Seeking reconciliation, in church and society

A sermon preached by Bishop Stephen on Ash Wednesday 2024 , 14 February, at Salisbury Cathedral

Gospel Reading: John 8.1-11

Scripture does not tell us if the woman, caught in the very act of adultery, was with her lover on Valentines Day. Nor does it tell us if it was love, or if was just lust. Nor does it tell us anything about the man she was with, which does tell us about the place of women in that society. Not much has changed.

But scripture does tell us about Jesus’ response to his testing by the religious leaders who always seemed to know best, and who always knew the answer to the question they were asking him.

Only when Jesus confronted them, did they realise their own sinfulness. “Let anyone among you who is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her”. One by one, beginning with the elders, those charged with leading by example, one by one, they went away.

Jesus did not then interrogate the woman. He didn’t ask her about her life, her relationships, or why she was before him. None of that was important to him. His question to her was not about her sexual activity, but about the now absent ones who sought to condemn her. “Where are they?”

Our world seems to have become more painfully a place where we seek to condemn. A shift has taken place in recent times to polarise and to separate one from another post-pandemic so that everywhere around us, it is ‘they’ who are to blame, and ‘they’ who need condemnation. The list of those we seek to blame is long, containing all those different from ourselves. Sadly, the church is not immune to this and indeed seems to be a harbour for such judgement at this time. Equality, diversity, and inclusion – EDI – is rubbished as woke or unbiblical or less important as other issues, all decided by what matters most to the individual or to the pressure group.

And yet, as we are called to a fast in this solemn assembly, Jesus does not judge, he simply accepts, and calls for sin to end. He does not even distinguish between the nature of the sin, for otherwise, all of us would have reason to be stoned by the condemnation of others.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion are not fashionable politics, they are theological imperatives. First there is the Christological imperative. Our identity, the kind of thing we bring to church on Ash Wednesday, all we are and who we are, is rooted in Christ. Our differences in race, or gender, or sexuality, or simply how we judge others, are rooted in our creation in the image and likeness of God. Every neighbour, however different from ourselves or however sinful we judge them to be, is an image-bearer of God. The reason you receive ash on your forehead today, is to return to that calling because we fall short as individuals, as communities, and as tribes.

Secondly, there is the ecclesiological imperative. To follow Christ means to embody him in the life of the church. With Christ as the cornerstone, we are called to be a people where those rejected can feel that they belong, where their voices are heard and where even those who sin can grow and flourish, becoming more and more faithful and living ever increasingly holy lives. But it doesn’t feel like that, we cast stones at stained glass windows, and yet when one member suffers, all suffer together. If only we could return to the Lord, then when one member is honoured, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12.26).

Then there is the third imperative, or reason for inclusion – the missiological imperative. It is our mission to bring in the Kingdom and to welcome the Kingdom where it already exists. Loving our neighbours is the calling of Christ to us and so impacts on what that welcome really looks like in reality, in public life and discourse, rather than blaming our more distant neighbours for all our sorrows. When I visited the Bibby Stockholm barge at Portland last month, I did not encounter fake Christians or manipulative economic migrants, I found frightened people, I found mental health challenges and I found hopelessness. Love your neighbours as yourselves means responding with clarity yes but also with care and compassion, otherwise it is not love, and God is love. Living out our faith in public is our mission as individuals, as a church, and as people who dare to bear the name Christian.

And fourthly, there is the eschatological imperative. Heaven, where we will live as one family under God, is not just a future hope, but can be a present reality, as truth breaks into the human condition. We are not judged to have to be all the same to get in, or to have some kind of super-miraculous moment of healing and uniformity and therefore become a monochrome community – no, we are called as we are from every tribe and nation. The creator God is glorified in our differences.

And a bit like the woman caught in adultery, with that one sinful human being, it starts here and now on this Ash Wednesday. This day calls us to repentance and to reconciliation. Repentance from our wrong-doing as individuals, repentance as a society, repentance from our wrong-doings as a church, repentance to judge others as we would not judge ourselves. We do not want God to condemn us as we condemn others. So today, with the cross of ash upon our foreheads, we seek reconciliation. Reconciliation as individuals, reconciliation as a society of stone-throwers, and reconciliation as a church which constantly brings people to Jesus to condemn them to make us feel better.

Being a Christian means following the pattern of Jesus Christ in all things. It brings with it theological imperatives which dignify our response to human differences. And knowing all this, standing before Jesus, when all others have gone away in sinful shame, we find ourselves loved and reconciled.

Lent leads us to repentance in the hope of our reconciliation with God, and that, even in these days, we might be a people and a church of reconciliation.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ.

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