Sermon for Christian Aid week – St Mary’s Whitkirk
‘It was winter’.
A curious detail in today’s gospel, which has stuck with me this week. ‘It was winter’, I wonder why John mentions this. For us the word often suggests difficult times. In ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, with the witch ruling Narnia, it was ‘always winter and never Christmas’…and it wasn’t a good place to be.
I got to thinking about people around the world for whom it is ‘always winter and never Christmas’. The people of Syria – crushed, displaced, exhausted by years of war…those in the Yemen – where war means no education, no medical help and virtually no food for millions…Rohingya Muslims on the Bangladeshi border…the millions who lost everything in cyclone Idai…and those whose stories we rarely hear who exist in grinding poverty.
And I wondered…how might they hear today’s gospel?
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
Do they, do we, hear this merely as a promise for the next life…that if this life is awful, at least we can look forward to heaven? In my bible, this passage is headed ‘Jesus is rejected by the Jews’…we could read it simply as saying ‘believe in Jesus and you’ll get eternal life.’
But that seems to me to ignore the rounded, life-giving Jesus of the rest of the gospels. ‘My sheep hear my voice’…what voice? One that speaks most frequently of a different way of life, a different type of kingdom; a kingdom of good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed; a kingdom where the last shall be first.
I trust this is a picture of heaven – but in this Easter season we are reminded that by his death and resurrection Jesus showed God’s kingdom has already begun. ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish’ is not just about life beyond death – but life now.
So what? The gospel talks about Christ’s sheep being ‘in his hands’. I suppose being in Christ’s hands, means we’re not in anyone else’s hands…for example the world’s hands. We don’t have to work for a world of constantly larger economies, of demanding cheaper goods regardless of what this does to producers. If we’re Christ’s sheep who hear his voice – we do have to work for God’s kingdom, where the hungry are fed, the captives freed, and there’s justice for all.
The trouble is – when we think of all those millions for whom life seems ‘always winter’ it’s just overwhelming. We can (and should) pray for them…but otherwise it can be hard to know where to start…so how about Christian Aid?
I’m sure between us we support hundreds of charities. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to use my privileged position to plug a particular one – but I’m afraid I’m going to anyway…because I think it’s one way of responding to Christ’s voice.
This week is Christian Aid week. Christian Aid – a charity whose motto is “we believe in life before death”. The Kingdom of God – already begun. Here are three reasons I’m happy to give them some of my money.
Firstly, their work isn’t based on unfocussed compassion, but on building the Kingdom of God, now. They recognise that when relationships between communities, corporations and nations are distorted, inequality becomes greater, oppression stronger, and poverty persists…and they do something about it.
Tax dodging by large corporations takes $200 million out of developing countries. Christian Aid campaigns for tax justice. Climate change is already adversely affecting the poorest in the world. Christian Aid campaigns for government and church policies to limit the damage done.
The unequal distribution of power causes poverty. One of the biggest inequalities in the world is between men and women. Christian Aid works for gender justice in many countries.
Secondly, they don’t wait for disasters to happen and then respond. They work to build resilience, so that the poorest countries can cope better when floods, crop failures or other disasters strike. They work with the poorest people all around the world, helping them to help themselves.
Thirdly – they do respond when disaster strikes. And they are still responding when the world’s media has packed up and gone. Remember the tsunami in Indonesia? Cyclone Idai? The war in Syria? Christian Aid is still responding to those and many other disasters…helping people to begin rebuilding their lives.
Finally though – they do this work because they are Christians…because they believe all people are created in the image of God…because as Christians they have hope that relationships distorted by discrimination and oppression can and should be changed…because Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
‘It was winter’, for me, this week, it’s been a reminder that Jesus never promised a life free of suffering…he promised to be with us in the suffering. And he told us to look for him in the victims of the world…”whatever you do for the least of these – you do for me.”
“The father and I are one”, Jesus also says in today’s gospel. In other words – what Jesus does is a glimpse of God. God seeks out and cares for the hungry, the destitute, the oppressed – and calls us to do the same.
There are many ways to answer this call. I offer you Christian Aid as an easy place to start. Fill an envelope, better still, take some to the people in your street, and explain why it is so important.
“Always winter and never Christmas”…as Christians we are called to deliver Christmas…to bring the love of God who became man, into the wintry places of the world. Amen