Wednesday 3 October 2012

Anchored in the Love of Christ - Anglicans Ablaze

This is the keynote address, 'Anchored in the Love of Christ', given at the Anglicans Ablaze Conference on 3 October 2012.

Dear Brothers and sisters in Christ, I greet you in the precious name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Bishop Martin, thank you for nurturing me on this journey. Thank you for bringing the challenge of Anglicans Ablaze before the Synod of Bishops and for making sure that I made it here today. Thank you to you and your team, to Trevor and everyone else: not only for inviting me to speak today, but for all you have done in organising this conference! At the heart of thanksgiving is an attitude of gratitude – I am very proud of your team and all they have done in preparing for today, and, I hope, for beyond.

It brings me enormous joy that so many of us have gathered here today. [Acknowledgements of guests and particular people present.] Indeed, this is one of the largest – if not THE largest – gathering of Anglicans from across Southern Africa that anyone can remember! This delights my heart – because one of the things for which I have prayed since becoming Archbishop, is that we should rediscover one another, in Christ, in a new and fresh way – and discover together God’s calling to us all, to be his people across the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

We know we live with huge diversity – from big cities to tiny villages; from rich suburbs to poor informal settlements; from lush veldt to dry Karoo; from seaside to mountains. We also live with great human diversity, in our languages, our cultures, our contexts. And yet we all have something in common – the most important thing of all.

God loves us.

This is the glue that binds us together, as Anglicans, as Christians, as members together of the body of Christ. And as St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, if we belong to Christ, we are members of his body, and it doesn’t matter how different we are – whether we are a foot or a hand or an eye or an ear. If we belong to Christ, we belong to each other. And so God in Jesus Christ calls us to live in his love – to be anchored in his love – and to share his love, and the salvation and redemption it brings, with those around us.

The call to be anchored in the love of God is the starting point of all Christian life; and the starting point for all that the Church is, and is called to be. So it should not come as a surprise to find that it is the starting point of our Vision and Mission Statement. This evening, I want to start by speaking about how we came to have our Vision, and how God’s love became its foundation stone.

The Story of the Vision

As soon as I was elected Archbishop, I began to feel, echoing inside me, this call to live together in God’s love, and sharing God’s love – a call not only to me, but to all of us. It also felt like a call to begin a fresh chapter in our lives, as the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, acknowledging our past, but now facing the new challenges of the twenty-first century.

Let’s face it. Our church, and all the countries of Southern Africa, have been through enormous turmoil and strain in the last fifty years or more. Conflict, strife, oppression – we have all known them in many ways; and some of us have lived with full-blown civil war. The task of the church was to preach and model and share the good news of Jesus Christ in these terrible circumstances. And so we did: proclaiming the Scriptures, speaking up for God’s truth, standing for righteousness, opposing oppression, burying the dead, comforting the sorrowing, and – no matter how dark our darkest hours – always holding up the light of Christ, always sharing the hope of the gospel.

But all our lives were distorted by the horrors of apartheid, and its impact within and beyond South Africa. When democracy and peace finally came, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu then famously said ‘Now we can get back to truly being church!’

Well, what does it mean for us to be truly church, in our new circumstances? This, it seemed to me, was the key question that God was asking of me, and all of us, as I prepared to take up the responsibility of being Archbishop. And so it became the starting point of the Charge which I preached at my Installation at St George’s Cathedral in 2008. Right at the beginning, I said to all of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa ‘Thank you that you are partners with me in the gospel.’ And then also I spoke our need to ‘seek afresh to discover what it is to be the body of Christ in our time, and who God is in Jesus Christ, for us here and now’.

These words became a signpost for going forward:
• first, as partners in the gospel;
• and second, in discovering what this actually means for us in today’s Southern Africa – with contexts so very different from our recent past.

What does it mean to be the body of Christ in our time? Who is God in Jesus Christ, for us, today, in Angola, in Lesotho, in Mozambique, in Namibia, in South Africa, in Swaziland, even in St Helena and Tristan da Cunha? What is God’s desire for our church, and for our world? What is his message, of judgement, yes, but also of redemptive hope, for all of us and our nations?

