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"We wish to see Jesus" - Enthronement Sermon 2011

by Michael Ford last modified 28 Mar, 2012 11:34 AM

Bishop's Enthronement Service, Salisbury Cathedral, Saturday 15 October 2011

Ephesians  4.1-7,11-13
John 12.20-24

For a YouTube clip of his sermon, click here 
For a Gallery of the day, please 
click here 

May I speak and may you hear in the name of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

“Some Greeks... came to Philip... and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. (John 12.21)

Let’s be clear at the outset, just in case the enormity of this occasion takes over and creates something unreal.  I am not worthy of your generous welcome. My hope is that in greeting me like the prodigal we will know that the Gospel is for the forgiveness of sins and the person who has been forgiven much will love much.  An “enthronement” could seem a long way from the simplicity of Jesus of Nazareth.  The grandeur of being placed in that particular chair, in Latin cathedra, reflects the honour given to the chief pastor, teacher and shepherd of Christ’s flock.  I ask you to pray for me to be a bishop who knows it is in dying to self and rising to new life in Christ that we will bear much fruit and that for Christ the only throne is the cross on which we see God’s glory. I pray it will be so among us.

Thank you to Family, friends and the people, choir and bell ringers from St Martin’s for making the journey to be here with us today. Helen and I are already beginning to feel ‘at home’ in this very different context and role. 

Thank you to my predecessors, Bishops David Stancliffe and  John Austin Baker, for their goodly inheritance.  

Thank you to the unfortunately long list of bishops who have cared for the diocese since Bishop David’s retirement over a year ago: Stephen, gone to glory in Ely; retired Christopher, retired sick now happily restored to health again; and Graham, Bishop of Sherborne.  

Thank you to the Archdeacons, the Dean and Diocesan Secretary, as well as my new colleagues in South Canonry who run the bishop’s office.  

Thank you to those who have planned this service and worked so hard to make this so beautiful and hospitable and a celebration.

I am sorry that due to circumstances beyond our control it has taken such a long time for this new bishop to begin public ministry.  St John Chrysostom said that a bishop is most like God when he is silent but I am glad the waiting is now over.

In the last few weeks I have begun to get to know this huge diocese, with visits from Portland to Royal Wootton Bassett 100 miles apart. Our 576 Anglican places of worship each point to the presence of God in its local community.  87% of our cur church buildings are listed Grade I or II*, an important part of the country’s architectural and cultural heritage.  They are cared for by voluntary effort, the state making a more modest contribution for their upkeep than in any other country in Western Europe. Churches are places of  worship and service as well as worship. With our ecumenical partners, we are by far the largest and most significant organisation in the voluntary sector caring for all God’s people. Church members are a very large proportion of the area’s social capital and make vital contributions to projects from food banks that feed the poor and hungry to youth work. We have 41,000 young people in over 200 Church schools, each school serving their community.

“Among those who went up to worship at the festival in Jerusalem were some Greeks. They came to Philip... and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. (John 12.21)

This diocese has an extraordinarily deep and rich history and can trace its bishops back over 1400 years to St Aldhelm as Bishop of Sherborne. On the back of the service sheet is possibly the earliest known image of Christ anywhere in the world. It comes from the floor of a Roman villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset and is now in the British Museum, one of the 100 objects by which Neil MacGregor, the museum’s Director, told the History of the World.  We do not know what Jesus really looked like, though certainly he was a Semite, but this image is of Christ the King, because its makers thought Jesus so important  he must have looked like the Roman Emperor, only even  more so. 

“We wish to see Jesus.”

For all of us, where we stand affects what we can see, with both the opportunities and constraints given by our time and place.  That must be why the Gospels emphasise that Christ is present where 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name, that we do not follow just singly but in the company of others, a community of the resurrection.  Together we see God in one Jesus, through four Gospels, with twelve disciples, and sixty-six books of the Bible: pluralism is built into the script.  We would be a happier and more confident Church if we could accept and enjoy these differences and celebrate the rich variety of what we see in Jesus between us.

