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Archbishop's sermon at ACC-15 on 'the reckless love of God'

The Very Revd Jo Kelly-Moore (Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral), the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Rt Revd Ross Bay (Bishop of Auckland). Photo: Holy Trinity Cathedral

Sunday 28th October 2012

Archbishop Rowan Williams gave the sermon at the opening Eucharist for the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Speaking on the Gospel reading, John 15.17-27, the Archbishop said we all need to remember that while the world around us is a place where love is conditional, Jesus punctures that view of love. "The church is whatever in us says 'yes' to the reckless love of God, that reaches out in mission."

Listen to an audio recording of the Archbishop's sermon [18Mb, 20 mins], or read a transcript below.

Archbishop of Canterbury’s Sermon at the Opening Service of the 15th Meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council

Sunday 28 October 2012, Auckland, New Zealand

John 15.17-27

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Let me first acknowledge, on behalf of all your guests this morning, our thanks for the welcome we’ve received here in Auckland, here in the Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, our thanks to the three Primates, our thanks to the Dean for welcoming us to this extraordinary and beautiful building.  Our thanks to everyone who has so far welcomed us as brothers and sisters.  We are deeply grateful to God for the opportunity of being here, and we ask for your continuing prayers for the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council that we may be held in love and truthfulness in the days ahead.

I’m going to say a few words about this morning’s Gospel reading, and it’s a Gospel reading that is rather easy to misunderstand – this sermon will probably be another example of how easy it is to misunderstand it!  But the surface meaning seems to be: out there is the world, which is a very unpleasant place, a world that hates Jesus and his Father, and therefore hates us.  And so when we feel that we’re unpopular or misunderstood as a Church, we can always console ourselves with the fact that the world is a very nasty place and it hates God anyway, so we can feel a bit better about things.  And that very sharp divided view of Church and world – the realm of hate and the realm of inward looking mutual love – it’s a picture to which the Church keeps slipping back when it’s not being careful and when it’s not praying hard.  Because when you start reading it a little bit more carefully, you may see that it contains a very sharp challenge to the Church: it’s not just about our being able to console ourselves when people don’t like us.  Listen to these words: “If you belonged to the world,” says Jesus, “the world would love you as its own.” 

Now it’s not so much a matter of the world out there being a place full of hatred, and misery, and darkness, it’s a matter of the world around us being a place where love is conditional.  In the world - and of course by the ‘world’ St John does have a very specific thing in mind – in the world love is conditional.  It’s love for people who belong, people who are really rather like you.  The condition of being lovable in the world is being like you.  And so, if the Church were like the world, the world would love the Church, because that’s the way the world behaves. 

And what Jesus is doing here is to puncture that view of love in the most dramatic way possible.  The love that is embodied in Jesus Christ and in the friends of Jesus Christ is not a love for people like you, not a love that is completely bound up with belonging.  It’s a love that perseveres when it’s not returned, it’s a love that is extravagantly poured out on the unlovable, and just in case you’re wondering, the unlovable in this case is not them, it’s us.  Jesus is reminding his friends at the table of the Last Supper that God’s love is without a cause.  God loves a world which is profoundly different from his own eternal radiant blissful being.  God has made a world that is radically different from that eternity, and having made it, God loves it without reserve and without condition.  One of the early Christian fathers of the Church, Clement of Alexandria, says at one point that human love is always tending to slip back into the love of what is common among people, but there’s nothing – he goes on to say – there’s nothing in common between God and the world. 

So God’s love for the world is extraordinary, without cause, absolutely free, absolutely overwhelmingly unreasonable – and that’s the kind of love we are invited to become part of.  If the world hates God without cause, as it says in the reading, God in return loves without cause. There is the foundation laid for our Christian life and faith – that foundation, that tested stone, that precious cornerstone, that sure foundation on the basis of which we’re instructed in the Old Testament reading not to panic.  I like that translation!  And of course, that foundation stone is identical with Jesus Christ because it is Jesus Christ who in every moment of his life, in every word he speaks, in every act he performs, in the death he dies and the life he reclaims, is the embodiment of that unreasonable, causeless love.  The love for what doesn’t belong, the love that spills over constantly from that little world of people like us and never acknowledges any stopping place, because there is absolutely no reason why God should ever stop loving. 

So, quite a challenge for the Church – rethinking love, rethinking belonging.  Instead of saying ‘Well, these are the people who belong with us, these are the people we are like, so these are the people we shall like and who will like us, we are bound to say we’ve got to go out and create more and more belonging with the people who don’t belong.  We’ve got to go and unreasonably extend our welcome, our compassion, our joyful understanding to the entire world and live with the admittedly very awkward and messy consequences of that.  And that of course is why, in this particular context in this Province, we can celebrate so much the struggle and achievement that Anglicans here have managed in holding together a deep sense of belonging, with a deep sense of belonging with each other and with the wider world, for which we give thanks as an Anglican family. 

