30 November 2005
Prayer: May I speak in the Name of the Son, in the Power of the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of God the Father. Amen.
“Follow me” … immediately they followed him… They were amazed and said, “what sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 4:19, 20; 8:27)
Having left their livelihood and followed him we later find Jesus’ disciples responding to him with amazement and wonder. “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Is this Jesus just a team leader, a gifted teacher, a miracle worker? Who is this Jesus and what does he mean for those who put their trust in him?
It took Jesus’ disciples three years of following, in obedience and communal living to find the answer to their question.
In the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is often called a Rabbi - and his followers, his disciples. A disciple was someone who had chosen to be with his rabbi as much as possible in order to learn everything he could from him and not just during formal teaching times. A disciple was with his Rabbi all the time.
In the Talmud there is a story about a disciple who hid under his rabbi’s bed so that he would be present when the rabbi and his wife went to sleep. He was discovered, and the rabbi wanted to know what his best pupil was doing next to his sandals. His response was a classic: “This too is Torah, and I need to learn!”
This commitment of the disciple to stay in the presence of the rabbi he followed, was beautifully expressed in the blessing: “May you always be covered by the dust of your rabbi.”
That is: may you follow him so closely that the dust his feet kicks up covers your clothing and face! Very much like a baby duckling whose image of its mother has been imprinted on its brain, disciples never wanted to let the rabbi out of their sight.
“What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” The disciples’ collective memory and answer is: “This man Jesus is that self-giving love of God made visible.
He is that transforming power of God that changed us to be like Himself in love and self-service. In him we saw the world and its needs with a new awareness, and knew that to serve others in their suffering was to serve God.
He made us realise that we came from God, we belonged to God; we were made for God, who gave us a mind to know him, a heart to love him and a will to serve him. And when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, we were on fire with the conviction that through this man Jesus we had become literally sons and daughters of God.
We were pioneers of a new humanity, founders of a new Kingdom.
A Kingdom of forgiven sinners: forgiven for our past sins, given new life in the present and hope for the future. We were committed to each other regardless of our ethnic background, gender and material possessions. Every day we were filled with passion and gratitude, unable to get over the sheer prodigality of the grace of God.”
WHO IS JESUS AND WHAT DOES HE MEAN FOR THOSE WHO PUT THEIR TRUST IN HIM? That, for me, is the critical question of our time.
Victor Hugo said that, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world: and that is, an idea whose time has come”. Corporate-discipleship: fraternal-belonging was Jesus’ big idea, and plan for the renewal of society; a catalyst and engine for building God’s Kingdom.
His idea, which has lasted over the centuries, was simply this: a mixed community of sinners called to be saints, a divine society where the risen Christ in the midst of it is grace and truth, and the Holy Spirit is at work within it. An inclusive and generous friendship, where each person is affirmed as of infinite worth, dignity and influence. A community of love, overflowing in gratitude and wholehearted surrender, because it participates in the life of God.
This corporate-discipleship, we call the Church, worships God and infects the world with righteousness.
That is what Archbishop Michael Ramsey was getting at in his Missions in the Universities of Cambridge, Dublin and Oxford in 1960. He was speaking of the stupendous missionary century that saw the wonderful spread of Christian faith in Africa and Asia, by missionaries from these islands, and compared it to the spiritual decay in England. He longed for the day in England when the Church would learn the faith afresh from Christians of Africa and Asia.
He ended his address by saying, “I should love to think of a black Archbishop of York [applause] holding a mission here, and telling a future generation of the scandal and the glory of the Church”.
Well here I am, and you have already acknowledged that fact!
My immediate response to that prophetic vision is simply a prayer that God will grant me an ever-increasing measure of discernment, so that like the Apostle Paul, I may fight for the truth of the gospel of salvation by grace alone, but also like him, make concessions to cultural scruples (the Anglican Communion, in my case).
