Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Snell Sermon - the Incarnate Jesus Christ in Contemporary Theological Thought

Below is the text of the Snell Sermon, preached in the Cathedral Church of St James, Toronto, Canada, on 30 October 2011.

Psalms 146, 149; Wisdom of Solomon 5:1-5,14-16; Revelation 21:1-4,22-22:5

May I speak in the name of God, who makes his home among mortal humanity.

First of all, let me express my deep gratitude to Archbishop Johnson and to Dean Stoute, for inviting me to preach the Snell Sermon. Thank you also to the whole Cathedral family for the warm hospitality I have received since I arrived in Toronto. Thank you, to everyone who has had a part in this, and in this evening’s service. I am privileged and honoured by your invitation – and especially happy to be here, given my former link with this Diocese through the partnership with the Diocese of Grahamstown, of which I was previously Bishop.

When I was invited to give this sermon, I was particularly delighted to learn that Bishop Snell had specified the theme of ‘The Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ – His person and His message in contemporary theological thought.’ For, more than anything else, it is to the person of Jesus Christ and his message that I have found myself returning in the four years since I was elected as Archbishop of Cape Town – and especially, after my installation, when I began to learn just quite how broad and challenging this calling was to be!

It is a challenge that goes far beyond the life of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa – which is itself quite broad enough, when one realises that it encompasses not only South Africa itself, but also Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Swaziland, together with the islands of St Helena and Tristan da Cunha! In all these places – and especially upon the continent of Africa – we find ourselves deeply involved in life beyond our church walls, often heavily engaged in public debate, where we attempt to provide a platform for the voices of the voiceless, and a moral compass in shaping our nations. In addition, we often find our gaze looking wider, both on international issues of justice, and within the global Anglican family. In all of these, I have found that reflection upon Jesus, the incarnate Christ, has provided particularly rich resources for responding to God’s calling upon my life – and therefore I am particularly glad of this opportunity to share some of this reflecting, out loud, with you today.

Of course, Anglicanism is often described as having a particularly strong focus on the incarnation. It is, I have come to feel, one of our great strengths in responding to God’s mission to his world, and our ability to be caught up into this. But I hadn’t quite realised how central the incarnation is, even when, in my Installation Charge, I spoke of the overarching need to ‘discover afresh what it is to be the body of Christ in our time, and who God is in Jesus Christ, for us here and now’. Since then, I have found myself returning again and again to this question, as many new and diverse challenges have crossed my path. I have come to see with fresh eyes, how asking this question might be a touchstone, not only for my own ministry, but also for the wider church, wherever we find ourselves both called and sent to proclaim the gospel.

Travelling from Cape Town’s warming weather, with summer about to open upon us, and finding the nights drawing in here and the temperatures dropping, reminds me that Christmas is closer than I had imagined! Soon it will be Advent, and once again we shall be singing ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel.’ Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us. God is not some distant deity – not even an old man in a beard on a cloud somewhere up high – who looks down on us from afar, as we struggle with all the frustrations and failings of human existence. No, our God is prepared to step right into the mess, and participate in the fullness of what it means to be human.

Theologians will probably wrestle for ever with what exactly it is of which the eternal second person of the Trinity emptied himself – the kenosis of the second chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. But what is certain is this: in Jesus Christ, God took on flesh, and became truly one of us, with all our physical limitations – mortality included – becoming part of human society, with all its complexities. In Jesus, we find God prepared to ‘get stuck in’, so to speak, rolling up his sleeves alongside us, and getting his hands dirty. For Jesus there were no no-go areas, and no taboo subjects.

This gives me confidence that for us, as Christians, as churches, there is no part of human life that is outside Jesus Christ’s interest, or outside God’s interest, and therefore outside ours. We can be sure that God has something to say, and perhaps say through us, to every arena of human endeavour. This gives me courage, when I find myself challenged to speak God’s word into situations from which, perhaps, I would rather just walk away. For when I say that Jesus got his hands dirty, I remember that he touched the dead son of the widow of Nain, he embraced the leper – he disregarded the holiness codes of his day; he disregarded the moral rules of the religious establishment; he was prepared to render himself technically ‘unclean’ in order to bring a cleansing, healing, redemptive, life-giving touch wherever it was needed. In my own context, I would say he was prepared to touch the wounds, the pressure sores, of the HIV positive, even when no-one else would do so.

Therefore I can have confidence when faced with the messiness of life. Sometimes there is a need to be met, even if the situation is hopelessly complicated, and all available choices have both positive and negative aspects. Often there is no obvious single right thing to say or do, but a complex network of interlocking options and possibilities, with various advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes Christians play a variety of roles, on many sides of the debate, that are not immediately clearly and directly complimentary. And often we have no way of assessing in advance all potential consequences of our actions.

But nonetheless, in Christ incarnate, I can risk getting my hands dirty too, and find myself released from feeling obliged to seek out some impossibly perfectionist course of action that is – as some have described it – so heavenly minded that it is no earthly use. All I am asked to do is to be faithful and obedient to answering Christ’s call to ‘follow me’ as I step into the situations into which he calls me. I do not need to see everything from God’s perspective. I only need to make my contribution – and perhaps other Christians are called to bring another part of the jigsaw to the whole picture: different but complimentary in God’s grand scheme of things. In this way, Jesus, God with us, already present in all situations, is the starting point, the model, and the guide, for my engagement with the messy realities of life.

