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Archbishop's sermon at Popondetta Cathedral, Papua New Guinea

Sunday 21st October 2012

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered a sermon at Popondetta Cathedral during his visit to Papua New Guinea. Before entering the Cathedral, the Archbishop was presented with a set of stunning vestments, made by the clergy wives from traditional patterned cloth, which he wore for the Eucharist as the principal concelebrant and preacher.

In his sermon, Archbishop Rowan talked of the sacrificial self-giving love of Christ, invoking the example of the martyrs in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War, including Lucien Tapiedi whose statue stands above the West Door of Westminster Abbey.  Reflecting on the heritage and culture of Papua New Guinea before the time of the missionaries, the Archbishop said, “Christ comes not to destroy what has been inherited but to fulfil everything in that tradition that is generous, merciful and life giving.”

Concluding his sermon, the Archbishop said: “There is so much in the history of the Anglican Church here that is life-giving, generous and sacrificial, so many examples of leadership that has sought to serve and give.  All your Anglican brothers and sisters throughout the world give thanks for what this church has offered to all of us in witness and prayer; and today we pray that all of us in the Anglican family may grow all the time in faithfulness to the example of the one who led his people by being a servant and rescued his people by putting his life at risk.”

The full text of the sermon is below:

The Bible readings we have listened to tell us how it is that Jesus Christ makes a difference to the world we live in.  We know that because of Jesus something new has happened, something that opens new doors for every man and woman.  Because he lived and died and rose from the dead and sent us his Holy Spirit, we know how much God loves us and how deeply God wants us to live together in love and friendship so that we may all help to bring fuller and better life to each other.  God tells us through his Son that he never leaves us or stops loving us, and that when we make mistakes and fall away from his ways he is still willing to help us and heal us.  So when we become members of the Church of Jesus, we are given strength by God to speak words of healing and help to each other.  We are never left alone: God speaks to us through other Christians and gives us the spiritual food we need for our daily life as Jesus’ friends and followers – the life of healing and forgiveness and help.  When we receive the life of Jesus in Holy Communion, we are given new power in the spirit to support each other and to live together in such a way that we can show the whole of our society what it means to live a really human life in joy and peace, and to live without fear.  Even if they come, God gives the strength to endure.

But how does Jesus make all this possible?  Not by commanding other people; not by fighting and conquering other people; not by forcing anyone to do what he wants.  In the lesson from the Old Testament, we were shown how the Servant of God does what he has to do to bring hope to the people by accepting a path that is very costly and painful.  Instead of fighting for his life, he says, ‘I will give my life as a gift’.  The world is full of people who are fighting for their lives, fighting for their power over others, fighting so that they can be in control.  Things will only change when people see that the greatest safety and the fullest joy comes when you do not struggle like this all the time but give up attempting to have power over other people so as to make another person joyful or to bring another person peace or hope. 

So in the story from the gospel, Jesus is angry with the disciples James and John when they ask how they can have more power and more status.  He asks them, ‘Can you walk the path I walk? Can you imagine giving up your safety and your importance so that other people can have life and health?’  Jesus says, ‘Look around you and everywhere you see people trying to become masters over one another.  If that is all you can think about, the Church might as well not exist!  All you will do is to live the same way as everyone else, and nothing will change.  But if you want to follow me, I shall give you my life, my Spirit, so that you will have the strength to risk your safety and to forget about your importance.  You will want more than anything to serve the dignity and the safety of your neighbour.  Your safety will be in the love you give them and the love you help to create in them.’

One thing this means, of course, is that giving up your safety or your power is not about becoming passive, putting up with injustice without ever asking questions and so on.  On the contrary, it is a matter of naming and exposing injustice and trying to resist it in the only way that will finally change the situation – by generous action that will set others free and build trusting and loving relationships.  Christians must stand firm against all forms of cruelty and unfairness wherever they see them – but they do so best when they act in the same way as Jesus did, naming the evil and risking the consequences but not trying to overcome evil with more violence or aggressive action.  They trust not in their own ability to control things but in God’s power to overcome evil with love.

