Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Ash Wednesday 2014
5 March 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Two days ago, we held a service here in the Abbey to celebrate the life and work of Nelson Mandela, who died aged 95 on 5th December last year. As everyone knows, Mandela was President of the Republic of South Africa following the first free and fair democratic elections, from May 1994 for five years. He had been released on 11th February 1990, having served 27 years in prison.
As I introduced the service on Monday, I recalled that another service for South Africa had been held here in Westminster Abbey twenty years ago to celebrate the first democratic elections which brought black majority rule to South Africa and the return of the country to membership of the Commonwealth. At that time, all who were here, and people throughout the world, thanked God for the triumph of a spirit of reconciliation and for peaceful transition. It is hard to imagine that any of this would have been possible without the grace and generosity shown by Nelson Mandela.
I announced earlier this week my intention to place a permanent memorial to Nelson Mandela here in the Abbey. There are other memorials in the Abbey to people born outside these islands but few to a person of such distinction as Nelson Mandela, one of the most remarkable world leaders of the last century. His capacity for forgiveness and his generosity of spirit show what humanity at its best can achieve. His memorial in Westminster Abbey will, I hope, prove to be a focus of contemplation and prayer for the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation in many communities and places in our troubled world.
Although I have been in the presence of Nelson Mandela, I never met him face to face. I am certainly not in a position to speak about the process by which he developed from being reluctantly committed to an armed struggle against the oppression of apartheid to the point where he was willing and able to make peace with his enemies. But it is a remarkable story. I have visited Robben Island and seen the appalling living conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners were incarcerated, with hard labour, for much of those 27 years. By grace they turned it into a kind of higher education faculty. By grace they transcended their circumstances and became people who could forgive and be forgiven, people who could genuinely be reconciled to their enemies, people who could create peace.
This is a useful theme for us as we commit ourselves this Ash Wednesday to the faithful observance of Lent, a time above all for grace and for reconciliation.
Earlier we heard St Paul writing to the Corinthians say, ‘We entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ We beg you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. We also heard him say how difficult and demanding is the process of reconciliation. He speaks of the suffering he has endured in the course of his ministry so as not to put any obstacles in the way of his disciples. He himself has become a reconciler, wanting to bring people together and to make peace. We can be sure that it is what he has endured for the sake of the Gospel that equips him to become a force for reconciliation.
‘We entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ It is above all the work of our Lord Jesus Christ that allows us to be reconciled to God. It is only through his sacrifice on the Cross, his willing self-sacrifice, his giving everything away, even life itself, that there is any prospect of our gaining salvation, receiving the gift of reconciliation with God.
It might seem easy for us to say – and perhaps we do say in our more casual, more self-obsessed moments – just what the German romantic poet Heinrich Heine said on his death-bed in Paris, ‘Bien sûr, Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier.’ Of course, God will forgive me; that’s his job. That’s his trade.
In truth, the forgiveness of God is not easy or light, no matter to take for granted or to joke about. We need God’s forgiveness and the assurance, the certainty of forgiveness, if we are not to carry around a great and crippling burden of guilt and shame. We only need to think for a moment or two of the damaging effects of our sin not only on ourselves but so easily on those around us, those we love or who love us, those with whom we associate, those sometimes whom we do not even know.
We see the evidence all too clearly in the high and terrible crimes that are reported on our news media, of murder and mayhem or child neglect, exploitation and cruelty, of the destruction of property, livelihoods, self-respect and lives, of internecine struggle, dictatorship and mutual hatred and violence.
If we only look a little more closely at our own lives and the lives of those around us, even if we are not guilty of high crimes and misdemeanours, we know – or should know – how easily we spoil and damage relationships and how careless we are of the sensitivities and the needs of those around us. How easily we hurt those we love and thus ourselves! How readily we damage, destroy, with a word, a look, a kindness omitted, a moment of ease rather than duty done.
And God’s forgiveness is costly. These pains and ill effects are not easily healed, not cheaply eradicated. The agony in the garden, the mockery, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the pain of the Cross, the seeping away of the life-blood, the gradual strangulation, the giving up the ghost: all this was real; all this was true physical and mental suffering. And endured alongside the spiritual pain of separation from a constantly present loving Father: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And all for love of us, unworthy, wretched though we are.
We may not often think like this these days. We may prefer to think we are not so bad after all, rubbing along quite nicely, not too selfish, not too heartless. This Lent, we should aim to see ourselves as God sees us, to see the gaps between what God has made us to be and what we have turned out to be so far.
‘We entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’ That is not only St Paul’s call to the Christians of Corinth, it is our Lord’s call to us, as he holds out to us the promise of forgiveness, of reconciliation if only we would repent, if only we would recognise our need of God, if only we would grasp his wonderful gift.
As we come forward to receive the mark of ash on our foreheads, may we reflect on our need of forgiveness and God’s overwhelming longing to forgive, infinitely costly though that be. And may we commit ourselves to living this Lent self-sacrificially, giving up ourselves to the service and love of God and spreading the gift and spirit of reconciliation. The way of self-fulfilment, the way of pride, the way of self-aggrandisement: these ways only lead to death. The way of self-sacrifice alone is the way to lasting peace and joy.
‘We entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’