Monday 20 May 2013

‘Prophets and Healers in Broken Communities’

This address was given on Saturday 18 May 2013, at the Annual Certificate Celebration, at the Centre for Contextual Ministry, Pretoria

Good morning everyone. Let me begin by greeting the Dean of the Theology Department, Prof Johan Buitendag, and Deputy Dean, Prof Dirk Human, together with all who are present today. I express particular thanks to Dr Stephan de Beers, Director of the Centre for Contextual Ministry, for your invitation and warm welcome.

This morning I want to address our theme of ‘Prophets and Healers in Broken Communities’ by reflecting on how this connects with my own spiritual and personal contexts. I shall draw on Scripture and church teaching, and set this alongside my own journey as a member of the broken community of Makgobas of Makgobaskloof. The challenge of dealing with these past pains has opened up new possibilities of redemptive grace, shaping me as a channel of prophecy and healing to others. I hope that bringing my own experiences into conversation with the Bible and Christian tradition will help you to find your own ways of engaging with hurt and brokenness in service to others as healers and prophets.

Yesterday, as I was preparing to come here today, I was prompted to reflect further the last chapter of St John’s gospel, after reading the part that was set for Anglicans for the daily Eucharist. It is the account of Peter and six other disciples going fishing, and meeting Jesus. This happens after Easter, after the resurrection. The seven of them have returned to Galilee, where they take a boat out on the Sea of Tiberius.

They catch nothing, and then encounter the risen Jesus on the shore, though at first they don’t recognise him. He tells them to throw the net on the other side of the boat, and they get a huge catch – at which point they recognise him. He invites them to breakfast; and though they know it is Jesus, they are very shy to speak openly with him. Finally, Jesus and Peter have a conversation by themselves. Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him – and in response to Peter’s affirmation, Jesus tells him ‘Feed my lambs’ then ‘Tend my sheep’ then ‘Feed my sheep.’

All of us are in the business of tending and feeding God’s lambs and sheep. All of us, whether ordained or lay, in full-time or part-time ministry, are engaged with showing God’s love to God’s people, and teaching and encouraging them in their faith. It is our task to help them to grow in knowledge and love of God, and in sharing that knowledge and love with the world around, through lives of faithful witness and service.

We should teach our people to integrate the good news of Jesus Christ into their daily life, whatever that is. God is the Lord of all creation – and so we should never fall into the temptation of dividing life into two separate compartments, the religious and the secular. Not at all – God has an interest in every part of his creation and every activity of human life.

We know that God does not call all Christians to be clergy or pastors. We know that instead God calls for his people to lead godly lives as teachers, doctors and nurses, civil servants, politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, factory workers, bus drivers etc; and as family members, neighbours, friends. Whatever people do, wherever they find themselves, they are to be God’s salt and light in the world.

I am reminded of the words of one of my heroes: William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the second world war, 1942-4. He was a great Christian, and a great social reformer, who was criticised by both Christians and politicians for taking stands on political and social questions. In response, he argued that the church was ‘bound to “interefere”’ in these issues, because, he said ‘it is by vocation the agent of God’s purpose, outside the scope of which no human interest or activity can fall.’

Furthermore, he said, ‘nine-tenths’, 90%, of this ‘interference’ by Christians in political, social and economic questions, should and would be done, not by the church formally – but through the influence of individual Christians in their capacity as engaged citizens. They would bring Christian values to bear in every area, through their work, and through their involvement in the networks of their communities. And therefore, said Archbishop Temple, it was the job of the churches to equip their people to do this, by teaching Christian principles which Christian citizens can then apply in whatever circumstances they find themselves.

How then are we to do this? The passage from John 21 points us in the right direction. For Jesus makes clear that loving him comes before tending and feeding his sheep.

As some of you may know, I spent almost 40 days earlier this week away on retreat. At the heart of the retreat was a period of 30 days spent in near silence, following a programme of guided meditations and prayer that were developed by St Ignatius of Loyola. He was the founder of the Jesuits – the order of Catholic priests of which the new Pope, Francis, is a member. All of us around the world have been impressed by this man – by his holiness and simplicity of life, and by the way his deep, deep, spirituality is also matched with a deep, deep commitment to the poor and needy. This is the life that St Ignatius tried to help people discover, through this long retreat, known as the Full Spiritual Exercises. Its aim is to help people come close to Jesus. By reflecting on God’s creating and redeeming love; and by reflecting on Jesus life and ministry and self-offering on the cross, we find ourselves drawn into the love of God, and therefore also drawn to share his love wherever it is needed.

