Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 4 September 2011

4 September 2011 at 11:00 am

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist

Those of you who have been following the unfolding developments in Libya over the past week or so, might have been pleasantly surprised by the tone of some of what was emerging from the Paris conference on Thursday and Friday of last week. What may have been a time for triumphalism, promises of revenge and declarations of retribution was remarkably rather more measured – the Chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, called on his people to create a society based on tolerance, respect for the rule of law, and forgiveness, whilst President Sarkozy of France insisted that those newly enjoying power could achieve nothing “without reconciliation and forgiveness.” It is rare on the international stage for this kind of rhetoric to enjoy centre-stage even very briefly, so one wonders whether at least in part, the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in S Africa have become more embedded than we might at first think. As Archbishop Tutu so relentlessly reminded us, “There can be no future without forgiveness.” 

Even though the Church has often not been very good at putting this teaching into practice, it should come as no surprise that it was a Christian leader who taught the South African context this very lesson, with the need for forgiveness hard-wired into the Lord’s Prayer and so much of Jesus’ teaching. But it goes further than this, in fundamental terms, right to the heart of the Christian doctrine of God. To use one of Archbishop Rowan’s phrases, if God is really “undefended territory” it is perhaps those who have been most wounded, most wronged in any given situation who show us something of what God is like when they are able to genuinely forgive. When those who are in some way weak are able to forgive, we see most intensely that forgiveness is not re-writing history, not a thing of fantasy. Quite the opposite. Forgiveness is about getting real; about responsibility; about facing up; about waking up. St Paul, rooting his ethical exhortations in love, in our second lesson today exhorts his listeners to “wake from sleep.” In scriptural terms, sleep is often a metaphor for death. So, the Christian life, bound into Christ’s resurrection, should be one which is wide awake, expectant, reasonable, exciting, not lolling around as if something interesting might just happen one day, and Paul is clear in this passage from Romans – loving one another comes in the “light”, the light where all is revealed, the light which shows the truth, the light which liberates the believer from fantasy and half-living. 

This theme of emerging into the light, of the need for integrity and openness, is continued in the whole unfolding dynamic of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel. This is about encouraging responsibility, bringing things into the light, and all this within the communion of Jesus’ followers. There should be no shame in the admission of sin for those of us who are in the Church, because the Church should be God’s building project of reconciliation, of love, a love that as St Paul reminds us is most active in the light of day – in the real world – rather than in the murky half-truths of night. This is the love which binds us to Christ, the love which looses us from death. The story is told of a bishop who is confronted by someone in the street who says to him, “I like Jesus Father, but I don’t go to Church because it’s full of hypocrites.” “Yes, says the Bishop, and there’s room for one more!” I have genuine respect for people who feel the need to take a stand on certain issues by positioning themselves outside the Church; but I have a much greater respect for those who stay within the Church when times are difficult, staying faithful, but continuing that great Christian tradition of protest within the Church. And this is a difficult balance. None of us will get anywhere by self-righteousness, nor by the comfortable fantasy that we’re somehow always in the right – the Gospel itself makes it abundantly clear that we need to get over this pretty quickly!  The key to it all – the key to reconciled living, to a proper diversity, even within conflict – is in staying close to Christ, and staying close to others who try to do the same. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” Paul tells us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus Himself tells us, “I am there among them.” 

And that is why it is important to remain part of the Church, to try to hone the Church as a genuine community of forgiveness, rather than giving up on it. That is why it’s important to be a penitent Church, to be unafraid to own up to the moments in Church life where the majority has done violence to the minority, as well as when the minority has attacked the whole. It is, after all, the constant dynamic of death and resurrection which marks out Jesus’ followers, the need to be forgiven as much as the need to forgive. But we do also need to recognise that sometimes staying within the Church can be particularly costly for some people. There is much contemporary talk about those who claim to be “spiritual” rather than religious, often a useful way of avoiding any kind of communal commitment – better surely, we might say, to be brave enough to encounter God in a real human community, and to stick with it. But the onus of responsibility here, to encourage fruitful, flourishing discipleship must be on the whole Church, and therefore on how those who shape the Church deal with difference, deal with dissent, deal with human failure. Can the Church really be a place of learning, the place of forgiveness par excellence? The Lord’s awesome commission that we should be those who bind and loose must surely remind us of this vocation in the most drastic terms. So in the light of Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel, we might ask ourselves as a Church, to what do we bind people? Do we encourage people to delv more deeply into the mystery of God, binding themselves and each other in love and hope? Do we really ensure that the good news we proclaim really is good news, because it’s often heard as quite the opposite. Are we really communities which liberate, which free people from fear, which liberate men and women from false images of God and of themselves? For this, we will surely be held to account, because Jesus has promised that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, he is in our midst, binding, loosing, healing, redeeming.

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