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Sermon of Dedication of the New Church of St John

Sunday 10th May 2009

The Archbishoph preached at a service held at the Church of St John, Vere, Clarendon, Jamaica.

The Archbishop at the Church of St John, Jamaica

The Archbishop at the Church of St John, Jamaica.

Click link to the right to listen to the sermon [17Mb]

Read the transcript below:

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

Good morning dear friends. It's a great delight, it's a great privilege for me to be with you on this very special occasion in the life of your church. As we gather in this beautiful building we express our confidence that God gives us a future with him; that we are able to begin again to raise up on old foundations new signs of hope. And this morning as we dedicate this church to God's service, we dedicate ourselves also, praying that on the foundation of his love God will continue to build in us new lives, new hope, and new promise. As we dedicate this church and begin its life afresh, we are setting down in this community here a sign of the love of God which never goes away. Here is a community that has known great suffering, real devastation; a community that has been almost literally levelled to the ground by the suffering that it has endured. And in such places where suffering and disaster bow people down to the ground, God does not go away. God is there. As one of the great saints of the Church said, "When we are brought down to the ground in humiliation, God is already there stretched out on the ground, his crucified body bowed down to the ground by the suffering of Jesus Christ, so that he is with us when we are bowed down. When we are grieved and broken, he is there."

And so the first thing that this church declares to the community around is: God is here and does not go away. When he has promised to be with us, he does not break that promise, and we who believe in him, we who are Christians, we are to make that promise real in our lives. We don't go away. The Church does not go away from need and suffering. The Church is there where people are bowed down, and you and I are there to offer God's compassion and God's promise to those broken, anxious and in pain. So when we say that today we re-dedicate ourselves to God's service, what we are doing is to promise again that we will be signs of God's promise; we will be signs of God's faithfulness and God's presence in the midst of a community that suffers and struggles. It is for us to show in our words, in our lives, in our faces, that same love which does not go away.

And that is part of what today's Gospel reading speaks of. Jesus says that the Father will send from heaven the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth. And, says Jesus, the world won't see him, because the Holy Spirit does not come down now these days in the form of a dove. The Holy Spirit does not now come down in whirlwind and fire. The world will not see the Spirit, but we see him, we know him, because we know the promise of God in our hearts. So if the world is going to see the Holy Spirit, then, dear friends, the world is going to see the Holy Spirit in us. A great writer said about fifty years ago, "If you want to know what the face of the Holy Spirit looks like, you have to look at the saints". You have to look at God's people. That's what the Holy Spirit looks like: he looks like you. He might even look like me! Because in us the Holy Spirit that is God's faithful presence has come alive. That life is what we must show to the world.

Do you remember what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit? That at the very beginning of Creation, God's Spirit was hovering over the face of the chaos that was there. So that from the start of Creation, God's Holy Spirit of life and love and promise has been there at work; the Holy Spirit has never gone away from the world. And the Holy Spirit brings Jesus Christ to life in the Blessed Virgin Mary. And the Holy Spirit works in Jesus, healing and forgiveness and hope; and, says the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Spirit of Holiness raises Jesus from the dead. The Spirit is the form, the shape of God's own promise, God's holy love: that is the Spirit that has come to life in our hearts. That is the Spirit that enables us to be faithful to the promises of God, and to be faithful to God's suffering children who need to hear the word of promise and the word of hope.

So this church is a sign of God's promise and God's faithfulness, and so it is a sign of God's Holy Spirit. Now, you know as well as I do that the Holy Spirit doesn't live inside churches and not outside. You don't come to a church and knock at the door, and say, "Is the Holy Spirit at home?", because the Holy Spirit fills the earth from end to end. But this church is a sign that the Holy Spirit is here in our hearts, in the lives of the people all around. The Holy Spirit seeks always to work more deeply and more fully, more richly and more joyfully in the lives of everyone. The church declares God's Holy Spirit seeks to be here, and here and here, in life after life, situation after situation, one face after another – God's Holy Spirit seeks to bring alive the reflection of God's love in Jesus Christ.

