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Archbishop's Sermon at General Synod Service

The Archbishops of York and Canterbury at York Minster

Sunday 7th July 2013

The Archbishop of York today delivered a sermon at the General Synod Eucharist held at York Minster on the them of Hope and Patience. His sermon follows in full...

"Dearly beloved in Christ, it is good to be with you in this House of the Lord today. You all know that I have been treated recently for localized cancer of the prostate, and I rejoice that I am with you at a different gate of heaven than I might have been, but for the care of Mr Bill Cross and his Theatre 3 Team at St James’ Hospital, Leeds, and the grace of God.

 

I was amused, during my brief stay there, by an Anglican Chaplain at the Hospital.  Having heard on the television that I had had an operation there, he turned up to the ward to see me, only to be told by the ward nurse that he needed my permission. Besides it clearly said on my patient’s form ‘John Sentamu, Religion unknown’!  The chaplain was bewildered. An Archbishop of York, and his Religion unknown?

 

I later discovered that the powers-that-be had done this to protect my identity. I chuckled to myself. Had I died during the operation, heaven would have responded, “Return to Sender: Religion Unknown”.

 

 

As you may also know, during my most trying times in the past five years, I have derived great comfort from the words of a Taizé chant, words adapted from a passage - ‘Aber du weißt den Weg für mich’ - in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.

 

“God, gather and turn my thoughts to you. With you there is light, you do not forget me. With you there is help and patience. I don’t understand your ways, but you know the way for me.[1]

 

I mention these words because I think they can help us understand what our Gospel reading may mean for us, as part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, today. For from a Nazi prison cell (and I, too, know something of a prison cell in an evil regime) were born words of hope and patience, words of trust and letting go of self, words which help us to understand Jesus’ words, words we need to hear today.

 

In our Gospel reading, Jesus appoints seventy of his followers to go in pairs to every town and place he intended to go; literally, to go before his face, to prepare his way and proclaim God’s kingdom.

 

As Jesus of Nazareth gathered more and more followers, he began involving them in his mission and ministry, so that they would not only receive from him, but give to others what they had received. Jesus was forming a travelling community of prayer, trust, proclamation, healing and eating together. He sends them out in poverty and gives them practical advice about ministering with his authority on the road of life.

 

It’s significant that he sends these latter-day ‘John the Baptists’ in pairs. He sends them in pairs not only because, according to Mosaic law, two witnesses were required for testimony to be credible,[2] but also because the mission Jesus sends them on can only be done in partnership. As our Lord himself worked in partnership with the Holy Spirit; and only did “what he saw the Father doing.”[3]

 

As Basil the Great says, “Jesus sends them in pairs so that they will learn not to become too fond of their own opinions”,[4] so that they will come to learn that they need one another to discern what is good, what is right, and what is true.

Jesus began by telling them to start this mission in prayer, praying that God will be with them, because the mission will be dangerous. He sends them out “like lambs into the midst of wolves” [5]

 

But he tells them that, despite this danger, they are to travel light, taking virtually nothing with them, in order that they will learn to let go of a false sense of security and to trust in God and one another, entrusting even their lives to each other.

 

They are not to be proud or pretentious, relying on their own strength or talent to bring in the Kingdom of God. Their poverty is a prophetic sign of their complete dependence on God’s providence, and the unpredictable hospitality of others.

 

In letting go of self and trusting in God and each other, they are to become vulnerable. For only the vulnerable can prepare the way of the One who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”.[6]

 

And only the vulnerable can proclaim the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and peace, openness, infinite possibility, and transformation, where “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”[7]

 

I can imagine that the prayer these ‘seventy others’ said as they went out together in pairs, letting go of self, trusting, tending, becoming vulnerable, and keeping to the task, was something like Bonhoeffer’s prayer,

 

“God, gather and turn our thoughts to you. With you there is light, you do not forget us. With you there is help and patience. We don’t understand your ways, but you know the way for us.”

Setting out on the road together, light in possessions but heavy in partnership, and bold with the authority of their Master, the seventy are to do three things: (i) eat what is given and not move from house to house,

(ii) heal the sick, and (iii) proclaim the kingdom of God.

 

In eating what is given, and not moving from house to house, they are to create communities of pilgrimage and trust, setting aside personal prejudices and preferences. Buying their way in is ruled out, so is consumer choice, because they “carried no purse, no bag, no sandals” (Luke 10: 4).

 

In healing the sick, they are to bring wholeness and release to the captives, and recovery of spiritual and moral liberty to all. Demonstrating, thereby, that “the year of the Lord’s favour” [8] of transfiguration and redemption, has come.

 

In proclaiming the kingdom, they are to announce the good news of freedom and forgiveness, of new life, hope, and new creation.

 

This is what going ahead of Jesus Christ and getting people ready to receive him is all about. Jesus warns them that some will want to reject all of this. But they must make it clear to them that they are rejecting the rule of God.

 

Now rejection is painful (each of us knows it all too well), but it is part of the risk of “preparing the way of the Lord”, and it can only be overcome through God’s grace, which will ultimately triumph, as these ‘seventy others’ come to learn.

