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Germany - Sermon at Thanksgiving Service for Bonn Agreement

Wednesday 9th August 2006

The Union of Utrecht was formed in 1889 by the coming together of groupings of Old Catholic Churches in Europe. In 1931 the Bonn agreement established intercommunion between the Anglican Church and those Old Catholic Churches in the Union of Utrecht.

A service of thanksgiving on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Bonn Agreement was held in Frieburg, Germany, where the Archbishop of Canterbury gave the following sermon.

'Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace to this house!"'

The disciples of Jesus are told that they must knock on the doors of the towns they visit and ask for hospitality. And when they have received a welcome, they are to stay with the people who have welcomed them, and not to be constantly looking around for somewhere better to be. It is a powerful image of the life of the Christian Church. The preaching of the Gospel does not begin with a settled community inviting others to come in and be made welcome - though it soon comes to work in that way. It begins by imitating Jesus himself, a man who has no secure place to lay his head, and who shares his grace by inviting others to invite him in to their homes, as he does most famously with Zacchaeus in Luke 19.

Jesus challenges those he meets by saying to them: 'You have the freedom to give; you have the dignity of making others welcome. You are a place where the grace and love of God delights to make a home.' The Lord delights in you, your God shall rejoice over you, says the prophet. Can we hear this challenge? It may seem an attractive thing to hear; but in fact it is not always good news to be told that our lives, our homes, are a place where God may choose to dwell. We should not be surprised when, in the story of the demoniac and the Gadarene swine, the local people decide that they do not want to welcome Jesus and beg him to leave them alone.

After all, when God comes to live in a home or a human life, he disturbs and changes things. He is not a quiet or an easy guest, and once we have let him through the door, we cannot trust him to behave conventionally. Remember the invitation he accepts from Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7? Jesus may be a guest but he is quite capable of criticising his host's hospitality and exposing its limits, the fear and contempt that lie close to the surface of an apparent welcome. We may think we should like him to come to our house; but it is not a safe assumption that we shall feel at home with him when he arrives. The places where we live are all of them too small for him, and only as we allow our hearts and imaginations to grow can we possibly begin to get used to this stranger who wants to be at home with us.

What was it like for those first missionaries, knocking on the doors of the towns of Galilee, preparing the way for their master? It is difficult to imagine that they were always easy guests, any more than Jesus was. The words they had to speak were words about change. They were to heal the sick - but not every healing is welcome. Healing tells us that many things we thought unchangeable can after all change - not least ourselves. Perhaps their hosts decided that they would have to go after a day or two. Hence the orders given by Jesus in the verses immediately following our gospel - they are to shake the dust off their feet in towns that will not welcome them. But whether their hosts like it or not, the Kingdom is near; it has come to stay in this world, and sooner or later we must come to terms with that fact.

Yet if a household shows any signs of welcome, the disciples are to stay. And hospitality has to be matched by commitment. As God says to Jeremiah and his fellow-exiles, the disciples are to seek the welfare of the city where they are sent, not to pretend that they live nowhere in particular, to be so detached from their surroundings that they have no real identity within their world but only an abstract identity as believers. Their task becomes that of discerning what the original word of welcome meant, how it is to be worked with so that people may be able to live with the deeper unsettlement and deeper acceptance that the presence of God's good news brings with it.

This passage in fact gives us a good many hints about the nature of mission in our world, and especially in our Europe today. The gospel - of course - came as a foreign voice to the Roman Empire and then the Germanic kingdoms. It attempted to make itself at home in the 'household' of Greek thinking and Roman administration, then in the world of the 'barbarians'. The gospel learned many languages; indeed, the gospel gave stability and lasting coherence in written form to some of these languages. We should remember Ulfila's translation of the Bible into Gothic. The Church looked and listened in the context of its host society for those things that would provide analogies, pegs on which to hang its teaching. Anglo-Saxon poetry transforms the conventions of heroic verse by portraying Christ as the supreme hero; Celtic Christianity absorbs and reworks the legal and mythical frameworks of old Ireland and Wales. In one way and another, the Church says, 'Peace to this house!' as it enters the new worlds of mission. It does not begin by asking for total renunciation; it does not even ask for the exclusive use of a sacred language - unlike its great competitor in the Mediterranean world of the early Middle Ages, Islam. For all its clinging to Latin for public use, the Church both values and inspires vernacular literatures.

Yet the conflicts come, the moments for discernment and perhaps disruption. The Church cannot be only the servant of this or that kingdom, not even of the Emperor himself, in Rome or Constantinople or Aachen - even if for much of the time it is a good and an indispensable servant. Sooner or later, the Gospel will challenge the easy harmonies. Monarchs and bishops confront each other, Henry II and Thomas Becket. The great Columba is exiled from Ireland when his tribal loyalties have embroiled him and his Church in bloodshed and conflict, and has to relearn his gospel priorities in Iona. The scholastics of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries outline the ways in which a society of mature believers is entitled to challenge monarchy and feudal power.

Europe has taken into itself a presence that will unsettle it painfully. The Church does not run away from these confrontations, but struggles to live through them. And the effect is that Europe comes to build into its corporate life a principle of criticism and questioning, a scepticism about unchallenged political authority. Europe discovers liberalism, in the fullest sense, and the roots of the Enlightenment itself are to be found in the tough and complex negotiations between Church and monarchy in the long mediaeval centuries. The Church, often without realising it, trains its own critics as well as the critics of secular power. It has come to stay, as far as the household of Europe is concerned; but first it equips those who want to question whether the household is all that there is and whether its authority is beyond challenge; and then it has to face the counter-question about its own truthfulness and integrity or legitimacy that this general scepticism generates. We are still living with the echoes of that counter-question, and it is right and inevitable that we are. Because if the gospel shows that the households of this world are too small to contain the Word Incarnate, it also shows that when the Church builds and fortifies its own institutional shelter within the cultural household that too can prove too small. Something like this - along with much else, much of it ambiguous and confused - lay at the root of the Reformation.

And so as we now look Europe in the face, what should be our feelings and our policies. Jesus Christ tells us to say 'Peace!' - not in a tone that suggests we are happy with all that Europe is or has become, not as though we thought Europe the measure of human excellence. We simply say, 'Peace!'- meaning that we seek the welfare of this society, its justice and stability and honesty, and that we believe it is a society capable of hearing and being transformed by the Word of grace. We live out our commitment to this society that is still (perhaps rather grudgingly these days) prepared to welcome or at least put up with our presence; we involve ourselves in the debates that are shared across our continent about power and identity and local autonomy and migration. We join in this with our minds and hearts shaped by what Jesus has made possible, by the reality of the apostolic community that is his Body, and the relations of mutuality and love that grow in this Body.

We do not write off Europe and look for somewhere else, literally or metaphorically, to inhabit. We may hear and understand the critique of Europe from America or from the developing world or the Muslim world - that it is a tired culture, over-complicated and morally confused, living on its past. But this will not make us unwilling to engage. We know that Christ makes all things new; that, so long as we have voice within the culture, it is still possible to ask questions that are potentially life-giving - to remind people that the source of their vitality and creativity is not in themselves but in the creating Word .

Whether they hear or refuse to hear, we have our commission from Jesus Christ. We can embrace and challenge the household that has received us. And we can say with as much conviction as ever that, in our continent as in the entire world, the Kingdom of God has come near, and can never be banished, that God will constantly break through all the structures of culture or religion that we use to try and contain him as he establishes in Christ his peace among us.


© Rowan Williams 2006 

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