Archbishop's Malawi sermon – God’s healing and mercy are there for all
Saturday 8th October 2011In a special service to mark the 150th anniversary of the Church in Malawi, the Archbishop of Canterbury has preached a sermon in which he celebrated the Church’s commitment to working for freedom and dignity to all in society.
Speaking to a congregation of over 5000 at the place of pilgrimage where Bishop Mackenzie first settled in Magomero, Dr Williams outlined how the Church in Malawi had, from the very beginning, been dedicated to freedom – starting with Bishop Mackenzie’s struggle against the slave trade and more recently helping those in other forms of enslavement that are not only physical:
“The followers of Jesus are going to be people who, because of what they have seen and known in the power of his cross and resurrection, and because of the gift of his Holy Spirit, are ready to take great risks so that people may live in mutual respect and trust – in real freedom. It is freedom from literal slavery, yes, but also freedom from the slavery of guilt – from greed and prejudice, from lust and self-indulgence of all kinds. It is freedom to serve each other happily, working for the welfare of both the neighbour and the enemy. It is freedom from the fear and pain that come with disease when there are no resources for support and treatment. It is freedom to join together and worship the giver of all good gifts.”
Dr Williams also spoke about the role of the Church in seeking to minister to the vulnerable in society - underlining the particular role the Church in Africa has played in responding to the HIV crisis:
“So we must be always a church that is on pilgrimage towards the Christ who can be discovered in the most needy and helpless – a church seeking out those who are forgotten by everyone else or who carry a stigma that causes others to avoid them. This is why the Church in Africa has done so much to respond to the HIV pandemic; it knows that no-one should be stigmatized and ignored, that God’s healing and mercy are there for all.”
Whilst acknowledging the recent internal crises in the Church, Dr Williams urged the Anglicans gathered to look back to the work and commitment of Bishop Mackenzie and celebrate that commitment to the freedom of all human beings:
“Christ has laid the foundation of this church here in Malawi in the great vision of reconciled society of free persons bound to each other’s service in love. This is the society that is real and visible today in our gathering – the Body of Christ renewed in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. As we look in hope and prayer to the future of our work here for the Kingdom of God, we ask from God the strength to make this vision of reconciled society a daily reality in the fellowship of the Church in Malawi, so that it may invite the whole nation, the whole region, towards renewal, justice, care and stability.
The full text of the sermon can be found below:
‘Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28.20).
It is such a privilege to stand here today and to be with you for this great celebration of 150 years of Anglican mission in Malawi. I thank God along with you for the many great gifts he has poured out on this country and on his people here.
The life of the Anglican Church in this country has from the very beginning been a life devoted to liberation. When we read the history of Bishop Mackenzie’s mission, and indeed the whole story of the mission initiatives inspired by David Livingstone, what we see is a story of Christian people determined to challenge the evil of slavery. And they knew that slavery was not only something that caused terrible suffering to slaves. It was also something that made slave-traders and slave-owners less than properly human. It degraded everything and everyone it touched. When Mackenzie and his companions battled against the slave trade, they did so in order that slaves and slave-owners alike might be free – and in order that a whole society and culture might be renewed by the message of freedom and the universal respect this involved, respect for all human beings because they were made in the image of God.
And this is part of what we celebrate today, the Church’s witness to the image of God in every person and the liberty and dignity and respect this must mean. In the gospel reading we heard the Risen Jesus commanding his friends to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey what he had commanded. Now what is it that Jesus commands? We can answer this question by looking back into the rest of St Matthew’s gospel and reading especially the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us that human lives are blessed by God when they are devoted to justice and peacemaking; when they are lives without arrogance and greed; when they are lives concentrated on the love of God and ready to take risks for the sake of God, not worrying about hostility even when it is violent. And in the chapters that follow the Beatitudes, Jesus makes it even more clear that his disciples must keep their anger in check; they must lead lives of faithfulness in marriage so that the world can see the mystery of love made plain in human relationships; they must always, always, seek to be reconciled with one another and must always, always, take the first step to make peace with their enemies and pray for them.
So it goes on – a great catalogue of what the truly human life looks like in God’s eyes. The followers of Jesus are going to be people who, because of what they have seen and known in the power of his cross and resurrection, and because of the gift of his Holy Spirit, are ready to take great risks so that people may live in mutual respect and trust – in real freedom. It is freedom from literal slavery, yes, but also freedom from the slavery of guilt – from greed and prejudice, from lust and self-indulgence of all kinds. It is freedom to serve each other happily, working for the welfare of both the neighbour and the enemy. It is freedom from the fear and pain that come with disease when there are no resources for support and treatment. It is freedom to join together and worship the giver of all good gifts.
This is what the Church teaches. But there is a very important aspect of this in the words of the gospel that we don’t always notice. Jesus tells his friends to make disciples of the nations. He does not just want individuals to lead good lives. He wants whole nations to be disciples, to do what he has commanded. He wants nations, societies to live without anger and hatred, with justice for all. He wants whole nations to check their anger and greed and to seek to be the first to make peace. He wants whole nations to come into the fellowship he enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the eternal fellowship of equality and perfect love.
