The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      18th June 2017
The kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 10.7)
Handley Stevens

Trinity 1, Year A
Psalm 100
OT Reading: Exodus 19.2-8a
NT Reading: Romans 5.1-8
Gospel        : Matthew 9.35-10.8
Text: The kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 10.7)
In our Old Testament reading the Lord God spoke of the people of Israel as ‘my treasured possession.’ As such, they were in a privileged position among all the people of the earth, but they were his possession.
Until very recently the concept of love as possession was still embedded in the language of the wedding ceremony.  As the father of three daughters, I have had to decide with each of them in turn what if anything should be said after escorting them up the aisle.  First time around, I think both of us probably accepted the traditional language of ‘giving away’: Who gives this woman to be married to this man?  In using these words, Lucy and I will both have needed to make a mental reservation about what was being said, since it was never my view that I had any right to ‘give my daughters away.’ They and their partners gave themselves to one another.  I am glad to see that the order in Common Worship now treats this little exchange as optional, and for those who still wish to say something, it offers the more acceptable wording: Who brings this woman to be married to this man?  But I don’t think we knew about that seventeen years ago.
On the second occasion, Hilary and I agreed to omit the words altogether, but after escorting her up the aisle, we exchanged a kiss.  I think we both felt this to be an appropriate way to acknowledge the completion of one phase of parental responsibility, before stepping back to support her and her partner in a different way on the next stage of their journey together. On the third occasion, Mary and Oliver chose to enter the building together, so the question did not arise.
If our own stumbling experience suggests that the relationship of parent to child is more like that of a trustee discharging an obligation, rather than an owner surrendering possession, what does this suggest about our own understanding of God’s love?
In our gospel this morning Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven coming near.  Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great price, for which the merchant was willing to give every penny he had.  That’s how much the kingdom is worth, but it is misleading to think of it as something to be bought and then possessed.  When the kingdom of heaven comes near, the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead and the driving away of all that is evil is not bought or earned.  It is received as the free gift of God, and we who receive it without payment are commanded to give without payment. 
The conditions laid down in our Old Testament reading have fallen away.  God’s love for us is utterly unconditional; it does not depend on our good behaviour. There are no payments to be made.  We understand that, because that is how we would hope to love our own children, even if we don’t always manage to do so.  Sometimes we are too tired or too busy to give them as much of the loving attention as we would like them to be able to count on.  But we do try.  We rejoice to see them growing up into the special, distinctive person that God entrusted into our care, enabled by the assurance of our love and the love of God, to fulfil their unique potential as a child of God. 
But God’s love for us goes way beyond anything we can begin to imagine on the basis of our human experience.  In St Paul’s words: ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5.8), and now ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Rom 5.5).  As a result of this amazing gift, coming from the loving heart of God, we are enabled, as were the first disciples, to follow Jesus’ example, sharing with others the good news of God’s love that we have ourselves received, playing our part by his grace in the healing and restoration of the victims of poverty, disease and damaged relationships, bringing near to others the kingdom of heaven which Jesus has brought near to us.  And there is no transaction in all this, no conditions to be met.  How could we possibly look to be paid for sharing with others a gift which was lavished on us without payment?
God did not change between the Old Testament and the New, but in the light of their experience of God in the person of Jesus Christ, the authors of the New Testament had arrived at a new understanding of the relationship between God and his chosen people, not so much his treasured possession as his beloved children. As human parents we experience something of the joy of unconditional loving and giving. Now, as members of a Christian community, we need to adopt a similar pattern in giving not just to our own children, but to the wider family of our brothers and sisters in need. 
That is why the Christian churches in North Kensington have been so prominent in the response to the fire that consumed the Grenfell Tower on Thursday night. That is why the PCC’s recent and unanimous decision to host a night shelter for homeless men and women in our crypt rooms on Saturday nights this winter is such an exciting adventure for us.  It will require a very significant commitment of volunteer time and resources to make it work, but I believe we shall find that our experience of sharing the provision of care and shelter with a group of homeless people will give a deeper meaning to our own sharing in the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who commanded us to follow his example in proclaiming the good news both in word and in deed. 
The love of God which has touched our lives is not expressed in taking possession of those whom we love for his sake, but in giving ourselves freely to them in lives of loving service.  When that happens, the kingdom of heaven has come near.

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