The Very Rev. Robert Andrews Willis
Let me respond to my friend Dean Lloyd’s warm welcome this morning by saying what an immense pleasure it always is to stand here in our sister cathedral of Washington, feeling so like—architecturally—Canterbury, and to bring the greetings of the Cathedral Church in Canterbury to you here this morning.
It’s in many ways, I suppose, a strange Gospel for Eastertide. With the sun shining at this spring season in the northern hemisphere everything seems full of new life, and yet our Gospel takes us back to the very center of readings that we might think are best placed in Holy Week and Passiontide. For here at the supper table of the Last Supper, Judas has left the table and our Gospel begins pre-anything that happened even on Good Friday, leave alone Easter Day. Yet it’s here in the Easter season that we choose to read this story.
It’s rather “Gospel of St. John.” Jesus is always saying, “not yet, not yet.” The hour is not yet come. I well remember a curate in my parish church on his first sermon preaching on that text and saying “the hour is not yet come,” when the enormous clock of the tower above him boomed the hour. And the rest of his sermon was rather overshadowed by the fact that the hour clearly had come and people were rather waiting for him to get out of the pulpit.
But here in this particular point of the Gospel, it’s not, “not yet” but “now.” It has come. It’s here. Now is the Son of Man glorified, and in him God is glorified. When? At some magnificent occasion lauded by crowds, where Jesus is lifted high and recognized by all? No, at the point where in the intimacy of friends, Jesus senses the first vulnerability of awful betrayal. Judas goes out of the supper room. It is night. And Jesus says, “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” He might have said, now I am standing absolutely where many of you as human beings will stand, and in that vulnerable situation where all begin to forsake, God is glorified. And the Passion unfolds. And we know that God is glorified because this is Easter. So we revisit the story which made not the same sense to us in Holy Week. We revisit.
I suppose that’s something of the moment that is very near to what I’m doing, for although it’s wonderful to be here in Washington on my way to what I’m going to do, essentially I’ve come to lead the retreat of all the clergy of Virginia, at this time of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, revisiting the past to look at it again just as we do with this Gospel.
Last week on English television I watched a program about Jamestown—it had been made over here—and it was a program about archaeology, but a fascinating one, an hour-long description of how the well at Jamestown (of the original settlers) was excavated. And they showed as it went down and down and down and down, and right at the bottom, enormous excitement as artifacts were found. A child’s shoe, sign of sort of domestic life all those years ago, 400 years ago…and an axe, still preserved down there, deep in the mud…a pistol, no longer of any use except to show that it had been a pistol…and many other things, as the archaeologists said, “Oh look, this is a piece of this,” and fitted the jigsaw together, revisiting the past and creating by that revisiting something of the life—the threatened life—of that tiny community living its life 400 years ago, seeing it now through different eyes.
We do the same in our communities, and to me, always, just standing in this Canterbury pulpit carved out of the stones of Canterbury Cathedral Tower is a revisiting of the past, holding on to something that was. I have no idea when this stone that I’m holding was actually put in Canterbury Cathedral but it’s certainly part of what was of that particular community.
In a few weeks’ time the city of Canterbury will receive—we do it in turns—the Magna Charta. And I’m reminded, again, that on the front of the pulpit is the first sentence of Magna Charta, carved here: “The Church of England shall be free.” That’s how Magna Charta begins in 1215.
We revisit the past, but we do so in the present to plan and have vision for the future. The American poet T. S. Eliot, who made his home in England and who became such a writer for what is Anglican, an Anglican poet, says, “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.” It’s the beginning of “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets. And where does he get his inspiration from? He goes back to visit the place where his ancestors came from. And he looks at the bits and pieces and says, “they must have felt this; they must have been like this.” And he writes his poem about how the past and the present create us for the future.
We go back to that Gospel. As we can tell our own story, perhaps, if you took me around your house. Certainly if I took you around my library in Canterbury and I say, “Where did I buy that book? Where did I buy that book? Who gave me that? What did that come from?” gradually, my life begins to appear. “What does it mean to you now?” And I mix the present with the past and hold it up and give myself encouragement for the future, holding on to those things which are precious and building the community in that way. It’s why we treasure the past, the tradition of the past. But it becomes dead if we don’t revisit it in the present with one another and plan beyond, by the grace of God.
