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Sermon at the 2014 Chrism Mass

by Gerry Lynch last modified 17 Apr, 2014 10:06 PM

Sermon Preached at Salisbury Cathedral at the Chrism Mass for the Diocese, Maundy Thursday 2014.

Texts: Isaiah 61.1-4; Romans 12; John 13.31-38

Renewing Hope

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (Romans 12.12)

At the start of his Galilean ministry in Luke’s Gospel Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah,

The Spirit of the lord is upon me , because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor..., release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Lk 4.18-19)

I have come to love the way the space for worship in this cathedral is framed by the font, by which we enter the Christian life, and the distant vision of an east window dedicated to Prisoners of Conscience. Look closely and you can see hundreds of people imprisoned in the dark glass but from this distance there is a shaft of light, as from an open door setting the prisoners free. It is the Isaiah agenda held before us day in day out as the hope and purpose of the Church.

Christian ministry works for the release of the captives in many and various ways. Often this is done through the pastoral care of individuals in times of need: transitions in life, celebrations to be marked by prayer and liturgy, occasions for growth through giving careful attention to people who will flourish; as well by patiently being with the poor, homeless, prisoner, sick, dying, bereaved. It can be an intense ministry to stay with someone when there is nothing much you can do for them except be with them. The temptation is to flee, either literally or just by our avoidance of being really present to them.

We also have experience as a Church of creating change in society that has a much bigger impact than on the individual. Nearly all education in this country has a Christian foundation, and so does much youth work and social care, and many hospitals. Good ideas have been taken on by others and now have a secular form but the Church helped to shape a society in which we want everyone to flourish.

I sometimes think that the hospice movement is probably the most successful missionary endeavour the Church has engaged in this country in the last 60 years. It has transformed the care of the dying and of their families. People who feared death are comforted and supported so that relatives and friends nearly always speak of how they wish we could live with that quality of love and attention in the whole of life. From earliest days, and for the obvious reasons we are about to mark, the beliefs of the Church were evident by the way Christians cared for the dead.  The way a person died revealed how they lived and Christ lived and died to set us free.  Death does not have the last word. Bob Thorn’s funeral on Holy Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Day, painfully bears witness to this Christian hope.

We are in similar territory of Church and society at the moment with the rise of foodbanks. The Trussell Trust, founded in Salisbury, reported this week that 913,000 people were fed through their foodbanks for some days in the last year. It is an astonishing rise that ought give us both a sense of pride at people caring for their neighbour and alarm at what on earth is going on. Bishop Graham chaired a Poverty Hearing in Gillingham recently at which people told of their experience of delays in welfare payments. Gary waited 8 weeks for sickness benefit to be paid, and for Sarah it took 16 weeks before she received her Personal Independence Payment. They heard from hard working people on low pay unable to feed their families. The Bishop of Truro is chairing a Parliamentary inquiry into food hunger, gathering information to describe and analyse the problem so that we will act differently.

By your working with others in churches throughout the Diocese there is a huge amount of ministry that transforms lives and enriches society, bringing good news to the poor in ways that point to life in all its fullness. The Church is the major builder of social capital in our counties. 

Some of our critics assert we Christians live in a make-believe fantasy but our experience tells us what the scriptures attest, that there is a freedom in knowing the truth about ourselves; that we are made for good, not ill, and that together in this life we are called to love one another.  It sounds like motherhood and apple pie but the love of God in Christ is sacrificial, and that is distinctive and costly. As G K Chesterton observed a century ago, it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting but that it has been found difficult and not tried. The release of captives does not come cheap, it costs everything.

 

In his Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, Martin Luther began by asserting what many have found that,

This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel.

I have a special interest in that Helen’s mother’s family is descended from Luther. So, like Wesley, my heart is strangely warmed by reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans near the end of which he wrote,

 

“We find in this letter... the richest possible teaching about what a Christian should know: the meaning of law, Gospel, sin, punishment, grace, faith, justice, Christ, God, good works, love, hope and the cross.

 

It’s all there in that marvellous chapter 12, read as the Epistle today, every sentence renewing our hope in Christ: “I appeal to you therefore, ... by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12.1)

 

Following on the Diocesan conversation ‘Let Us Talk’, the Bishop’s Staff did some work on our role. We said at the outset that this was not an exercise in imposing yet more tasks on parishes and clergy who are already over-burdened and finding it hard to prioritise. Instead we set about identifying our core purpose as the senior staff of the Diocese. We settled on Renewing Hope, which is why the clergy conference this summer will be on ‘God -Renewing Hope’.  In this the priorities of the Bishop’s staff are:

that we make ‘Time to pray’ – for we will add nothing to the rich mix of the Church’s ministry in this Diocese  if we do not pray, and encourage others to pray.

we are committed to ‘Growing Disciples’ – old and new; we all need to grow in the Christian life if we are to be able to commend it to others as people who live evangelically, sharing good news.

and we are commitment is to ‘Serving God’s world’ – the Church is the one organisation that exists primarily  to serve people outside its own membership. Churches with open doors, engaged in their communities and connecting with the wider world, is very much a theme in the Diocese of Salisbury and that needs to be supported and encouraged by us the Bishop and his staff.

Christian hope is a distinctive, encouraging and exciting idea. It is not the same as optimism, which is an extrapolation from the present, assuming the best possible outcomes. Hope is God’s breaking through. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ gave the disciples hope because it transformed their experience and expectations (Luke 24.1-49). Hope is the expression of faith (Romans 8.24-25).

When we started to explore this as a staff we were tipped into stories of some of our most difficult and painful pastoral encounters.  Hope was felt most keenly when we ourselves were stretched to breaking. As Luther knew, love, hope and the cross hold together.

Part of the glory shown in these next three days is of God among us and with us so death does not have the last word.

On Maundy Thursday we gather together at the start of the great three days that will lead us to Easter. Like the first disciples, we know the difficulties. We know then as individuals and we know them together, with the strains of Christian a community which is only held together in Christ.  

On retreat at the beginning of Lent I read from Karl Barth that everyone who has contended with unbelief should be advised not to take their unbelief too seriously, and if we have faith as a grain of mustard seed, that suffices for the devil to have lost his game.

On Maundy Thursday we gather not because we are good but because God loves us. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” and may these great three days lead you and the people you love and serve to a joyful Easter in which our hope is renewed through the life, death and resurrection of Christ to whom be the glory now and forever. Amen.

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