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‘If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us’ – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.

Date: 28 April 2024, The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York


If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.

Outside the south door of this great cathedral is a statue commemorating arguably the most important person ever to have resided in this city – the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. Proclaimed as such in 306, right here, possibly on the spot where this pulpit stands, this ‘great’ ruler was responsible for the decriminalization of Christianity, and the start of a journey that would lead to it being adopted as the official state religion of the empire.

The consequences of what is sometimes called the Constantinian shift were felt throughout the history of the Church of God. Given that the great emperor’s rule began here in York, it is, perhaps, fitting to observe that the most pronounced impact of Constantine’s radical change of direction can be seen in the life of the Church of England. For there are only two countries in the world where senior religious leaders (in our case, bishops) sit, by virtue of their office, in the state’s legislature (the other such country being Iran). And atop the structure that has 26 Church of England bishops thus ennobled in the House of Lords, the Supreme Governor of our church, of course, is the monarch.

Now, I am a fan of establishment, for it is clear to me that the English church has received many missional benefits from the links that it brings. But it is also clear to me that these benefits have not been without a cost factor, for a church that is established is not, usually, a nimble church; a church that is, by definition, at ease with the powers which govern and rule does not always relate so easily to those lower in the social or political order; a church which finds itself alongside those who have the power to persecute is not always a church that is readily able to stand alongside those who are being persecuted.

In short, whether you use the term in the particular legal definition that pertains to the Church of England, or whether you simply speak of any church that is large, or rich, or ‘well established’, you may not find a church that can quickly, easily, or meaningfully tell one of its leaders to Get up and go…to the road that goes down…to Gaza – to the road which, perhaps even more today than 2000 years ago, is so very truly a wilderness road.

Philip, of course, was a member of a very pre-Constantinian church – a church which understood very clearly the consequences and impact of persecution, which is where the curtain rises for us this morning in the Acts of the Apostles. For Saul (who is still a chapter away from his life-changing journey to Damascus), Saul has been busy

‘ravaging’ the church, causing its frightened members to be ‘scattered’ around the entire region.

And thus it is that Philip, who had originally been chosen, if not ordained, by the apostles to offer pastoral service by feeding those in need, Philip finds himself recommissioned to a brand new ministry of preaching and teaching, and having to do so on the very fringes of society, on that most awful place, the wilderness road that leads to Gaza.

And there he – and thus we – encounter a child of God who is not merely passing through a geographical and political wilderness, but also a profound spiritual wilderness. For there is much to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch that while not stated explicitly in Luke’s text, shouts to us from the margins of the page, in the hope that we hear and understand what you might call the full story.

Now the eunuch was probably what is usually termed a ‘God-fearer’. A gentile by birth, but one who had come to believe in the Jewish faith, but who had not taken the necessary steps formally to convert to Judaism – steps which, for an adult man living before the benefits of either anesthesia or antiseptics, bore very real risks of pain, and serious illness.

And, we should note, we come across this God-fearing and unusual man, not on his journey towards Jerusalem and the Temple, but on his return home. Something had drawn him, called him, to the very heart of ‘established’ Jewish religion, but his call has been not been fulfilling – it has not even been nurturing. For although something has caught his eye in the pages of scripture, nobody has bothered or cared to help him understand it, as he makes clear when he answers Philip’s question by saying, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

And it is not surprising he needs guiding, for he is reading one of the most counter-cultural passages of the Hebrew scriptures – he is reading the poignant and unsettling account of that shadowy figure often called ‘the Suffering Servant’ – the figure at the heart of the writing of Second Isaiah that was so uniquely meaningful to Jesus, and to Jesus’ self-understanding of his own vocation. A passage which speaks of God as persecuted, of God being denied justice, of God being unjustly killed. In other words, a passage which speaks of God in a manner about as far removed as it is possible to be from anything to do with the authority or security normally conferred by ‘establishment’.