And around the supper table Jesus said, as the traitor leaves, “Now is the Son of Man glorified.” He can see what is coming. He can see the horror of the next twenty-four hours. He can see the betrayal, the loneliness, the fracture of that little community. But in it, it has the potential to glorify God, as does every human situation. And the extraordinary thing is, in our Christian history, that it’s often those situations in an individual’s life or a community’s life, which are most terrifying, most hurtful, most fractured, most imprisoned, which give us the real passages of faith which we hold on to: the Bunyan passages from prison, the Pauline passages from prison, the Bonhoeffer passages from prison.
For in our weakness, God is most strong. And it is just then that Jesus gives us something to hold up in the present for the sake of the future—the words, “I give you a new commandment, love one another because this is how people will know that you are my disciples.” He doesn’t say, “Love one another and you will always find love in return.” That’s not the deal. He loved even to the end, at a time when he was being betrayed, denied, forsaken, standing alone in his vision for humanity and for the glory of the Father. And in that, God was glorified.
Love one another whatever the cost. And that love becomes something that he revisits with us. It’s at this time that Peter, sitting around the table as everything is fracturing, says, “Lord, even if all these others forsake you, I never will. I would die for you.” That great love of agape, the totality of self-giving. We know where all that comes to grief, as a little girl says, “you’re a friend of this man” and Peter can’t even admit to being that. “I would die for you.” I won’t even admit to knowing you in front of a maidservant. He does it in front of a charcoal fire, we’re told, in the Gospel of St. John. And later, after Resurrection, Jesus takes that love which Peter has professed and reexamines it. He’s standing on the lakeside. He doesn’t just do it with words. We’re told, amazingly, that Jesus himself has kindled a charcoal fire on the lakeside, as though to say, right, let’s revisit this scene again, and see what this love is that you have professed.
So after breakfast when he has revisited the supper scene he says, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” Jesus is making the comparison. He is using Peter’s words. He’s taking things from the past and revisiting them, because it was Peter who had said, “Even if all these others forsake you, I won’t.” So Jesus uses the same similarity: “Simon, do you love me more than these?” And Jesus uses the great, big word—agape—the Greek, the big word for total self-giving, whatever the cost. Peter’s wiser now, revisiting the past, and looking at his present. And being asked for the future, he uses the simpler, more gentle word of friendship, not giving quite so much because he knows he’s failed on the other one. “Yes, Lord, you know that I’m your friend.”—philia, he uses.
Jesus says the same again. “Do you love me?”—the big word. “You know that I’m your friend.” And finally, Jesus, as he always does—just as he did with the lad’s breakfast, taking it, however small, when people laughed at the amount to feed the 5,000—Jesus takes Peter’s lesser offer, post-Resurrection, “You know that I’m your friend.”
“Are you my friend?”
“You know that I’m your friend.”
“Then feed my sheep.”
He commissions him where he is. They have revisited the past and in it they have glorified God. They stand there in the present as we do now, and we offer what we can. And in the Lord’s hands that is transformed into something that will feed his world, whatever our situation on this Sunday morning in Eastertide, however desperate we are, and however happy we are. Jesus will take that as an offering of service and transform it into the larger picture which will feed his Church and his world.
“Are you my friends?” he says to us. And by receiving him in Gospel and in bread and wine, we say, “Yes, Lord, we are your friends.” Present tense. “Then feed my sheep.” That’s the future. For Washington Cathedral, for Canterbury Cathedral, for the diversity of Christ’s Church, whatever it looks like in whatever part of the world, “Are you my friends?”
Yes, we are, and the corollary, “Then love one another.” No promises for the moment that love will be returned, but if you keep on loving, then Christ’s Church is bound to prosper and humanity is bound to be enriched. Not the stones of Canterbury Cathedral, or the stones of Washington Cathedral, but the flesh and blood of the community of Canterbury Cathedral and the flesh and blood—you and me this morning—of the community of Washington Cathedrat. The body of Christ, set for the future, and Christ walking with us every step of the way.