We know that one of the most important gifts of the Church in Papua New Guinea to the whole world is the memory of those who gave their lives in just this way during the Second World War – and it is a great thing for us in London to be reminded of you every time we pass Westminster Abbey and see the statue there of Lucian Tapiedi and remember him and how he urged others to flee to safety while he stayed behind because he had no children to worry about; we remember the missionaries who died as well, Vivian Redlich and Henry Holland and the others, and think of how they followed their Lord Jesus, refusing to leave their posts at a time of terrible threat and danger for their communities.  In the wonderful words of Bishop Strong in 1942, ‘I cannot guarantee that all will be well – that we shall all come through unscathed.  One thing only I can guarantee is that if we do not forsake Christ here in Papua in His Body the Church, He will not forsake us.’  This is the way the martyrs show us what the love of God is like; this is how they inspire us to show in whatever way we can that God is faithful to all those he has made and loves and does not turn away from us.

And this leads us on to think about what our other reading today says about Jesus.  In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read about how Jesus makes himself like us in everything except sin.  He enters completely into the life of the world.  What concerns human beings is what concerns him.  There is no kind of suffering or struggle that he cannot understand from the inside, no place too dark or difficult for him to be present.  So if we are truly ourselves the Body of Christ on earth, we must be like him in this.  We must be ready to enter into the life of our world, seeking to understand and to share the suffering or struggle of all our human neighbours, those near at hand and those far away, those who are our kindred and those who are strangers.  We must show that we suffer when they suffer, and, by our gift of love and prayer, be ready to take some of that suffering and to make it possible for them to become more alive, more free.  That is what Jesus does, and that is what we, his Body, must do.  We cannot hold ourselves at a distance from the suffering of others; we must not make that suffering worse.  We are always called to be alongside them, asking how we can help them come alive by the power of God’s Spirit.

This is specially important for all called to ministry and leadership in the Church – as Jesus makes so clear in the gospel story.  To be called to be a priest, a pastor, a teacher, a bishop, is to be called to be alongside all those that God sends to us, not to dominate over them but to offer the gift of life, whatever it costs us, and never to ask whether this position will increase our power or prestige, only whether we can use our position so as to help others towards forgiveness, hope and joy.

The Church has not always succeeded in following Christ in this way.  The great Archbishop David Hand, whom I remember with warm admiration, said in a sermon for the centenary of the Anglican Church in PNG in 1991 that ‘Christian missions (even Anglican ones) have sometimes… been tempted to set too high a value on outward and material results, more than on low-profile, patient planting of the seed of God’s Word in people’s hearts.’  And the only way of planting that seed is in the willingness to share what their hearts are feeling, to learn their language in every way: literally learning the language people speak, but also learning the culture and habits that make people who they are.  It is a sad fact about mission here as in many parts of the world that sometimes Christians have tried to separate new believers from their heritage and tradition – as if Christ is not there too, alongside people through the ages, even when his name is not spoken.  It is moving to read of how Bishop Newton, early in the twentieth century, encouraged his colleagues to collect local stories and traditions as well as encouraging local people to come forward for ordination and trying to make the best possible arrangements for them to be trained well.  Christ comes not to destroy what has been inherited but to fulfil everything in that tradition that is generous, merciful and lifegiving.

So if we want to be truly Christ’s Body on earth, we must be like him – giving up concern for our own safety so that others may be helped and healed; reaching out to all our fellow-human beings, not only our kindred, the people who are like us, so that we may share their problems and pains and be linked in friendship with all; taking forward and transforming the best that our ancestors have known so that it serves the new vision of a larger and more joyful human family; and above all, recognising that our true wealth and well-being is not in our material riches but in the love and attention we give to one another.

There is so much in the life and history of the Anglican Church here that is lifegiving, generous and sacrificial, so many examples of leadership that has sought to serve and give.  All your Anglican brothers and sisters throughout the world give thanks for what this Church has offered to all of us in witness and prayer; and today we pray that all of us in the Anglican family may grow all the time in faithfulness to the example of the one who led his people by being a servant and rescued his people by putting his life at risk.  When we live like this – bishops, priests, deacons, teachers, all believers – we truly become Christ’s Body and show the world what he lived and died to show the world: that God loves and never stops loving all he has made and never leaves us even when we are tempted to leave him.  Just as the life and death of Jesus opens the door between earth and heaven, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, and just as Jesus Christ opens the door of welcome to us now in this sharing of his life in Holy Communion, so may our lives hold open that door, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

© Rowan Williams 2012

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