As Martin Luther said: St Paul was strong in faith, soft and more flexible in love… and ready to yield into everything.” May God give me faith and love in equal measure.
The Church: its scandal and glory.
Well, the late Canon David Watson, who was Vicar of St Michael-le-Belfry – the church next door to this Minster, said twenty-four years ago, “Christians in the West, have largely neglected what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The vast majority of Western Christians are church-members, pew-fillers, hymn-singers, sermon-tasters, Bible-readers, even born-again believers or Spirit-filled Charismatics – and we have got some those here this morning - but aren’t true disciples of Jesus Christ.
If we were willing to learn the meaning of real discipleship and actually to become disciples, the Church in the West would be transformed, and the resultant impact on society would be staggering.”
This is no idle claim. It happened in the first century when a tiny handful of timid disciples began, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the greatest spiritual revolution the world has ever known. Even the mighty Roman Empire yielded, within three centuries, to the power of the Good News of God in Christ.
It’s a scandal of the Church in England that in the past decades it has tried everything except to stick to Jesus’ plan for the world: Corporate -discipleship: fraternal-belonging.
We’ve had our reports, our commissions, conferences, seminars, missions, synodical reviews, liturgical reforms – the lot. But little attention has been given to the question, “Who is Jesus and what does he mean for those who put their trust in him?” Let us begin to answer that question by paying particular attention to the meaning of corporate-discipleship.
Che Guevara once said, “If our revolution isn’t aimed at changing people then I’m not interested.” The trouble with virtually all forms of revolution and modernising strategies is that they change everything – except the human heart.
And until that is changed corporately, nothing is significantly different in the long run.
A frog once begged a genie to turn it into a princess. The genie clicked his fingers and a gorgeous princess emerged. Later, having gone for a meal at the genie’s restaurant, the princess found nothing on the menu that she liked.
She asked the genie whether she could order her favourite dish. “Yes, of course,” the genie said. The princess turned excitedly to the waiter and said, “A large plate of flies!”
The scandal of the church is that the Christ-event is no longer life-changing, it has become life-enhancing. We’ve lost the power and joy that makes real disciples, and we’ve become consumers of religion and not disciples of Jesus Christ. You see, the call to corporate discipleship is a call to God’s promised glory. For Christ did for us that which we couldn’t do for ourselves.
God’s acceptance of us just as we are, enables us to overcome our alienation and to experience the joy and the fulfilment of personal communion with God.
Through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ there came into the world a new power that transforms human character and human communities; and liberates us from anxiety, fear, meaninglessness, transience, evil, ignorance, guilt and shame. Created humanity, in need of salvation, must realise that the culture and institutions they create are also in need of redemption, not simply of modernising.
God’s Good News isn’t for the chosen few: it is for everyone, whether they hear it or whether they don’t; and I shall regard it as the first priority of my ministry, as a ‘Watchman for the North’, to take a lead by preaching, by public address and by informal discussion, in sharing this Good News of God with the people of England.
For me, the vital issue facing the Church in England and the nation, is the loss of this country’s long tradition of Christian wisdom which brought to birth the English nation: the loss of wonder and amazement that Jesus Christ has authority over every aspect of our lives and our nation.
There is nothing more needed by humanity today than the recovery of a sense of ‘beyond-ness’ in the whole of life to revive the spring of wonder and adoration.
So the call is to live and be good news to everyone. It would be fantastic if people not only said of Jesus Christ, “What sort of man is this?” but said of us, his followers, “What sort of people are they? Their gracious actions, and the language on their lips is of God’s goodness and love. Let us get to know them. There is something extraordinarily normal and wonderful about them.”
As a 10-year-old it was Christians like that who created in me a thirst for Christ, the living water. ‘I stooped down and drank, new life flooded my whole being’. Forty-six years later, I am still amazed by God’s constant love and forgiveness.
On this feast of St Andrew the Apostle, the message is loud and clear. Jesus says “Follow me”. May his commanding voice capture our hearts and turn us into radical disciples.