But we’re pushed even further at the very end of the Gospel reading: “When the advocate comes,” says Jesus, “whom I will send to you from the Father, the spirit of truth comes from the Father.  He will testify on my behalf.  You are also to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”  From the beginning.  Does that just mean you’ve been with me since I’ve started my ministry?  The Jesus of the fourth Gospel doesn’t use language carelessly and the beginning is a very weighty word in St John.  It’s right there at the beginning of the Gospel.  “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and what God was the word was.  In the beginning he was with God.”  So it could well be that what Jesus is saying is that we, his friends and followers, have been with him from that beginning when the word was first spoken into darkness and creation came to be.  We were there.  The word was spoken to us and in us before time began.  God was thinking about us this morning.  We were with him from the beginning.

And that, you see, is a clue to the unreasonableness of God’s love.  God loved us from the beginning.  Before we belonged to anything, before we did anything, before we achieved anything, even before we believed anything, God was loving us.  From the beginning.  We were there.  And of course since we were there with God in God’s mystery, in the eternal utterance of the word and the Spirit before time began – we are bound up in the immense mystery of God’s outpouring of himself in creation and in redeeming love, and we have no perspective on this that can tell us exactly where the inside stops and the outside starts.  Instead of being able to understand clearly and neatly where the Church stops and the world starts, we’re driven back to the big bang, we’re driven back to the mystery of the word being uttered from all eternity.  And who knows what other words, what other moments of calling are embodied in that eternal mystery.  And we look around at one another and we think, ‘She was there at the beginning with God?  He was there at the beginning with God?  I was there at the beginning with God?’  And are amazed, and awed, and humbled.  We have been with God the word, with Christ the eternal son from the beginning and if we know that, if we know that, if we know that our identity, our destiny, our calling is held in that eternal act, then we shall understand something of how unreasonable, how causeless is the love of God.  It’s not that the love of God rewards us for what we do, it’s that the love of God makes us what we are. 

Not rewards us for what we do, but makes us what we are.  And our task is not to make ourselves lovable, to bang on God’s door rather pathetically insisting that we’re quite good after all, not like the word out there.  Our job is to create the belonging that God’s word wants to bring alive, to kindle into flame everywhere around us that acknowledgement of an unreasonable universal overwhelming love.  And that’s what the Church is for.  For the Church to be itself, for the Church not to be the world, that’s what we are here for.  And just to remind ourselves of what the world does and doesn’t mean – it doesn’t in St John’s Gospel mean them out there as opposed to us in here, it does mean every bit of ourselves and our society that seeks to close itself off from love,  that seeks to close itself off from universal belonging.  The world is those aspects of ourselves, not them out there, ourselves too, those aspects of ourselves constantly trying to retreat from the awful implications of the Gospel, the awful implications of love without cause.  The world sees the causeless love of God, sees the overwhelming unreasonable love pouring out from God through Christ in the Spirit, and the world – that is a large bit of us – says, ‘I can’t cope; I’m much happier loving those who belong with me’.  That’s the world and it’s deep in the Church, not just out there but in us.   

And I think that Jesus is also saying to us in these words: ‘Just have a look inside and you may be very shocked to discover that there’s a bit of you that’s capable of hating God, and thinking you could do a much better job than God and thinking that perhaps God ought to be protected from the consequences of his generosity, and we had better make absolutely sure that God doesn’t take any unreasonable risks.’  The world is in us, not out there, and the world is whatever suspects the reckless love of God.  And to be the Church is not to draw that absolutely clear impermeable line and boundary around us so that they are somewhere else.  The Church is whatever in us says yes to the reckless love of God that is from the beginning and that in the light of that seeks to reach out in mission, in love, in compassion, and in understanding to those who can’t cope with reckless love; to go on pushing the bounds of belonging to the ends of the earth. 

For those of us who come from the other side of the globe, this of course feels like the ends of the earth here, but of course mysteriously, since we live on a globe rather than some kind of pyramid, the ends of the earth shift around rather a lot, and when we come here we have to remind ourselves that we are the ends of the earth for you.  And that sense of strangers on different sides of the globe recognising how they belong together – how as Paul says in Ephesians, ‘We are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens together, with the saints, members of the household of God’ – that’s all part of the dynamic that for centuries that has led the Church to cross more and more barriers of race and culture and language, seeking not to take belonging for granted but to build it and to build it not just as a human enterprise, but as a witness.  ‘You are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.’  We are seeking to build that belonging through causeless reckless love in order to show whoever is around what the love of God is like, what the act of God is like, from the beginning.  That’s our sure foundation, the cornerstone that binds us together, not in a society that shuts others out, but in a communion that constantly tries to draw others in, or rather to do away with the easy notions of inside and outside. 

So what I hope we’ll pray for and act towards in the days ahead is a rediscovery among us as Anglicans of that mysterious sense of being there from the beginning, looking at our Christian neighbours in the Anglican Communion, looking at our neighbours more widely and saying to ourselves, yes, from the beginning before they or we did anything, or achieved anything, God’s love said yes.  And if we are to live not as the world, but as the Church, if we are to live beyond that horse-trading reciprocal approach to love which says ‘I’ll give you so much love if you give me so much love’.  If we are prepared to risk loving the unlovable, knowing that we the unlovable have already been loved, then we’ll be the Church and then, please God, our wonderful quarrelsome, diverse, untidy Anglican Communion will testify in and through the spirit of truth who comes from the Father.  You also are to testify, because you have been with me from the beginning. 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2012


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