Hundreds of years ago, when the first missionaries were converting the people of Europe, there were many kings and emperors who decided that they would force all their people to be baptized, whether they wanted it or not. They thought that they would make their people into disciples just by force. But this is not what Christ seeks, this is not how he makes disciples. In the gospels we see him making disciples by inviting others to join a community of friends who have already discovered in his presence and his company a new sense of freedom and dignity. And so the Church today does just the same thing. It says to the society around: ‘Look! We have found a way to live together without angry rivalry and violence; we have found a way to stretch out a hand to our enemies; we have found a way to give respect to everyone. Come and find what we have found.’
Now of course we know that this will work only if our churches truly are places where all people are honoured and where rivalry and violence are utterly rejected. The church is not always able to say that this is true; but we are always able to say that we recognize our failings and sins and trust the Holy Spirit to make us new when we have failed. When a church is enslaved afresh by greed, by regional or ethnic loyalties, by personal ambitions, it needs the wind of the Spirit to purify it. I think here of the long periods in the history of my own church in England when we were compromised by subservience to our governments, imprisoned by the comfort and privilege of our status; I think of how slow we were to reach out to the poorest and most oppressed in our new cities – at just the time when the mission here was beginning. I believe that in God’s providence the energy that was released in missions like that of Bishop Mackenzie helped our church in England see what was possible and necessary in our own context – how we had to let go of our safety and comfort and find new ways of serving the people of our land. It was a great missionary bishop of the UMCA, Frank Weston, who summoned us in England over eighty years ago to go out into the streets and find Jesus in the neglected and exploited workers of our own country.
So we must be always a church that is on pilgrimage towards the Christ who can be discovered in the most needy and helpless – a church seeking out those who are forgotten by everyone else or who carry a stigma that causes others to avoid them. This is why the Church in Africa has done so much to respond to the HIV pandemic; it knows that no-one should be stigmatized and ignored, that God’s healing and mercy are there for all.
So if we do indeed live like this, what are we saying to the society around?
We are not just saying ‘Join the Church; sign up to membership.’ We are saying, ‘Learn to obey what Christ commands, learn to live the kind of human life Christ makes possible for us by his grace.’ We are urging our nation – whether it is Britain, Australia, Brazil or Malawi – to embrace true freedom, to turn away from all kinds of violence, to honour the free expression of difference and disagreement, to guarantee the welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable, to work tirelessly for reconciliation within the country and in the whole world. Of course we are saying too that we care about these things because we have been given a vision of justice and love by being made members not of a human institution but of the Body of Christ, the fellowship of all who have trusted Jesus and accepted the forgiveness he gives and the promise he makes in his death and resurrection. We want to invite all people to be part of this fellowship so that they can more effectively work with God for the healing of his world. But we also say, ‘Even if you cannot accept all this, can you at least see that slavery, contempt towards others, rivalry, greed and repression will kill a society? Join us in our vision, and perhaps you will find in the process that God speaks more and more clearly to you and invites you more directly to join in worship and thanksgiving.’
It has been said again and again that Christianity is the promise of life, not just a message or a philosophy. Today we gather for the Holy Communion to receive the life of Jesus – not just to hear a message, even a message from an archbishop! We are here to renew our experience of the Body of Christ, to be strengthened by Christ’s gift of his Body and Blood in our journey towards doing the will of God the Father. We are here to be made more like Jesus in his prayer and his love, so that the Church will be more like Jesus in its life together. To quote from some words of Bishop James Tengatenga’s study of Church, State and Society in Malawi (p.197), the Church must learn to speak a language ‘of reconciliation, a language of peace and a language of anticipation of the time of the fullness of the Kingdom of God when all shall live together in shalom. It is a lanaguge that challenges and questions the present and brings to focus the past and engenders a vision of the future.’ And, as Bishop James goes on to say, when the visible institution of the Church is clear about this, it is ready to play its proper part, speaking to and engaging with government and civil society as a true sign of hope in its context.
The Church here in Malawi has a great history. Its foundations are laid in heroism and suffering, and its pastors have always insisted that the presence of the Spirit of Christ means a commitment to equality and liberty and compassion for all, an end to slavery both physical and spiritual. In recent years, it has faced many crises in its internal life. We must be honest and admit that these have brought to light attitudes and habits that have not reflected a will to reconcile. So it is, alas, in all churches at some time or another. But healing and renewal has begun. And the great outpouring of thanks and celebration that marks this day takes us back to the inspiration that first established this church, to that passion for freedom and renewed relation that drove Livingstone and Mackenzie and the first brave spirits among the local people who heard the Good News and joined in their work of liberation and education.
Christ has laid the foundation of this church here in Malawi in the great vision of reconciled society of free persons bound to each other’s service in love. This is the society that is real and visible today in our gathering – the Body of Christ renewed in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. As we look in hope and prayer to the future of our work here for the Kingdom of God, we ask from God the strength to make this vision of reconciled society a daily reality in the fellowship of the Church in Malawi, so that it may invite the whole nation, the whole region, towards renewal, justice, care and stability.
‘Teach them’, says Our Lord, ‘to obey everything I have commanded you.’