In today’s reading from the Book of Revelation John gives us a vision of the future, of God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven and the end of everything that diminishes, distorts and destroys God’s image in us.
You may be familiar with a story I once read about heaven and hell. God was giving someone a preview of both places. They went to hell first and came across people who were thin, emaciated and starving, and yet there were lots and lots of tables laden with food.
The trouble was that there was a rule about eating it. Everyone there had been told that they couldn’t eat with their hands, only with long sticks – a kind of elongated chopsticks. But the sticks were so long, of course, that they couldn’t reach their own mouths with them, and so they starved.
When they arrived in heaven they discovered a lot of happy, contented, well-fed people. Here again the tables were laden with food that could be eaten only with long chopsticks.
But the people in heaven, realising that there was no way they could feed themselves with these sticks, had learned to feed one another. They had realised that if they were to survive then the only way was to help one another.
It is, of course, a parable, but if that is what heaven is going to be like, we had better start preparing for it now because what it teaches us is that none of us can live to or for ourselves. We were created to share and care for one another. The claim of the Gospel is that God has made us in such a way that there can be no real joy for anyone unless there is joy for all.
We are dependent beings. Made in the image of God, we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are also made in his image and so we are made for relatedness, for mutuality and community. Those qualities are built into the core of our beings and we cannot find true fulfilment without them.
And that essential truth of the Gospel organisations such as the Order of St John have grasped; which is why they were founded in the first place to help others, not just here in Britain but across the whole world, for the Order recognised another truth as well and that is that the whole of humanity is precious to God. As one modern writer puts it “what diminishes others, be it homelessness, war or ill health, diminishes all of us” – or more anciently in the words of the fourth century St Anthony of Egypt, “Your life and death are with your brother”.
This vision, 900 years ago, inspired the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary in Jerusalem to set up a small hospital to care for sick pilgrims. The hospital was attached to a church dedicated to St John. The growth in pilgrims and the gifts of much property in Europe and in the East led the movement away from its Benedictine origins into a new order, recognised by Pope Paschal in 1113, of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. The Hospitallers took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and devoted themselves to the care of the sick.
They later developed a military role – they defended Christianity as well as caring for the sick. The Order flourished in England and Wales until the Reformation but when Henry VIII seized their assets it came to an end and it was not until 1798 that the Order was revived in this country.
In 1877 the St John Ambulance Association was founded against the background of the industrial revolution, training individuals to provide first aid in circumstances where accidents were common and conditions were often dangerous and unpleasant. Since thousands had now gained First Aid certificates and they wanted to help the public, in 1887 the St John Ambulance was formed providing first aid and ambulance Brigade transport at public events and the British Order acquired land in Jerusalem to set up an eye hospital. The Association and Brigade later merged as St John Ambulance and Queen Victoria recognised it as a Royal Order.
And so the work has continued to the present day with St John Ambulance and the Red Cross working together during the two world wars to meet the health needs of soldiers, training volunteers and reserves for Army hospitals in the first world war and together providing welfare services such as anti gas training, first aid posts in London’s tubes and the training of volunteer nurses in the second world war. As recently as 2003, in the Gulf War, St John sent aid workers to the front line. The Order of St John is set up to care.
We take organisations like St John for granted but it is a fact that our culture in the West is hedonistic. There is a great emphasis in our society on enjoying ourselves; on getting all the pleasure we can, on self-fulfilment, on looking after one’s own welfare.
Somehow, concepts such as sacrifice, care for others, and self-discipline are not popular concepts. Charities find it difficult to recruit volunteers. It is good therefore that you as an organisation swim against that particular tide. In your work, the Christian Church stands with you because it too believes that its purpose is to serve God and others. Like your Order it stands with and for the underprivileged, the sick, the disabled and those on the margins of life.
Christians claim that in and through Jesus, God shows his concern for the whole human race and stands in solidarity with us. God places himself at the disposal of his world, “The dwelling place of God is with men”. Jesus is the servant King, “I have come not to be served but to serve,” he said. And he exercised his ministry through serving others – and in so doing he shows how those of us who are in positions of authority and leadership should exercise them especially within organisations based on Christian principles and values.
The Order of St John has always seen its task as ministering to people in their wholeness – body, mind and spirit and to all regardless of race or culture.
The gospels too witness to the fact that men and women must be treated in their wholeness. You can’t just deal with a person’s ailments without being concerned about him or her as a person, and you can’t as an evangelist just be interested in whether a person says his prayers or believes in Jesus without also being interested in whether he has enough to eat, is employed, has decent housing or is suffering from some crippling disease. Men and women cannot be compartmentalised. They must be treated whole. That’s why in the end religion cannot be kept out of politics for politics has to do with how we organise ourselves in society and how society deals with its weakest members.
Mae Iesu’n delio a phobl yn ei cyflawnder – ceisiodd ei hiachau o’i afiechydon, yn ogystal a siarad a hwy am deyrnas Dduw.
Jesus wasn’t just interested in getting a spiritual response or just in people’s souls; he was interested in them as people and in their afflictions. So he healed and cured the blind, the lame, the deaf and dumb. Salvation included being saved from crippling diseases and infirmities. Salvation is a many faceted thing – to be made whole requires healing of body, mind and spirit. God loves us in our wholeness and because that is God’s way with us, it has to be our way with one another.