We too are called to self-offering: offering ourselves in love to Jesus, and in service to the world. This is the two-fold action at the centre of this passage. We have to love Jesus first, in order to be able to feed his sheep.

During my retreat, through spending time reflecting on various passages from the gospels, I felt myself shaken to the core by encountering Jesus with a new freshness and depth. And through this – though it may sound odd for an Archbishop to say this – I felt refreshed, and I feel renewed, in my vocation as a Church leader in ordained ministry. It was a call that I needed to hear again, as Peter needed to have those hard questions ‘Do you love me?’ I too needed to put myself back in that place where loving Jesus and receiving his love came first of all.

For, looking back, I came to realise see that I had often been trapped in understanding ordination too much as being about ‘doing’, about being a ‘professional’. And so I worked hard at the best presiding at the Eucharist with every detail correct, making the best pastoral visits, conducting the best funerals… At times, it was as if I saw myself as a sort of NGO in the religious sector. It felt as if I’d got my mandate from God, and now he could step back while I got on with it myself.

It is like the disciples – they had encountered the risen Jesus for themselves, but now he had ascended, they went back to running their lives the way they knew best – by being professional fishermen. They all, like Peter needed to realise that being a Christian was not merely doing their own professional thing, and saying they were dedicating it to God. Instead they needed a radically new way of living, which was entirely focussed around following Jesus, and obeying his call.

My retreat helped me to see clearly what I had been doing – that I too had fallen into that same trap. But it also turned me round, and radically changed my perspective, I hope, for ever. God touched my heart with an amazing sense of the privilege of ordained ministry. This is something of course I’d known in my head – but I’d never integrated my head with my heart in this way before.

God calls all of us here today in this same remarkable way. He invites us to allow ourselves to be set apart, for a particular life of faithfulness. It is above all, fidelity to God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity. We are to abide in God’s love, shown in Jesus Christ – and letting it burn in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrate again tomorrow. Through abiding in their love, we come to see and hear and feel, more clearly, more dearly, the God who is Trinity.

We also come see and hear the Trinity in ourselves, and in other people who are also made in God’s image. When we truly see the beauty of God in others, and in nature, we can serve God in them in new ways. Indeed, it is as if I and the other are together caught up into the love of the Trinity, as the ‘God in me’; and ‘God in the other’ resonate together in holy love. This is a very precious mystery.

Yet to abide in such love is demanding. Most of all it demands that we live with an attitude of openness and vulnerability, before God and even before one another, before those we serve as Christian leaders. For if we are to be ‘Prophets and Healers in Broken Communities’ – the title which I was given for this address, then we need to experience for ourselves God’s compassionate touch on our own brokenness; and we need to share what this means for us. In this way we can be living models of how God deals with us in our woundedness and pain.

During my retreat, I found myself drawn to acknowledge and explore how deeply I am wounded by the past history of the Makgobas. I knew it mattered, but had not realised how scarred I was, bearing deep anguish within me at events of the 1880s. After the first Anglo-Boer war, which the Afrikaaners won, they came into conflict with many of the local people. They fought the Makgobas between 1883 and 1885. Finally the king was captured and beheaded, and the clan was scattered. Today we are still wrestling to get out land back; and we are still trying to find the King’s missing head.

I need to acknowledge the woundedness of my whole family, my ancestors, over more than a century, and the pain that we cannot live on our own land, with the freedom we ought to know. Even with land returned, and the head found, we would still remain scarred and traumatised.

We need God’s compassionate touch upon us continually. And if we – if I – can be open to receive from him in this way; then, I show others what it means to live like this – so they also can receive his compassion.

It is as St Paul writes in the first chapter of 2 Corinthians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

So then, let me sum up: to be prophets and healers in broken communities, we must reject secular styles of ‘strong man’ leadership. We are to abide in Christ, above all else – to immerse ourselves in the sort of prayer that helps us rest in him, and grow in receiving his love, and especially in the most wounded and broken places of our lives. For in our own woundedness and brokenness we will then receive the consolation of God, which we can then share with the wounded and broken people, communities, and country, to which God sends us.

So may he bless you with this fresh call upon your lives; so that you may grow in his love, and be a blessing to others. Amen