Archbishop of Canterbury's visit to the Diocese of Gloucester
Friday 20th July 2012In a three day pastoral visit to the Diocese of Gloucester, the Archbishop of Canterbury took part in many special events around the diocese and visited church initiatives helping those on the margins of society.
After a warm welcome and a brief service at Cirencester parish church, the Archbishop travelled to Cheltenham where he led a study session for diocesan clergy and readers on the theme of baptism. (The Archbishop's address at the Clergy and Readers Study Session is available as an audio recording or as a transcript below.)
He went on to preach at the Priory Church of St Mary at Deerhurst, where he also dedicated a new altar of St Alphege, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Christian martyr from 1000 years ago who began his religious life as a monk in Deerhurst Priory. Archbishop Rowan’s sermon was based on the gospel reading Matthew 16.24 -26, where Jesus says to his disciples ‘If anyone wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave his self behind; he must take up his cross and come with me’. Dr Williams outlined the meaning of this text to the congregation, saying that we should let go of trying to control our lives and our futures and allow our brothers and sisters to ‘carry us’ in prayer. ‘In the church we bear one another’s burdens, we carry one another in prayer… when you let go, someone else takes your hand and says “I will carry you”’. (The Archbishop's Priory Church sermon is available as an audio recording or as a transcript below.)
On Saturday morning he visited church-led community projects including the Winchcombe Youth Hub which currently caters for around 60 young teenagers and offers club nights, indoor sports and other activities and training such as computer sessions. The scheme is an Anglican and Methodist Churches Together partnership – in 2011 when the county council withdrew youth services from Winchcombe, the Church stepped in to take over the building and restart the youth work in the town.
Dr Williams also paid a visit to the Hop, Skip & Jump centre where he was shown around the playground by children from the centre. Hop, Skip & Jump provides play and support for children with a disability, life-threatening illness, or any special need. The centre also offers day care respite for the children, their families and carers.
Later on Saturday, Archbishop Rowan joined thousands of people from the Diocese for a community day in and around the Cathedral. The activities on offer included thought-provoking ones, sporty ones, informative ones and some just for fun. Dr Williams answered all sorts of questions from children and adults about his time as Archbishop and led a packed Cathedral congregation in worship for all ages.
The Archbishop concluded his visit by leading a short pilgrimage from the town of Coleford, where he gave a prayer for the recent family tragedy which occurred in this community, and signed the condolence book. He ended the pilgrimage by preaching to a congregation of 650 in the hamlet of Newland.
His sermon was on the gospel reading John 20.11-18 where Jesus called Mary Magdalene’s name and in that instant she realised the identity of the man she had mistaken for a gardener. Dr Williams explained that ‘faith means looking to Jesus in the hope and confidence that he will call us by our names, that he will see us whole, everything about us – the good, the bad, the clear, the muddled – and simply speak our names and say “it’s alright, I have called you by your name – you belong to me”’. The Archbishop described the miracle of the resurrection as being the fact that the man who said these things to individuals all those years ago in Galilee is alive today to say the same words to each one of us. (The Archbishop's sermon at All Saints' Church is available as an audio recording or as a transcript below.)
Archbishop Rowan at the Hop, Skip & Jump centre.
Cheltenham, Friday 20th July 2012
Bishop Michael, thank you very much indeed for your welcome, and for the invitation to spend some time in the diocese this weekend. Thanks to all of you for being here this afternoon, and thanks in advance for the conversation that I hope will open up, in due course.
I'm very glad to have the opportunity of talking about baptism. And I want to come at it in two different ways, from two different directions. The first set of issues I'm going to open up is to do with where baptism takes us. And the second, broadly speaking, is what baptism makes us.
But I begin with where baptism takes us. Because I think one of the important things we often miss about baptism in its New Testament sense, in the sense it’s been given throughout the Christian centuries, is that baptism is meant to put you somewhere, to put you were Jesus is. Because being immersed in Jesus is, of course, to go where He goes.
When St Paul in 1 Corinthians uses, a bit surprisingly, the language of the Israelites being “baptised into Moses” when they came out of Egypt, what he seems to be saying is that the Israelites go where Moses goes. They are immersed in Moses’ destiny, and so where he goes they are carried with him.
And so it is that when we are immersed in Jesus, we go where He goes.
Now where exactly does that take us? I'm going to suggest that there are three kinds of neighbourhood into which baptism takes us. And I begin with the picture that’s presented to us in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of the baptism of Jesus, where He’s shown not only immersed in the water of the River Jordan, but also standing over chaos. At his feet, in some of the Eastern icons of the baptism, you will see a rather shadowy figure who is supposed to be the river god, the power of chaotic nature, underneath it all.
Jesus’ baptism is a descent into the depths out of which new creation comes, the depths of watery chaos, because this baptism is like the very beginning of all things. Just as the Spirit comes down upon the chaos in Genesis 1, and brings out of it a world, so Jesus descends into the chaos of this world. And the Spirit comes down upon Him, to equip Him to begin the new creation.
