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Sermon at Chichester Cathedral commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bishop George Bell

Sunday 5th October 2008

Sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Chichester Cathedral at a Eucharist commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Bishop George Bell.

The picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd which we have just heard about from the Gospel (John 10.11—16) is not a little bit of picturesque, pastoral scene-painting. It's very clear from this gospel reading that the Good Shepherd is quite simply the one who is there to answer for the lives of the sheep. And that answering for the lives of the sheep puts his own security at risk. What is more, the Good Shepherd doesn't simply answer for the lives of the sheep we might expect him to answer for: he has 'other sheep' (Jn 10.16) that do not belong to his fold. The Good Shepherd does not fence around his sense of responsibility. The Good Shepherd accepts, it seems, that he is there to answer for the lives of many – seen and unseen, familiar and unfamiliar – with equal cost and equal love.

As we commemorate today a particularly good shepherd in the Church, George Bell, perhaps that sense of being there to answer for the lives of others will be one of the things that most vividly comes to our minds. George Bell was a faithful pastor in Christ's Church and no doubt he believed he was answerable for the spiritual lives of those for whom he cared so devotedly and imaginatively in this Diocese and elsewhere. But he knew too, as a member of the Body of Christ, Christ the Good Shepherd, that his responsibilities did not end there. Again and again in his career as a bishop we see the same theme emerging: he believes he is there to answer for the lives of those outside his own circle, his own nation, his own Church, his own faith. He believes he is there to answer for the lives of those in Germany in the 1930s suffering the unspeakable persecutions of the Third Reich; that he is there to answer for his Jewish brothers and sisters, there to answer for the Confessing Christians who resisted Hitler, there to answer for the lives of strangers, those outside what might have seemed to be his fold. He answered for the lives of those German civilians who died in the Second War; he answered for the lives of those who suffered famine and distress in the aftermath of the War. And up to the very end of his life he sought to remind his fellow Christians and his fellow citizens that they were to answer for the lives of the poor and the hungry across the world. He knew perfectly well that his own witness, alone could not achieve this, but he simply knew to whom he answered, for whom he answered, he knew that God would require at his hands, the blood of his fellow human beings if he kept silence.

And in that respect at the very least, his life and his witness are deeply rooted in the biblical notion of prophecy. The prophet is there to answer for the lives of the people and as we're reminded in the prophecy of Ezekiel, when the prophet fails to discharge that responsibility the blood of the people is required at his hands. So that is Bell's shepherding: he gives answer for the lives of others, even at huge personal cost – for him, the cost in personal reputation and public credibility before, during and after the Second World War; and yet he knows to whom he must give answer. To stand within the Body of Christ, within the Church, ought to be to know that we are there to answer for the lives of others both inside and outside the fellowship. That is why it is a shame and a scandal that throughout the two millennia of the Church's existence we have so often failed in that charge. Today, commemorating Bell we hear once again God's challenge; the challenge that he puts to humanity from the very beginning in those two great questions with which the biblical story begins: 'Where are you? Where is your brother?' The implication of those two questions taken together is that we shall only truly find who we are when we are with our brother and our sister: being answerable for their lives before God. The terrible history of Christian anti-Semitism shows the effect of the failure to realize that we as Christians are who we are because of our fellowship with God's people the Jews. As St Paul in tortured logic and complex argument explains, we would not be who we are if the Jewish people were not who they are. And so to Christians the question is still, 'Where are you? And where are your Jewish brothers and sisters?'

But Bell also knew that we could only be who we are at home with ourselves and with God, if we knew where our homeless and displaced brothers and sisters were; hence his concern for the refugees and the landless. And God's challenge to us once again—'Where are you? Where are your brothers and sisters?' —is a challenge about how we as believers in Jesus Christ answer for the lives of those who are being driven from their homes, their livelihood and their security by the terrible violence of our age. And they may be people who belong to very many 'folds', Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and God asks us, 'Where are you? Where are your brothers and sisters?' because you will only know and be who you are when you are able to make answer for them before God.

It may be that we can take it still further, remembering the saint whose memory we celebrated yesterday, Francis of Assisi – a man who very clearly and visibly made answer for the lives of the excluded and the poor, the sick and untouchable. And yet in his own witness he pushes just that little bit further and says that to be answerable for the lives of others is also to be answerable for the life of the creation in which we live: to take responsibility for this material universe in which we are set and which we so injure and so exploit in so many ways. 'Where are you?' says God to Adam, 'Where is the creation in which I placed you, and for whose life I call you to answer?'

That is what it means to stand in Christ's body, in Christ's fellowship, seeking—often so unsuccessfully and reluctantly—to make answer for our brothers and sisters, insiders and outsiders, strangers and friends, for our very world, before God. Because at the very beginning of human history, those two questions were answered so badly: 'Where are you?' says God to Adam. The answer is that Adam is hiding himself from God. 'Where is your brother?' says God to Cain, and Cain replies, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' But for us who believe in Christ, it is Christ who makes the right answer to those questions. 'Where are you?' says God to Christ Jesus his Son: and he says 'I am here to do your will' (in the words of the Psalmist). 'Where is your brother, where is your sister?' says God to Jesus Christ and Jesus says, 'I am with them carrying their sin and their suffering so that I may be responsible for their lives before you.' That is why the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, for the Christian believer, turns around the whole sorry logic of the human world, where we run away from making answer for each other. That is why the life and death and resurrection of Jesus sets in being a community that is and should be committed to making answer for life.

In that wonderful and passionate hymn at the end of Romans 8 [second reading 8.31—end] we were reminded (v34) of what it means for Jesus to make answer for us: 'Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us' – who has made answer for us, who is responsible for our lives before God. And what we celebrate in this Holy Eucharist is the Jesus Christ who has taken our sin and our suffering, who has made himself responsible for its healing, who has made himself answerable for our lives before God. The blood and the misery and the guilt of human history is required at his hands: in his loving service and sacrifice he gives himself to the Father for us and life is poured out. Of that fullness we receive here in Holy Communion, that fullness of life which gives us the freedom and the courage – please God – to make answer for another, to think with repentance and shame of those many episodes in our history – individual and collective -- where we have failed to make answer for the lives of others, for the life of our universe, to renew our belief that it is possible through the Spirit of Jesus Christ to make answer for life, to renew our promise to be there with the Good Shepherd, willingly to answer for the lives of others, friend and stranger, insider and outsider; the one who seems to belong to our fold or group and the one we find threatening or difficult or unattractive; but knowing that at the end of time God will ask of all of us those two questions: 'Where are you? Where is your brother and sister?'

Only in this fellowship of belief and commitment in the strength of the Spirit are we able to say with Jesus: Here I am, I am ready to do your will; and I am ready to be where there is suffering, where there is injustice, where someone or something needs a voice raised to answer for their life.

© Rowan Williams 2008

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