SERMON:
The Indelible Marks of Love

2 Samuel 23.1-5 Ephesians 1.15-end
Preached on 28 May 2017
Sunday after Ascension Day Matins at Durham Cathedral 2 Samuel 23.1-5
by Andrew Tremlett

 
This sermon was preached on Sunday 28 May, the first Sunday after Acension Day, and the weekend following terrorist attacks at Manchester Arena and in Egypt.

As a curate at St Matthias’ Church in Torquay, the Victorian church was glorified by a fine reredos. I have no recollection of the central and left panels of the triptych, but I do very clearly remember the one depicting the Ascension.
 
Surrounded by so much fine stonework here with the Neville Screen, I imagine it would now bear poor comparison. But the message was nonetheless clear and powerful.
 
What you saw was the bottom half of Jesus, from the hip down, as he ascended into heaven. As is traditional, the disciples were looking up in awe and wonder, but then – almost comically like a Superhero– on the hillside, you noticed the footprints of Jesus embedded in the soil.
 
Two empty imprints, as if the ascension into heaven had required him to launch upwards, leaving an indelible print on the earth.
 
And, of course, that is the point being made. At one level, the Ascension – the festival we commemorated here on Thursday - is a kind of second bereavement for the disciples; they were left bereft after the Crucifixion, and now they are left again. An awe-inspiring bereavement perhaps, but a real one nonetheless.
 
The disciples are left alone, left to their own devices, it is a necessary bereavement if they are truly to receive the Holy Spirit, that empowering whirlwind at Pentecost.
But look at how they have been changed since that Resurrection morning. After the events of Good Friday, the disciples are pictured dispirited, divided, going their own ways, and above all frightened. The atmosphere as they gather is one of shock mixed with panic.
 
How different things are now, as Luke’s gospel puts it: ‘And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy: And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.’
 
There is a palpable sense of anticipation as the disciples and a growing band wait expectantly, and* commit themselves to a fellowship of prayer: 14These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.
 
And what has made the difference? The imprint of the risen Christ. That encounter with the resurrected Lord, who has met them and changed them, it left an imprint on their lives, an indelible mark which meant that life could never be the same, and which would lift their spirits and raise their sights to heaven.
 
By contrast to those imprints of love, for so many innocent people, the marks left by Monday’s heinous bomb attack were the marks of hatred, born of a corrupt and corrupting ideology of death. The hate-fuelled actions of manipulated young men, who played out their impotence with unspeakable acts against those at the very beginning of their lives, and their most loved ones.
 
The North East of England has sadly not been left untouched, and we remember the families of Liam Curry and Chloe Rutherford from South Shields, and Philip Tron and Courtney Boyle from Gateshead.
 
Here in this Cathedral, a place where thousands come to visit and pray each week, we must pay tribute to the kindness of strangers, the bravery of the first responders and the heroic stoicism of the people of Manchester, whose courage in adversity and sheer determination has inspired the world these past few days.
 
British Muslims are placed in the invidious position of being asked to explain or justify what to them seems a complete aberration.
 
Harun Khan, Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, writing in the national press this week said: ‘As a Muslim I wonder what possessed the attacker to carry out his deed. I pray that such people face the full weight of justice in this life and the next. Their actions are in defiance of the many pronouncements of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, of the Quranic edict to “save life”, and of over a millennia of Islamic scholarship’.
 
However, there is an uncomfortable fact, which we as people of faith must acknowledge, that some of our religious – and secular - ideologies allow a culture and ecology to exist, a question to be raised, to which terror appears to be the answer. The Cambridge academic John Bowker put it like this: the key to understanding why religions matter is that they ‘are the vehicle delivering into human life and history the greatest possible treasure, truth and delight, and for that reason people … would rather die than lose or betray them’.

And we must also ask ourselves as British society some searching questions about how a group of young men, who were born and brought up within our society, whose families were given asylum from a repressive regime, who were educated in our schools and universities, who benefited from our health services, how did our society then become the object of hatred and loathing? These are not new questions: they were exactly the same as those faced after the 7/7 London bombings.
 
Three weeks ago I was invited, as part of a delegation of Church leaders, to meet Pope Tawadros, the global leader of the Coptic Orthodox community – the ancient Christian church of Egypt which traces its roots back to the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and to the Evangelist St Mark as the first Bishop of Alexandria. With 20 million adherents in Egypt alone, the Copts count more Christians in their community than the whole of the rest of the Middle East combined.
 
It was members of this church who were attacked by Islamist terrorists while travelling on pilgrimage to the ancient Monastery of St Samuel the Confessor in Minya province on Friday. 29 people were killed, including many children.
 
It is a sobering reminder that what for us is an utterly shocking and bewildering occurrence, is for many people a daily event which barely merits a line in the news.
 
Nor should we in Durham forget that this beautiful, awe-inspiring Cathedral was used - as we commemorated a few weeks ago – as a prison, an internment camp for Scottish prisoners during the Commonwealth, the rule of Oliver Cromwell –   when many hundreds died as a result of civil conflict between Christians.
 
But let me end where I began: with the Indelible Marks of Love.
 
Those first disciples were left shocked and bewildered, but as that reredos reminded me all those years ago, they were left with the indelible marks of love and waited for the coming Holy Spirit.
 
So we are left to pray for those communities, including the people of South Shields and Gateshead, in the Diocese of Durham, who have lost loved ones. We can do no other.
 
And as we do so, let us follow the example of the people of Manchester, ‘Don’t look back in anger’, and let our response be a resounding ‘yes’ to life and love, and an almighty ‘no’ to hate and fear.