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Sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury

Posted on: March 26, 2000 5:07 PM

Primates' Meeting March 2000 - Release 5

at a service in Oporto, Portugal

Sunday 26 March 2000 at 1100

I am so delighted to be here this morning, with the Primates of our Anglican Communion, some of the wives of Primates who have come with their husbands, and the staff, led by the Secretary-General of the ACC, who are supporting our meeting.

It is wonderful for us to come to this beautiful country, and this historic city of Oporto. We have been made so very welcome by your bishop, Fernando Soares, and other staff of the Church here, and also by your Mayor and City Council.

And we feel that it is also very appropriate for us to be here to show solidarity with and support for one of the smaller Churches in our Communion. Well, they say 'small is beautiful', and everything we are hearing about the Lusitanian Church bears that out. I am conscious that the development of your Church was, for very many years, very difficult. But you have been faithful, you have been courageous, you have been sacrificial in your witness, and God has blessed your ministry in many different ways - not least in the fact that you now enjoy excellent relations with the Roman Catholic Church. It has been good to have the opportunity to meet some of the leaders of that Church during our stay here.

And that the story of faith triumphing over great difficulties is repeated in different ways and in different contexts around the world. During our Primates' Meeting we have shared our stories of political crisis, natural disaster, oppression, war and financial ruin. Almost all who have spoken to us have told stories of real challenges to the witness of the Church, the frustration but also the extraordinary blessing of seeking fresh ways to proclaim the Gospel in an endlessly changing world.

This brings me to today's dramatic Gospel reading as Jesus confronted the stall-holders and money changers in the courtyard of the Temple.

What was it that infuriated Jesus so much-? An everyday scene was turned on its head. Jesus saw things with new eyes. The people saw a building, Jesus saw a temple which represented all the possibilities of mission and service. Their eyes were focused on stones and images of the divine, his eyes were focused on God. And that is why in John's Gospel the image of the temple is transformed into that of the body - his body given over to death.

But Jesus did not despise the Temple itself. He is deeply respectful of the Temple; it is a sacred place. Sacred, because it was his Father's house, for prayer and worship.

And notice how Jesus transformed the image of the Temple by replacing it with that of his body, given, as I say, over to death. This temple, rather than the magnificent building of King Herod, is the dwelling place of God. That vulnerable, weak, simply body, so easily persecuted and destroyed, is to be transformed, it will be rebuilt in three days.

And, my brothers and sisters, we are the Body of Christ, we are the Church. We are the dwelling place of God.

Yet, we have to confess so often we fall very short of our potential. There is always the danger of the Church, as with any institution, becoming self-serving; concerned with its own life instead of the needs and expectations of those for whom it was designed. It was Bishop Mervyn Stockwood of Southwark who used to translate 'C of E' as 'A Comedy of Errors'. Which contains just enough truth for it to sting! Yes, there have been many times in history when the Church has lost its primary vocation, which is to serve.

I came across this light-hearted comment about the Church the other day: 'The Church is like a bag of chips - to be taken with a pinch of salt, but at its best brilliant'.

And it is brilliant when the institution is transformed by the cross which, as St Paul reminded us in the Epistle, is the heart of our life, 'For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified'.

And what a challenge that is to all institutions and especially to those who claim to follow Jesus Christ because that cross is the ultimate sign of weakness. And yet it is in that weakness, in that humiliation in the face of humanity that God works the most wonderful, the most powerful transformation imaginable. From death comes life. And it is demonstrated not only in the New Testament Church but in us today as we seek to work out the Christian faith in our lives.

How can we reflect that divine foolishness in our lives, and in the life of the Church?

Firstly by emulating in our lives the simplicity of the cross. R.S. Thomas, the great Welsh poet, began one of his poems:

'Heaven affords
unlimited accommodation
to the simple-minded.'

