Come and See

A sermon by Revd Richard Carter.

Readings for this service: John 1.43-end

I have always loved this opening scene in John’s Gospel part of which we heard read today. Chapter one of John begins as we know, with the Prologue, that epic poem establishing the pre-existent Word at the very beginning of all things:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of people.

There could not be a grander or transcendent an opening. But from that huge beginning- envisioning that vast expanse of time and space the second part of Chapter One, in complete contrast, is local, and familiar. We’ve moved from the transcendent to the immanent. Jesus is walking through the actual neighbourhood of Galilee. The Prologue has established the scale and reach of the incarnation and then straight afterwards we realise the creator of the universe is actually going to be down here walking among us. And Jesus is asking the disciples and all those who come after- to come and see for themselves. “Come and see.” The simplest and most immediate of invitations. We are going to discover the transcendent God here and now and on the next day of our own lives, and the next day too, and the next. “Come and see.” This is not about a theory, or a doctrine, or a philosophy- this is about direct experience. It’s about meeting Jesus here and now.

How can God happen here? How can anything good come out of Nazareth or St Martin’s Lane or Charing Cross? “Come and see.” Those first disciples are overawed in their initial reception of Jesus. “We have just found him of whom Moses and the prophets wrote,”  Philip announces to Nathaniel who is sceptical at first but a few minutes later is himself saying to Jesus; “You are the Son of God, the King of Israel!”  It’s going to take him, and all of us, the rest of our lives to realise the implications of that spontaneous revelation. As Jesus says to him: “You are going to see greater things than this. You are going to see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Think about those words “come and see.” There is an openness to that invitation. They are not saying you’ve got to answer this problem or solve this mystery- they are simply saying you’ve got to be open to it- attentive to all that is about to happen.

“Come and see” is not about control or mastery but a choice to participate in a story greater than our own.

“Come and see” is about the Spirit of inquiry- the courage to set out into the unknown with your eyes and heart open on a journey of discovery.

“Come and see” is not about judgment, or recrimination or bitterness for the past but about hoping in God’s future.

Come and see- look at our East Window- that Jacobs ladder leading both to the beyond and from the beyond to us here and now. The ladder ‘betwixt heaven and Charing Cross’- heaven and our actual world with its choices struggles and conflicts.

Last week I set off on a journey myself to both come and see. It was a spiritual journey to a place which had inspired my imagination and my faith- a pilgrimage. For me this journey had begun in 2016 when Jill Cook, one of the curators at the British Museum brought the Lampedusa Cross to the Festival Day of the Friends of St Martin’s at the invitation of Susanna Wood. Jill told the story of how on 3 October 2013 a boat trying to cross the Mediterranean had sank off the coast of the small Italian island of Lampedusa: an island more than 200 miles from Sicily and 120 miles from North Africa. In that terrible tragedy 359 migrants drowned. 155 survived and with the help of the coast guard and local fishermen came ashore near Rabbit Beach- a beach considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Many of those survivors were Christians from Ethiopia and Eritrea. How could anyone respond to a tragedy of such terrible consequences? Imagine that’s four times the number of people who died in the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Mr Tuccio, a member of the local church and a carpenter, collected some of the timbers from the wrecked shell of the boat and in his workshop made simple crosses which he gave to the survivors and then later when Pope Francis visited from the same timber he made the Pope a cross – This Lampedusa Cross became a symbol for our times – made from the wood of the wreckage- it told the story of the movement of migrant people to Europe in search of a home- the story of their displacement, exodus, and search for a country that would accept them and the many who have drowned crossing the Mediterranean in search of that hope.  One of these Lampedusa Crosses became part of the British Museum collection.

When Jill Cook brought it to St Martin’s it silenced us. At the Eucharist we placed it on the altar and the symbol of that cross seemed to transfix each one of us. It palpably spoke of the tragedy of our times –yet this cross also spoke of a hope beyond even death itself- spoke of a love and a compassion that even the power of darkness can never put out. It spoke to me of why I am ultimately a Christian – because of the hope of resurrection not just in the world to come but in this world too- and that the love and forgiveness of God shown in that cross can make it possible. And this cross with the blues and reds and yellows of the boat seemed to say: “come and see.” I wrote to Mr Tuccio and asked for a cross for St Martin’s- a cross that we speak to us in the 21st century and our own inspiration that we have received from migrants and refuges and the journeys of so many people who have found their way through the doors of this church in all their human diversity and need, including you and me. “Come and see” a God who meets us both in pain and resurrection and calls us to witness to his love.

