Rev Dr John McCulloch
Thursday 29th of November, 2018 (St Andrews Day)
Isaiah 49: 1-12; Psalm 40: 1-11; Philemon 3-11 & St John 1:35-42.
St Andrews Scots Memorial, Jerusalem
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
What are you seeking for?
In 1828, a giant of Russian literature was born into a noble family. He was to become one of the most famous writers of all time, but despite his fame and success, he went through a profound existential crisis. He realised that, deep within his being he was dissatisfied, and was searching for something more.
He fought during the Crimean War in the mid-1850s and was profoundly affected by the suffering he saw around him.
Some years later he had a spiritual awakening, and began to give his wealth away, setting up schools for poor peasant children in Russia.
Renouncing the aristocratic lifestyle, he ended up dying of pneumonia in a remote train station. It is said that he spent his last hours preaching love and non-violence to those he met coming on and off the trains.
Famous for novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he was of course Leo Tolstoy.
Some years earlier Tolstoy had written:
The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity by contributing to the establishment of the kingdom of God […] it seems to me that it is impossible to live without discovering the purpose of your life.
In our gospel passage, Jesus asks the question ‘what are you seeking?’.
It is a question that lies at the very heart of what it means to be human. ‘What are you seeking?’, what is the purpose of your life?
We live in an increasingly materialist and agnostic world which believes that there is no transcendent reality, nothing that calls us deeper into the mysterious beauty and love of knowing our creator God.
Faith is ultimately a mystery to be embraced. Faith draws us towards the God who is love.
In our gospel passage, we are introduced to Christ’s first disciple, Andrew, who together with his brother Simon Peter, respond to Christ’s call, and they stay with him that day.
What must have happened during those hours?
What did Andrew and his brother Peter see in Jesus’s eyes, in the words that he spoke, in the compassion he embodied…? What is it that drew them to forsake all and follow him?
In 1946 Viktor E. Frankl wrote a book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankel had survived Auschwitz, and despite living through one of the darkest episodes in human history, he wrote in his book:
“For the first time in my life I saw that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Despite all that he endured, Viktor Frankel was able to hold on to hope, and to believe in the transformative power of love. Even though he was subjected to unimaginable suffering, his captors could not take away the love he felt in his heart.
And we too are called to embody God’s love, which reaches out beyond the barriers and divisions that we so often build around us, and calls us to go beyond our natural comfort zones. It is the love that triumphs even in the face of death.
St Andrew, at a time when the early church was being persecuted by the Roman Empire, crucifying all those whom it thought threatened its imperial rule; responded to Christ’s call, and walked in his master’s footsteps, even knowing that it would ultimately cost him his life.
Historians claim that St Andrew preached along the Black Sea, and reached as far as Kiev in what is known today as Ukraine. Tradition claims that he was martyred in the city of Patras in Greece, and he asked his torturers that he be crucified on an X-shaped cross (or saltire, which you will have seen on the St Andrews flag that flies above this church). He asked this because he deemed himself to be unworthy to die on the same kind of cross that Jesus did. It is said that as he hung on that cross, he continued to preach a message of love and forgiveness to those around him.
What are you searching for? What are you seeking? What am I searching for? How are our lives to be measured?
Christ came into our world to teach us the ways of love, the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. He mandated us to love our enemies, to show compassion, and that true meaning and purpose is to be found in laying down our lives for others.
In this way he drew directly on the Hebrew scriptures, such as the beautiful poetry of the second Isaiah which we read earlier. Isaiah 49 v3 speaks about being released from captivity: ‘come out, to those who are in darkness’,… and a little further on we read the words ‘Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult o earth, break forth, o mountains into singing. For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on the afflicted’.
I recently read a beautiful book by the Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh, who is based in Ramallah. The book is called Where the Line is Drawn, and is a memoire of a life-long friendship between the author and his Jewish Israeli friend Henri. It is a friendship that is strained by the tumultuous years of conflict which makes it difficult for them to see each other.
In 1989 he receives a letter from Henri, part of which reads:
I miss you. I miss our friendship: I want to reach out across the chaos, the abyss, but so often I feel there is too much blood which separates us; too many bullets, deaths and hates, that we cannot walk the hills,
with a distant view of Jaffa you never knew as a child […] so what I want to say to you, my eyes are filled with tears. I am still your friend if you or your condition will allow’. Henri.
The God of compassion and peace calls us to himself. He calls us to reach across the violence of our divisions, and to listen to his voice calling us to live a better way. That same voice which called St Andrew into a life of service and out-poured love.
May it be in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.