Sermon from 10 May 2015

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Acts 10:44-48; Ps 98; 1 John5:1-6; John 15:9-17

The cup of tea or coffee after this celebration is provided by The Friends of Christ Church Cathedral. The thought of that might help you through the sermon! When we call this group “The Friends” for short, we are actually using a very old name for the Christian community that crops up seven times in the New Testament.[1] The Quakers use it, calling themselves the Society of Friends.

In today’s gospel, the risen Jesus is calling us his friends and urging us to be friends to each other. How are we to understand this? Jesus explains it in terms of what we might call a chain reaction or a knock-on-effect. This is how it works.

As the Father has loved him,

so Jesus has loved us,

and therefore we should love one another.

But who exactly are “we” and who do we include in “one another”? Is it all of us here in this cathedral? Yes, but a surely a wider circle of friends. All our fellow members of the Anglican Communion, perhaps? Even wider! All Christians? Wider still! All people of faith? All humankind? Listening to our first reading today we sensed Peter’s amazement and joy when he began to see that the circle of believers in Jesus had to be widened beyond Judaism to include people of all nations. This was quite a challenge for Peter and the early Jewish believers in Jesus. They had to learn a whole new meaning for the term, “God’s chosen people.”  Maybe today when we try to respond to Jesus’ command we have to learn a whole new meaning for the term, “one another.”

The science of genetics is telling us that our kinship extends far beyond our own species. According to Prof. John Fehan of UCD, genetically speaking we are one third primrose! How wonderful to have so many more relatives than we ever previously imagined and such beautiful individuals as the primroses that we see these days in our gardens and hedgerows! Our kinship with animals and plants is a reason for mindfulness and for gratitude that so many of these more-than-human friends give their lives to sustain us. Just think of the trees felled to produce the beautiful timber chairs we are sitting on, the rock quarried to build this cathedral. Some of us might be old enough to remember that poster that graced the walls of many a student flat in the 1970s. Under the caption, “There is no such thing as a free lunch” there was a picture of a big fish, about to devour a smaller fish about to eat an even smaller fish, who in turn was about to eat an even smaller fish and so on. We are so used to packaged food arriving on supermarket shelves through third parties that we can easily forget that we are nurtured by our fellow creatures. A massive amount of plant and animal death goes on so that we might eat and live. Even if we are vegetarians we still depend on the death of countless organisms who aerate and fertilize the soil, enabling it to produce our food. It is a fact of all life on Earth that in order to live we have to be nourished by the lives of others. For anything to live at all, other things must die, usually by being eaten.

In our culture, eating is at risk of degenerating into mere fuel consumption. Eating is meant to be done in gratitude and conviviality. One of the great joys of human life is companionship—the sharing of bread—at meals. Ideally eating is enhanced by the enjoyment of “good wine” (John 2:10). It is no coincidence that all of this is beginning to sound rather eucharistic. As we come to the holy table to eat the “fruit of the earth,” the bread and wine of the eucharist, that “knock-on effect” happens. God gives Jesus to us; we draw life from Jesus so that then we can make of our lives a gift for the nurture of the world.

So let us try to imagine what “laying down one’s life for one’s friends” might mean if the friends were to include all our fellow creatures. It could be serious. There are many people in today’s world who put their lives on the line and are imprisoned or even murdered when their environmental advocacy brings them into conflict with powerful vested interests. But laying down our life for our friends could also mean putting our own life on hold, for a while, while we devote our time, skills and resources to the flourishing of our friends in the Earth community. An impressive example of this in the news recently was the willingness of a group called ClientEarth to put funding and expertise into a five year legal battle for clean air which went all the way to the UK Supreme Court. This was an imaginative idea: to give Earth a voice by making her the plaintiff in a court case.[2] Another was the advocacy and scholarship that bore fruit in the 2008 declaration of the Swiss Federation “On the Dignity of Living Beings” which resulted in Switzerland extending constitutional legal protection to plants.[3] In 2011 Bolivia, a country seriously affected by climate change, became a world leader by developing its own historic “Mother Earth Law” which gives nature ‘rights’ comparable to human rights, and makes a radical ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy mandatory.[4]

So when we hear Jesus’ command, “Love one another as I have loved you” could we take an imaginative leap and hear “one-another” as not just our fellow humans but all our fellow creatures as well? This is not a new-fangled or new-age idea. Our Israelite ancestors in faith did exactly that when they provided in their law for the Sabbath rest to apply not only to people, but to the animals, the crops and the land (Exod 20:10; Lev 25). As we heard in the psalm sung by the choir for us today, they found it impossible to praise God without involving the whole Earth.

Let the sea make a noise and all that therein is:

The round world and they that dwell therein.

Let the floods clap their hands,

And let the hills be joyful before the Lord.

We are going to hear a lot more about this over the coming months, especially with the forthcoming encyclical letter of Pope Francis, intentionally timed to come out in advance of his addresses to the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September, and to build towards the international climate negotiations in Paris next December. This letter will link economic justice, social solidarity and Earth-care in what Francis calls an “Integral Ecology.” This document is eagerly awaited far beyond the boundaries of Christianity because, in what we must recognize as the work of the Holy Spirit, all the world religions are converging and mobilizing on the issue of climate change.

Last time I was preaching, one of “the friends” here in the cathedral was kind enough to say to me afterwards that it had never struck her before that John 3:16 does not say, “God loved humanity so much that he gave his only son,” but “God loved the world so much . . .” I found her reaction exciting. It meant that she could see her concern at how Earth is being degraded, and her commitment to do whatever she can to heal the earth, as the “knock on effect” of God’s love for the world revealed in God’s becoming part of it in Jesus. God sent Jesus that the world might have life and have it to the full (John 10:10). And here again is the chain reaction. As the Father sent him, so the risen Jesus sends us. We are his friends if we do what he commands us (John 15:14). We are to love one another—whether human, animal, plant, rock, water, soil, air, atmosphere. No question about it! A Christian has to be a friend of the Earth.


[1] 2 Cor 11:9, Phil 4:21; 3 John 1:3.5.10. 15 (twice);