A passage, therefore, which might suggest to this Ethiopian ‘stranger’ that the God whom the Israelites worship in Jerusalem might yet have something to offer those

who are in some way or other ‘outcast’.

For this man is an outsider. His skin color would have stood out in the crowds in Jerusalem. And while his unusual physical condition would, one assumes, not have been obvious to the naked eye, if he had had the naivety to be honest about who and what he was, the priests of the Temple would have lost no time in telling him that he absolutely was outcast – he was to be excluded from the assembly, as is stated with total clarity in the first verse of Deuteronomy 23. And it is to bring the Good News of God’s love to this particular outcast that Philip finds himself sent.

Indeed, when you look at the subtlety of the Greek which Luke uses, Philip is not merely told to ‘get up’ and go off towards Gaza. The angel is using what you might call resurrection language of raising or being raised. Philip is told to ‘be raised’ so that he, in turn, might ‘raise up’ a beloved child of God in whose face the religious establishment has just slammed the door very firmly shut.

And thus, duly raised up and empowered by the angel, Philip raises up the eunuch, baptizing him into the death of Christ, and thus into the inclusive new life of resurrection that is offered to every child of God, and which has power to change us and through us, to change the world.

At which point, of course, Luke abandons his initial language that told us the Ethiopian was ‘returning home’ (that is to say, having to assume his old spiritual and emotional identity). As a result of Philip’s angelic and inclusive ministry, we are, instead, told that the eunuch goes on his ‘way’, and, in doing so, becomes a follower of the way, which is how Luke initially speaks of the Christian faith – he goes on his way, and does so no longer confused and down-hearted, but ‘rejoicing’.

In December, at the request of the leaders of the Christian Unions of our two local universities, I invited the Reverend Rico Tice, a prominent evangelical who was for many years on the clergy of All Souls, Langham Place, to preach in this very pulpit for the CU carol service.

I was saddened – but possibly not surprised – to learn only yesterday that Mr Tice has just left or split from the Church of England because of what he calls its ‘onward trajectory’ in affirming same-sex relationships, and, more specifically, about its approval of a small collection of prayers which –  although they do not constitute any kind of stand-alone rite akin to a blessing of such a relationship – he deems to be “a clear, pervasive denial of the Christian’s need to repent of each and every sin they commit.”

While I wish Mr Tice well, and have no desire to enter any kind of tit-for-tat argument with him, his words simply make me hope that he and others who share his views will not find themselves committing the sin of exclusion. For if we are to speak of ‘a clear, pervasive denial’ of the ‘need to repent’, then let us be absolutely clear that over many centuries, the Church of God has failed to repent of the ways it has excluded and damaged not just the people whose sexuality has been deemed inappropriate or unacceptable, but many others whom the ‘establishment’ has deliberately or accidentally made to feel outcast on account of their colour, their enslavement, their disabilities, their gender, and probably many other characteristics.

The youthful but profound poet Jay Hulme, whose work is on sale in our very own bookshop, and who is, himself, a committed member of the Church of England, serving as churchwarden of a parish in the East Midlands, reminds his readers of the breadth of God’s love in a reconsideration of the Beatitudes in which, amongst other things, he rightfully asserts:

Blessed are the outcasts; the ostracised, the outsiders…

Blessed are the hated; for they are not worthy of hate…

Blessed are the closeted; God sees you shine anyway.

Blessed are the queers; who love creation enough to live the truth of it,

despite a world that tells them they cannot.

And blessed are those who believe themselves unworthy of blessing;

what inconceivable wonders you hold.[1]

I pray that the doors of this vast, seemingly immoveable and very well ‘established’ cathedral will never fail to be open to offer God’s blessing to all who approach them – especially to those who feel that, for whatever reason, their face or their lifestyle might not ‘fit’ our expectations or deserve our welcome. Because, as St John wrote so very clearly – wrote without any attempt to limit, to narrow, or to exclude, If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. Amen.

[1] Beatitudes for a Queerer Church from The Backwater Sermons, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2021

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