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'Amazing Grace' - sermon at Zanzibar Cathedral

Wednesday 7th February 2007

A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at a service in Christ Church Cathedral in Zanzibar. The Eucharist was led by Archbishop Donald Mtetemela, the Primate of Tanzania, and included a commemoration marking the abolition of the slave trade.

Once again may I thank you for your welcome and may I give you the assurance of the love and prayers of your brothers and sisters in the Church of England.

This morning I am going to speak about the three readings from the bible that we have heard and I'm going to discuss them backwards - I'm going to begin with the Gospel. The Gospel tells us the story of a blind man who came to see, and today it is very appropriate that we think about how God makes us see the truth. In the special prayer for this morning - in the collect - we remembered the transfiguration of Jesus when his disciples saw his glory and in that great hymn we sang at the beginning of the service, we sang 'I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see'. God, through Jesus Christ, opens our eyes, he makes us see.

And what is it that we cannot see until God touches us? Today we remember the abolition of the slave trade. And that reminds us that for hundreds and hundreds of years - in fact for thousands of years - people did not see the evil of slavery. Around them human beings were suffering in terrible ways and yet somehow people did not see, even Christians did not see. It is possible to look at another human being and yet not see what their real need is and what their real suffering is. And gradually, as time went on, Christians began to have their eyes opened. Africans, Americans, Englishmen, all in the light of their faith began to see that this suffering and this injustice could not be tolerated. Sometimes people talk as if in the 18th century there was an 'Enlightenment' across Europe and America; a dawning, a new seeing. But the real enlightenment was in this new seeing of human dignity, human suffering, human injustice.

And so one thing which might reflect upon today is what it is that we now are blind to; who is it now whose suffering we cannot see, cannot understand? In some societies it may be women or old people, it may be children. It may be minorities of one kind or another. It may be that in our wealthy countries - it is the case in our wealthy countries - that we do not see the reality of suffering and injustice in so much of the world. And we may not know for a long time just how many things we have not seen. But at least we can begin to pray 'Lord, open our eyes'.

It can take a long time; the writer of the hymn Amazing Grace, as many of you know, was someone who had been a slave trader. And even when he was converted to faith in Jesus Christ, for a while after that he went on selling slaves. Slowly, the Gospel opened his eyes to the sufferings of those alongside him. So, we pray 'Lord open our eyes' and we pray 'Lord, let it not take the whole of our lives for our eyes to be opened.'

But what is it that opens our eyes? It is not statistics, it is not ideas, it is love. And so I turn to the second reading today, from St Paul. Here St Paul spells out what love means, and if you listen to that reading carefully you will here St Paul saying 'this is how I have been loved.' So often in his letters, St Paul says to us 'I did not deserve the love of god to come to me.' And yet I know that I am loved'. St Paul himself could have written Amazing Grace, because St Paul celebrates love as the action of God towards us out of God's own fullness and God's own freedom.

And what happens when I learn at last that I am loved? What happens when I learn that I am loved without having earned the love and without having paid for it? I learn then that I depend completely on God; I learn that I do not need to strike out at other people to make myself safe; I know that I am poor and needy like every other person. Love makes me open my hand: the hand that I've tried to close on my possessions, my safety, my righteousness and holiness has to be opened by God. And when God opens my hand and my heart, then I can turn to my neighbour, I can see my neighbour's suffering, my eyes are opened - 'I was blind and now can see.' I become a place where the love of God is at home.

So it is love that opens our eyes, it is love that makes us see. To go back to the Gospel for just a moment; when the blind man's eyes are opened, what is the first thing that he sees? The first thing that he sees is the face of Jesus. And when he has sent he face of Jesus, he can see everything else in a different way. And so when love opens our eyes, what is it that we see? When love opens our eyes we can see God's love; we can see what we have never seen before - the free love of God towards us in the face of Jesus Christ.

And because of that we can see ourselves in a new way; we see ourselves as helpless, as poor and hungry in the presence of god's love. And yet we see ourselves as infinitely precious in god's sight. And then because of that we see others in a new way. Not our enemies, not people who are threatening us, but gifts from god; and se we begin to be able to set about the task of setting others free. The chains, the shackles of our own fears fall away. 'Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and Grace my fears relieved', says the hymn. First of all when I see God's love, I may be frightened - I haven't deserved this - how do I receive it? And then it is the same Grace that relieves and takes away those fears.

So. The love of God teaches us to see; it teaches us to see God in the face of Jesus Christ. It teaches us to see ourselves in the light of that love; it teaches us to see our neighbour as the object of that same love and that is when the whole face of the earth is transfigured and enlightened by the love of God. And that brings me to the first reading that we had this morning; God has saved Noah and his family from the flood and, as they go back to cover the face of the earth afresh, a new light appears in the sky; God sets in heaven the promise that his love will endure. The rainbow in the sky tells us that God has promised not to destroy the earth, tells us that God has promised to be faithful to his own nature.