Well, I knew these were questions we needed to tackle – and to wrestle with as widely as possible. So you may remember that very soon after my installation, I began a consultative process, with a standing committee led by Ms Glenda Wildschut. We asked Dioceses and Parishes and other bodies to send in their visions and their mission statements. We held consultations for Provincial organisations, from Hope Africa and the Health Care Trust through to the Mothers Union and AWF and Bernard Mizeki and the Provincial Youth Council, and other networks. In my monthly letter To the Laos, I invited anyone who was interested to send in their comments – and asked everyone to pray for the process.

Then I brought together a team from across the Province, to sift and discuss all that we had received, through a number of meetings. Our first reflections were presented to Provincial Standing Committee in 2009. They made some recommendations for further work; and the Synod of Bishops also gave their input.

Finally, the work was complete. It was presented to Provincial Synod in 2010, and the Vision and Mission Statement were endorsed. Let me just remind you of them again. Our Vision is that the Anglican community in Southern Africa seeks to be:
• Anchored in the love of Christ
• Committed to God's Mission
• Transformed by the Holy Spirit
Anchored, Committed, Transformed: A, C, T – so we are Anglicans who ACT!

And our Mission Statement is that, across our diverse countries and cultures, we seek:
• To honour God in worship that feeds and empowers us for faithful witness and service
• To embody and proclaim the message of God’s redemptive hope and healing for people and creation
• To grow communities of faith that form, inform, and transform those who follow Christ

We also identified 8 priorities for action at Provincial level.

This is not the same as saying they are the priorities for all of the Province – for we know that each Diocese, each Parish, must preach and live the gospel in its own context; and so must set its own priorities.

But in order to equip, and resource, and strengthen, and support, the Dioceses and Parishes in whatever they are called to be and do, there are some things that are best tackled at a Provincial level.

And we identified the following key priorities:
1. Liturgical renewal for transformative worship
2. Theological education and formation
3. Leadership development
4. Health, including HIV and AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis
5. The environment
6. Women and gender
7. Protection and nurture of children and the young
8. Public advocacy

In addition to these, there are two further priorities – two absolutely vital, critical, themes. They are
• transformation (that is, transforming all the legacies of apartheid), and
• a holistic mission rooted in a full commitment to evangelism.
These two themes must run through all the 8 priorities – they cannot be handled separately.

So now we are moving ahead with all of this. Last week at Provincial Standing Committee we worked hard at ‘putting legs’ on the eight priorities – taking forward specific actions in all these various areas. If you want to find out more about what we discussed and decided, have a look at the press release, which is on the ACSA website, and on my blog and Facebook page – or to complicate your life further, just check my twitter feed – I blame all these on my son and my staff!

I was intrigued this morning when I addressed the Anglican Provincial Youth Council this morning in Benoni. I was humbled and excited, as they said ‘We are going to put on feet and legs and meat and sinew on this Vision.’ I hope we will hear from them further during this conference – we have challenges, but the energy of the youth shows we are truly alive!

But we must not jump the gun and get involved with all these detailed issues of implementation, without first ensuring that we start with love.

Starting with Love

As +Martin said, if this Vision, these priorities are only on paper or in our heads, they are not alive. We need God’s for this.

St Paul reminds us of this, of course, in the famous thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. He wrote ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.’

Today we might say, ‘If I have an inspiring Vision and Mission statement, but do not have love, I am no better than a noisy vuvuzela. If I carefully analyse all my priorities, but I do not have love, they are worth nothing. If we have an exciting conference, with rousing speakers, but we are not rooted and grounded in love, we are no better than a night-club in Sandton!’

We have to start with love. We start with love, because we start with God. Everything in all creation starts with God, and God is love! Because of love, God creates. Without God’s love, nothing would exist. Because of love, God redeems. Without God’s love, we would all be lost in our sins, in death and destruction.

But God IS love. And ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (Jn 3:16-17). Above all else, God is in the business of loving. And he calls us to be also.

The first letter of St John has much to say about this – and I commend it to you for private study and reflection. I invite you to soak yourself in it, just as it calls you to soak yourself in the love of God. ‘God is love’ it tells us. ‘And in this is love, not that we love God – but that he loved us, and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ Again and again he reminds us that love starts with God. ‘We love’ he says ‘because God first loved us.’

God’s love for us

We are to abide in this love. And St John also tells us this ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love’ (1 Jn 4:18).

