In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I love stories and jokes and stories especially about the pearly gates. I don’t quite collect them but I’ve always got a few to hand and here is one that I thought was especially relevant to this time:
There Peter was, standing at the pearly gates and two people appeared together and one was dressed in all his finery, big purple robes, a mitre on his head (you can see where this is going can’t you?) and another guy who just turned up in his jeans and a shirt looking a bit scruffy. And he asked the scruffy guy first, he said ‘and who are you?’ and he said ‘my name’s Brian and I’ve been a taxi driver all these years in Plymouth and I just had an accident and here I am.’ He said ‘well, good and faithful servant, come in here and he dressed him in a wonderful sumptuous golden robe and he gave him a beautiful golden staff, and as we like to imagine, one of those funny harps that no one can play – he gave him one of those and ushered him into the kingdom of heaven. So the bishop thought ‘way hey!’ and he strode up and he said ‘I am bishop Algernon and I have been bishop of a great big diocese in the Church of England for 25 years and I have preached the gospel throughout the diocese and I have done such wonderful work.’ And Peter said, ‘yes of course’ and he gave him a very simple cotton shirt and a very simple wooden staff and he handed him a harmonica. And the bishop went ‘hang on a minute, what’s going on here?’ He said ‘well, here’s the difference, he’s been a taxi driver for 25 years and you’ve been a bishop and all the time that you preached people slept and all the time he drove, people prayed.’ [laughter
For the humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled.
The thing that gets me about all those jokes about the pearly gates is it seems as if there is some kind of entrance test. It seems as if there is some kind of bar. We imagine St Peter as some kind of gatekeeper, the keeper of the keys of the kingdom, a man who would vet us and judge us. But if you read your scriptures of course, that’s not the case at all, it is not Peter who judges, it is not Peter who decides but the Lord God himself. Recall the end of the gospel of Matthew, when the people are ushered into the court of the king and he separates them to the left and to the right. Those who are brought into the kingdom of heaven are those who looked after the least amongst us, those who visited the sick, those who came to those in prison, those who fed the poor. And they said ‘I don’t remember doing that to you’, but Jesus recalls that when we do it for the least among us, we do it for the King of heaven. That letter to the Hebrews remarks that when you encounter a stranger you should offer hospitality and love because you do not know if you are caring for an angel. So all we have to do is look out amongst us and you know that each and every child of God is truly an angel: for when you look after the least, you look after the greatest of them all, our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the most beautiful phrases I have ever encountered is that of St Francis of Assisi, who said ‘when you gaze into the face of a stranger, you must try and see the face of Christ in them and pray that they would see the face of Christ in you’. So as we go round later in this service and as we share the peace, don’t just grab a hand and try and get round everyone – I’m very guilty of that because I’m trying to touch everybody – but the truth is I always try and remind myself to gaze into the eyes of the person I’m encountering and share in that peace, to see the face of Christ in them.
Now, we are very much in the Church of England creatures of habit, we all like to sit in the same places. Have you ever encountered that situation when you’ve gone into a strange church, maybe a foreign one, but you’ve gone into a strange church in another part of the land or in another country and you’ve sat in a place which you thought was fairly innocuous and someone’s come up and gone ‘you’re sitting in my place’ – we’ve had that haven’t we? I do pray of course that we’ve never done that to others but even at Greenbelt last week (we were joking about it) we arrived early on the Thursday and the place where we like to camp was already taken and we joked ‘hum, someone’s sitting in our pew!’ and we had to do that very Church of England thing and tut loudly and carry on somewhere else! But actually, if we are to care for the stranger, if we are to welcome the newcomer in our midst, if we are to increase the body of Christ, then surely the right response is not ‘you’re sitting in my place’ but, ‘can I join you, can I walk with you, can I share this service with you because you might not be familiar with it? Can I help you with your books, can I give you a warm welcome?’ So see the person in your pew not as a threat, or as a usurper. See them as an angel, but one you are to walk with alongside, one that you are called to draw with you and it’s not just your place in church, it’s in your place out there in the world. There are plenty of people that we will meet who are wonderful that we should look after, that we should suck up to: the great, the good, the powerful, the influential but actually, as that parable tells us, it is people who are smelly, people who are unkempt, the unloveable, the uncomfortable, these are the people who need our friendship and love, the people we are called to walk alongside. The people we are to nurture in faith and draw into the body of Christ. And as you know there is no entrance test to get into the kingdom of heaven, there will be no bar that will be drawn because we should never forget the outrageous generosity of Christ, the Christ who came into this world to save all people, to draw all people to himself, and especially to draw people like me into his kingdom, people like you, people like everybody. We should never be surprised by the Lord’s outrageous generosity, his wonderful forgiveness, and his love for all.
If you see the face of Christ in others they will see the face of Christ in you. Amen.
I made an audio recording of this but messed it up and recorded my workout tape alongside it and so thanks to Bryony Taylor for transcribing it for me.