Yet in all this I realise I am generally not asking myself ‘What would Jesus do?’ as many do these days. For, importantly, I know I am not called to be Jesus. Jesus alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; who gave himself, once for all, upon the cross; and who offers the gift of eternal life – the Lamb in heaven of which our second reading spoke. No, I am not called to be Jesus. It is rather for me to ask, ‘How can I, how can we, help people come into closer encounter with Jesus? How can we better help them hear the gospel, his good news?’ Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has put it this way: ‘Every vocation in the Church of God is a calling to be a place where God’s Son is revealed.’ In this, he challenges us to consider where, in whom, and in what circumstances, we have ourselves seen Jesus revealed – as the starting point for understanding how he may be revealed to others. The well-known TaizĂ© chant offers one answer to how we recognise Jesus, and so directs us towards how other people can be helped to recognise him too: ‘Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est; - in other words, ‘Wherever there is love, there is God’.

This reminds us of Jesus’ words, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. This, of course, poses the question of who are our neighbours and how we can reveal Christ by showing them love. This is not just a matter of asking ourselves what it means to show love to those whom God sends across our paths. As globalisation shrinks the world, there are fewer and fewer people we can claim are not our neighbours – who are not affected in any way by the lives we live and the choices we make. How do we show love in this world of vast economic inequality – inequality often generated on the back of economic injustice?

And while Canada is one of the more equal of the world’s developed societies, the underlying injustices both within and between nations, and the false values and premises of so much of our global financial and monetary systems, are rightly a cause of major concern. The tactics and remedies espoused by ‘Occupy’ and various other protests around the world may be open to question – but the basic issues at stake are ones with which we should all be concerned. Unbridled speculation rooted in assumptions of limitless resources; obsession with short-term profit regardless of long-term consequences to humanity and planet; and promotion of the interest of the rich at the expense of the poor, are recipes for continuing economic failure and human diminishment. We need a new honesty and truthfulness in our monetary systems – as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace proposed at the beginning of last week.

We also need to look at the unjust economic legacies of the past – not only in finances and the odious debts with which parts of Africa, for example, are still burdened. So we also must name openly, and tackle, the ways the Bretton Woods institutions operate with inadequate sensitivity to local context and need. There are also wider questions of trade regimes that fail to address the specific circumstances of developing countries in any differentiated way, and so result in richer countries continuing to benefit disproportionately at the expense of the poorer. Similar questions of justice must surely underlie our approach to the challenges of Climate Change, not least at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, in just a few weeks’ time.

All of these matters must be dealt with not merely in technical and economic terms, but in practical, sustainable, ways that are rooted in human realities. We need what Africans call ‘ubuntu’ – the philosophy that says ‘I am because we are’ – that we find our humanity through relationship with others, and my full humanity is dependent upon the full humanity of others. This is what it truly means to love our neighbours as ourselves.

And indeed, perhaps we need to go further in our love – following not only Jesus’ words, but his example of laying down his life for his friends – for those who were in greater need. For, as St Luke reminds us, Jesus also taught that ‘From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded’ (Lk 12:48b). Those of us who have so much, must be prepared to make do with less. Those of us with power and influence must be ready to step back, and make space for those without. The strong must use their strength on behalf of the weak.

It has been said that God has an option for the poor. This does not merely mean a justice in heaven that overcomes the injustices found on earth – of which our first lesson spoke. No, God in Christ has a special care in this world for all who are in need, marginalised, excluded, and suffer in any way. This is made clear by the example of Jesus’ life, and through his teachings. He has far more to say, according to the gospels, about injustice than about prayer, surprising though that may seem to us!

The incarnate Jesus Christ makes his vocation clear earlier in St Luke’s Gospel, where, reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, he sets out what my predecessor as Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, calls his ‘manifesto’. Jesus Christ came to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed (Lk 4:18), whatever form poverty, blindness or oppression take. Or put it another way. Jesus is the one who is present and revealed in the bringing of healing and wholeness to a broken world. This is surely at the heart of our vocation.

Now, in speaking out for justice, Jesus also brings judgement. We cannot overlook this. Yet his judgement is not intended to condemn, but rather to show us what is awry, in order to open our eyes to his better way. For the God who so loved the world that he sent his Son so that all who believed in him should not perish but have eternal life, is the same God who did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:16,17). So we recognise Jesus not only wherever there is love, but also wherever the saving of the world is happening. And while we all are to be channels that reveal this saving, we are nonetheless set free –thank God – from any compulsion, any burdensome obligation, that we ourselves must save the world, and from a sense of our own condemnation if we fail in this task.

