A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 29 July 2020 by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this address: Psalm 139, Matthew 26: 36-45
Groucho Marx famously said, ‘I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.’ St Martin-in-the-Fields is known for its architecture, its location, its music, its broadcasting, and its work with the poor. You can enjoy all these things, year after year, without ever becoming a member of its English or Chinese Congregations, let alone the Nazareth Community.
So why would anyone join the Nazareth Community? The answer lies in some words from Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?’ Usually we reserve these descriptions for planned-giving directors, when we’ve made some kind of a pledge and we’re not sure if we’re in a financial position to fulfil it. But this is the answer. Joining the Nazareth Community is a declaration that you want to be deeply known, by your fellow members, and fundamentally by God. The Nazareth Community’s greatest virtue is precisely that it is the opposite of St Martin-in-the-Fields as a whole. St Martin-in-the-Fields is visible, dramatic, a little impersonal, and rather grand; the Nazareth Community is tender, personal, undemonstrative, intimate, and appropriately human.
But in addition to Psalm 139 we’ve read Matthew’s account of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. If Psalm 139 represents one half of the Christian life, allowing oneself to be fully known by God and one another, then this second reading represents the other half – allowing yourself to be pushed further than you thought you were able to go because the beckoning love of God demands and empowers you to do so.
Jesus leaves the table where he’s been sharing the Last Supper. He takes 11 disciples with him to Gethsemane. (Judas has already left the zoom call.) And then, when they get to the Garden, there’s another moment of discernment. Eight of the disciples stay near the edge of the garden, while Jesus takes three with him to the place where he’s going to pray. We discover a lot about the three he takes with him – Peter, James and John. He gave them this amazing privilege – of being close to him at this most tortured moment of his life, in this most intimate exchange between him and his Father, where he says, ‘If it’s possible, let this cup pass from me.’ But he also expected more of them than of the others. We never know what condition the other eight were in, but the fact that Peter, James and John fell asleep has been held against them and seen as a sign of the church’s faithlessness for 2000 years.
I want to pause and look more closely at these two groups of disciples for a moment. The group of eight think of themselves as being close to Jesus. But at the moment of truth they’re quite some way away. The group of three have the joy of being close to Jesus, but the cost is that they’re in a place of greater danger and their actions come under closer scrutiny.
I wonder which group you think you’re in. I wonder if you’re in that group close to Jesus, seeing the size of his tears and hearing the depths of his groaning, sensing the danger but mortified with shame when sleep overcomes you. Or maybe you’re in the group of eight, wanting to be part of it all, but somehow when it most matters being a little bit removed, a little bit less vulnerable, a little bit back from the action in the shadows.
In the Methodist Ordination service, the candidates are asked a number of questions. The one that resonates most in my mind is when they are asked, ‘Are you going on?’ In other words, are you going on to perfection, the state of sanctified life in this world that John Wesley believed was possible if the Holy Spirit was active and the human spirit was willing. That’s the question I want to ask the Nazareth Community tonight, as we induct eleven new members. Are you content to be among the eight disciples on the edge of the garden, or are you ready to go to the heart of the garden, where the heat is higher and the demands are greater and the scrutiny is fiercer and the gospel is closer? Are you ready to go into the heart of God, where Christ’s tears are real and his suffering is shared and his glory comes through the cross? Are you going on?
Are you going on? You’ve come with Jesus to the garden. But are you going on? Are you going to grow deeper? Are you going to grow more faithful? Are you going to take your discipleship further into the garden, to the place of grief and sacrifice and danger and close scrutiny? When God is looking for the foundations of the kingdom, can you be the bedrock?
When you close your eyes and think of those two groups of disciples in Gethsemane, which one is the Nazareth Community at St Martin-in-the-Fields in these years to come? Is it lingering on the edge of the garden or is it going to the place of danger and intimacy and pain and glory? Are you going on? Are you going on to be made holy? Are you going on to be close to the prayer of Jesus? Are you going on into the heart of God?