Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Trinity: “Communities.” Preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 18 June 2023 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson (Romans Ch 5: v 1 – 8; Matthew Ch 9: v 35 – Ch 10: v 8)

The teacher was looking at the children’s work during an art lesson. She stopped at little Jane’s desk. Jane was working away very diligently. “What are you drawing Jane?” she asked. Jane replied I’m drawing God, teacher. The teacher paused and said: “But no one knows what God looks like.” Without looking up from her work Jane replied: “They will in a minute!”

Well, my reference to a child’s perception of God, whom we call our Father, is a reminder that it is Father’s Day today – not so much an English festival as an American one, though, of course, Fathers the world over need commending and celebrating.

Well, finding out what God looks like is beyond us though authors like C.S. Lewis have given us, in the Cosmic Trilogy for example, imaginative word pictures of spiritual beings – an angel perhaps. But even such descriptions are not meant to be taken literally but instead communicate a set of feelings. However we do know that Jesus came to show us what God was like as far as his nature and characteristics are concerned. We build up a picture in our minds of what Jesus was like and see him as a reflection of God’s attributes as part of the holy Trinity.

The gospels tell us what Jesus said and did and that enables us to work out something of his personality and character. Jesus certainly shows what he was like in choosing those to be his disciples. Some were salt of the earth fishermen but we know very little about many of the others. There are two who stand out, both of whom, in very different ways, had the possibility of betrayal. One was Judas Iscariot always identified in the gospels as the one who betrayed him. But we reckon that Jesus knew the risk he ran in choosing Judas. He must have thought that the risk was worth it and that Judas could have turned out to be a valuable disciple if he had made the right decisions.

The other interesting character is Matthew, and betrayal might be applied to him for the gospel writers tell us that he was a tax collector and collecting taxes for the Romans was a seen as a basic betrayal of one’s countrymen. He would have been cut off from the community just as much as someone suffering from a dangerous disease. It was assumed that too much tax was routinely taken so that tax collectors were making use of the opportunity to line their own pockets. This conclusion was taken no doubt because the misappropriation of funds was so common. Indeed there was in the Roman system a hierarchy of collectors with payment made to higher officials for the privilege – because it was potentially so profitable. Because tax collectors were so despised they would associate with each other but would not be welcome in polite society. Jesus sees people as they are and is not swayed by the attitudes of the day. So Matthew was called by Jesus to join the 12 disciples and so form a community of support for Jesus.

Human beings need other human beings in order to be human. If a person were to be brought up without human contact they would be unlikely to develop human characteristics. We need each other. The people we become is in part a response to those who have influenced us on our life’s journey.

However, not all influences are good. Some young men are drawn to join gangs. Maybe they are looking for a sense of belonging which they haven’t found growing up at home. Some groups indeed exist for evil purposes. People may acquire a sense of belonging but will be meeting to plan what is destructive. Groups and communities, like so much else in life, can be used for good or for evil and we seem recently to have had many accounts of attacks with knives or other weapons on innocent victims.

The church provides a counterbalance of love and kindness. It brings people together for the good purpose of worshipping God so that those with diverse ideas and differing opinions are drawn together by the overriding desire to sing God’s praises. There have been experiments in the past in the church to explore community life. This very building is called an Abbey because it was the place where a monastic community gathered to worship. The monks gave their obedience to an elected Abbot and at the beginning had high ideals but sadly in time these became diluted by more worldly considerations. Although the dissolution of the monasteries was begun by Cardinal Wolsey and continued by Thomas Cromwell, the idea was seized on by Henry 8th as a way of providing him with much needed funds. At the same time, it had become clear that many monasteries had diminishing numbers of monks left and often they lacked the inspiration which had fired the imagination of those who first were drawn to give their lives in God’s service. Over the years the monasteries had become great landowners and the monks were able to oversee large areas of land and increasing wealth. The rationale for the monastic communities had faded.

There have been later attempts to found a religious community life and one at Little Gidding flourished for a while having come into being some 100 years after the dissolution of the monasteries. Its life was disrupted by the beginning of the civil war and the experiment came to an end. One of the 4 quartets, poems by T.S. Elliot, is entitled Little Gidding and near the end has these memorable lines:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

A more accessible and recurring image which Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of heaven is the banquet – a convivial meeting of people in a community in which all are included and each one is valued. A different image is provided by Austin Farrar who preached one of his fine sermons about the villages of heaven as a way of making manageable the infinity of heaven. His picture of heavenly villages again is emphasising the community aspect of our love for one another highlighted by words of today’s collect where we implore the Holy Spirit to “pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love.” Until we are made perfect by God’s grace we know that we have an imperfect nature.

Religious institutions have their imperfections too but churches do try to find their true roots in community. They have a common vision of the perception of God’s nature and explore what he is like. We shall not cease from exploration. We may not be able to draw a picture of God but with the words of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit we will know that he is good, that he is an expression of true, real love and that his words and promises can always be trusted.