect Prayer that we said this morning in our service began, “Almighty God, by grace alone you call us …”  Grace means a “free gift” – totally unearned – so God’s calling of us to be near is nothing we need to earn, and nothing we can merit.  It is given to us freely by God.

In our opening hymn this morning, in the 3rd verse, the Chorister sang (and we followed along), “Father-like (or like a loving parent) God tends and spares us, well our feeble frame God knows; in God’s hands he gently bears us, rescues us from all our foes.”  Well, in John’s Gospel, not the one we read this morning, but John chapter 15 upon which this theme from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is drawn, Jesus describes himself as being “up close and personal”.  He says in verse 5 of that chapter, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  The image is important that one gets in one’s mind because I know for a long time I used to think of this a little bit like an artificial Christmas tree – where Jesus was this kind of stem up the middle and we were branches – you know – stuck in along the sides.  That’s not a very helpful picture.  Rather, Jesus is the whole vine and each one of us is a branch – a part of that vine – with the life of the vine flowing through it and through us – enabling us to bear fruit which, in this case, means fulfilling God’s intended abundant life in and for the world – close – intimate – connected.

Today’s 1st Reading is a very small portion of the little story of the prophet Jonah.  Before the reading we have today, in the 1st chapter, it opens with God calling Jonah to go to the great city of Nineveh, and to cry out against it in hopes that its citizens will turn from their wickedness.  But instead, the Bible says, “But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish, from the presence of the Lord.”  Now if you’re familiar with this story, Jonah buys a spot on a ship headed to Tarshish to get away from the presence of the Lord.  A vicious storm blows up, the ship is in peril, and the sailors discover that the storm is because of Jonah.  So he tells them to throw him overboard, and they do, and immediately the storm dissipates and all is quiet.  And then Jonah is swallowed up by a large fish.

Ancient Jewish and Christian scholars interpreted this story allegorically.  The fish is a kind of mode of transport that carries Jonah to the underworld – the depths of the sea.  And from Jonah’s prayer that follows in the next chapter, it’s clear that that’s exactly where he is – at the door of the underworld where God is not!  But God is still God, and God commands the fish to vomit out Jonah, which he does.  And then today’s reading picks up the story from that point on.

Now if it really is an allegorical story, then it works for us too.  It represents us when we run away from God – when we try to live our lives in a secular world – not necessarily evil – just where God is apparently absent.  Today’s Gospel reading, the one that we read from the Gospel of Mark, is the account of Jesus calling a couple of his first disciples –  Simon, who later became Peter, and Andrew, James and John.  Jesus calls them to follow him – in a sense to join him – to be near to him.  Mark says that Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the Good News.  Now Simon, Andrew, James and John, who likely knew each other since they were all fisherman on the same place in Galilee – they might have even heard Jesus in the synagogue before his call.  But this was a specific invitation to them – to be with him.  Now it’s easy to interpret this as a kind of “come and do God’s work with me.”  But in John’s Gospel, this same calling emphasizes ‘being with Jesus’ as discipleship.  The two initial disciples asked Jesus, “Where are you staying?”  And Jesus replies, “Come and see.” So they did.  And John’s Gospel says “and they remained with him the rest of the day.”

John’s Gospel explains Christian discipleship as abiding with Christ, as we see in this theme from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an intimacy – a connection – a resting place that lies at the core of our faith.  So in our contemporary culture, which emphasizes ‘doing’ way more than ‘being’, how do we get a grasp on this ‘abiding with and in Christ’?  We do have a well-known hymn called “Abide With Me”, but in this instance, and in the way we use that hymn, it’s not particularly helpful.  The subject in the hymn Abide With Me is completely passive.  The image we might have would be of one lying on a bed, moving into sleep if not death.  And it’s commonly used at funerals which emphasizes that very passivity.

So what about ‘abiding in and with Christ’ in our daily lives – in our families, our jobs, our school, our volunteer efforts, our recreation?  What’s it look like there?  We need to turn to today’s Psalm – Psalm 62, for it begins with a beautiful statement, “For God alone my soul in silence waits.”  My late father was a high school English teacher.  And I remember him marvelling at this passage, and explaining to us that because of the sentence structure, the verb occurs at the end – and it gives it the extra emphasis it needs. “For God alone – my soul – in silence – waits.”  My soul – the depth of who I am – a depth that for many of us we aren’t very conscious of much of the time.  Our minds are flooded with tasks and worries and fears – from without and within.  And so we often live life largely detached from our real selves.  Learning to centre oneself intentionally can be challenging, but is very important – to be with yourself.  And then, in silence, closing all of the “life programs” that are “running in the background” of our lives, and simply being with yourself.  And then, waiting upon God.  It doesn’t mean “waiting for God” – as though God is coming to visit.  God is already there with you and me.  It is waiting upon – being open to – and when the need arises, as the psalm tells us, “… pour out your hearts before him.” 

It’s important that every disciple, each one of us, learns how to embrace and practice “for God alone my soul in silence waits.”  But we are not alone in doing this as disciples – not alone as a single branch on the vine.  We have each other to remind us, to help us remember how and when to be focussed on God, together in worship.  There is a prayer at the end of today’s worship service – the Prayer After Communion – that I want to call to your attention to, and I invite you to turn to page 11 now, of your service booklet, where you will see that prayer.  It’s the one that begins where the leader says, “All your works praise you, O Lord.”  That’s the prayer.  Now I want you to imagine that you and your fellow disciples, especially the ones from All Saints Church, have just finished a wonderful meal with Jesus, and it ends with a formal, rousing, shared blessing.  So everyone stands up, you might even have a glass in your hand, and one of those around the table starts, “All your works praise you, O Lord.”  And everyone responds, “And your faithful servants bless you.”  Then, everyone around the table, looking at everyone else as they speak, says, “Gracious God, we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son, Jesus Christ.  May we, who share his body, live his risen life; we who drink his cup, bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world.”  And then all of us around the table turn together and face our host, the risen Christ, and conclude our corporate prayer, “Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us so that we and all your children shall be free and the whole earth lives to praise your name, through Christ our Lord.”

And then we prepare to leave – to live this reality in our daily lives – regularly taking time to abide in and with Christ – to centre – to live into “For God alone my soul in silence waits.”  This is who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ and from this ‘being’ springs our life of ‘doing’.  Amen.