If your life is anything like mine, there will no doubt be times when you are so caught up with busyness that it threatens at times the ‘big picture’. It can be especially hard to keep in touch with the biggest picture of all, God’s perspective, when life is full of activity and stress.
Therefore I was particularly grateful for the opportunity earlier this month to travel to Turkey, together with Lungi, and also Archbishop Stephen Brislin of the Roman Catholic Church, and Prof Cali August of Stellenbosch University, as guests of Turkish Airways and Mr Halil Yurtsever of the Turquoise Harmony Institute, an independent inter-faith body set up by the growing Turkish community in South Africa to foster better understanding between the two countries. After a few days in Istanbul, we were privileged to travel through southern Turkey, visiting ancient ruins of many of the earliest Christian churches. These included places from St Paul’s journeys, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and other sites associated with our Christian forebears. Standing close to where, according to some traditions, St Philip the Apostle was martyred, touched me very deeply. In some of these places, the churches have managed to cling on, often through long periods of great oppression.
All this opened my eyes to reflect again on how we, caught up in the life of the southern end of the continent of Africa, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, are part of something much, much bigger. I was reminded of the First Eucharistic Prayer, in which we ask God to ‘be made one with all your people of this and every age.’ In Christ we are united with this ‘cloud of witnesses’ from the past, as well as with those of our own time – and indeed, generations still to come.
And yet it is also more than this. We visited the sites of some of the seven churches to which the letters in Revelation were written. We stayed for two nights in Izmir, Smyrna and tried to imagined the challenges Bishop Polycarp faced then, in this coastal city. Seeing their old stones, especially in Ephesus, and recalling those words, brought it home to me in a fresh way that the life of faith, while expressed and experienced by each of us in our own locality and culture, at the same time also transcends both time and space. This is reflected in what we declare at Morning and Evening Prayer throughout the Easter season, with the glorious acclamation ‘Alleluia, Christ is risen – we are risen. Alleluia!’
This is the heart of the gospel. In the crucified and risen Christ, we find forgiveness for our sins, hope and strength for this life, and the promise of being united with God in love for all eternity. Looking at these holy places, and realising that I, like every disciple of Jesus Christ, have my own calling to follow faithfully, I felt the words of St Paul echoing in me: ‘what I have received from the Lord, I have also handed on …’ (1 Cor 11:23). We have our part to play in transmitting the good news of Jesus Christ to those around us, and to our children, and their children.
‘To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom’ is the first of the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission. The others are ‘to teach, baptise and nurture new believers; to respond to human need by loving service; to seek to transform unjust structures of society; and to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.’ You can find them all, and more information about them, at http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/mission/fivemarks.cfm. There is even a sixth mark of mission under consideration, to address our vocation of peace-making, conflict transformation and reconciliation.
Sometimes the circumstances of Southern Africa make it seem that we are very focussed on the fourth mark – for there is so much need for transformation within the structures of our societies. But this month I am glad to give thanks for a very effective, and just, institution within South Africa, which plays such an important role in enhancing democracy. Let us congratulate our own Dr Hlophe Bam and all her colleagues at the Independent Electoral Commission, for a job well done, in efficiently running peaceable local elections. We are proud of her, and we wish her well as she prepares to step down as Chairperson at the end of the year. She has served God well in public life, demonstrating clearly what it means truly to be a public servant, and I encourage all Anglicans to follow and uphold her example.
But even if the situation in which we find ourselves pushes us to emphasis one particular Mark of Mission, we can never pursue this separately from the others. So our engagement in public life is always rooted in the heart of the gospel message, and will always reflect aspects of the other Marks. Even more than this, it must always be rooted in Scripture, as interpreted through reason and tradition (in both of which, in various ways, we include reflection on our experiences of life). Yet it may not always be immediately clear how to apply the teachings of Scripture with integrity in some areas where we pursue justice and transformation. Many issues we face today, for example, in relation to uses of technology, are completely foreign to Bible times. So I commend to you the Anglican Communion’s ‘Bible in the Life of the Church’ project which is particularly looking at how Anglicans and Episcopalians today use the Bible in tackling the fourth and fifth Marks of Mission. Several members of our church are part of this important work. You can find more details at http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/theological/bible/index.cfm. Similarly important is the Continuing Indaba project, which grew out of differences on human sexuality, but now has the far wider task of helping us listen to one another across our global diversity, and build stronger relationships that help us better deal with disagreements. See http://www.anglicancommunion.org/ministry/continuingindaba/.
Looking ahead, I strongly commend the ‘Back to Church Sunday’ initiative, this year being held on 25 September. The Growing the Church team have material to help us prepare for this. You can find details in their latest newsletter, at http://www.growingthechurch.org.za/oid/downloads/2011_01_gtc_newsletter.pdf.
Finally, I commend to you continuing prayers those who are affected by the natural disasters around our world. Many of you may have seen the terrible flooding and also the hurricane damage in the United States as TV pictures are beamed round the world. But many others suffer, with far less publicity – Namibia too has experienced severe flooding and loss of life. They need our prayers no less than those who are able to grab the headlines. And if you find yourself in need, and fear that there is no one to pray for you, take heart! Remember that Jesus sits for ever at the right hand of God, and never ceases in his intercessions for us all.
Yours in the service of Christ
+Thabo Cape Town