Sermon - Church of England's General Synod July 2006
Sunday 9th July 2006The following sermon was given by the Archbishop in York Minster, during the July 2006 Group of Sessions of the General Synod.
Take nothing for the journey' (Mk 6.8)We could have a sermon on 'travelling light'; on how we needed to be detached about this or that form of tradition or theology, this or that cause or campaign; on how we should be reworking the structures of our Church towards greater flexibility. But this is not that sermon. Jesus is not speaking about travelling light but about travelling, in effect, with nothing. The disciples are to be without food, money or change or clothing; they are to depend entirely on hospitality. Read these words in the light of the Nazareth story that we heard immediately before in the gospel, and you see something of how this travelling with nothing, this depending on hospitality, is rooted in Jesus' own weakness and homelessness. As St Mark tells the story, Jesus in his home town is unable to do more than few minor miracles because he has been met with a refusal of hospitality - the hospitality of trust or faith. Hearts have not been open to him, and so the works cannot follow. He may 'lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them' - a strangely offhand phrase, isn't it? - but somehow the power of the Kingdom has not been free to act.
So the disciples follow. They don't know the welcome they will receive; they don't know whether they will be given room to exercise the power of the Kingdom. They don't even know where the next meal is coming from. All they have is the imperative to confront evil spirits in Jesus' name. All they know is that, ultimately, the spirits are subject to him, and so to them (as the related text in Luke about the sending of the Seventy makes plain). They are there on their mission because, and only because, Jesus is Lord over the forces of lying and disintegration in the spiritual and physical worlds - whether the towns where they preach hear or refuse to hear, whether they are welcome or unwelcome.
Which is why we are here as a worshipping body; there is no other rationale for our life as Christ's people except the fact, finally established in the resurrection and ascension of Our Saviour, that Jesus is Lord over the powers. Nothing else defines us or constricts us. For us to go on our way with nothing in the way of securities for the future is our most eloquent witness to the Lordship of Jesus. When we are weak, then we are strong, says St Paul - pointing us very plainly to how we are to live out the weakness of Christ in our material lives so that the power which depends on nothing but its own glorious integrity can appear. For a currently confused and struggling Church, this is good news indeed; we may be in a thorough mess, but at least we shall not mislead anyone into supposing that the power and wisdom of God depend upon the smooth coherence of the Church of England's workings.
Now we all know that in fact we are a sad way off from really taking nothing on our journey. We are also here, as a matter of fact, as a Synod, because we have to manage with as much care and evangelistic imagination as we can muster the various belts and bags and changes of clothing that we have somehow accumulated. But what Jesus has to say to us today is not about managing any of this; we do it as best we may, but if that's all we do, we haven't actually heard the gospel - which is telling us, 'Suppose everything were taken away, even your confidence that the power of the Kingdom would be visible in miracle and mystery; then be sure that God's word is what it always was, Christ's Lordship is what it always was, the Spirit's liberty is what it always was, and they will be so whether you live or die, fail or succeed. Be glad.'
But this weekend we are bound to be thinking of other sorts of weakness and strength. Just a year ago, we were shocked to the core by the eruption of terrorist murder in London. Issues about religion, violence and power were brought home with new and local urgency - those issues that have been haunting us at least since September 2001. Today it is inevitable that we should have much in our minds all those whose lives were so brutally taken away, as well as those whose lives were shattered by injury or bereavement. People of faith have had to try and come to terms with the horrible fact that there are those who want to serve their God and their idea of justice by organised slaughter and suicide. They want to display strength; they want to secure their vision by force and to clothe suicide with the spiritual power of martyrdom. And what our readings today say to us is that this represents a condition of spiritual weakness that is both pitiable and terrifying. For the person who resorts to random killing in order to promote the honour of God or the supposed cause of justice, it is clear that God is not to be trusted. God is too weak to look after his own honour and we are the strong ones who must step in to help him. Such is the underlying blasphemy at work.
But if this were really true, it would mean that all we had to hold on to was our own power, the fantasy of being in total control that fuels every kind of pathological violence, domestic or public. And because in our hearts we all know something of how vulnerable and fallible we all are, the pressure is to keep turning up the intensity of language and the extremism of action to fill the void. Modern terrorism seems, if many recent studies are to be believed, to be sustained very often by people whose history shows confusion, swings of mood and behaviour, who have little or no fixed sense of themselves and so are easy prey for recruitment to the drama of violence.
Last week, the Prime Minister appealed to 'moderate' Muslims to challenge the extremists in their midst. It is language that we all habitually use; but perhaps we should be saying too that what we look for is not just moderation, if all that means is a measured and unexciting religious commitment. Paul in II Corinthians doesn't come over as a moderate man; and the behaviour recommended to the apostles isn't moderate. But the immoderation in question is about the degree of trust in God, the extremism of a conviction that God's compassion is not to be defeated. This kind of immoderation makes it unthinkable that we confuse our displays of strength and our strategies for dominance with God's power. What we need is people in all our communities of such faith that they do not seek to fill the void in their souls by feverish language and action that is blind to the reality of others. It is people who are extreme in their confidence in God who will most effectively challenge the extremists of murder and fear.
So back to ourselves and our calling to take nothing for our journey, to boast of our weakness. In our encounter with other faiths, we should be listening for echoes of this fundamental vision, that God's power only becomes visible as different from ours when it is quite disconnected from the methods and presuppositions of all our struggles for human dominance; listening for the testimony in other traditions to that poverty of spirit which Christ names first in the Beatitudes. And in our thinking and praying about our own tensions, the brick walls we seem to face in our Anglican life together, we should learn to give thanks that - if we can stop ourselves becoming paralysed by anxious and bitter reactions - our incapacity can still make God plainer to the world. If we can say, 'Not I but Christ', if we can tell the world that we are able to live with looking foolish and making mistakes simply because of his victory over the resourceful, destructive and sad spirits who are still so active among us, our failures will proclaim what our successes could not. We might even return to our strategies and our debates with that extra edge of perspective, even irony, that saves us from the wrong sort of seriousness. 'I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified'; 'Take nothing for the journey.'
© Rowan Williams 2006