To religious people Jesus is a challenge, especially so to religious leaders and those who think they know their own goodness. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, a man fell among thieves and was left for dead. The priest and the Levite put their religious duty above everything else. Had they touched the man’s  body and found he was dead, they would have become impure and been prevented from doing their religious duty when they got to the Temple in Jerusalem.  So for good religious reasons ‘they passed by on the other side’. It was the much despised Samaritan who showed mercy and the meaning of God’s commandments by practical and self-giving love.

In the Gospels of Jesus religious purity takes second place because the love of God is known in acts of simple but costly kindness, by love interpreted as service, justice, mercy and forgiveness above all else.  This makes for people and for a Church that need not be anxious and fearful about its own survival, because in apparently losing ourselves we find ourselves, in serving others we meet God, in dying with Christ we rise to new life in Him.

 “We wish to see Jesus.”

Greeks came to see Jesus: non-Jews, outsiders, people not like us.  Their acceptance as followers of Christ changed the early Church decisively from being a Jewish sect to becoming a worldwide Church. In the first few decades the hot issues for the Church were whether men had to be circumcised to be Christian and whether we had to eat kosher food. There were those who resisted the change for good religious and scriptural reasons. They are a warning to us in our day and we need to remember the ways in which the outsider and the social outcast can make God known to us. We are the guardians of the truth that God is in Christ reconciling the world but we are not its sole possessor.  Our task is to witness to what God is doing in the world, not to limit God to the Church. We cannot possess God who is bigger than any of us can imagine.

“We wish to see Jesus.”

 In the 1970’s, when I was a student, the common assumption was that religion, at least in Western Europe, would die out under the pressures of secularism by the middle of this twenty-first century.  Events have proved that wrong.  The recently published national Household Survey showed that 75% of the population still say they believe in God, whatever that means.  Most of us now know that to be human is to be religious, if only to wonder at the beauty of creation and know there is more to life than meets the eye.  Under the pressure of global political events, we have come to see again that bad religion is lethal.  It has never been more urgent than for the Church to show the meaning of good religion and to help society gain confidence in religious belief and practice.  This is the single most important challenge to the Church in our day.

We are struggling with a crisis about our shared values and public belief. We like to have values without beliefs but actually, God matters in our seeking the ‘common good’.  Our politicians’ condemnation of the summer’s rioters was less than convincing given the frequency of Parliamentary scandals. Greed and conceit undermined Banking as a public good. We find it difficult to sustain loving faithful relationships, to reverence life and care for creation in ways that cherish and sustain God’s gift. It’s easy to blame others, as Adam did in the Garden of Eden:  “the woman she gave me the apple... the serpent, he tricked me”. This moral crisis really is one in which we are in it together.

In Greek a crisis is both a judgement and an opportunity. The Church, which is part of the same problem, has great resources to become part of the solution.  We believe in God who made and loves the world, not just the Church.  We need a theology in which we see our place in God’s world aright and humanity is at once more modest and much more ambitious.  In the West we have been misled to think that we exist primarily as individuals: “I think therefore I am”. It has led us to ask, “What’s in it for me?”  In Africa, “I belong therefore I am”: we exist as members one with another and I am well if you are well. Our diocesan link with the Episcopal Church in the Sudan is one that teaches us repeatedly who is our neighbour, and that charity which begins at home does not stop at home.  In this fragile world we must learn what it means to belong together by loving God our neighbours and the wide earth. 

It has been my experience as a parish priest that when the Church is not concerned with itself and its own survival;  when we are true and deep, speaking and acting about things that really matter -  about life and death, love and forgiveness, the care of the environment and justice, about suffering and what lasts forever – people respond and care passionately.  I pray we may be worthy of this is high calling, for the sake of the world God loves.

 “We wish to see Jesus,” in whom we see God and to whom be the glory now and forever. Amen.

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