The sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Concluding Eucharist of the Fourteenth Lambeth Conference, Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, 3 August 2008
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
‘We are witnesses,’ says Peter in our reading from Acts, ‘of what Jesus did in Judea, Jerusalem and Galilee’ (10.39). We have a story to tell. But to be ‘witnesses’ can, at first, sound almost as if it’s not strong enough or particular enough. Witnesses get called in law suits; they’re bystanders very often, who can tell you what happened. It could be almost anybody. But the apostolic witness is something different. It’s not only that Peter has been a bystander at events in Judea and Jerusalem; not that he and his friends have seen Jesus from a distance, but that the story that they have to tell is a story that has changed them. And what they have seen has opened up in them depths and capacities they never knew. They are witnesses not just to what Jesus did in Judea and Jerusalem, they are witnesses to his resurrection, they have eaten and drunk with him after he was raised from the dead. Something has entered into them that makes them not bystanders, but sharers in life. And so when they tell this story, things happen to others as things had happened to them.
‘As he was speaking the Holy Spirit descended.’ (10.44) A rather terrifying moment you might think. Peter in mid-flow suddenly surrounded by an explosion of charismatic phenomena. But the story that is told is just that – a story that makes things happen. And at the end of his gospel, St John says that that is the story he has been telling, a story designed to make things happen. ‘All this is written so that you may believe.’ (John 20.31) so that something may happen to you and go on happening.
So what exactly does it mean for a story to be told in such a way that things begin to happen? It seems as if one of the things that’s involved here is what you might call a ‘moment of recognition’. You hear the story of Jesus in his ministry, in his death, in his resurrection, and something in you says, ‘Yes: that is the story in which all my memories and hopes have their place. That is the story where I belong. I hear the story of Jesus reaching out to the outcast, the guilty, and the forgotten, and I think, yes, my story belongs there. I hear the story of Jesus in the name of God, bowing down in humility and reverence to the creatures he has made. And I think—with a kind of thrill of something like horror, as well as delight—that is my story, God has made me for glory. I recognize something, a level of my own heart and mind is opened up as never before. My heart burns within me. So often in the Bible, words like that are used, of how the telling of a story, the speaking of a word, suddenly opens up depths you never imagined. And you recognize that in the very heart of your essence, your life, there is Jesus, the stranger who is also most deeply at home in the depths of your reality.
So the Gospel is written so that we may recognize that (as the hymn has it) ‘this is our story, this is our song’. Just as when Peter begins to speak of Jesus ministering, loving, dying, rising, the excitement of recognition is too much to contain, and the Holy Spirit floods and invades. And what of us, as heirs of the apostolic witness, how do we begin to tell a story that makes things happen? Because that’s our charge, that’s our task, and we have to tell the story of Jesus in such a way that all those who listen say to themselves, ‘Yes: this is my story and I never knew it. This is the world in which I belong; this is my inheritance, though I have never lived there.’
So we seek to speak in words that evoke that kind of recognition, knowing that—in the phrases of the Old Testament lesson this evening—‘The word is not far from any of us.’ And if we tell truthfully and joyfully the story of Jesus, then the Word of God embodied in that story and in that person, will indeed not be far from any of our hearers.
In these last two weeks we’ve often spoken, both in the bishops’ and in the spouses’ conference, about telling our stories. It’s almost a cliché, isn’t it? In a good and properly organized Christian meeting we tell our stories. And that is right and proper, because one of the most significant things any believer can ever do is to say, ‘Come, and I will tell you what he has done for my soul.’ But as we listen to one another’s stories, I hope and pray that i we have also heard and recognized the one story that makes a difference, the one story that changes the world, that changes how we see ourselves and God and everything. And if that has been part of our experience in this conference, then perhaps we can go back to our local apostolic ministries—and I should add that I mean lay and ordained apostolic ministries here—to tell the story of this meeting, this Lambeth Conference, in such a way that it becomes itself a story that makes things happen. We can ask God to strengthen us and enable us, so to talk about what we’ve received here that something shifts and grows and deepens in the Christian communities to which we belong. We can try to tell the story of the Lambeth ’08 Conference so that something happens, so that Christ comes alive in others.
And as we come to the conclusion of our Conference, we very rightly and understandably bring all our thoughts, our reflections, our memories, our frustrations and our hopes into a liturgy in which what we do is precisely to tell the story that makes something happen. We tell the story of how the Word of God made flesh, living in our midst, on the night before he offered himself so that we might live, took bread, and broke it, and shared it. We tell that story and something happens, something that enables us to recognize, yet again, that the deepest thing in us is that which God invites to share his table, to share his company, to lay close to his heart. That thing in us which God invites and longs for, drawn to him to be next to him, ‘next to the Father’s heart’, in the gospel’s phrase. Here, at this Eucharist, we experience—each one of us—what it is for a story to be told that makes something happen; that changes not just bread and wine and believer, but the whole world: because here, in our midst is the beginning of the end, the realization of the hope of all creation, all people, all reality, drawn together in the broken bread and the shared wine.
That is our story and our song, at this and every Eucharist. And strengthened by the resurrection life that is there given, we go out to tell the story afresh, we go out in the confidence that when we speak from that heart of reality, which is the broken bread of Jesus’ truth and Jesus’ love, recognition will happen. The springs will be unblocked, the deserts will blossom, the Spirit will overflow.
God give us grace to tell that story. May God pour out his Spirit on each of us in all our words and deeds of witness so that something will happen, and that something will be the Holy Spirit of God. Ame
©Rowan Williams 2008