How do you feel about this verse? It is very challenging to most of us, I expect. Perhaps it makes you feel a little uncomfortable. Well, let’s try an experiment – some of you may have done this before, but never mind! Let’s all stand up (it is about time everyone had a chance to stretch their legs!). Now, turn to someone close to you, and tell them ‘God loves you!’

[Pause for this to happen.]

This is great, isn’t it – it is lovely to tell others about the love of God! Now, try something different. Turn to someone near to you and say ‘God loves me!’

[Pause for this to happen, and for everyone to sit down again.]

Saying ‘God loves me’ feels very different, doesn’t it? It is odd, and sometimes embarrassing, and difficult, and stirs up strange undercurrents inside us. It shows us how hard we sometimes find it to believe that God truly does love us. Perhaps we fear that we are not really lovable. Perhaps we are afraid that God doesn’t really love us, or only loves us a bit, but has a great long list of complaints and criticisms about us.

Such fear does not come from God – it comes from the brokenness and failings of the world. Such fear distances us from God – while instead God himself invites us to draw close, and to abide inside the embrace of his love. God’s challenge to us is to let him love us. God’s challenge to us is to let him overcome our fears that we are not loveable – with his love that is stronger than fear, stronger than death; with his love that conquered everything upon the cross.

Perhaps when you were a child, you were told you always had to try harder – and you somehow got the message that you were not good enough. Parents don’t mean it – but they are only human, and sometimes they hurt us without intending to. Or perhaps others told you that you are not good enough, or that your place is in the wrong, because of your skin colour, or your gender, or some other reason.

God’s love is for you – if you dare to let him to reach his tender loving touch into your vulnerable, hurting places, it will be like sunshine that brings new life to a cold and frozen ground. It can be hard to do this, especially if you have built up barriers over many years to protect you from getting hurt – but God gently asks you to take those barriers down, so his love can reach you, and warm your heart!

If this is you, then make time this week to sit quietly in the presence of God, and just let him show you his love, more than you have ever dared feel it before. Or perhaps you will be helped by talking with someone, and having them pray with you. Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity!

But what if your problem is different? Perhaps you are burdened by having done something wrong, so you feel that God can’t love you? The truth of the matter is that there is nothing that can stop God loving us. In fact, there is nothing we can do to make him love us less – or make him love us more.

Perhaps you feel like saying ‘I know God forgives me, but I can't forgive myself.’ What you are actually saying, is that your sins are bigger than the power of Christ’s death on the cross! It is as if you have failed an idol, whose approval is more important than God's – and that idol is your own pride!

Listen again to these words from St John’s first letter. They are for you. ‘God loved you, and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for your sins.’ Jesus Christ has dealt with them, once and for all, upon the cross. They are done with. Over. Gone. Jesus Christ has destroyed them, and they cannot be a barrier any more, between his love and you. His love is greater.

And therefore, if you are still battling with this – again, I say, find someone to pray with you. Even if it is not your tradition, sometimes it helps to go to a priest, and make a confession – and you will know that God hears, and then you will hear the priest declare God’s words of absolution, that your sins are forgiven and that he gives you new life, in the fullness of his love.

Yes, we need to be anchored in God’s love. And, I suspect, it will take all of us our whole lives to work out what this means, and to grow in accepting more and more of God’s immeasurable love for us. It is the work of a lifetime!

God’s love for others

Yet this love is not just about us. It is love to be shared with others, as St John repeatedly insists in his letter. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love’ (1 Jn 4:7,8)

He also writes, ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 Jn 3:16-17).

Our Vision statement therefore is about letting God love us – and about showing God’s love to others. Even in the hardest circumstances, we must anchor all we say and do in God’s love.

I always knew this in my head – but I just want to share a little story from my own life. When I became a Bishop, I quickly discovered that rooting all our actions in love is a far more radical calling than I had realised! And it matters most, in the hardest circumstances. For God’s love can break open the most difficult situations, if only we are prepared to let it.

I learnt this lesson very soon after becoming the suffragan Bishop in Queenstown, in the Diocese of Grahamstown. 3 months into this vast new task, the challenge came.