So the church is a place that tells the community that God is faithful. The church is a place that tells the whole community the Holy Spirit is always at work and always seeking new places to come fully alive. And then remember the words that Jesus speaks to his disciples: "This is the Spirit of Truth". This church, like every church is a place where the truth is told. We as Christians, we must be people who tell the truth. And what does that mean? Of course it means something very obvious and very basic at first. It means we must be trustworthy people; people whose word is our bond. We must be honest, straightforward people; we must not dress up our failures; we must not deny our weaknesses; we must be able to be trusted by those around us. Yes, of course, but something even deeper than that. We are here to tell the world the truth about God and the truth about human beings. What that truth about God is we've already been thinking of. We tell the world the truth that God does not go away. God does not get bored. God does not think of the world and say: "No, I don't think I can be bothered with them any longer. They're not doing very well, I'll go back to heaven." No. The church tells the world the truth that God is there, on the ground, among us. Yes, that glorious truth that we have learned in Jesus Christ. Then the church tells the world the truth about human beings. What are human beings like? What are human beings for? Are they there just for pleasure? Are they there just to make money, to make themselves secure? Are they there just like the animal creation, part of the scenery, sometimes picturesque and sometimes not? No. The truth about human beings is that they are made in the image and likeness of God, and they have in them the glorious capacity for freedom and for service, for love. Jesus Christ has shown us what it truly is to be human. We, we in whom the Spirit has come to life, we who must tell the truth to the world, we say, "This is the heart of being human." We are able to choose, we are able to shape our lives to be more like God; we are able to love one another, we are able to serve one another. We are able by God's miraculous gift to put aside our fears about our safety and security so that we may love one another, as today's Epistle told us. That is the heart of being human. That is the truth we must tell. That is the truth that makes a difference, not just to us within these walls. It is the truth and the only truth that will make a difference to society, to the countries we live in. A truth that human beings' choice to love and serve. That dignity, that reflected glory that comes from God's creation, and the new creation in Jesus, that is available for all. It will turn around a whole society of fear and violence and greed to a society where the weak and vulnerable feel safe, a society where there is promise of hope for all, a society where all are respected. And that, surely, friends, that is the society we all pray for, whether here in Jamaica, back in the United Kingdom, wherever in the world there is injustice and fear and violence. This truth that comes from God – the truth about God and the truth about human beings – this is a truth that transfigures the world we live in; transfigures us, sets us free, sets us on the right road. It's the truth that that mysterious character in our first reading discovered. It's one of my favourite stories in the New Testament, I have to tell you: the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. And I think it's because when I was a little boy I had a Bible with coloured pictures in it, and that was one of the best pictures: there was the Ethiopian eunuch wearing a great feathery headdress, and flowing brightly coloured robes, sitting in his golden chariot, and I thought, that looks interesting; that there that man is going on his way back home from Jerusalem and he meets Philip. He's puzzled, the Ethiopian; he's puzzled about the Bible that he's reading. Who is this about, this mysterious prophesy? And Philip gets into the chariot and he says to the Ethiopian, "that prophesy of the Lord's suffering servant tells you the truth about God, tells you the truth about you and all human beings. It tells you that God has come down to be among us faithful in our suffering, present in our need and our disaster. It tells you that God is not remote in heaven, but in the midst of us as we struggle. The suffering servant has taken on the all the needs of his people. And so Philip says to the Ethiopian, "So it tells the truth about you. You are a person who can live afresh because of that love. You can find freedom and hope because God is that kind of God." And what does the Ethiopian say? What hinders me now from being baptised? I want this new life now? I want to go back to Ethiopia refreshed, renewed, ready to make a difference. We – we who've been baptised – we should feel something of that freshness and hope every time we hear the story of our redemption, every time we hear of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So then, dear friends, here we are ready to promise ourselves afresh; to thank God for his promise to us and to thank him for his faithfulness to us; ready to promise that this place, this wonderful new church will be that kind of sign in this community and in this island – a sign of truth; a sign of life-giving truth that opens up people's worlds and gives them hope, and gives them the possibility of living anew and transforming the society they live in. May God grant that we make that promise this morning, with full hearts; that we resolve to let the Holy Spirit, the invisible Holy Spirit be seen in our faces, in our lives. So that that Spirit may seek out more places, more lives to come alive and make God's great difference in our midst. The world may not see, the world may not know that we have known that gift. We seek to make it visible in a church like this, in the lives we value, the lives of promise around us. We pray that the Holy Spirit may indeed, as the Bible says, renew the face of the whole earth.

To that Holy Spirit, with Christ our Saviour, and God our Father, in thanksgiving, praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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