So our baptismal place is with Jesus as He goes down into that human chaos, with the Spirit (as it were) pouring down after Him, so that up from that watery chaos comes new creation, just as the world emerges from the Spirit hovering over chaos at the beginning of Genesis.
So if we ask where baptism takes us – into what neighbourhood – I'm afraid the first answer to the question is: into the neighbourhood of chaos. Baptism brings us near to chaos in the sense that to be baptised, to go where Jesus goes, is to go into the depths of the human condition. To be in touch with our own inner chaotic need of God’s Spirit for re-creation, to be in touch with the chaos around us, the muddle, the suffering, the neediness of human experience. The one thing baptism doesn’t do for us is to put us in charge of our circumstances. Instead we’re asked to plunge down, with God, into the depths of ourselves, and the depths of God’s world, to understand the rawness, the muddle, into which the Spirit of God has to come, bringing absolution and renewal.
And the baptised life, therefore, is a life lived in constant awareness of our own inner need, our own inner chaos, our constant hunger for the Spirit. It’s a life lived in awareness of the nothingness out of which God creates. So we begin by being taken into the neighbourhood of chaos, so that the Spirit pours down into it, to bring new creation.
And of course, having said that, at once we see the second element emerging: to be brought into the neighbourhood of chaos is to be brought into the neighbourhood of our human neighbours – their need, their confusion, their chaos. To be brought into solidarity.
Because when Jesus descends into the chaos of this world, and the need of this world, He accepts solidarity with human beings, in all their diversity. And to be baptised is to be taken into solidarity.
How much more comfortable our lives would be if that were not so. Sometimes it’s easy, and it’s tempting, to say that the ‘fellowship of the baptised’ is the gathering of those who are holy, and finished, and polished, and like us. Whereas in fact the fellowship of the baptised is the neighbourhood of a huge variety of people we would not really like to be found in the company of.
But if Jesus is not ashamed to be in the company of the human beings to whom He comes, and with whom He stands; if Jesus is not ashamed to be called our God, God with us; then our baptised condition is one in which we accept the solidarity involved in being in the neighbourhood of all those to whom God’s love is reaching out.
It’s a matter of accepting – to put it very starkly – the contamination of solidarity. We’d like to be pure. We’d like to be different. We’d like to have clear blue water around us, to separate us off from those compromising and annoying people into whose company God has brought us. Of course those compromising and annoying other people are not just the unbelieving world of humanity in general – they're much more often the other Christians that we are so embarrassed by. And when I think of the angst and struggle of the Anglican Communion over these last few years, to which the Bishop has referred, I think again and again of how tough solidarity is, and how much, at times, we want to be somewhere else with other people.
I've often gone back to the old Scots story of the aristocratic lady who founds her own church. And the parish minister comes to call one day and gives her a bit of a talking to, and says, “Are you seriously trying to tell me that only you and your coachman are saved?” And the old lady thinks for a bit, shakes her head, and says “Well, no. I'm not so sure about John.” That’s the kind of church we probably, most of us, would really rather like to belong in. And one of the great graces of the Anglican Communion worldwide, and the Church of England locally, is that we are not going to get that sort of Church if we stay with that sort of fellowship.
We can be embarrassed, angry, and frustrated by that, and we probably will be anyway. But we ought at least to be working at some fundamental theological recognition that what we are doing in remaining in fellowship with the people we find questionable, and who question us, is expressing the solidarity of the baptised identity – our neighbourhood, with suffering, sinful, needy, and confused humanity, in and out of the Church. That means that in baptism the gift of the Spirit is not only drawing us up into new creation, the gift of the Spirit is always holding open the door of communion. Holding open the possibility of solidarity, of fellowship, with the strange, the threatening, the embarrassing.
This is a bit of a parenthesis, but I have to say that one of the things that strikes me most about visiting parish churches in certain parts of the country, is quite simply that you see there the neighbourhood of people who would not be visibly neighbours anywhere else. Visiting a parish some years ago in the East End of London, I remember so vividly looking around and seeing the diversity of race and age and class in that rather remarkable church, and thinking, “Where else?” And that remains one of the great gifts and glories of the church of God in general and, dare I say it, the Church of England at its best.
The neighbourhood of chaos and the neighbourhood of others, accepting and recognising our need, understanding our solidarity – often a solidarity that we find quite hard to come to terms with – but neither of those would make any sense unless we took seriously the third dimension here, which is of course the neighbourhood of God the Father. Where are we taken by baptism? We’re taken into the neighbourhood of God the Father. That’s what the Spirit does. When St Paul tells us that the Spirit is poured into our hearts so that we cry “Abba, Father”, St Paul is telling us that baptism takes us into the heart of the Father.
In the first chapter of St John’s gospel, when we read in the prologue that “the Word was with God” (John 1.1), and the “only begotten” was, literally, “in the bosom of God” (John 1.18), surely what we’re meant to understand is that the word of God is, as it’s sometimes been translated, “next to the Father’s heart.” And in that same fourth gospel Jesus says to his disciples, “Where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12.26) And if the eternal word of God, made flesh in Jesus, is “next to the Father’s heart”, and if we are going where Jesus goes, in baptism, then that’s where we’re going: to the Father’s heart.
