Thursday 27 February 2003
It's sometimes been said that if someone came up to you in the street and whispered, 'They've found out! Run!', nine out of ten of us would. We nearly all have secrets that we don't want exposed - even if they are quite trivial in the cold light of day - and that phrase tell us a lot, the cold light: we don't want to be under the kind of detached scrutiny that threatens and diminishes us, sitting under a bare light bulb being interrogated. So when it looks as though our secrets are about to be revealed, we easily panic and run.
More seriously, there are secrets too that are terrible for us and others to face because they have to do with pain we can't cope with, abuse, enforced silence, secrets that others make us keep. To feel that the truth is to be revealed before we have the resource to live with it is humiliating and frightening. Again we might properly shrink from this. But secrets are also fascinating. If someone came up to you in the street and whispered, 'Go to such and such an address and you will be told the secret of your real identity', most of us would feel at least a flicker of temptation to go and find out. We never knew there was such a secret, a life we have never known - but what if there were?
The gospel reading we've just heard [Matthew 11:25-30]is about knowing and telling secrets, discovering a truth not everyone sees. In one way, nothing is hidden: Jesus has just been talking about what happens to the local towns that have seen his miracles and heard his words and yet haven't changed. It's as though the people in these towns haven't realised there is any mystery about who Jesus is; they look at what he does and they listen to what he says, yet they treat it as something they can think about at arms' length, an interesting phenomenon that has nothing really to do with how they live and die. And Jesus rounds on them and says, 'I don't want your idle curiosity, I don't want your patronage. There is a secret that you haven't a clue about - and the ones who know that secret are the ones who don't try to protect themselves by staying at a safe distance.' And he might equally round on us, in what used to be called 'Christendom' in the West, and say, 'You have seen everything, the truth has been displayed, and yet you too react with boredom or polite curiosity. It's all a bit too familiar,' he says. 'Perhaps it's time for you to listen to some strangers.'
'You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent', says the Lord, from those who make the kind of sense we can cope with. We must turn to the children; the exhausted; the ravaged and burdened and oppressed - they know the secret. Unless we know that we need life, we'll be baffled; but we hate admitting our lack, our poverty. It's the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away. For those who know their need, God is immediate - not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.
But what is this food, this life? Here's the deeper secret. To Jesus is given the freedom to give God's own life and love; and that life and love is bound up with knowing God the source of all as one who in giving life to his children holds nothing back, whose life is poured into the willing heart of Jesus so that Jesus can give it to the world. 'All things have been handed over to me by my Father'. So wherever Jesus is, God is active, pouring out his gift, inviting our response. And this means we can't know fully who God is and what God gives unless we are willing to stand in the same place as Jesus, in the full flood of the divine life poured out in mercy and renewal. It's only in the water that you can begin to swim.
We learn painfully quickly that we cannot hold our own there by our own strength; it is Jesus's gift in life and death and resurrection that makes it possible for us to stand with him, breathing his breath, his Spirit. Without the gift of the Spirit, we couldn't survive the presence of that absolute Truth, that unfading light which is God. And if we're not seeking to stand where Jesus is, all our talk about God remains on the level of theory; nothing has changed. On the Day of Judgement, says Jesus, looking back at the towns where he has ministered, the people who are in trouble are those who have seen everything and grasped nothing; who know everything about bread except that you're meant to eat it.
The one great purpose of the Church's existence is to share that bread of life; to hold open in its words and actions a place where we can be with Jesus and to be channels for his free, unanxious, utterly demanding, grown-up love. The Church exists to pass on the promise of Jesus - 'You can live in the presence of God without fear; you can receive from his fullness and set others free from fear and guilt'. And, as with all secrets, people will react with a mixture of that fascination and alarm we began with. Here is the secret of our true identity - we are made to be God's children and to find our most profound freedom in surrender to him. We only become completely human when we allow God to remake us. Like the conservationist in the art gallery, God works patiently to remove the grime, the oil and dust of ages, and to let us appear -as we say - in our true colours. Wonderful, yes; but it means also that God will lay bare all the ways we hide from him and each other, all the sad and compromised and cowardly things we do to stop ourselves being human. 'They've found out! Run!' But, says Jesus, gently and insistently, we must stay. In the unsurpassable words that George Herbert puts into Our Lord's mouth, 'You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat'. Truth looks terrifying; but taste and see. You will find that Truth is indeed the bread of life.
But it's still pretty frightening. Once we recognise God's great secret, that we are all meant to be God's sons and daughters, we can't avoid the call to see one another differently. No-one can be written off; no group, no nation, no minority can just be a scapegoat to resolve our fears and uncertainties. We cannot assume that any human face we see has no divine secret to disclose: those who are culturally or religiously strange to us; those who so often don't count in the world's terms (the old, the unborn, the disabled). And this is what unsettles our loyalties, conservative or liberal, right wing or left, national and international. We have to learn to be human alongside all sorts of others, the ones whose company we don't greatly like, the ones we didn't choose, because Jesus is drawing us together into his place, into his company.
