Church Army Sermon
Thursday 9th November 2006The following is the text of the sermon given by the Archbishop at the Commissioning Service of Mark Russell as Chief Executive of the Church Army. The service took place at St Michael's Church, Chester Square, London, SW1.
About a week ago, my Chaplain said to me "they want to know what the reading is going to be for the service". I came back about half an hour later and said "well I think I'd like 2 Corinthians, 4".
"Surprise, surprise" said my chaplain, "you always choose 2 Corinthians". Well that's not just because I have a draw full of sermons on 2 Corinthians, it's because there is something very special about the second letter to the Church in Corinth, there is no book of the New Testament that makes it quite so clear just how awful it is being a disciple of Jesus Christ and there is perhaps no book in the New Testament that makes it quite so clear just how wonderful is the Jesus Christ of who we are disciples. And it's there very much, very prominently in this great fourth Chapter. The Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, that theme which runs right through this letter and at the same time death is at work in us. All sermons are good news and bad news - and I think you can see where this one is going Mark!
But the most striking phrase perhaps in this chapter comes where Paul says "this is for your benefit so that the Grace which is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the Glory of God." It seems to me what St Paul is saying here is that the point of mission is that there should be thanksgiving, the point of mission is thanksgiving. Primarily of course it's the thanksgiving of believing people caught up in the exhilaration and the mystery of being in God's Company, set free from one another and for God. We all ought to have our lives rotating around that central act of thanksgiving that by the death and resurrection of Christ we are set free to be there praying in Christ in the spirit and what else is there to say. But, more than that, and it's something that St Paul and others hint at from time to time in the New Testament, it is at least the very beginning of mission when people around us give thanks for us as well, and Church Army seems to me to live very much in the cusp of those two things. Church Army is a Christian organisation (you knew that). It's a body of people dedicated to creating the thanksgiving of believing people in Jesus Christ to God the Father. But it's also an organisation dedicated to stirring thanksgiving around, that is to giving Christian people and Christian communities the kind of presence and the kind of credibility in the human community that will make people say 'I don't quite know what they are up to, but I'm glad they're there'.
And I guess there a quite a lot of people here working in the projects of Church Army who will have heard something not unlike that from their neighbours from time to time, "we are glad they're there". There's a territory being occupied, a witness being shown. A possibility being uncovered, without which the world would be a very much poorer place. And you may not perhaps quite know what to make of it yet, but you know there's more than you thought to the World. So, that's the mission, Mark, which you are to serve, which you are to co-ordinate. A mission driving always towards thanksgiving, but first the primary outpouring of thanks which is to God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and that more tentative, more exploratory thanksgiving, people perhaps thanking a God that they don't know and yet grateful that this witness is there.
And how does thanksgiving happen? Well this is of course where it gets rather difficult isn't it? We carry around in our body the death of Jesus; we are hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. St Paul had some experience of being not only a disciple but also a Christian leader, and in 2 Corinthians he lets us in to the largely unspoken secrets of just how awful it is not simply to be a disciple but to be a Christian Leader, and he doesn't spare us, this is what it's like. But when he says we're carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies every day, I don't think he just means we are having a dreadful time, I think he means we're carrying around the mystery, the challenge of the cross in our lives, we are not just saying Jesus had a terrible time and I'm having a terrible time so that must be alright. That rather confuses us with Jesus, which is the one thing of course that he is out to stop us doing in this Chapter. But if I carry around the death of Jesus, I carry around in my mind, in my acts, in my thoughts, the awareness that the cross of Jesus stands for my failures, my sins, my weakness.
The cross of Jesus stands for the Love that holds and contains those sins, failures and weaknesses and leads me forward. The cross of Jesus stands immovable, unchangeable while the world turns, I carry around that mystery in my life, and if I can do that and witness to that day by day in what I am, what I say and what I do, then whether I am having a terrible time or whether I am having a reasonable time is neither here nor there. The mystery of forgiveness, of renewal, of inexhaustible love is what I am carrying around and that's what takes me from moment to moment and that's why the death of Jesus is at work and so is the life of Jesus. The mysteries, you can't pull them apart, and that is of course again what St Paul is saying when he tells us that we are not talking about ourselves in mission we are talking about Jesus Christ the Lord, ourselves as your servants for Jesus sake. We are proclaiming not our successes, not our brilliance, not our genius, not our organisational talent, but we are proclaiming that we are where we are and who we are because of a Love persistently, obstinately stronger than anything we can do. Persistently, obstinately stronger than any way in which we can fail the love of the cross.
