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Sermon at Eucharist service, General Synod, February 2005

Wednesday 16th February 2005

A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at a Eucharist held during General Synod in London.

One of the many moments of rather surreal humour in the book of Jonah is the fact that the Ninevites repent instantly. After all Jonah's panic and fear about how terrible Nineveh is going to be, it's actually child's play. That in itself is not a bad message for a Synod facing a certain amount of contentious business but that's not the thrust of what I want to share with you this morning.

Our Lord in the Gospel picks up something of the same strain of humour. Jonah simply spoke the words he had to speak and lo and behold the people of Nineveh were converted. The Queen of Sheba came from the ends of the earth to visit Solomon. In the middle of all the rather vulgar display of Solomon's Jerusalem, faced with a constant stream of edifying Middle Eastern witticisms from Solomon, her spirit was exhausted; there was no more strength in her and she 'admired the wisdom of Solomon'.

But here is wisdom made flesh in Jesus Christ. And here is someone who converts not by word but by act and by suffering and by resurrection, and this generation will not hear. Scripture is always addressed to this generation; these are words for us. Once upon a time perhaps conversion was easy; who knows? Once upon a time perhaps people's lives were changed and their hearts enlarged by the likes of Solomon and of Jonah – by words. But this generation, our hard hearts and our stubborn wills – what does it take to change us? 'They have Moses and the prophets, they will not listen if one goes to them from the dead'. It's a theme that St Luke likes to underline in his gospel, because here in our midst is the one who does not convert by wise sayings and edifying thoughts. Here in our midst is not one who survived danger and lived like Jonah, nor one who displays human success with some panache like Solomon. Here is wisdom crucified in the flesh; here is not survival but death and resurrection. One greater than Solomon, one greater than Jonah – and still we are reluctant to be changed by his love.

What then do we pray for? We pray for the grace of the Spirit to recognise wisdom made flesh and wisdom crucified. And we pray that our own mission and evangelism, our own proclamation will not be in signs and power, but in Christ crucified and him alone.

Synod is a place, rather like the world in general, where it is quite easy to believe that words alone make a difference. After a few days of a very rich diet of words – and I use the word rich advisedly in all it's possible senses, including the culinary – after a few days of such a rich diet it's very hard to believe that we've done nothing. And yet unless our lives have been drawn into the life of wisdom made flesh, wisdom crucified and risen, we have wasted our time and worse.

The Abbe Huvelin in the 19th century – that great French preacher – reminded us, the Lord did not save the world by his beautiful discourses, by the Sermon on the Mount. He saved the world by his passion and resurrection. And so it is right that we begin today as we should begin everyday by reminding ourselves what it is to believe in one greater than Jonah, and in a saving power greater than words.

We are here to hear the word and to receive it; to receive it as if it were the food of our bodies; to receive it in listening but also to receive it in eating and drinking; to receive it in the openness of the heart of faith. We are here to face the greatness of our Lord beside whom Solomon and Jonah are as nothing.

If we are to be missionaries and proclaimers of the word made flesh; not just of bright ideas about God, then we need to be anchored day by day more deeply in the word made flesh, in wisdom among us and wisdom crucified. So as we prepare ourselves for a feast and perhaps a surfeit of words, let us beware of imagining that we are still in the days of Jonah when words could persuade even the King of Nineveh. You and I know that words alone do not persuade us; you and I know ... each one of us knows as no one else can, how hard the human heart is and how little impact words can make. You and I know, each one of us, that we need wisdom in the flesh if we are to live. And it is by the communication of that crucified love in our own service, our own prayer, our own deep passionate loving awareness of one another, that the good news of Christ begins to be real in our world.

May it be so – Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2005

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