Archbishop's Sermon at Evening Prayer, Hereford Diocesan Conference
Thursday 5th June 2008The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, preached the following sermon during Evening Prayer at the Hereford Diocesan Conference "Sharing the Story".
This morning we were thinking of how Jesus re-tells the story of the whole history of Israel up to and including his own life. So that by the time the story is finished, the whole of the universe looks different and the disciples on the road to Emmaus know that he is risen indeed. And something of the same kind is going on in tonight's reading from the New Testament. To all appearances the story is this: Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, he grew up, was baptized, exercised his ministry, healed the sick and cast out demons, found his way to Jerusalem where he was crucified, he died and was raised from the dead and exalted into heaven. But from very, very early on it was clear that that was not the whole story, because it left out the all-important first episode – the first episode which is the first chapter of St John's Gospel, the first episode which tells you that the whole of this story is a story about God. It's not a story about a human being who did spectacularly well and had the most spectacular of honorary awards as a result. It's a story of almost a full circle; the story of God pouring out God and returning into God; a story whose final horizon is the very character of God.
How you tell a human story so as to make it a story open to the horizons of God's very nature, is quite a challenge. And it is of course the exercise that St John undertakes in the whole of his Gospel, and the same exercise that St Paul briefly undertakes in this evening's reading from Philippians (2.5—11), probably, as most scholars think, quoting an earlier Christian hymn. A story of a God who is the way he is by giving away: that's what it's like to be God. Jesus, in the form of God, knowing what it was to be God, does not think that being God is a matter of grasping and clinging and defending. The divine nature is the absolute opposite of this and that means that not only in time but in eternity, God is pouring out God into what is other. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit pour out their lives into each other with such freedom and intimacy that they are one God eternally. And when the world comes into being it is because God has let the same pattern of self-giving draw out something quite other to God, a world.
And not only does God make that world to be loved, to be the recipient of his outpouring; he takes on the shape of a slave. The form of a servant is of course the neat religious way of talking about it. But what it says is the 'shape of the slave'. God initiates a human life on earth which more and more is entirely given over into the hands of others. That's what slaves experience, their lives are given into the hands of others. It's shocking, bold, difficult language when you think of what slaves really were at that time. The form of a servant can still perhaps conjure up somebody in a uniform, serving you a cocktail. The shape of a slave evokes something rather deeper and rather more threatening. The slave is the person whose life is in somebody else's hands and God's love is such that he puts himself in somebody else's hands. The form of God becomes the shape of a slave; being God finds its ultimate revelation, its final embodiment in a life given into the hands of others, into our hands, into the hands of human beings with their selfishness, their resistance to love. And in the middle of that the entire world is turned around. That's the story.
Dorothy Sayers, when she was writing her great radio plays The Man born to be King, back in the 1950s, comments in her introductory essay to those plays that while she was writing them and while they were being broadcast she had a lot of rather abusive correspondence from good Christians who thought that the whole enterprise was deeply mistaken: you couldn't have anybody speaking the words of Jesus on the radio! She writes with ill-concealed exasperation in the introduction:
Why don't Christians realize that they have done the unforgivable? They have taken the story of the incarnation of God and they have made it boring. If I tell you that the infinite, unchangeable Creator of all things has lead a human life, in the course of which he was flogged and spat on and nailed up like a scarecrow, call it what you like but don't say it's boring. It takes a lot of work to make that dull.
And as we hear the words in Philippians perhaps that's what ought to be in our minds. Whatever you think of that story, it's not dull. It's not dull, it opens up those infinite horizons onto what it's like to be God; a God who is sufficiently free in himself to give himself into the hands of others, to put his life into our hands, to take what we might think the greatest risk imaginable. And then of course the whole thing turns round to us because Paul is telling us this because he wants us to have the same attitude. I'm not entirely sure about the word 'attitude' there, it sounds just a bit 'surface level'; the old translation 'have the same mind' does speak to me a little more deeply – have the same habit of thought, the same self-understanding, in you that is in Jesus. Think of yourself as Jesus thought of himself, think of yourself as realizing who and what you are in gift so radical that it may mean you put your life in someone else's hands. A gift so radical that it could mean a self-forgetting, deeply costly and totally transforming.
So as always in the New Testament, the story about God turns round upon us to put to us the basic questions of conversion. What's the form in which you think of yourself? How do you understand yourself? You may understand yourself very much as Paul hints, in terms of someone who retains their security and their freedom, by reaching out and taking, by building around yourself a careful construction of selfhood that is anchored and secure. What if you understood yourself, your humanity utterly differently? What if you understood that you were so rooted in the love of a God who at unimaginable risk put his life into our hands so that we could live? What would it be like to have such confidence in the love of God that you actually felt able to take risks, to put your life in the hands of others so that they could live?
Well we may say 'thank God not many of us are called on to realize that in literal a sense'. But you never know, and whenever you come in prayer to God the bad news is that that is the risk you take. You're entering the area of divine radiation, as you might say, where you might just catch something very, very dangerous – a glimpse, an echo of what it's like for to be God, and (as we're rather shockingly told more than once in the New Testament) that we are made to be like God and that the point of being human is to become an image of the divine. And to do so, not by reflecting God's all-powerful splendour and glory, but by reflecting God's utter letting-go, by reflecting God's own nature as a God who gives away, who puts his life in the hands of others so that they may live. In that, freedom and life itself are real.
That's the story, that's the story's challenge. The stories we tell of the saints past and present are stories of lives that have shown us something like that, lives that in their giving, their generous riskiness, have opened up for us the infinite horizons of what it's like to be God, and have shown us—often alarmingly—what it might be like to be human.
But there's another particular dimension that it is perhaps worth reflecting on for those of us charged with in various ways speaking for God, proclaiming the Word, sharing the sacraments. In Jesus, authority, liberty, obedience and self-gift are completely inseparable. There aren't moments in Jesus' life where he's being obedient and other moments when he's being authoritative. The two run through the whole of his life. In every moment he's absolutely given to God the Father; in every moment that being given over to God the Father brings alive in him the liberty to tell the world where its life can be found. That is also something we can see in the greatest of the saints. They tell us where life is to be found. They tell us that with utter authority because they are given into the vision of the Father's outpouring generosity.
All this, of course, means that the exercise of authority in Christ's Church is always bound-up with letting-go, with making room for God to be God, for God's outpouring to come through. The wonderful observation in a book by Henri de Lubac, a French Jesuit theologian is where he says, 'The Church has to remember that all authority is for the sake of love. Because any exercise of authority in the Church is so that others may live.' When I first read that I thought: I now understand something that I never really grasped before. Why is there any kind of authority in the Church? Well, it's the authority of the preacher, the pastor, the bishop – the reason there is authority in the Church is love. The reason is that others may live. Because if we take that reading from Philippians seriously, that's where God comes through, and there's no other authority worth thinking about or speaking about in the Body of Christ.
So for those who seek to preach, to share authoritatively the Good News of Jesus, to lead and shape the calling of Christ's body on earth; unfortunately there's no alternative but letting-go, letting-go before God, putting your life into his hands so that he can put your life into the hands of all those he wants to live. As we try to grow up together in the Body of Christ, that's the bottom line for the relationships we need to be working at.
© Rowan Williams 2008