That is both a deeply consoling and a deeply challenging vision. The Jesus who is next to the Father’s heart, and prays “Abba, Father” Himself in Gethsemane, is the Jesus who, because He is so close to the Father, has no defences against what the Father asks of Him and so goes to the Father’s heart through the cross. And that’s where we’re going too: the very centre of our Christian identity, our Christian location; the very energy and heart of the new creation – to be taken into the cross and the resurrection.
Where baptism takes us is a dangerous place, a risky place. The cost of facing our chaos, the cost of solidarity with others, is all part of the ultimate cost of being defenceless before the will of God the Father. And so to grow into Christ, and to go where He goes, is to grow in intimacy with the Father; an intimacy which constantly reconnects us with our neediness and our frailty, and connects us with the need of our neighbour. Our solidarity with the neighbour is part of our solidarity with Christ, next to the Father’s heart.
Three kinds of neighbourhood, three dimensions into which baptism takes us. All of them both exciting and consoling, and challenging and worrying. All of them reminding us that one thing baptism is not is simply ticking a box or simply signing a statement, let alone joining a club. Baptism is going where Jesus goes. The baptised life is life lived in those three neighbourhoods of our own chaos, the neighbour’s need, and the will and love of the Father.
And so to the second cluster of thoughts: if that’s where baptism takes us, what does baptism make us? It makes us messianic. Don’t instantly get messianic complexes because of that; don’t imagine that being messianic means that you are now the answer to the world’s problems – if only! Being messianic is to let the identity of Jesus come alive in your identity, the identity of the one who is anointed.
Classically, of course, at least from Calvin’s time onwards, that messianic identity has been broken down into the three great gifts: the prophetic, and the priestly, and the royal. The messianic identity involves us in being prophets, and priests, and monarchs. And messianic anointing in scripture is connected with all of those things, and it’s interesting that right from the earliest days of the Church baptism has been understood as intimately connected with the theme of anointing. Which is why, of course, anointing plays such a role in baptismal liturgy from about the earliest time we can quarry onwards.
So, just a few brief words about those three identities: the prophetic, and the priestly, and the royal.
We’re called to be, and anointed to be, prophetic when we’re baptised. And that’s a word that is often abused. People say “Why doesn’t the Church speak out prophetically on this or that?” or “Why doesn’t the Archbishop speak out prophetically on this or that?” – which usually just means loudly. Prophesy is not just a matter of ‘sounding off’. Prophesy, in scripture, is the task of patiently and steadily recalling the whole community to its own integrity. The prophet in the Old Testament is somebody who seeks to bring God’s people back to their first loyalty, to their central, integral identity. To say to the whole community, of which he or she is part, “This is what we really are. This is what we’re really about.”
In that sense prophesy is about calling people back to basics, back to Christian basics, back to what we’re here for. Being baptised is to have the calling of reminding each other – nagging one another sometimes – to get back to those fundamentals. The Church is a community of people saying to one another “Don’t forget who we are and what we’re here for.” And together we work at the integrity of the community, and its witness, and our faithfulness to our calling. The prophetic anointing is anointing to call one another back to faithfulness – by which I don’t mean looking critically for things in one another that we can wag our fingers at. It doesn’t mean constantly checking up on one another in an obsessional and controlling way. It means simply faithfully saying to one another, “Don’t forget what we’re here for. Don’t forget who you are in Christ. And for God’s sake, tell me who I am, and don’t let me forget what I'm here for.”
This, incidentally, is one of the things that clergy and laity ought to be saying constantly to one another, in the collaborative pattern of ministry that Bishop Michael referred to. It’s as important for laity to say to clergy, “Don’t you forget what you're here for”, as for clergy to say to laity, “Don’t you forget what you're here for”, calling one another to integrity.
What about the priestly anointing? Priests in scripture are those charged with offering the sacrifice of peace, charged with putting together a fragmented world, and putting together God and God’s people by the sacrifice offered. In Christian scripture that whole language of priesthood is swept up exclusively into the work of Jesus Christ, the great High Priest.
But in Him, going where He goes and doing what He does, we too have that priestly work of putting things together, of proclaiming the peace that has been made between Earth and Heaven and devoting ourselves constantly to the search for situations where reconciliation needs to happen, where peace needs to be made between human beings and between human beings and God. Like the priest in scripture, we are therefore interpreters of the world around us to God, offering to the world the needs that we encounter and experience, and connecting up those needs with the grace and love of our creator and redeemer.
The priestly role is a difficult one to be precise about, in so many ways, because it means so many things in scripture and in tradition. But somewhere at the heart of it is the priest’s calling, in the Old Testament vision, to put together what’s been broken. Christ is supremely our priest because He puts together the broken relationship between creator and creation, and puts together the brokenness that’s between human beings, breaking down the wall of separation, says the apostle in Ephesians (Ephesians 2.14). So for us, a community of the baptised is a community of priestliness, of putting together.
