A sermon preached by The Rt Revd Ross Bay, Bishop of Auckland
Thank you, Dean June, for the invitation to preach today in this beautiful cathedral, the frequent subject of one of my favourite English painters, John Constable, some of whose work a couple of days in London allowed me the chance to admire once again. So it is very good to be here.
I have been in the UK for just a short visit, and have been doing some work along with the Ministry Educator from our Diocese. We are working hard on our processes of discernment and training for ordained ministry in Auckland, and on strategies for equipping the whole people of God for the work of ministry. The Salisbury Diocesan staff were very hospitable and helpful to us during the week as we talked through those issues with them, and learned about some of the work happening in this diocese to address those needs.
Our contexts of ministry between New Zealand and the UK are different and yet so similar all at the same time. The churches in both countries find themselves in a relatively marginal place in society now. It was only a few decades ago that we were comfortably woven into the fabric of things, where people largely understood us, talked our language, and were open to our influence.
The significant shifts that have occurred in a relatively short time period find us struggling to talk the language of faith in a meaningful way to people. Perhaps partly motivated by a survival instinct, we are driven to rediscover what it means for the church to be active in mission activity. But in doing so we are also rediscovering one of the things that lies at the heart of the life and purpose of the Church: that is, disciples of Jesus Christ following their Lord and continuing to uncover the presence of God’s kingdom right in the midst of everyday life.
Jesus came to announce that the kingdom was now present in him, and to demonstrate how that was so. Disciples now, as then, are called to the same task. Jesus called people to be with him, to learn from him, and to join with him in that kingdom work. We have heard a small part of Jesus’ farewell conversation with some of those first disciples. There is an anxiety about his talk of leaving them. And here Jesus has offered a reassurance that they will not be left alone. He will send the Holy Spirit to them to be another Advocate, that is to be alongside them in this task just as Jesus has been. Indeed the Holy Spirit is sometimes known as the Spirit of Jesus in Acts.
So it is not a case of disciples having been show a few things and now being left to get on with it instead of Jesus. Rather Jesus will be with them in a new and different way. The Spirit of Jesus will be within them, and alongside them, and in fact going ahead of them, as they continue this kingdom work with him.
I find that reassuring in my work of ministry, and also a little humbling, for it reminds me that it is the Spirit of God who is at work, not so much me, and that in some ways I am just along for the ride, though hopefully a willing passenger, open to the things that God may seek to do though me.
A willing passenger. Yes, none of us can abrogate our responsibility to speak and act in this partnership with Christ in God’s mission. The Spirit will not miraculously make things happen in a vacuum (or very seldom so it seems to me), but invites us to partner in God’s purposes. God has taken the risk of doing this work with us, and in a very real way has made himself dependent on us. So as we go out, dependent on the Spirit of God going ahead of us and alongside us in our ministry, God likewise depends on us to follow where the Spirit is leading and working, so that the kingdom can become real for others through what we do and say.
What are we to do and say then, in this age where we often struggle to find a language for faith that connects with people? That’s a conversation that I often have with people in parishes around our diocese. And I hear people talk about a fear of not wanting to be seen to be some kind of religious fanatic, or of not knowing their bible well enough, or of not having a significant enough experience of God to describe.
I very much understand all of those things, but it seems to me that they are the kind of reservations that are about talking to strangers, where we might feel we are presenting a propositional truth in a kind of vacuum, and so needing some evidence or experience to support what we have to say.
But the language of faith is most possible and most powerful when it is spoken in the context of relationship: to friends and family and neighbours and workmates and those who seek our help. For faith can find a natural language in our most natural encounters with people who won’t think we are religious fanatics because they know and trust us, and who won’t expect us to convince them with clever arguments or dramatic stories. Instead we can simply talk about our belonging to a church, the positive things we find there in a loving and caring community of people, and the strength and hope which we know as we find a sense of the presence of God within us as a result. I acknowledge of course that I am making an assumption that those things are true for you!
But in the hope that they are, I would suggest that those things are both the language of our faith, and the language of human aspiration: a place to belong, a people among whom love and care can be found, and a strengthening of our inner core to face the challenges of daily life.
And then in the same way that Jesus invited Andrew and his companion to “come and see” when they began to wonder about Jesus, we also need to find the boldness to make that invitation, to have confidence in the communities of faith where we belong, that among us and in the experience of our worship, people might be able to see Jesus.
The importance of the credibility of our church community life brings us back to today’s gospel reading one more time. Of all the things that Jesus tells the disciples in these last hours with them, it seems to me that the most important thing he keeps coming back to is the quality of love which they are to exhibit in their life together, which is to be exemplified in acts of service. Jesus shows them this by first washing their feet and then by going out to give his life for them and for the world.
That love is not a restrictive one, one that is only deserved by those who are within the household of faith. But if it is a love that is real among us, then it spills over into all our relationships, and shows itself in welcoming hospitality, in compassion and acceptance, in a desire and a willingness to seek the good of others.
If that kind of love is seen in me and you, and in us in the way that we live as a church community, then the language of faith flows easily, for together then we are uncovering the kingdom of God. We simply then need to find the courage to tell people that it is so.