Nonetheless, God’s redemptive judgement leaves the churches with a great challenge. For, as we so well know from every walk of life – from family disagreements to global politics – it is far easier to condemn, to point out what is wrong, than it is to propose and pursue workable, life-giving, answers and solutions. But Jesus’ example shows us that our criticisms of all that mars and impedes the abundant life he came to bring (Jn 10:10) – of all that diminishes humanity’s flourishing as God intended (Gen 1:28) – should be equally constructive, and should equally provide channels for God’s redemptive grace to be shared and experienced, recognised and known, in the actuality of human lives: for both individuals and society.

If we are in any doubts over what such abundant life might entail, then again we should look to Jesus. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is our ultimate model of what it is to be fully human. Human flourishing is to grow in Christlikeness not merely in some overly spiritualised way but also in the flesh and blood realities of the fullness of life. This must be the goal to which all of mission – and indeed, all of politics, in its broadest sense – is directed. This is the so-called ‘common good’ of which we may speak. It is a matter of eternal values not so much being made concrete as being incarnated, finding human expression among those who are made in God’s image, enjoying the wonders of God’s creation, as God purposed for us.

In other words, the incarnation communicates to us that God is, so to speak, on our side. In Christ Jesus, God demonstrates God’s solidarity with the human condition. He is with us, alongside us, and, more than that, one of us – to a degree we probably will never adequately understand this side of heaven. So, no matter what we face, God is with us. God is in the midst of this or that situation, among these and those people, desiring we all find abundant life in him. There is nowhere where he is not present, nowhere where he cannot work for good. Nor are we, as Christians, ever alone, in our vocation to be the body of Christ, in all situations and among all people: Jesus is with us as we seek to meet others in their needs; and in reaching out to them, we should also expect to encounter him already present there.

Jesus is the bridge between heaven and earth, between eternal ideals and the limitations of practical reality. Because he is, mysteriously yet compellingly, somehow simultaneously both fully divine and fully human, it is almost as if he does not so much bridge the gap as dissolve the gap within his one being. And it is such dissolving of the gap for which we yearn in the life of the church. For it is to Christ we look, when we experience the tensions of living as the body of Christ, within the Kingdom of God that is both ours here and now, and is yet to come.

The consequences of such tensions are particularly seen in the life of the Anglican Communion at present – where we believe we are called to be one in Christ, but are caught up in such deep and painful divisions. Surely, it is only in Christ that we can hope to find the remedy for our broken relationships. He is the one who bears our wounds – even our self-inflicted wounds – in his body on the cross. His is the risen life to which we look for our own redemption – for renewal of life and liberation into what we could be, through his grace, his love, his redemptive sacrifice.

Let me say something about the South African experience of holding together in difference, even brokenness. I suspect we are the most diverse Province on the planet. Our prayer book comes in 13 languages, and countless others are spoken in the homes of our parishioners. We have high-tech city centres, concrete slums, shanty towns, and rural areas that include Mediterranean climate, tropical lushness, baking desert, snowy winter mountains and isolated South Atlantic islands – we have it all, in huge diversity and inequality.

And we certainly know what it is to disagree. We had no consensus on how to oppose apartheid. Our reality was that, for example, Anglican Chaplains served with the South African army as it brutally occupied Anglican parishes in Namibia. Theologically, we are no less diverse. Within our Province, and within our Synod of Bishops itself, one can find the whole breadth of views on human sexuality that are found within the global Anglican family.

Yet we hold together – not because we say these differences matter less than the life-or-death struggles of apartheid and civil war. No, in our politics and in our theology, we hold together because we have dared engage closely with one another, in our disagreements. And we have seen Christ in one another – even Christ on his cross, who bears our pains. So we cannot say to one another ‘I don’t consider you a Christian – you are no longer my brother, my sister, a member with me of the body of Christ.’ We cannot say ‘I no longer am in communion with you.’

We meet each other at the foot of Christ’s cross, holding on to him, holding on to one another, and praying for his grace and mercy; praying that the one who incarnates the Way, the Truth, the Life, will lead us forwards in his Ways, into his Truth, so we may find a fuller experience of the abundant Life that is his desire for us. This is why, across the Communion, we need to know one another deeply, first and foremost, as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is why relationships such as that between the Dioceses of Toronto and Grahamstown are so important. We need to ensure that we use them to build true partnership in the gospel, for mutual up-building in the faith, for sharing in the incarnate Christ.

And we can each hold a mirror up to the other. Often there are aspects of ourselves that we need to discover, but can only see when others open our eyes to them. We can best do this through encounter, through listening, through letting Jesus bind us together in his love. This is what we hope for through the ‘Continuing Indaba’. This is certainly not an endless talking shop. It is rather a human-centred – a human-in-the-image-of-God centred – way of speaking and listening with respect so that we can find ways together of proclaiming and receiving the hope of resurrection life that is found in the incarnate Christ, crucified and raised from the dead.

So my prayer is that we can continue our partnership in mission, and continue to build relationships across the Communion, and be able to stand together in Christ, as we declare the promise of his good news to a needy world. Yes, Jesus, the incarnate Christ, truly is Emmanuel, God with us. And his promise to all who will receive him, is that we shall find our ultimate home with him – a home where we shall hear his voice saying to us: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ May it be so. Amen.

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