But what on earth does the ‘royal’ gift mean, being kings and queens in Jesus? I think that, above all, it’s something to do with our freedom in Christ. Royal liberty, the glorious liberty of the Children of God, being delivered from any and every authority other than that of God in Christ. That’s our royal gift. We share that sovereignty which Christ gives. Which means we are not at the mercy of cosmic forces, all those jostling cosmic busybodies that Paul so often refers us to in his letters, all that thick layer of over-worked and obsessional semi-demonic powers who crowd out the space between Earth and Heaven in the ancient world view. Paul says, “Forget them. They have no claim on you.” And however we translate that into modern terms – the powers of class, and ideology, and nationality, the compulsions that come from within, from our own psyches – we do not have to be at the mercy of any of them. We are sovereign with Christ. But only with and in Christ, and always exercising the kind of liberty that belongs to created beings. Not seeking to be free of our created condition, but making the most of our liberty within the constraint of our bodies and our relationships. And not free to do what we ‘like’ but free to be what we truly are: God’s beloved children.
A prophetic identity: calling one another to integrity. A priestly identity: picking up what’s broken, and putting it together. A royal identity: sovereignly free from compulsion and ‘group mind’ and ideology, and able to be what God has made human beings to be.
It’s probably worth just mentioning at this point that each of those gifts, each of those identities, can have – and of course regularly does have – its own particular characteristic corruptions in the life of the Church. We can misunderstand the prophetic gift in terms of moralism and superiority and exclusivism. The temptation to look down on neighbours, the temptation to search desperately for the high ground, so that we have enough room to look down on others. The temptation to simplify and justify ourselves, the temptation to sidestep the question of the neighbour to us – remembering it’s not just about my responsibility to keep your integrity alive, it’s your responsibility to keep my integrity alive. Prophesy can degenerate into posturing.
Priestliness can degenerate in all sorts of ways. It can degenerate into a hierarchical picture of the Christian community, in which there’s a ruling and a ruled class. If you look back to some of the traditional Catholic accounts of the Church, 100 years ago or so, long before Vatican II, you’ll find that there is still there the language of those who rule, and those who are ruled, in the Church. Priestliness can become elitist and divisive in that sense. And it can nurture in the Christian community a weakened sense of the sole priesthood of Christ, and the costliness that therefore faces the whole priestly people of God, because of their identity with Him. But also of course priestliness can degenerate into decorative religion, into going through the motions of reconciliation in ritual forms that don’t actually express or embody a truly priestly common life.
The great American lay theologian, William Stringfellow, somebody not nearly enough well-known in this country, used to say that we had such a feeble doctrine of baptism sometimes, in our Anglican ethos, that we neither had a proper doctrine of the laity, nor a proper doctrine of the clergy. We fail, he said, to see the priestly demands made on the laity in their revolutionary identity in the world. And we then turn priests into what he called (memorably), “Superficial, decorative, celebratory laity” – priests as just dressed up lay people. So priestliness degenerates into that decorativeness, just as it degenerates into elitism and hierarchy.
And the royal gift, too, that can degenerate in different ways, into a kind of indifference to rule and discipline. An indifference to the shared identity that we have and the constraints that places upon us – the idea that liberty simply means doing what I fancy. But also it can degenerate into a search for that ultimate illusion for human beings, that we can be in control of our lives. And there I simply take you back to where we started, and the picture of being immersed with Christ in the chaos of the world. The one thing that is not about is being in charge of our circumstances. That royal gift can degenerate into the fantasies of shapeless consumer choice, or the fantasy of control over our situation. Not unconnected of course in the modern mindset, but that’s another story.
So who does baptism make us? What does baptism make us? It makes us prophets, priests, and monarchs.
And all of those corruptions, and failures of that identity, are checked only taking them all back, again and again and again, to the specificity of Jesus. Because the definitions of priestliness and prophesy and royalty, are for us only, finally, to be found in Jesus. What it means to be messianic, remember, is defined by Him and Him alone. And so these aspects of the messianic identity – the prophet, the priest, and the monarch – they are defined also by reference to Him alone. Back to that specific story, back to the flesh and blood of Jesus. How did He do it? That’s the question. How did He do it? How did He do prophesy? How did He do priestliness? How did He do his royal authority? And as we answer that, we begin to see what we have to beware of in our own environment and our own calling.
So, finally, where does baptism take us, and what does baptism make us? These are the basic questions about our Christian identity. And they’re questions that have quite a complex relation to the issues that many of us are concerned about where baptism arises in discussion. Is baptism a pure gift without condition? Is baptism something that expresses the faith that people have developed? How do we weigh the arguments for and against infant baptism/adult baptism? Sometimes we get so tied up with that question that we can’t quite see how baptism is the focus of the life of the new creation. And that’s why I've started with these questions, and these images, to share with you.