And so we Christians who seek to make the love of God, let the love of God be real in our lives; we look for signs that remind us; signs of the covenant. We are here this morning to celebrate Holy Communion and through the history of the church, Holy Communion has been seen among many other things, as a sign of God's promise. When the bread and the wine are lifted up at this table this morning, it is as if there is a rainbow in the sky. Here as the bread and the wine of Christ's body and blood are shared, here is the promise of God's faithfulness. Here the face of Jesus is turned towards us once again. Jesus tells us to do this in memory of him. We are to remember who he is and remember what his love is, and if we can speak like this it is as if God, seeing the face of Jesus, remembers who he is. As the Bible sometimes puts it, he remembers, he brings to mind his promises. And so we learn yet again what is the love that has opened our eyes, what is the love that has set us free.

The man who wrote Amazing Grace lived to be a very old man. For many years he worked as a priest in London. His teaching, his sermons his hymns, inspired many in the struggle against slavery. But in old age he said to one of his friends these words: 'I am a very old man and my memory has gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Jesus is a great saviour.' Now when we come to Holy Communion, brothers and sisters, that is what we are to remember.

We are great sinners, we live so often in blindness; we do not truly see ourselves; we hide from those things in ourselves which we can't manage. And sometimes we try to bury our history underground. And I think here of those underground pits very near this cathedral, where slaves were once kept. So do we keep part of our own lives underground like that; we cannot face our own failures?

And what about our nations? Do they bury the past where it cannot be seen? This year my own country is trying to face some of its own history as it commemorates the end of the slave trade. It is so easy to pretend that those dark and unacceptable parts of our own history did not exist but if God is to make us whole, we must bring what is in darkness into light. God looks at us as individuals and as nations and says to us 'do not be afraid'. He says 'it is possible to look at your sin and your failure and yet to live.' God says to us 'You did not deserve my love and yet it is yours.' And in the light of that miracle, we open our eyes and sometimes when we acknowledge the sin and the weakness in ourselves, then our love and our compassion for others grows.

In so much of our human life we do this exactly the wrong way round. First of all we look at our neighbour and we say 'I know what you need.' Then I look at myself and say 'I am alright' and then I look at God and say 'I am alright, aren't I?' and I don't wait for an answer. The Bible turns it upside down: as always the Gospel turns the whole world upside down. First, God in Jesus Christ. Then myself, the wretch who has been saved by amazing Grace, and then the world around, the world that needs my love, my compassion, a world that needs me to speak a word from God to it, a word of challenge; yes; a word of judgement; yes, but above all, a word of promise.

And if we turn to the world in that spirit, perhaps it does not matter at first if we give little or much. We give what we can. Remember Peter and John seeing the lame man in the temple in the Acts of the Apostles. 'I don't have silver and gold', says St Peter, 'but I give you what I have. And I speak to you in the name of Jesus Christ. And I tell you - get up - be healed, walk!' Perhaps you know Peter and John had walked past that end of the temple many times in their lives, and perhaps they had never seen this man who had sat there.

But Peter and John are changed men - their eyes have been opened. They have seen the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ and, remember, they ran to the tomb and they looked in and they found it empty. Their eyes were opened, and so when they went to the temple, this man who perhaps they'd never listened to and perhaps they'd never attended to before suddenly they saw him and they heard him. Then they spoke to him in the name of that everlasting love which is Jesus. And he was set free and he rose and he walked. So dear brothers and sisters we pray today and every day that the love of Jesus continues to open our eyes, In our Anglican church worldwide we pray that god will keep our eyes open to him and open to one another in love. We pray that we may speak words of hope and freedom to one another in Jesus.

Bishops say many words to one another - just as they say many, many words to you. Very early in the history of the Church there was a great saint who said that God was especially evident when Bishops are silent. But that is perhaps only to say that there is one thing to say to another bishop, that a bishop should say to God's people and God's people should say back to a bishop; I remember two things; that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great saviour'.

As we resolve to pray that God keeps our eyes open, as we resolve to pray to remember those things, let us ask God to make us a sign of hope in the world, let us ask God to help us see in ourselves and on the world what we would prefer not to see; let us ask God to make us free so that we may make others free and above all let us give thanks today and tomorrow and every day for the love we cannot describe or explain. Let us give thanks for Amazing Grace, and let us remember that we shall never come to the end of what can be said about the love of God:

'When we've been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun.'

And when the bread and the wine are raised above the altar, as they are broken and shared, see there the rainbow of God's promise. Through all the storms, that light continues to shine, because God never forgets who he is, god is faithful to his promises; let us not forget who he is. Let us not forget what he gives us, let us not forget what he calls us to do, what he calls us to share in his world: '... two things: I am a great sinner and Jesus is a great saviour.'

To his name be glory and praise for ever. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2007 

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