The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Choral Evensong      12th May 2019
Carried and Held by God
Ayla Lepine

Isaiah 63.7-14
Luke 24.36-49

Tonight we hear a passage from the final section of the Book of Isaiah which explores the restoration of Zion and of the people. God’s focused on making strong and eternal relationships in a new way. We hear about God’s actions in the time of Exodus, how he became the people’s saviour, showing them mercy and leading them into political, physical and spiritual freedom. The author makes it clear that God alone, and God personally, rescues and supports these frail people despite all their failures and fears. Isaiah states, ‘It was no messenger or angel, but his presence that saved [the people]’…’he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.’


The image of God lifting people and carrying them – a physical, embodied image – offers insight into the nature of God and how each person, in Isaiah’s time and ours, is invited, if we dare, to be lifted up and carried. What might it feel like to be carried, like a child? Comforting and safe? Humiliating and confusing? A loss of control or powerlessness? Relief and weightlessness? For most of us, it would be an unusual experience, and it would require huge trust.


When Jesus appears to the disciples in Luke’s Gospel, they don’t trust him. They’re terrified. It’s not just disbelief, but a brutal fear. Jesus doesn’t deny their fear, he names it. ‘Why are you frightened?’ he asks. We can’t know what Jesus expected or hoped his friends’ reaction to be, but his conversation with them calmly rejects their rejection of him. They show fear, he acknowledges that they are afraid. Luke tells us that they are afraid because they don’t believe that Jesus is real. He’s a ghost. He’s come to haunt them, not to love them.


Through the passage, these fearful friends do move to a state of joy, but this shift doesn’t erase their doubt. ‘Touch me!’ Jesus says, and they ‘were disbelieving and still wondering’. Jesus doesn’t question their doubt, he makes a connection with their everyday existence, using the mundane to point to the truth of his resurrection. He is not a ghost, but ghosts can speak. He has wounds, but corpses also have wounds. But, do ghosts or cadavers eat? Surely not. Do they teach? No. Can they reveal the truth of the heart? No.


Every sense – hearing Jesus, seeing him, touching his wounds, tasting and smelling the food – every sense is involved in these few lines at the end of Luke’s Gospel. It’s about bodies, and how bodies behave. Everything Jesus does, says, and is brings the same message over and over again: Peace be with you. I am real. Trust me. 


If Jesus had said these words but not invited the touch, eaten the food, taught the scriptures, engaged their bodies and not just their minds or their ears, perhaps the disciples would not have got past their fear. Trapped in the horror of death, they may not have got past the thick, suffocating wall of their own pain. Jesus’ presence – truly human and truly God, marked but not overcome by death -  brings them from the shock of grief towards something else. Jesus’ friends, emotionally and psychologically shredded by his death, are afraid because they thought they’d come to the end of the story. Jesus teaches them with his whole embodied self that there is no end to his story, their story, or our story. It is not over.


In the Church, we proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus, who is truly alive and together with the Father and the Holy Spirit brings hope and life to all creation. Today is Vocations Sunday in the Church of England and I wonder if any of you has ever felt called to be a deacon, a monk, a priest, or to develop your ministry in a unique way. I never expected to be a member of the clergy, and in a few weeks I’ll be a priest. Every person has a vocation - a call to minister in some way, whether as an ordained person or not. Every calling is a gift from God. People encouraged me to pray and to ask questions, and to respond to God’s invitation. Through this process each person who answers God’s call becomes more fully alive, more truly ourselves, and the people God has called us to be. If you have ever wondered about this path, explore it! Ask questions, talk to me or any clergy, and begin to find out who you really are. Because God is inviting each of us to use our gifts, and we need to help each other discover them.


Despite what kitschy posters, Victorian heroic paintings, or impossibly perfect sculptures of blonde babies for Nativity cribs might suggest, Jesus isn’t loved because he’s got a fabulous complexion, perfect feet, or great muscle tone. He’s loved because he gives his whole self, in the pain and suffering of this world, into the tender weakness of every human life, rich or poor, men or women, able-bodied or disabled, and says something revolutionary. He says: ‘You are loved just as you are.’ 


When Jesus looked into the eyes of his frightened friends and said ‘Touch me and see’; when he asked to stay for breakfast even though he could tell they were still a tangled mess of doubts, when he told them that a new life through the resurrection, and the chance to make a world founded on love rather than fear, was not just possible but essential, Jesus was doing exactly what Isaiah’s prophecy talks about. Jesus was carrying his friends, lifting them up.


I’d like to invite you to clasp your hands together, tenderly like you would with someone you’re close to. You might like to close your eyes for this bit. Notice the feeling of one sensitive part of your body in contact with another. Imagine that you are one of the grieving disciples, frightened and doubting in that anxious little group. Imagine that the hand you hold in your hand is the hand of Jesus, his resurrected wounded hand. Those hands heal, embrace, break bread.


Every single body, yours and mine, though you and I may find that difficult to believe sometimes, is beautiful. You are enough. I am enough. This week is Mental Health Awareness week and this year’s theme is ‘body image’. This isn’t about Fitbits or diets, or only focused on scars or chronic physical conditions. It’s about perception. It’s knowing and even celebrating that our bodies in all their uniqueness are a part of who we are, and that we are invited to honour them. This week, maybe we could all find a way to honour and care for our bodies. God made your body. God delights in the uniqueness of your body.


God lifts up his people and carries them. Holds their bodies close and treats them with respect and love. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus communicates with his friends through his body, inviting them to touch as well as see and hear. A few days ago, Jean Vanier died. He founded the L’Arche communities around the world where people living with learning disabilities and physical conditions of many kinds are welcomed and loved, just as they are. Vanier believed that when all of us discover our deepest weaknesses, we are more open to being in community and being honest with each other about needing love. Every person needs love. And everybody’s weak sometimes and needs help sometimes. Everyone needs to be carried at some point in their lives.


Here are Jean Vanier’s words:


'Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed…To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: "You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself."' 


Amen.

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