As a good Anglican I believe in infant baptism. Indeed, to repeat the old chestnut, I don’t just believe in infant baptism, I've seen it done! And one of the things that infant baptism crystallises is that sense that whatever’s happening to us in baptism is quite a long way beyond our conscious choice and control. It is being taken from one place to another, from one set of relations to another. It’s being plugged in to something that we can never fully understand or contain or get on top of. And infant baptism is, to me, profoundly moving, because of that sense that someone, a small child who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on, is nonetheless being linked up, being given a solidarity that they don’t yet fully appreciate. Which they may or may not grow into – but the solidarity is there, because of the faith of those around them who want to open up for their child the relationships that they themselves are part of, just as in any family.
And yet it is important to remember that no one form of baptism says it all. And many of you will know how equally moving it is to see someone who has struggled towards faith as an adult expressing their sense that they have in their conscious adult life been moved along towards new relationships, and new identity. Have found themselves afresh and discovered where they’ve been taken, what they’ve been made.
So it would be a very odd church indeed that allowed its thinking about baptism to be completely controlled by the model of infant baptism, but also a rather eccentric church that allowed its thinking about baptism to be completely controlled by stories of adult baptism. From the very beginnings of Christianity it’s been a bit more complex than that. Even within the New Testament – you all know the arguments – we see people with their households, with their existing relationships, being dropped in, immersed into the life of Jesus. So those relationships are transformed, and opened up beyond imagination, by immersion in Christ.
And that’s the fundamental thing at the end of the day: immersion in Christ. Going where He goes, being where He is. Our Christian responsibility is to be with Him. “Let us also go, that we may die with Him”, says St Thomas, very helpfully (John 11.16) with his typical tact and realism. But “Where I am, there will my servant be also”, says the Lord (John 12.26), and our baptism is about that. And if the kind of sketch I've offered of the meanings of baptism rings any bells, then it becomes immediately clear that the one thing baptism isn’t, once again, is simply an expression of my private conviction. It instantly exposes me to responsibility, to solidarity, and all that goes with that: the imperative of recognising my need, my muddle, the need of my neighbour, the sin, the suffering, the chaos of my neighbour as well as myself. It immediately puts me in the stream of Jesus’ own self-offering to the will of the Father. And that’s why it changes not just where we are and who we are, but what we do.
And our great challenge as a Church, as a diocese here, as the Church of England, as a Church Catholic, our great challenge is how do we act in such a way that these meanings of baptism come through, with clarity and conviction, for us and the world around. Thank you.
© Rowan Williams 2012
Sermon at the Eucharist in honour of St Alphege of Deerhurst
The Priory Church of St Mary at Deerhurst
Friday 20 July 2012
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Take up your cross”, says Jesus to His friends, “and follow.” (Matthew 16.24) What is it that we take up? What is it that we carry when we start walking with Jesus Christ? Sometimes we talk about everyone having their ‘cross to bear’, usually when the car breaks down or when we have a minor disappointment about arranging our holidays; sometimes, more seriously, when some really trying, testing time arrives for us; sometimes just in a general way, acknowledging that life is not all we want it to be. We all have our cross to bear.
But it falls just a little bit short of what Jesus meant, and what His friends would have heard. At that time, ‘taking up your cross’ meant accepting that you were going to die the death of a slave, a terrible and painful fate. It meant accepting that your future was out of your hands; accepting that humiliation, as well as pain, was going to be your lot. It’s a very frightening command indeed, seen in that light. To be a follower of Jesus Christ means letting go of what you think is yours, the life you’d like to own and organise, the life you’d like to be the sort of life you’d like.
So the basic command and invitation of Jesus is: let go of that dream of being in charge of your life. That is a very counter-cultural message these days. We are told, a lot of the time, that the great thing is that we should take charge of our lives; that what we really want is autonomy and freedom and choice and all those other things. And it’s not terribly welcome to be told that what Jesus is inviting us to do is to let go of all that. If that were all there were to the Gospel, it would be rather hard to see why it could ever be called ”good news” if Jesus is simply saying to us “Get used to a future completely out of your hands, and don’t come running to me for help.”
But of course that’s not the good news, or anything like it. And when we think about the life of Saint Alphege, and the life of many of the saints and martyrs of God, we begin to get a glimpse of the other side of the coin. Saint Alphege, just to remind you, was kidnapped by the Vikings. Of the many fates that Archbishops of Canterbury have had over the centuries, I guess that was one of the least attractive. Kidnapped by the Vikings and held hostage. Demands were issued for a massive ransom. Saint Alphege refused to be ransomed, because he refused to buy his life at the expense of his impoverished and oppressed flock. He didn’t want to play the Viking game. He didn’t want to play the game of setting himself up as someone whose life was more important than the lives of those he served. He carried his cross by carrying his people. That’s what he carried – he carried the needs and concerns, the sufferings, of those he’d been called to serve. He carried other people.
And, no doubt, in those terrible long months of his captivity before he was at last brutally killed, his people were carrying him as well. In their desperate plight, attacked by the raiders, poor, downtrodden and helpless, they carried him in their prayers. They must have prayed for him at every mass. They held him in their hearts while he suffered, as he held them in his heart.