 

For these ‘seventy others’ are joyful on their return. Their joy comes from their discovery of what they can do in Jesus’ name, the submission of evil powers which destroy humanity and subvert God’s purposes. But Jesus tells them that the root of their joy shouldn’t be in their pride in what they can do. He illustrates, in his vision of “Satan falling from heaven, like a flash of lightning”[9] that pride goes before a fall.  Rather they are to rejoice in their names – their characters and identities - being written in heaven.

 

The root of their joy, Jesus tells them, is relationship; relationship with one another and with God, and the knowledge of where that relationship leads to - their union with God and one another through Christ. Their identity is their incorporation, their grafting into Christ, and being rooted in the love and purposes of God. Joyfully inviting others to come and enter into the reign of God.

 

So, what this passage is all aboutis Togetherness in hope and patience, in letting go of self and trusting in God, in partnership in mission and ministry, and keeping to the task.  The ‘seventy others’ being sent out in pairs to bring others together into the Kingdom of God. This is the harvest: bringing others to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and having their names written in heaven.

 

In the last year of his life, as he sat in a Nazi prison cell, awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer pondered the questions, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today’ and ‘Can we still be of use?’

 

These are our questions, too, questions answered by our Gospel passage for us today. Jesus Christ is the one calling us, the new ‘seventy others’, the new John-the-Baptists, to prepare his way and to proclaim God’s kingdom, to gather in the children of God, scattered in the wilderness of this world, and bring them into his Rule of justice, mercy, and peace.

 

He calls us to create communities of togetherness and mutual resourcing, and to bring wholeness, and announce the good news. For that is what our nation and this world is longing for; like Namaan, who longed for healing, as we heard in our Old Testament reading.

 

But we cannot do this alone. If we are to be of use of Christ, we must do this in partnership, together. As Jesus instructed the ‘seventy others’, we must let go of self, and trust God and one another. Now is the time for us to pray what the ‘seventy others’ might have prayed, to pray what Bonhoeffer prayed:

“God, gather and turn our thoughts to you. With you there is light, you do not forget us. With you there is help and patience. We don’t understand your ways, but you know the way for us.”

 

Now is the time for us to set out on the mission Jesus Christ has given us together. Now is the time for boldness and unity, a time for the new creation at the heart of the Apostle Paul’s message to the Galatians. 

A ‘new creation’, according to Paul Tillich, means reconciliation, reunion, and resurrection. For in this new creation, the Kingdom of God has come near, and now is the time to do our part, to ‘[a]ccept it, enter into it, and let it grasp [us]’.[10]

 

For if we do, we, being part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, will stand as the ‘seventy others’ did, in the power of Christ, burning brightly, serving faithfully, triumphing in “the name that is above every name”,[11] rising “beyond all measured height, to that eternal light, where Christ shall reign all-holy”.[12]

 

Bonhoeffer’s prayer was part of a morning prayer he had written for Christmas to be prayed with his fellow prisoners. It is a prayer of hope. It is a prayer of patience. For hope and patience produce perseverance, that which is most needful in times of trial and tribulation.

 

So, though “weeping may linger in the long stretches of the night”, if we have hope and patience, with Bonhoeffer, we can endure, and, with the Psalmist, we can be sure that “joy will come in the morning[13].

 

As we look to the East to declare our faith, so I believe that the Sun is always rising on the Church, and in particular, on the Church of England. And I believe that there will be joy in the morning for the Church because I believe that the Church is always rising, too: it is rising in the power of the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, rising to answer the call of Christ together, to make him visible, to prepare his way and proclaim God’s kingdom. 

 

Bonhoeffer concludes one of his last letters from prison in this way: ‘May God in his mercy lead us through these times; but above all may he lead us to himself . . .’[14]

 

This is my prayer: that you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, will take my hand, and I’ll take yours, and together we will walk before the face of Jesus, preparing his way and proclaiming God’s kingdom, until we see him face to face, and we arrive together at that place of joy which “no eye has seen nor ear heard nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”.[15]

 

And like the Apostle Paul, “never boast of anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us], and [we] to the world.”[16]

 

I pray that we may “think of one another to the end with gratitude and forgiveness, and may God grant to us then that we one day stand praying for each other and praising and giving thanks with each other before God’s throne”[17] our names being ‘written in the memory and grace of God’ together.”[18]

 

I covet for us all, joy in the Lord, and togetherness in mutual resourcing.  Amen."

 



[1] Adapted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Morning Prayer’, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, rev. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 2001), p. 30.

[2] Deuteronomy 19:15.

[3] John 5:19

[4] Basil the Great, quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, Vol. III: St. Luke, trans. John Henry Newman (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), p. 345.

[5] Luke 10:3

[6] Philippians 2:6-7.

[7] Matthew 20:16.

[8] Luke 4:19

[9] Luke 10:18

[10] Paul Tillich, The New Being (London: SCM Press, 1956), p. 15.

[11] Philippians 2:9.

[12] Christopher Idle, ‘Christ’s Church Shall Glory in His Power’, Hymns for Today’s Church, 2nd ed. (London: Jubilate, 1987), 522.

[13] Psalm 30:5b

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, rev. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 2001), p. 137.

[15] 1 Corinthians 2:9.

[16] Galatians 6:14

[17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Englarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge, (New York: Touchstone Edition, 1997), p. 128-31.

[18] Theophylact, quoted in St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, Vol. III: St. Luke, trans. John Henry Newman (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841), p. 360.

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