St Mary’s Cathedral
Monday 15th April 2019
Let’s face it; we live in a world at odds with itself.
This isn’t a comment on Brexit Britain so much as an attempt to voice a timeless truth. For our journey into Holy Week faces us full square with the ‘at-odds-ness’ of human beings whilst also leading us to celebrate God’s way of dealing with that – the hope that ‘at-odds-ness’ might become ‘at-one-ment.’
Of course, we can only follow Christ in the present, in the moment that is given to us, and therefore each generation must discover for itself how this inherent conflict works its way out; each generation must reflect on how the events of Holy Week may, in spite of everything, shine a light in dark places. And inadequate as we may be for the task, only we can perform it. Those long gone, those yet to come have nothing to say on the matter. Only we can minister for Christ in the ‘at-odds’, conflicted, un-reconciled, messy, sin-drenched moment of history we inhabit. This is where we long to find Christ already at work; where others will long to find Christ at work in us.
Admittedly, in due course still others will wonder what we were playing at. And they may have some harsh things to say about our unredeemed patterns of thought and behaviour, just as we call our own ancestors to account. And it’s right that we do. For in reflecting on the failures of the past there’s just a chance we can avoid them in the future and be moved to address their consequences in the present. But let’s be realistic about it – human beings tend to mess up and I’m quite sure that our children’s children, even whilst they berate us for our particular mess, will be making one of their own.
Having this longer perspective at least enables us to avoid a hysterical interpretation of the present moment. Is the world any worse than it was fifty years ago? Are human beings any worse than they were in our parent’s generation? I suggest not. But what may be different is that the troubles that beset us now, nationally and globally, have acquired a momentum that has swept aside our self-delusions and reminded us, perhaps for the first time, exactly who we are, exactly what human beings have always been capable of.
This is an indispensable realisation to take with us on our journey to the foot of the cross – coupled with the hard truth that most of Jesus’ closest disciples never made it quite that far. For we too, like them, have feet of clay, we too have a propensity to fall into the same kinds of sin that mark human activity everywhere and in every age. On top of this, gradually the stories are being told of church communities where the vulnerable are unsafe, and where brothers and sisters do not respect and love one another as Christ commanded.
Yes, we have good reason to approach Holy Week and Easter with some humility. Reminding ourselves that the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel we preach and live for, has always been about grace – about God going before us to places where we cannot follow. Thank God for that. It encourages us to approach the failings of our world, a world at odds with itself, with generosity and compassion, daring to hope that we have nothing to fear, for God can be trusted.
Today we bless two oils and ask God to help us use them for holy tasks. Both speak to us of what the church is for – of our purpose, our mission.
The first is the task of healing; of seeking to put things back the way they’re meant to be. Whilst sacramentally this anointing is offered for the healing of body, mind and spirit, theologically this lies at the heart of the gospel itself – that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self – putting things back the way they’re meant to be. This suggests that the task of healing and reconciling and at-one-ment goes much wider than individual healing. As the church we’re placed in God’s world to do God’s work, to enter into its brokenness and to show by our actions and our own life as a community what a truly reconciled life might be like, where wounds are healed, fractures mended.
What might this look like in the face of the ugly, divisive rhetoric around the Brexit debate? What might it look like in response to the obscenities and cruelties of countless oppressions across the world, some of which we, collectively, are complicit in? How might a national politics emerge to engage creatively and lovingly with those fearful for the future, or who are rightfully indignant at the vast inequalities in the world, or press fervently for action to save our planet?
It’s fine to talk about healing, in other words, but we must be clear that our whole gospel is about healing, about putting things right, about recognising that health for individuals is deeply dependent on a healthy society and a healthy planet.
The second oil, therefore, is used to commission us all to proclaim in our lives and our words a new life in Christ – a life that not only reconciles but also transforms. We are anointed by this oil at our baptism and for many of us today it has touched us again at our ordination. Chrism, Charism, the words are almost identical; this oil speaks to us in powerful ways about the gifts of God for the church and the dynamic life of the Holy Spirit making us, and all things, new. In other words, this second oil doesn’t restore, it creates. Through it, God empowers us to share in God’s ongoing work of creation and re-creation.
What then might a UK look like whose at-odds-ness is anointed by God and renewed in this way? Well, it wouldn’t be the Britain of the 1960s, it wouldn’t be a return to an idealised yet imperfect past. And whether this UK was in the EU, or out of it, or neither in nor out the benchmark for our self-criticism would be the same. Do we and does our nation take seriously Jesus’ manifesto in our gospel reading? Are we a society in which the poor hear good news not false news; where those limited by law or by life are helped to find freedom; where those disabled or disadvantaged find dignity and hope; where those oppressed by inequality or abuse of power find justice? And does our public discourse reflect the Lord’s favour – do we speak in words that refuse to demonise or divide or mock but build peace, unity and reverence?
On the day when we renew our commitment to ministry as Lay Readers, Deacons, Priests and Bishops we recognise that this isn’t a manifesto only for our world but also for our church. The oils we bless today are symbolic of a ministry that begins with individuals restored and commissioned, and flows out through them so that the whole world may be full of the fragrance of God’s reconciling and renewing presence.
We are, as St Paul reminds us, no better than pots of earthenware to contain this treasure. George Herbert likens us to broken fragments of coloured glass who are yet beautifully assembled in a stained glass window. By God’s grace it isn’t our preaching, whether stumbling or eloquent that draws people to God, it is the light that shines through us.