And so we begin to get a glimpse of something a bit different, and a bit more hopeful, than just that austere command to ‘carry your cross’, to put up with your helplessness. What we carry is one another. In the body of Christ, in the family of the Church, we carry one another. We bear one another’s burdens, as Saint Paul puts it. We carry one another in prayer – quite simply, we remember the suffering of our brothers and sisters in our minds and hearts, day by day and week by week. And we depend on the prayers of others. We know that we live and we flourish as believers, our spirits and hearts come alive, not because we’re wonderful but because other people are praying for us. And we may never know quite what that means in practice and in detail.
Bishops and archbishops get prayed for quite a lot – and doubtless in varying tones of voice! But occasionally, when people sympathetically say to me “We’ve been praying for you”, my first thought is “Goodness, just think how much worse it would have been if they hadn’t been praying for me.” And that sense – that our health, our life and our welfare is in each other’s hands – that’s the other side of the coin. “Yes”, says Jesus; “Let go. Empty your hands. The future is not yours to control. You don’t own the world, and you can’t organise it.” But in the very moment when you let go, it is as if somebody else takes your hands, and says “I’ll carry you.” I have no power over my future. But someone else – indeed the whole family of Christ that I belong to – is holding me and helping me along. And that’s my task, as I try to let go – not simply to sink into apathy or despair, but to let go and say to God “Use me for the welfare of my neighbour.”
In this family of Jesus Christ, the cross we carry is one another.
It doesn’t mean, of course, that other people are consistently and invariably a source of pain and suffering to us – not even in the Church! The French philosopher was wrong when he said “Hell is other people.” For the Christian, heaven is other people. The family of God, the other people God gives us in friendship and fellowship, they are our Heaven. And woe betide us if we forget that responsibility for one another and that willingness to be carried along by one another. The willingness to ask one another for help, to ask one another for prayer, for nourishment, so that we may grow.
So the saints and martyrs are not there just to say to us “Look how wonderful and heroic individual Christians can be.” They are there to remind us that holy lives are lives in which people generously, trustfully, let go of their fears, their anxieties and their longing for independence, and let themselves be carried by the prayer and love of others, and above all by the love of God. And in our church, our task is that carrying of one another. It’s because of that that we are able, in the words of the prophet that we heard, to pass through the water, through the fire (Isaiah 43.1-7). It’s because of that faithfulness to one another that we are able to live and to grow. The greatest task given to us in the Church is to be faithful to one another. We know we have to be faithful to God, and this is the way we do it: by being faithful to one another and carrying one another along.
Because that, of course, is the underlying truth of the cross of Jesus. How and why does Jesus carry the cross? Because He is faithful to those God has given Him. He knows that for them to live and flourish and rejoice, He must risk everything. And He knows that if He is to be faithful to what He alone can do, if He is to be faithful to the God who has called Him, then He must be faithful to the path of risk and the path of suffering. But before we get too focused on the suffering, let’s remember the faithfulness. It’s because God is so passionate about us, so devoted to us, so consistent in His love and promise to us, that Jesus goes to the cross.
And we heard again in the Old Testament lesson something of God’s passionate enthusiasm for His people. In the terms of the Old Testament, it was about how God is willing to give anything and everything to rescue His people from the ends of the earth. But in the New Testament, we have just that crucial extra: God is willing to give anything and everything, including His very life, His divine glory, His divine distance, His divine safety. He gives it all away and puts Himself in our hands, so that He may take us in His hands and teach us that our life together as Christians is about carrying one another in our need.
So, dear friends, as we think about what it is to be baptised, as we celebrate this evening the meaning of the fact that we’re baptised into God’s family, into Christ’s body, perhaps that can be at the centre of our thought and prayer. We’re involved with one another now. We’re summoned to carry one another, to be there for one another’s need, to help one another grow. We’re here, ambitious as it sounds, to be God’s gift to one another. Not in the sense we sometimes use those words – “He thinks he’s God’s gift to mankind” – but, quite literally and seriously, to be the way in which God gives hope and life and growth to the person next to us, and next to them, and to the people we’re never going to see or meet. The people we hold in our hearts, and carry in our hearts and in our prayers.
At the very beginning of our service sheets this evening, you’ll read the paragraphs about the Diocese of Western Tanganyika and about the health project in Sierra Leone. We’re reminded by those paragraphs of what it means to be baptised. To be baptised is to carry the cross of faithfulness. These are people, these are friends, brothers and sisters that God has given to us – and we are the gifts God has given to them. We exchange the gift of our prayer, our love and our faithfulness. We carry one another in the family of God. And that’s how we carry our cross: by being faithful to what’s given to us, by being faithful dispensers of love and hope to one another.
That is, at its most dramatic, the mystery of martyrdom, when people like Alphege really do let go of control and safety, and really do lay down their lives. There are martyrs who still to it today in parts of the world, in those persecuted churches where confessing the name of Christ really and literally puts your life at risk. They do it because they want to be faithful to the God who’s been faithful to them, and because they want to be faithful to all their fellow Christians too, and not to let them down. And we, in our prayer and support, have to be faithful to them in their suffering.