So in our apostleship, our leadership, in our ministry that is always what we're offering. That it means as Paul tells us that there is a process going on in us all of the time of dieing to certain ideas about ourselves and about the world. All of us begin when we take on Christian ministry and responsibility with a perhaps half hidden but pretty real sense, I could do that. With a sense everyone else has done it pretty badly but I've sent their mistakes, I can learn, I can do this. And everybody stepping into Christian responsibility (a few hear a touch of autobiography in this well you may not be wrong), everyone stepping into Christian responsibility discovers within a relatively short time, say 30 seconds that there is absolutely no way in which the images and the fantasies that you brought to the task and the pictures of yourself that you have brought to it are going to survive. Death is at work in us, as soon as we step into that responsibility the death of our fancies, our hopes, our surface level confidence, and the challenge of the Gospel is to be absolutely real and honest about that death and not be crushed, we are hard pressed on every side not just by those nasty people out there but by our own sense of inadequacy, hard pressed but not crushed, perplexed not because of all the questions people are throwing at us but because of the questions we are asking ourselves, can I do it? Am I worthy? Will I survive? Perplexed but not in despair. Persecuted?, yes well maybe by people outside, but also persecuted by our own guilts and fears, but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
So learning to be honest about ourselves and learning the far greater transforming honesty, which is telling the truth about Jesus Christ, His Cross and Resurrection, that's what keeps us alive, that's what keeps us moving and when we turn to others in ministry, in leadership, in evangelism we can say death is at work in us but life is at work in you. We can say I know that I am being put to death in the respect of my fantasies, my hopes, my surface imaginings about ministry so that there will be life in you and because the Church is the Church, then those people who share discipleship and ministry with you are doing the same for you. And I hope that somebody in Corinth wrote back to Paul and said death is at work in us but life in you Paul because that is what the body of Christ is all about and I hope that there will be people in Church Army who as Mark says to you death is at work in me but life in you, as he goes through this trial and testing of Christian leadership I hope that there will be plenty of you to say to him death is at work in us and life in you. We too are sharing the path that leads to the Cross so that there may be life in you and that life comes back to us, and so it goes on the wonderful circulation of the blood of the body of Christ, the love that sets us free.
I don't think that I need to urge you Mark to have a spirit that allows you to speak. I don't get the sense that you are one of those naturally silent reticent people, so maybe we can pass over Paul's exhalations, but it is important to know what to speak, and your gift, your carism that's led you to this place is that God has taught you what to speak. God has begun to teach you the honesty about yourself and the honesty about Him that is the lifeblood of your ministry. Tonight we give thanks for you, we give thanks for all that has led you here to this place, for all those who have shaped your witness, your path of faith, your discipleship, your journey here, and as we give thanks, we pray that there will be many, many more who will give thanksgiving overflowing to the Glory of God. As we all renew our calling and our vision this evening, we do so, I hope, in the trust that we are here so that there may be thanksgiving, we can start it tonight, we have started it tonight, we have given thanks to God, we have renewed our willingness to be thankful people and being a good solid Anglo-Catholic of course I would add that this means being Eucharistic people, because that's where the thanksgiving is centred in the great act of Holy Communion where Jesus draws us into His own eternal pray of Glory and thanksgiving to the Father. And then we pray that we go on being that credible, compelling witness in the world , that presence that makes people say I am glad they're there. And in that sense keeps the doors of the heart open to the fuller glory and splendour that God wants to share with everyone.
Give thanks in all things, give thanks for Mark, give thanks for the legacy of Church Army and its present witness and work. Give thanks for the people who will give thanks in the years to come. Give Glory to the God who has shown Himself, in the cross and the Resurrection, who has said that light shine out of darkness, who has made His light shine in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever Amen.
© Rowan Williams 2006