The poem is a protest against the tendency, which I suppose is deep-rooted in the modern world, to analyse, to question, to refine, to argue. Yet, the Gospel seems to demand of us openness - openness to God and openness to the world - to receive and to love without question. The world is a complex place, growing more so every day. We, on the other hand, proclaim a God who is unchanging, a God who loves us, and loves his creation for no other reason than that he loves us. There are plenty of people and institutions ready to throw themselves into the nitty-gritty of the 'changes and chances of this fleeting world'. They will negotiate, wrestle, compromise, fight, defeat. But the Church is called to be a ready vehicle for God's love, and we must guard against becoming so drawn into the complexities of life that his love, his wisdom, his grace is suffocated. St Paul, writing to the Galatians, reminds them of their calling to freedom, but that freedom is the freedom to love. And, yet, this simplicity is not the foolishness of fundamentalism or simplistic teaching. True Christian simplicity is the ability to trust and remain trusting with questions which may shake us with their profundity and disturbing darkness.

Just before Christmas a former student of mine lost his son in a helicopter crash in Kosovo. His son was working for a Christian Aid agency and perished leaving behind a young widow with two children. Where is God when things like that happen? The father said to me over the phone: 'I don't know why this happened, but the work of God goes on'. It takes amazing faith and courage to say that.

And this leads to a second mark of the Church - the humility of the cross. We are called to pray. To be a people of prayer is to recognise that we rely on God and on others. We do not have the strength we require to live the life to which we are called. We are weak, we are fallible, we are sinful. We are therefore open to the gaze of God and of our neighbour, we are open to reproof, we are reliant upon the love which encompasses us and restores us. We are to be that house, that Temple of prayer to which Jesus referred.

On Friday we remembered the murder of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who died twenty years ago. He was a remarkable servant of God, whose humility grew as he recognised and responded to the darkness through which his people were travelling in those days. In one of his homilies, he said this of prayer:

'We must lose ourselves in the beauty,
in the sublimity of God,
giving him thanks for favours received,
begging pardon for our infidelities,
praying to him when the limitations of our power
clash with the greatness asked of us.
We must learn to understand that we have such a
capacity and that God desires to fill up that capacity.'

And this is the humility to accept that we don't know all the answers nor even all the questions! We are here in Oporto as Primates bearing the weight of our Provinces to meet with our questions and to seek, under God, his answers. But, I have found over the years that the answers do not usually come at once. Waiting often precedes the answers. And we shall serve our Communion best when we are patient and wait together - with the humility to accept that we need to understand.

And thirdly, the recognition of our own limitations and the endless possibilities of God will open in us a generosity towards those around us. Why is this? Because we will have first recognised the generosity of God. And that word 'generosity' has come through so clearly in the Bible studies on Ephesians led so well by Professor David Ford's reflections of the Letter to the Ephesians. The kind of generosity which is part of God's blessing of us and when we express generosity in our lives leads to our blessing God. So St Paul exclaims: 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …'

This surely is the framework within which our whole mission is rooted. We are blessed by God, and we are agents of God's blessing in the world.

And that is the secret of growth as well as blessing. Because the deeper we go into the cross, the more rooted we shall be in the truths of the Gospel and in the power of the Spirit.

And how that is true of the missionary Church! My very first visit to another part of the Communion was to Papua New Guinea in 1991. I shall never forget visiting Dogura and hearing the story of the start of the Anglican mission to PNG 150 years before. Two young Australian missionaries decided, after much prayer, to go together. One was evangelical and the other was an Anglo-Catholic. They arrived in a small boat and the first thing they did was to fall on their knees and claim PNG for Christ. The next thing they did was to cut a branch of a tree and they fashioned a cross from it and planted it firmly in the ground. Then they set to work, tending the people of PNG with medical aid and learning the language. Sadly, one of them died and was laid to rest by the cross. The other one laboured on, gently sharing the Gospel and living with the people. He too died, worn out from his labours. The years passed and the Church in Australia, quite convinced that the mission had failed, decided to send a larger party of missionaries. To their amazement, they found a Church which was indigenous and, even more wonderful, the cross had flowered into a tree. And to this day it is part of the Cathedral in Dogura.

And it is when we are prepared to travel into the simplicity, humility and generosity of the cross that the Gospel will flower in our Communion and in our lives. And as it does so, we will be transformed from being something to be taken with a pinch of salt into something, quite literally, brilliant - that is authentically the body of Christ to our world.