That’s the most dramatic example. But think of all the undramatic examples. Think of all the local, prosaic, domestic ways in which we’re called to carry one another – in a single congregation, in a single community, in a diocese, in the Church of England, in our nation – to carry one another, and so carry the cross of Christ’s faithfulness. If that’s what our baptism means, let’s take it up. Take up its cross. Not with a sigh, not with reluctance, not with trembling, but with a serious sense that God is asking us, in the community of baptised people, to carry each other in our need; to be the means by which God will help our neighbour grow and live and flourish. If we are truly able to carry one another in this way, well, believe it or not, we will give as much glory to the name of God in Jesus Christ as did the martyr Saint Alphege in his terrible and dramatic end.
Remember, God doesn’t ask each one of us to be the same kind of saint. Otherwise the history of the Church would be very boring indeed – and whatever you think of the history of the Church, boring it isn’t, any more than the present reality of the Church is boring. No, we’re each of us asked to glorify God, and to reflect God’s gifts in a unique way. And, as has often been said, at the end of the ages we shan’t be asked, each one of us, “Why weren’t you Saint Alphege?” We’ll be asked “Why weren’t you you?” “Why didn’t you carry what I gave you to carry?” God will say. But I hope that by the grace of God, shared with us in community, shared with us in the family of Christ, we will indeed be able to become the person God wants us to be. Not Saint Alphege, not Saint Peter, not Saint Teresa or whoever else, but the particular holy person God wants each of us to be. The way to it is to be carried and to carry.
Christ Himself, we’re told in the letter to the Hebrews, carried this burden because of the joy that was set before Him. And we shouldn’t ever for a moment forget that joy that is before us, carrying one another in this way, letting go of our defences, letting go of our fears so that we can carry one another’s need. That is the way to life and the way to joy. Not the kind of joy we might have ordered for ourselves from the mail-order catalogue, but the kind of joy that God Himself wants to give us, and wants us to share with the world. May we be such a sharing, joyful, caring community.
© Rowan Williams 2012
Sermon at All Saints’ Church, Newland
Sunday 22 July 2012
Song of Solomon 3.1-4
John 20.1-2, 11-18
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus, we’re told, cast seven devils out of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8.2). Difficult, after 2000 years, to know what exactly people understood by a phrase like that. But the one thing it communicates really powerfully is that Mary Magdalene, when Jesus first met her, was a person whose life was in pieces - at least seven pieces. Mary Magdalene was somebody who, presumably because of acute mental illness, didn’t really know who she was. Somebody who didn’t understand what she was doing, why she was saying what she said. Somebody who didn’t know where her centre of gravity was. And Jesus cast the devils out of her. Jesus saved her from being in pieces, and put her together.
Most of us experience something of that sense of being ‘in pieces’ at some time or other in our lives. Most of us know a little bit about that sense of not quite knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing or saying what we’re saying – not quite knowing where our centre of gravity is. We find ourselves playing roles, taking on identities without quite meaning to, protecting ourselves by pretending this or that – pretending to be holier than we are, or, for that matter, pretending to be un-holier than we are (there’s a competition in pretending to be sinful as well as a competition in pretending to be holy!).
It takes a long time to get to the middle of who and what we are. It takes a long time for us to connect with our real selves. And I think we all know that when people give us advice before an interview or a difficult event of some kind to “just be yourself”, it’s the hardest thing in the world. “Just be yourself” - but it takes most of us years to begin to learn how to be ourselves.
So, Mary Magdalene stands at the extreme end of a problem that most of us know a bit about. Those of us who’ve been through the agonies of mental illness and breakdown know more than most about what it’s really like to lose any sense of having a centre; any sense of being a ‘self’ that hangs together. And today, as we think about the nightmare events that have shadowed the life of communities in the Forest of Dean in the last week, it’s impossible for us not to think of what mental illness and disorder does in tearing people’s lives apart, literally at the cost of life itself.
To think about the life of Mary Magdalene and her encounter with Jesus is to think about somebody who is put together by love, drawn together by grace, and given an identity that, for the first time, makes sense. Jesus seems to have had – and why should this surprise us? – a unique gift in this respect. Do you remember the story of his conversation at the well in Samaria, with the Samaritan woman? (John 4) She goes back, and she says to her friends: “I’ve met a man who told me everything I ever did.” I’ve met somebody who saw me whole; who saw everything about me, and somehow showed me how I could really come home to myself; to the centre of who I am.