So an authentic church has a difficult job. On the one hand, it must be constantly learning from the Bible and its shared life of prayer how to live with Jesus and his Father; its life makes no sense unless we believe that the secret Jesus reveals to those hungry for life is the very bedrock of truth. The Church can't believe and say whatever it likes, for the very sound reason that it is a community of people who have been changed because and only because of Jesus Christ. I am a Christian because of the change made to me by Jesus Christ, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which gives me the right to call God 'Abba, Father'; what other reason is there?
But then there is a further dimension. Living in Jesus's company, I have to live in a community that is more than just the gathering of those who happen to agree with me, because I need also to be surprised and challenged by the Jesus each of you will have experienced . As long as we can still identify the same Jesus in each other's life, we have something to share and to learn. Does there come a point where we can't recognise the same Jesus, the same secret? The Anglican Church is often accused of having no way of answering this. But I don't believe it; we read the same Bible and practise the same sacraments and say the same creeds. But I do believe that we have the very best of reasons for hesitating to identify such a point too quickly or easily - because we believe in a Jesus who is truly Lord and God, not the prisoner of my current thoughts or experiences.
But it is this that gives us the freedom and the obligation to challenge what our various cultures may say about humanity. If all we have to offer is a Jesus who makes sense to me and people like me, we have no saving truth to give. But the truth is that we are given the joy of speaking about one who is the secret of all hearts, the hidden centre of everything - and so one who comes to us always, yes, as a stranger, 'as one unknown', in Albert Schweitzer's words, but also as the one that each person can recognise as 'more intimate to me than I myself'. This is why the Christian will engage with passion in the world of our society and politics - out of a real hunger and thirst to see God's image, the destiny of human beings to become God's sons and daughters come to light - and it must be said also, out of a real grief and fear of what the human future will be if this does not come to light. The Church has to warn and to lament as well as to comfort.
So when Christians grieve or protest about war, about debt and poverty, about prejudice, about the humiliations of unemployment or the vacuous cruelty of sexual greed and unfaithfulness, about the abuse of children or the neglect of the helpless elderly, it is because of the fear we rightly feel when insult and violence blot out the divine image in our human relations, the reflection to one another of the promise of Jesus in one another. And anything that begins to make us casual about this is one more contribution to obscuring the original image of God in us, another layer of dust and grime over the bright face of Jesus Christ.
What we need to learn is the generosity that comes from true and proper confidence in the secret shared with us. We need to be confident that we are created: that we exist because God has freely called us into life so that God's joy may be shared. In this confidence, we know that our human task is to answer that call in every moment, shaping our lives as a response to God's voice. We need to be confident that we are redeemed: that God has acted once and for all in Jesus Christ to halt us in our slide towards self-destruction and has opened to us the possibility of life that is animated by nothing less than God's life. In this confidence, we know that our human task is to be thankful, to respond to God with noisy praise and silent adoration. And we need to be confident that we are being transfigured: touched by God's Holy Spirit, we have been decisively changed and endowed with something of God's liberty. In this confidence, we know that we are not prisoners of the world, we can make a difference by God's grace, and can share in the work of uncovering afresh the hidden face, the life-giving secret.
Can we, then, as a Church - in this diocese, in Britain, in the worldwide Communion - discover such confidence? Yes; but only if our foundation is that sense of being told our secret, our real identity, by Jesus; only if we come to him as the one who alone can satisfy the hunger of human hearts. 'You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat. So I did sit and eat'.
Today is a time to reflect with you all about the character of the ministry that I'm taking on; but as I try to do this, I find it's not possible to think how I can minister the living bread of Christ unless I first seek to become clearer about what I long to see in the Church in which I shall be ministering. After all, it is God in the midst of God's people who will enable me to minister - not any programme or manifesto, not any avalanche of projections. So the most significant question I can ask myself in your presence about the work ahead is 'What do I pray for in the Church of the future?'
Confidence; courage; an imagination set on fire by the vision of God the Holy Trinity; thankfulness. The Church of the future, I believe, will do both its prophetic and its pastoral work effectively only if it is concerned first with gratitude and joy; orthodoxy flows from this, not the other way around, and we don't solve our deepest problems just by better discipline but by better discipleship, a fuller entry into the intimate joy of Jesus's life. When we have become more honest about our hunger and our loss, we shall have a fuller awareness of what that joy is; and as that joy matures, we shall have a fuller sense of the depth of our need. And so it goes on, the spiral of discovery, moving deeper into the radiant mystery of Christ.
About twelve years ago, I was visiting an Orthodox monastery, and was taken to see one of the smaller and older chapels. It was a place intensely full of the memory and reality of prayer. The monk showing me around pulled the curtain from in front of the sanctuary, and there inside was a plain altar and one simple picture of Jesus, darkened and rather undistinguished. But for some reason at that moment it was as if the veil of the temple was torn in two: I saw as I had never seen the simple fact of Jesus at the heart of all our words and worship, behind the curtain of our anxieties and our theories, our struggles and our suspicion. Simply there; nothing anyone can do about it, there he is as he has promised to be till the world's end. And nothing of value happens in the Church that does not start from seeing him simply there in our midst, suffering and transforming our human disaster.
And he says to us, 'If you don't know why this matters, look for someone who does - the child, the poor, the forgotten. Learn from them, and you will learn from me. You will find a life's work; and you will find rest for your souls; you will come home; you will sit and eat.'