So this New Year I found myself coming to see. I flew from Palermo in Sicily in a yellow and white old fashioned retro propeller plane with only about 15 passengers on board. Come and see.  I found myself look through the window down at the vast expanse of rough sea- the white waves breaking and I imagined being lost in that huge sea, indeed what I would do if this plane were to come down among those waves. In the last few years more 250, 000 people have made the journey to Lampedusa as a stepping stone to the west and many lives have been lost

The island is a rugged and barren place where little grows. The islanders inspired the world by their response to the refugee crisis. But it’s hard when the boats keep arriving and hearts have hardened too. There is always the choice of not seeing but turning away. “What about us?” many are now saying, “what about our lack of a maternity unit, the damage migrants are having on the tourist business that sustains us, what about our own lack of fresh water and opportunities for our young people?” Recently Lampedusa elected a new major on a platform of putting the needs of the islanders first and a much tougher response to refugees- with a locked immigration detention centre with no public access. I hired a bicycle and for three days I rode around the island. I saw few migrants as they are now locked up on arrival but the spirit of their exodus is everywhere around you. On my balcony I looked out each day and saw the sun and the moon and the sky meeting the sea. I cycled to Rabbit beach with its steep path both down the cliff- in January I am alone. Summoning up courage I take off my clothes and swim. Sensing the incredible mystery of our lives, that we too are all no more than matchwood in the vastness of the sea.  How mortal we all are. I am aware of the wonder of life and the courage that leads people to cross oceans and to dream of a better kingdom. I think of the fishermen’s prayer I prayed in the South Pacific:  “Be good to me o lord for the sea is so vast and my boat so small.”

I am aware of how much of the Bible is about people in exile longing for a home. Believing that beyond there is a promised land and yet in fact discovering God in this exodus and often painful struggles of the wilderness. I am aware of how ultimately we all part of this Exodus. However much we build our own boats and believe that we are invincible ultimately we are all have to push out to sea not knowing where we will ultimately arrive. In a small deserted chapel I kneel. There is a statue of the Virgin Mary and the story of how through her intercessions a man- was miraculously saved from the sea. “Hail Mary full of grace I find myself praying, the lord is with thee, blessed art though among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” And for the first time this rosary makes complete sense to me. Here in the unknowing of our time- where we cannot be sure, where we have no certainty or ultimate control- where it is so easy for the human heart to harden and for us to reject the love of God that alone transforms our world. Here and now I pray this prayer and see a mother holding onto the child she loves in her arms praying for us all now and at the hour of our death. This Christ alone embracing our hopes and fears the times we overcome and the time we face our deaths. Only this mercy, only this love is great enough.

The next day I visit Mr Tuccio in his carpenter’s workshop. He can speak no English and I no Italian but we do not need words. I have come to see.  He embraces me, timber from the wreckage of the boat is still piled in his workshop alongside the photo of him kissing the hand of Pope Francis. He has made at my request small crosses for those who will join our Nazareth Community at St Martin’s and I thank him. “si si,” he says and taking a small piece of wood from the wreckage   he skilfully  cuts me a small Lampedusa Cross- which I am wearing today- “Si si, piccolo piccolo” he says as he hangs it round my neck.

And then

“Portala con te come segno della resurrezione che nasce dal dolore”

“Take it with you as a sign of the resurrection that is born in pain and struggle.”

I have indeed come and seen- the meaning of prayer, the suns light, the breaking lengths of wave, water cliff and sea- and the human search for salvation.

And I have come to see the mercy and courage of the human heart that opens my heart up to the lonely wonder and mystery of life.  A cross held in my hand, a cross whose wood has known pain and death and yet speaks of the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the son of Man. And calls us all to “come and see.”