And surely that is why, in the story of the resurrection as we’ve heard it proclaimed this morning, Mary recognises Jesus when he simply says her name, “Mary”. It takes no more than that. He doesn’t have to say “I’m Jesus, and I’ve risen from the dead.” He just says “Mary”, as if to say “Remember? You were in pieces, and you didn’t know who you were. And I called you by your name. You are mine.” The words we were singing just a few minutes ago: “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43.1)
‘Faith’ means looking to Jesus in the hope and the confidence that He will call us by our names. That He will see us whole, everything about us – the good, the bad, the clear, the muddled – and simply speak our name, and say “It’s all right. I’ve called you by your name. You belong to me.” Like other bishops, I find it very moving indeed to conduct confirmation services. And in our modern confirmation service, the form that we use echoes those words. “Mary, John; God has called you, and made you His own”, we say to the person being confirmed – like Jesus saying that simple word, “Mary”.
When we confirm somebody into the life of Christ’s family, the life of Christ’s community of friends, we echo Jesus, saying: I know who you are. I can hold your life together. I can make sense of you. I’m not going to ask you to hide bits of yourself. I’m not going to ask you to pretend to be better or worse than you are. I am not going to ask you, says Jesus, to cut off parts of yourself that you’re too embarrassed to face. I can see it all. I love it all. I can work with it all. He said to her: “Mary”. The seven devils disappear. The fragmentedness of our lives can be healed and taken away. We can get in touch with what is deepest in us: God calling each one of us into existence, in our glorious difference, speaking our names.
As Christians, when we proclaim the power and splendour of Jesus’ resurrection, let us never forget that this is not simply looking back to a great spectacular event 2000 years ago. Jesus rose from the dead and went to Heaven, isn’t that wonderful? Well, yes it is. But the important thing is that this is a Jesus who continues to call each one of us by name, a Jesus who does, now, exactly what he did with Mary, exactly what he did with the Samaritan woman at the well in the fourth chapter of St John’s Gospel. He is, today, here and now, the person who looks at each one of us and says: I call you by your name. You are mine. It’s possible for your life to hang together, it’s possible to be healed, it’s possible to grow into what God really wants for you. And all you have to do is stay in my company. That’s the mystery – the miracle – of the resurrection. Not a miracle in the past, but a miracle in the present: the miracle that the man who said these things to particular people in Galilee, 2000 years ago, is alive to say them to you and me this morning.
In a way, and don’t misunderstand me, it’s a pity there are so many of us here in church. (Bet you’ve never heard a bishop say that!) I mean that, even with the best memory in the world, nobody is going to be able to go along the communion rail and address each one of you by name – though I have seen it done in little congregations, and it’s very moving. But as you come to Holy Communion this morning, I hope you will at least be able to imagine a Christ who, as the bread and the wine are put into your hands, says to you your name, your personal name, perhaps even your nickname. Because He is the one who puts your life together; who connects you with the centre of your reality.
And because we take His life, His love and His energy into ourselves, that of course is what we take out into our world. For us to proclaim the resurrection, remember, is not just to talk about something in the past. We are now to do what Jesus did. We are to go and call people by their names. We are to go and proclaim to people whose lives are in pieces: it’s possible for it to come together. You don’t have to live in fragmentation. You don’t have to live with your life in little heaps of rubbish all over the floor. You have a name. You have – let’s use the bold, old word – you have a soul. You have an integrity in God’s eyes, and we will respect you in that. We will treat you as a unique person and we will love you for what you are.
God loves us for what we are: His creation, His children. It doesn’t mean, of course, that He then just sits back – He loves us into changing; He loves us into growing. And of course, as with Mary Magdalene and so many others in the New Testament, He loves us into repenting, into turning our lives around. But the important thing is that He loves us, and that He begins with that simple word: our own name, the one thing that’s unique about us. He goes right to the centre and He works from there. He tells us that, as we are, God thinks we are infinitely precious, infinitely important. Can we speak that good news of the resurrection to people around us?
So often, people think that coming to faith, or coming into the Church, is a matter of trying to squeeze into a tiny cramped space. As if to take on the responsibilities of Christian faith, or to join the Christian Church, meant contorting yourself mentally, and even physically, into strange positions. Because, after all, we do get into strange positions in the Church sometimes, squeezing ourselves into something smaller than we really are. And that’s a very sad reflection on how the Church appears sometimes. The Church ought to be like this amazing building, somewhere where we come in and breathe more deeply, where we look around and say: I have room to be myself before God, and all the people who are here around with me are here to help me be myself before God, as I am here to help others be themselves before God.
So is that a gospel of the resurrection, a story of good news we can truly share? It will be if that’s what we’re hearing ourselves, if that’s the good news we are taking into our own hearts, hearing our names spoken. Putting our lives together is a lifelong job. It’s not simple. But what Jesus gives us is not a set of quick answers, but the hope of His faithfulness, His promise to be with us all through. Whispering into our ear, you might say, our true name, whispering into our ears what we might be, whispering the words of friendship and welcome and acceptance.
As we celebrate Mary Magdalene, as we celebrate the first great witness of Jesus’ resurrection, we must remember what it will be for us to be witnesses to the resurrection in our own way and in our own generation. Telling the story of the earth‑shaking miracle of Easter morning, but above all, making that miracle real as we understand that we are loved and held together and given the grace to grow, and as we give one another that grace of growing and knowing that we’re loved and held by the risen Jesus forever.
© Rowan Williams 2012