Archbishop of Canterbury preaches at Sandringham
Monday 27th January 014
In this sermon, preached yesterday at St Mary Magdalene Church on the royal estate in Sandringham in the presence of HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, the Archbishop of Canterbury said the future of the church is ‘one of joy and hope’
Epiphany 3 2014, Mattins
Isaiah 9:1-5, Matthew 4:23-36
The prophet Isaiah had every reason to be gloomy. His time was one of domestic failure and and foreign threat. The King was incompetent, corrupt and foolish. The Assyrians were back to their job description of sweeping down like wolves on the fold, in this case the Kingdoms to the north, and all was dark.
Yet, when all was at its darkest, when the people were reduced to the last extreme, when there was no leadership, a Deliverer was proclaimed. Hope sprang up in the people that was so strong it sustained them through exile and enslavement again and again, and became the foundation of the hope that the apostles proclaimed.
Jesus fulfilled that hope. The country was under occupation, its religious leadership often contemptuous of the mass of the people, until John the Baptist no prophet had appeared for hundreds of years (and he had been murdered), the glories of the Maccabees had gone.
And Jesus appears and goes from place to place preaching the Kingdom of God. Death was conquered, despair fled, and amidst fear and persecution the early Christians learned to live lives of purpose, hope and beauty that set the standards of goodness and virtue to this day.
But what does the church do now? Grand words do not reverse the decline of decades. A study published by the Church of England 10 days ago was clear about both growth and decline and their causes. Yet at the same time the church is full of life. Whether it is growth in church based credit unions fighting the loan sharks, the staffing of food banks, debt advice, shelters for rough sleepers, schools, hospices, being the centre of the community in rural areas and far, far more, in addition to caring for the bereaved, marrying and baptising, the church still holds communities together.
Usually unseen, churches of all sorts love and serve with vigour and passion, and while doing so are clear about their faith in Christ that motivates their action.
That motivation starts for all of us with prayer, and also for the church as a whole with a renewal of what is called Religious life. Unless we are deeply prayerful and full of love from and for Christ, we are rotary with a pointy roof. Rotary is good but we are a church. In prayer we meet Christ, we listen first (St Benedict starts his Rule with the word “listen”), and are forgiven, renewed, empowered, directed, comforted.
The Religious or monastic life has been the bedrock of the church since the fourth century. Christians living in communities, in different ways, with the aim of encouraging a closer walk with Christ, have set the pace for all Christians everywhere. This last week we have begun a Religious community at Lambeth Palace, from a Catholic religious order called Chemin Neuf. They are ecumenical and modern, traditional and disciplined, they will hold us to our commitment to prayer.
Secondly, the church must learn good disagreement. Christians will never all agree on everything, they never have. That is true for the Church of England, let alone the Anglican Communion in 145 countries. Christ does not command unanimity, but love and unity in diversity. St Paul says God reconciled us to Himself when we were his enemies.
So we must be reconciled to each other in love. The command of love, even for enemies, flowing out of God’s reconciling love for us, is hard. In South Sudan and the Great Lakes region of Africa this coming week, my wife and I will see it at its hardest. But it is the Anglican Archbishop of the Sudan who is leading the work there, and his equivalents across the region, setting the example of courageous love. That is what has distinguished Christians across the centuries.
So as individuals and the church we need to be reconciled to God through Christ, to each other in the church, and to be reconcilers in all sorts of conflict from domestic and local to multinational. How we do that is varied and complex, but above all it is by action in the love of Christ and the power of His Spirit – not in fine words alone.
Thirdly, we must renew our confidence in proclaiming the good news of the love of Christ for every human being. Making disciples is at the heart of our mission. We must not be ashamed of talking about numbers, or of making the effort to speak of as well as show the good news of Jesus Christ.
A friend of mine who runs a thriving church in a rough area – a church which he has seen start, grow and develop especially with new believers who are young and without church background – says often “the best decision anyone can ever make is to become a disciple of Jesus Christ”. It is that confidence that has meant his church is engaged in meeting needs unconditionally, is spiritually vibrant, gloriously diverse and individually challenging. The same can be true of any church in any locality.
Pope Francis wrote recently an Apostolic Exhortation on the The Joy of the Gospel, saying among much else that there is no need for Christians serving their Lord to look as though they have just come from a funeral. Collectively and individually we carry the good news that Isaiah prophesied and Jesus proclaimed. Faithful in prayer, reconciled by Christ, confident in His message, despite our failings the future of the church is one of joy and hope.