Let me begin by giving you a summary of the sermon that I'm not going to preach. It's very tempting when we hear the New Testament lesson today to use it as a way of thinking about the Church including strangers. The Church moves from one ethnic group to another and proves that it is adaptable for new people. The Church is always changing itself so as to be a welcoming place for the stranger, the unfamiliar neighbour. And that wouldn't be a bad sermon, but I have a suspicion that it's not quite what the Acts of the Apostles wants us to think about. I have a suspicion that the Acts of the Apostles is here telling us something rather deeper and more central about our faith.
The relation between Jews and Gentiles in the Acts is not simply that of one racial group to another. As the story is presented to us, it's a story about a great crisis over what faith really is, and what salvation really is. The strict believers who challenge Paul and Barnabas and have no small dissension and debate with them - one of Luke's wonderfully tactful phrases - those strict believers are in effect saying it is possible to know that you are in the favour of God. Be circumcised, keep the law, and when you are alone in the silence of your room, you will know where to turn to be sure; you will know what your record is. You will know that you have the signs that make you acceptable to God. To which Paul and Barnabas, and the Church ever since have replied, 'There is no sign by which you can tell in and of yourself that you are acceptable to God. There is nothing about you that guarantees love, salvation, healing, and peace. But there is everything about God in Jesus Christ that assures you, and so if you want to know where your certainty lies, look to God, not to yourself.' Don't tick off the conditions that might possible make God love you, scoring highly, perhaps, and thinking, 'So God must love me after all.' Begin rather by looking into the face of the love of God in Jesus Christ, and then, as it were, out of your bewilderment and your speechlessness at that love, thinking, 'And yes, I am loved.' Not just one episode, you see, in the history of the Church, but almost another Pentecost.
About half way through the Acts of the Apostles, here comes this great event in which the Church together, in a difficult and painful discernment, comes to say, 'It is not in us, but in God, that our security lies, because we cannot assure ourselves, and we cannot heal ourselves, and we cannot feed ourselves. We can only come to God empty-handed, looking into his face, depending absolutely on Him.' We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. The grace of the Lord Jesus, which is what the Gospel story is about today. Once again, the strict make their challenge. What is Jesus doing in the company of tax collectors and sinners? Jesus' reply is wonderfully ironic. 'If you don't think you need me,' he says to the strict believers, 'feel free to go.' And we might think he looks each one of them in the eye and says, 'If you don't think you need, you can go.' And there's our challenge. As Christ looks at each one of us, which of us is able to say, 'All right, I don't need you, I'll go.' 'Those who are well have no need of a physician.' So says Jesus to his critics and to us. 'So if you are healthy, you don't need me. If you are whole, at peace with yourself, satisfied in your skin, happy in the world, you don't need me.' And again, which of us will say, 'I am whole. I have finished my work. I am at peace in the world.'
The difficulty of the Gospel is perhaps this: that it gives comfort neither to the legalist nor to the libertine. It doesn't say, 'You can win the grace of God by being good', and it doesn't say, 'The grace of God makes no difference to you.' It sweeps away the cobwebs and the veils, and makes us face a Jesus who says, 'So, do you need me or not? Are you hungry? Are you sick? Is your work, your life unfinished? Because, if you are whole and not hungry, and finished, go.'
Here we are then, this morning, the people who have not found the nerve to walk away. And is that perhaps the best definition we could have of the Church? We are the people who have not had the nerve to walk away; who have not had the nerve to say in the face of Jesus, 'All right, I'm healthy, I'm not hungry. I've finished, I've done.' We have, thank God, not found it in us to lie to that extent. For all the lies we tell ourselves day after day, that fundamental lie has been impossible for us. Thank God. We're here as hungry people, we are here because we cannot heal and complete ourselves; we're here to eat together at the table of the Lord, as he sits at dinner in this house, and is surrounded by these disreputable, unfinished, unhealthy, hungry, sinful, but at the end of the day almost honest people, gathered with him to find renewal, to be converted, and to change. Because the hard secret of our humanity is that while the body has the capacity to heal itself, the soul it seems doesn't. The soul can only be loved into life - and love is always something that we cannot generate out of our own insides - where we have to come with hands and hearts open to receive.
The people who didn't have the nerve to walk away. And because they didn't have the nerve to walk away, the people who not always in an easy or welcome way, find they have more in common than they might have thought. What do we all have in common this morning in this church? We are hungry for God's love, God's truth, and God's healing, and we have recognised that we cannot heal our own spirits, but must come to one another and to God for that healing. Hungry together, reaching out our empty hands together, we discover something about our humanity that we could in no other way discover, and we as an Anglican Communion, a world-wide fellowship of believers, we are saying that from country to country and language to language, and culture to culture, there is always the hunger, there is always the need for love, and at that level our human solidarity is revealed to us as it is in no other way.
Just theology? Just pulpit talk? No. No, in a world where human solidarity doesn't seem so obvious. Next weekend, and the week after that, the wealthy nations of the world will be considering what particular crumbs from their table might fall somewhere in the direction of the needy of the world. In a world where such a meeting is even necessary, we need witnesses to solidarity. We need to remember that those who starve and struggle in terrible violence and deprivation are us, not them - part of one human community, loved equally with the passion of God, invited equally to the table of Jesus Christ. We are part of the civilisation which has somehow got used to the idea that what is good for us in the wealthy part of the world has no connection with what is good for anyone else. We have somehow got used to this, and we as Christians are all too seldom pained and angered enough by this. I spoke during the meeting last week of the vision of the Church as that of a community where the poverty of one is the poverty of all, where the wealth of one is the wealth of all. Where because we recognise our solidarity as human beings, our active compassion for one another is kindled. And in a civilisation that is deeply sick, we need the Body of Christ to be alive and well. And that too is what we celebrate this morning. Invited into the Body of Christ, into those who recognise together their need and their hunger, we proclaim to the world that it is God's purpose that we should live with and for each other; that it is God's purpose that each of us here to be a gift to the neighbour of whatever background, whatever race. 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.' And Jesus says to us, not only as individuals, but as a whole civilisation here in the northern world, the western world, 'So, you don't need me; so you are well?' God help us if we try to turn away from that challenge.
So our being together here, at the table of the Lord, recognising that it is not about us but about Him, that our security lies not in the signs of our virtue and achievement, but in God's generosity - being here on that basis is itself a mark of hope. And those of us who care about our Anglican Communion worldwide - its unity, its life, and its peace - care for it not in order to keep an ecclesiastical institution more or less upright, propping it up with more and more crumbling pillars and struts and buttresses. We care about it because we are part of the Body of Christ and the world needs the Body of Christ. It is hungry for truth and for love. We are here to be fed with that truth and that love in the body and the blood of the Lord in His Holy Sacrament. As we open our hands to receive that gift, so we open them to one another and to the world. We do not have the nerve to walk away. So much the better for us. The appetite for truth is still alive. So much the better for us. May truth and love, the truth and love of Jesus as he sits with sinners, be the motive power of all we do and say in our meetings as Church, in our witness to the world, in our protest against division and violence and hunger. May we say to the whole world that we believe that we will be save through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.
© Rowan Williams 2005
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