Sermon at the Diocesan Service, Canterbury Cathedral
Sunday 2nd March 2003A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the Diocesan Service at Canterbury Cathedral.
"We do not proclaim ourselves," says St Paul. "We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake."
Now the first part of that is wonderful. That's a nice edifying text for a bishop to preach on, or indeed for anybody to preach on. "We do not proclaim ourselves. We proclaim Jesus Christ." And so we should. And then you read on and you begin to worry. "Ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake." Do we, teachers and preachers of the faith really, actually, truly want to be your slaves? It might be even more edifying but it's a lot more difficult. What does St Paul mean when he talks about the apostle here being a slave to God's people? Now, I suspect it has something to do with the fact that, as Jesus Himself reminds us in St Luke's Gospel, a slave doesn't know exactly where the next request in coming from, or what is going to be asked of them next. And that, I think, will be a very familiar experience for the pastors and teachers of Christ's church. You don't know what's going to hit you next. And that puts into perspective very sharply, all the ways in which the pastors and teachers of the church tend sometimes to think 'this is what I've got to offer to the church, here is my great list of contributions I am going to make to the revival and the health of the church." Sometimes, really enthusiastic candidates for ordination come to you and give you a ten point plan for the revival and the renewal of the church which may be terrific but doesn't make you feel any better, it has to be said. And somehow that's something rather different from what St Paul seems to be talking about: "we are your slaves." That's to say we don't know quite what you're going to ask and we don't know quite what's going to be drawn out of us. And I, beginning a new ministry here in the diocese, can resonate, as they say, with all of that. But it's a very important dimension of how we think about the gifts that Christ gives in His church. Sometimes we can run away with the idea that we simply catalogue the gifts we see in ourselves and present them, take it or leave it, to the rest of the Christian community. But much more deeply, much more truly, I think all of us will find that we don't actually know in advance what God is likely to give when God's call comes. We know we can trust God to give; that's what God does. God gives eternally, necessarily, out of the very depth of His being. And so God will always give, through me to you, through you to me, and so on in the great circle of life that is the church. But woe betide us if we think we know in advance exactly what is going to be given.
One of the great joys of living in the church is that we surprise not only one another but ourselves by the grace of God. What on earth am I doing here! You may put that last remark in inverted commas or not as you please. And then, you see, St Paul goes on to explain a bit more about what he means. It's the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. What God gives is light. The radiance and the beauty of His own being made flesh and blood through Jesus Christ. That is what God gives eternally, necessarily, from the very depth of His being. And, of course, light shining from here may not be something I see. It makes sense of the world for somebody else and I may not know what's going on, and that's how it should be. The light is there, by God's grace, to light up a whole landscape. If I see lots of light around me that may very well be because I have built such high walls around myself that all the light's reflecting back. But when it's God's light that's at work I may have very little sense of what's going on. I may have no idea what words or acts of mine are making what kind of difference and the same is true of each and every one of us in the church: we don't always know. What we do know is the light of Christ that comes from the neighbour's face and sometimes we can tell them that and it helps. And so on, yet again, in the great circle of life. I don't know what's going on, but I trust the God who makes the light shine out of darkness and in your face I see that light shining. You may not know what's going on but you turn to the next person and say, "Your face shows the light of God shining," and so forth.
To me one of the most moving stories of the Christian enterprise of the 20th century is a very simple one about a priest dying. He'd had a stroke on the fortieth anniversary of his ordination as deacon and he never recovered consciousness though he lived on for some seven weeks. During that seven weeks several visitors to his sick room said that they were conscious of light in the room. In the darkened and oppressive atmosphere of the sick room they simply knew that there was light coming from the face of the dying priest. He didn't know what God was doing with him and through him, but the light was there and others bore witness to it. And that perhaps puts more starkly than anything the distance between what we think we might have to give and what we think our gifts might be and what we think God will ask of us and the mysterious and surprising things that God actually does with us and through us. Even in today's Old Testament lesson we have a rather strange moment when Elijah says to Elisha that he doesn't know whether he will be able to give him a portion of his spirit. Wait and see how it turns out. Not even the greatest of the prophets can guarantee what he has to give. So a reminder to us all of the kind of community the church is: a community of people, not one of whom knows exactly what God is going to do with them. And that can be very frightening or it can be the most exciting and exhilarating thing in the entire world. If we had an idea of who we were and what our gifts were and what God would do and how God would appreciate what we did for him, and all the rest of it, what a desperately boring place the church would be. It would be millions and millions of people, each one of them working to their own agenda. And if there's one sure way of not letting the light of God through, it's millions of people, each one working to their own agenda. But the other side of it, of course, is that we are asking in the church that our eyes be kept open to each other: the gifts and the glories and the beauties of each other. And that we become a community where people are not afraid to say thank you for each other. The church is not always brilliant at this but it seems that the implication of what St Paul is saying and what so much of that great second letter to the Corinthians is about, the implication is we need to have that fundamental thankfulness for each other that allows us to acknowledge the surprising gifts, the unexpected glories that arise in the church. And it's because of that that we can rightly, in the church, surprise one another. "Why don't you think of doing that?" we might say to one another. "I think you're capable of doing this." "I think, from what I've seen of you - you may not believe it - from what I've seen of you, you could do that." And we are amazed and perhaps alarmed and then discover that God will indeed, after all, do something with us that we had never expected.
And so finally to the Gospel. Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain and He was transfigured before them. He surprised them. They had been around with Him. They were getting a bit of the message of who He was and they were beginning to think, with mounting panic probably, that He was going to ask quite a lot of them. And suddenly the skies opened and a light brighter than the sun at noonday dawns upon them, and they are very frightened. If Jesus is going to be this surprising; help. Our lives may be surprising too. But that great surprise of Jesus' glory, laid bare on the mountaintop in that wonderful story, that surprising quality of glory is also for us a promise that, in the words of St John in His letter, "we don't know what we shall be." We get a glimpse, it keeps us going, but we don't know what Jesus will do with us. The only way of living with that knowledge, with that anxiety, is to keep our eyes on the beauty, to keep our eyes on the light. The surprise of Jesus is a shock and even a terror, but it is also the most beautiful, the most worthwhile, the most real thing in the entire universe. If we can trust Him for that, then perhaps we can take a deep breath and swallow hard and say to Him, "Alright, I'm prepared to be surprised and I'm prepared to surprise my fellow Christians."
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
© Rowan Williams 2003