In one parish there was a priest who was very much larger than life. He wasn’t the rector, but he was the driving force. With his big, charismatic, personality, he had turned around that ailing parish, and brought lots of new people into the church. He did it through some very straight talking. Perhaps, you might say, he spoke a language that the people understood. But it was a rough language – even a crude language, some called it. And many of the original parishioners did not like it, and did not like him, and, frankly, probably didn’t care very much for the sort of people he was bringing into what they thought of as their respectable church.

All sorts of complaints and accusations came through to the Bishop’s office – to my office. The priest had to be suspended, while investigations and evaluations were made. He was cleared of them all – and so it was right that he should be fully reinstated. But some of those people still they did not like him, and they did not want him back.

I went to that church to do the reinstatement, and also to do a confirmation service at the same time. I went with real trepidation, as I knew I would get a rough ride. And I got it! There was a big picket outside, with sticks and no doubt worse.

But I put on a brave face, and processed into the church. As is normal, I began by saying ‘The Lord be with you!’ – and in response, uproar broke out, with whistling and toyi-toying and shouting. One chap, the leader of this group, came up to the front, pointing and pointing at me. I was worried – my vestments were very new, and I wondered ‘can’t he smell the starch?!’

I swallowed hard, and said to him ‘I need to tell you how I feel about you.’ I am sure he wondered what I was going to say to him. But I took refuge in the only thing I dared to say ‘God loves you. You are his beloved child, and he loves you more than you can imagine.’

Well, that man just melted! And he agreed to come with me to talk in the vestry – but I won’t tell you what I said in the vestry! Meanwhile, others in the congregation had called the police – but I said that no, they must stay outside, and let us deal with all this through the love of God. To cut a long story short, 2 hours later the service finally went ahead, and I confirmed the candidates. The priest did not get re-licenced then – there needed to be another 18 months of walking with that congregation. But somehow, we walked together – in vulnerability made safe by knowing we were all held in the love of God – and lives and relationships were transformed. I’m happy to say that on Monday I went back to Queenstown for a funeral – and found that some of those ringleaders are now clergy!

I was way, way, way outside my comfort zone. But I knew that while laying down the law might have got me my own way for a short time, it would have achieved nothing of true value and probably made matters worse in the long run. Instead God’s love provided a solution when there were no human answers. And, even though I was outside my comfort zone, I felt God’s love enfold me, and encourage me, and give me the bravery I needed to live with this radical openness and vulnerability – so that God’s love could flow through me to those who needed to feel it through the institution of the church.

In this way, we found a redemptive path to walk into the future. It was a very stretching lesson to learn. It was not easy to dare to live like this. But it was a lesson I needed to learn, for all that lay ahead in Grahamstown and now in Cape Town.

We get some pretty intractable problems arriving in Bishopscourt, as you might imagine! Yet, whatever we need to do, especially when we get involved with Diocesan legal procedures and Canon Law – I always try to remember this: Above all else, my approach, and the approach of the church, must always be anchored in the love of God. This must provide the context for everything else we say and do. Sometimes this is very hard indeed – but it is the only way to find God’s redemptive answers.

And I could tell you many more stories, of dealing with difficult situations outside the church; and engaging with the politics around us. In my visits to Marikana, it is not in human strength, but in God’s love, in which I stand as my protection.

God’s love is more than enough

And through trying to do this, I have learnt another big lesson.

We might only have a little bit of love in us. Perhaps 10% - while 90% of us wants to take a far tougher route, which saves us from living with vulnerability, generosity of spirit, emotional engagement – that keeps us from living with the same sort of servant heart that Jesus Christ had, as he laid down his life for his friends.

Well, if we dare to use up this 10%, we will find that God fills it up again, with another 10%. And when we use that, we get another 10% - and before very long, we find that all those 10%’s add up to a lot more than the cold-hearted 90%!

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ – we live in a difficult world. We are only human, and of ourselves we cannot live in love. But God is love, and his love is without limit, and his love is for us. So, therefore, whether we struggle to receive love within ourselves; or whether we struggle to show love to others – we can be confident that, if we only ask, God will anchor us in his love; and pour it into our lives, and through our lives to others.

Let me end with those famous words from the eighth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Romans: ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom 8:35-39).

Brothers and sisters, NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – so let us now, and always, be anchored in the love of Christ. Amen