For the Church in England must once again be a beacon by which the people of England can orient themselves in an unknown ocean by offering them the Good News of God in Christ in practical and relevant way to their daily lives. Having shed an empire and lost a missionary zeal, has this great nation, and mother of parliamentary democracy, also lost a noble vision for the future? We are getting richer and richer as a nation, but less and less happy. The Church in England must rediscover her self-confidence and self-esteem that united and energised the English people those many centuries ago when the disparate fighting groups embraced the Gospel.
The Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History tells not only of how the English were converted, but how that corporate-discipleship, the Church, played a major socialising and civilising role by uniting the English and conferring nationhood on them.
The history of the See of York tells a wonderful story of York’s part in the conversion and civilisation of the English. In 627 Paulinus converts the King of Northumbria, Edwin, and baptises him on Easter Day. Paulinus is allowed to build a little wooden church, the first church on the site of this Minster. And it wasn’t easy country. The Venerable Bede tells us that there were villages in these mountains and forests rarely visited by a Christian minister. The first three archbishops were driven out because of war and revolution. But the small band of Christians, like a tiny acorn, courageously stood their ground. Aidan, a monk from the monastery in Iona, came to the rescue, and extended the Christian presence in the north of England, which radically transformed the existing social order as well as in the South.
In our time, this socialising and transforming power of corporate-discipleship is illustrated further by three Christian men at the University of Oxford: Richard Tawney, William Beveridge and William Temple, who were challenged to go to the East End of London to “find friends among the poor, as well as finding out what poverty is and what can be done about it”.
In the East End their consciences were pricked by poverty: visible, audible, smellable. After university, Tawney worked at Toynbee Hall, creating a fraternal community; William Beveridge paved the way for the Welfare State in his report which for the first time set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament. And William Temple, as Archbishop of York, and then Canterbury mobilized the church support for a more just, equal and fraternal Britain. His book Christianity and Social Order is one of the foundation pillars of the welfare state as we know it today.
It is very clear, then, that the socialising and transforming power of the Gospel, lived out in corporate-discipleship, wasn’t only in the early church, in seventh century England, but in our own lifetime too – and more recently, by Faith in the City.
“But why have we in England turned this glorious Gospel of life in the Spirit into a cumbersome organisation that repels, and whose people are dull and complacent?” - words of Michael Ramsey, 1960.
And I would urge people who are judgemental and moralizing – as followers of the Prince of Peace, the friend of the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable - I bid you, by the mercies of God, to go and find friends among them, among the young, among older people, and those in society who are demonised and dehumanised; and stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
Christians, go and find friends who are Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, agnostics, atheists – not for the purpose of converting them to your beliefs, but for friendship, understanding, listening, hearing.
Christians, our priority for making disciples is amongst the 72% who in the last census said they were Christians. That’s where our task lies!
Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, agnostics, atheists, go and find friends amongst Christians, not for the purpose of converting them to your beliefs, but for friendship, understanding, listening, hearing.
God is working in the world today quite beyond the limits of our budgets, structures and expectation. His gospel, lived out in corporate-discipleship, has the power to transform our individual and corporate lives, our families, our communities and our nations. It has the power to break beyond our timidity and insufficiency.
The voice of God is active today as it has been down the centuries – provoking us to move, change, and recognise who we are and what – by God’s help – we can become.
Because we are Christ’s Body, called out and called together, this ought to affect our worship, our evangelism and our response to social, political and economic realities.
The Jesus who calls us to follow him is saying to us today:
“Hear, O England, the Lord our God is the only Lord,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart,
With all your soul, with all your mind
And with all your strength
Love your neighbour as yourself”.
And the only fitting response for me is this:
Lord take my heart from me,
For I cannot give it to thee
Keep it for thyself,
For I cannot keep it for thee
And save me in spite of myself.
Friends, let us do it and let us do it now! God help and bless us all.