Fourth Sunday of Easter

In these weeks of Easter, we’ve been hearing the stories of Jesus resurrection appearances: the empty tomb; Jesus appearing to the disciples in the Locked room; the road to Emmaus; and now comes this passage from John’s gospel. Like all John’s writing it has layer up on layer on meaning hidden within it, and one has to dig deep in order to reveal the hidden truths contained within it.

The first question one might want to ask, is why those who wrote the Lectionary, put it in for this particular Sunday during the Easter Season? The answer I suspect is all to do with finding new life, and for the followers of Jesus, new life was to be found through him. The Gospel for today comes from Chapter 10, but if we recall those words from Chapter 6, which we often read at Funerals, Jesus tells us that he is The Way, the truth, and the Life. 

But back to today’s Gospel. Here Jesus gives us an image of the Shepherd and the sheep. This I believe is classical parable territory for Jesus, for so often in trying to describe a deep theological point of view, he literally looks to what is around him, and uses it as a means of describing something about God or himself, in a way which will relate to those who are listening. It doesn’t take much for us to work out that humanity is represented by the sheep, and the Shepherd in this stance is Jesus himself. The thief and bandit will follow their own way, and potentially lead others astray. But those who hear the voice of Jesus, and go where ever he calls them, will have life, and as John tells us have it abundantly. 

In the Lectionary for these weeks of Easter, instead of an Old Testament passage as our first reading, we’re given passages from The Acts of the Apostles. We begin to hear how the early Church came together, how many people came to be baptised by the disciples and the early Apostles, and how the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

In today’s passage from Chapter 2, we are told that All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.

These new Christians soon began to form small communities, living together in a communal way, and before very long, there was a need to provide some coherent structure to their way of living. This model of living in community was the precursor to the monastic way of life, which was founded by both St Francis and St Benedict.

During my Sabbatical, I’ve been reading and studying and writing about Benedictine spirituality. This comes partly because in my own spiritual journey, I’ve always found the monastic tradition attractive, and as a child grew up in Cambridge, where the sight of Franciscan monks was an everyday experience. But it also comes, because I’ve been exploring Minster’s, medieval and contemporary, and monasticism, and here at Halifax, this building was initiated by monks from Cluny, with a strong Benedictine spirituality, and I wanted to get a better insight into what their lives might have been like, and what it was that energized them to begin building this wonderful Minster, we see today.

I’m not going to talk about Benedict, that will come another day, but I do want to reflect with you on some of elements which have dominated his spirituality and the communities he founded and follow his Rule. I think it would be good to say that Benedict valued both a vertical and a horizontal relationship with God: vertical in the sense that as Christians we can have a personal relationship with God and Jesus which is intimate and personal, yet at the same time God is to be found in a horizontal relationship through one’s neighbour, as found in community life. He tries to hold them together, as in the shape of the Cross.

The very early monasteries Benedict founded were quite small, with no more than 25 people living together, usual there wasn’t a priest, and the community was made up of Lay people, who were giving their lives to God and living together in community. Benedict’s Rule, was to provide a framework under which the community could live and thrive, and embraced the three vows of obedience, stability, and ‘conversatio morum’ – conversion of life.

The vow of obedience is better described as a vow of listening: of spending time listening to God and Jesus, to the Rule, to the Abbott, to the other members of the community. To listen attentively to what we hear is much more than giving it passing attention, going in one ear and out the other. It means we have to listen whether we like it or not, whether we find it agreeable or disagreeable. If we stop listening to what we find hard to hear, then we’re likely to pass God by without even noticing him. It is out of obedience we can show that we have been paying close attention. So to obey means to hear and act upon what we have heard.

The second vow of the community is that of stability. It raises the whole issue of commitment and fidelity. This becomes a stark reality to the new novice who seeks entry into the community, and is tested over a long period, before making his final promises. Each stage in the process the Rule is presented, and with an opportunity to either stand firm and stay, or to feel free to take one’s leave. Here we are confronted with a basic human need – we all need to feel at home, to feel earthed. It is impossible to say ‘who am I’? without first asking. ‘where am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Without roots we cannot discover where we belong, without stability we cannot know our true selves. For the world is a demanding place, we are pushed and pulled by many conflicting demands on our time, our money and energy. Instead of living in a bewildering and exhausting environment, monastic stability calls us to accept a particular community, place and people, this and no other, as the way to God.

For Benedict stability is about persevering with patience in community life. The good order and stability of the whole community enables the individual to have space and time to enter into personal dialogue with God. Again we can see the diffusion of a vertical relationship between God and humanity, and that horizontal relationship between humanity living in community with others. The stability of the monastic house can leave one feeling trapped and enclosed, or it can provide the structure for true freedom and the recognition that at the heart of seeking God, is the realization that he dwells inside each of us richly, if only we had the time and the stability of life to find him.

The third vow of the community is that of ‘conversatio morum’. Essentially having made the vows of obedience or listening, and then of stability, this third vow is about entering into a life- long process of transformation. It speaks of being open to the Spirit in a process of changing into the likeness of God, as to be found in the person of Jesus. It’s about learning to surrender our own desire and need for control, to that which God wants us to become. For Benedict it was about the implications of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ call to follow him. For in doing so we are called to a journey in which  we are called to lose our lives in order to find eternal life. This has meant different things to different people in different contexts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship maps out the call to follow Christ in costly obedience. ‘When Christ calls a man’ Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘He bids him come and die’. For some people this may be about literally dying for one’s faith, but for the majority of us, it will be about dying to oneself, and handing our lives over to the one who is our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

The Rule focuses the community on living as Easter people. Community life both corporately and individually, vertically and horizontally, is about sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection. Benedict is clear that we need to live in the light of the resurrection and sing those Alleluias throughout the Easter season, but we can’t have the joy of Easter without the depth of pain and despair which is to be found in Christ’s Passion. It’s only through the pain of dying that we can find new life in Christ, who is The Way, the truth and the life. This conversion of living is a life- long process, as we live out our life in relationship with those around us, either in community or family life, or the networks we currently inhabit. Community in the twenty first century for many is to be found on-line and in electronic format. This brings new demands and challenges to living in community.

The daily routine of monastic life is that of worship, study of the Scriptures and holy texts, and manual labour, which includes the running of the estate and putting food on the table. The work of the day, the opus Dei, is punctuated by times of prayer and worship, with the running of the house, food to sow and harvest, cook and prepare, and money to be raised, to pay for the consumables needed for community life.

Some of the questions for us here in the Minster today, is to ask ourselves if we think this model of living still has something to say to the contemporary world in which we live, and to our own Minster community life? Is there a new monasticism for the 21st century? How do we punctuate the work of our day and that of the Minster with prayer? When do we sit down together to study the Scriptures and holy texts, alongside the mission and ministry of this very busy space, both a gathering place for the whole community, and liturgical place for the praying community?

 God touches the world through our hands,
rough hands to build,
gentle hands to soothe pain, fear and anxiety,
artistic hands to show God’s beauty;
hands to write prose, poetry and theology,
each used to manifest Christ in the world,
gifts differing,
yet all flow from the same spirit.

Br. Mark Dohle, OSCO

The Reverend Canon Hilary Barber

Readings: Acts 2: 42-end; 1 peter 2: 19-end; John 10: 1-10