Swanwick Sermon

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undefinedBishop Peter preached at the triennial clergy conference at Swanwick. Here is his sermon in full.

Genesis 16:1-16         Matthew 7:21-end
Each of the five previous Chester Clergy Conferences which I have attended has a particular highlight in my memory.  At the first, 15 years ago, it was the key-note speaker Ray Anderson, from Fuller Seminary – and swimming in the very cold outdoor swimming pool before it was closed on health and safety grounds.  There will be a few hardy souls here today who swam with me that day.

Twelve years ago it was the Bible Readings on St Matthew’s Gospel given by John Fenton, together with the worship which Archdeacon Christopher Hewetson organised so brilliantly.  9 years ago it was the addresses by Marva Dawn.  6 years’ ago it was David Day’s expositions, also of St Matthew, but in a complete contrast of style with John Fenton.  Three years ago it was Walter Moberly’s Bible Studies in their interaction with Rick Lischer’s addresses.  It has been so good to have Walter back with us again.  He combines a scholar’s mind and a pastor’s heart in an all-too-rare way.

But I want to go back to John Fenton, who was then an elderly, almost apostolic figure.  It was almost as if we needed to prop him up at the lectern in order for him to give his addresses.  By the end I was thinking that all we had to do was to imagine that John Fenton was St Matthew, and all would be both clear and simple.  St Matthew is the most orderly of the Gospels and at one point John Fenton memorably imagined him as a somewhat crusty bachelor living in a bungalow down by the coast.  One day he returned after his cleaning lady had been to his house, and immediately he set about carefully rearranging the ornaments on his mantelpiece, putting them back just where they had been before the cleaner had disturbed them.

Our Gospel reading from St Matthew comes at the end of the three chapters devoted to the Sermon on the Mount, and this passage is deliberately placed by St Matthew as the conclusion: ‘Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be  like a wise man who built his house upon the rock….. And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught as one who had authority’.
The next two chapters contain a sequence of miracle stories: the proclamation of the Kingdom is intrinsically connected to the establishment of the Kingdom, just as our teaching and preaching ministries must be intrinsically connected to our pastoral ministries.  St Matthew is obviously an Anglican; he believes that everything must be done decently and in good order.

But how are we to be wise people who build our houses upon a rock?  The answer, in short, is given in a saying of St Paul: ‘And the rock was Christ’, to which we might add that our faith is to be built upon ‘the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone’.

In anything we do, we must not boast of ourselves, or in our own strength, but in Christ Jesus and him crucified.  That is why the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Only those who acknowledge that they are 'poor in spirit' will be rich and strong in the Holy Spirit.  This is the narrow gate that leads to life, the only way to life and true freedom.

There is a parting of the ways, between those who can say ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling’, and those who put the claims of Jesus Christ alongside other claims, those who think that the concept of a ‘narrow gate’ is itself altogether too narrow and exclusive.  Those, perhaps, who are sick yet believe themselves to be healthy, and are in no need of a physician.  Those, perhaps, who deep down think that God has good reason to be pleased with them, who aspire to fulfil the law of God in their own strength.

Every time any of us should think that we have preached a good sermon or led a good service, or whatever: beware.  Sin is lurking at the door, because sin has the basic character of pride.  Are we sinners who have received in faith God’s righteousness, and are therefore on the way to life – or are we those who believe in our own righteousness, and are on our way to death?  This is the narrow gate, the straight path of the poor in spirit, for every Christian and, especially, for every Christian minister.

Our OT lesson tells the story of the barren Sarah arranging for her maid Hagar to bear Abraham the child she could not produce.  Ishmael is not so much rejected as set on one side.  Sarah’s all-too-human answer to her barrenness was not God’s answer, for which she would have to wait a little longer when Isaac was given to her in old age.  Sometimes our task is to wait, just as generations of Jews, faithful land unfaithful, had to wait centuries for the coming of the Messiah.

The Sermon on the Mount is a portrait of the Messiah.  Jesus Christ is the only one who perfectly fulfils the Law of Righteousness.  All honour to those who have made the attempt to live according to the precepts set out here, who, like Ghandi  have tried to offer the other cheek to be struck too – or who, like Inspector Clouseau would give a thief all his other possessions as well.  After all, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, tells us that we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Perhaps there is a man here who has never looked lustfully upon a woman, thereby committing adultery with her in his heart – or, I suppose I must add in these politically correct days, a man or woman who has looked lustfully upon either a man or a woman in this way.

Perhaps there are those here who have always loved their enemies, who have never wanted to lay up treasure on earth, which have never noticed the speck in another person’s eye, and pronounced judgment upon them.
At the heart of the Christian Faith is the claim, the belief, not that we must bestir ourselves with religious zeal in order to obey this new law which Jesus has laid down for us, as if such perfection is achievable for us if only we try hard enough.   Rather the Christian teaching is that we should acknowledge humbly in faith, and in hope and love, that Jesus has established this kingdom of righteousness for us.

He is the one who has perfectly fulfilled the Law.  As the Messiah of Israel he takes the 10 commandments and translates them from earth to heaven, and fulfils them in his own unique life as Son of God and Son of Man.  Or, rather, he unites heaven with earth, and in union with our humanity restores us into a right, a righteous, relationship with God.  We live out of that righteousness, Christ’s righteousness, as best we can, as honestly and obediently as we can, in the actual circumstances we face.

The wise man built his house upon a rock, and the rock was Christ.  We are to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and let other things be added unto us as may be the case.  We are not to be anxious about tomorrow – in theory at least – but to live for today.

These, I believe, are the priorities for our Diocese, and our priorities as ministers of the Gospel.  Of course we have to face the issues and realities of the day, of financial problems and planning, of difficult people, of needing to articulate a realistic strategy for the future.  We are not exempted from this, but it matters much that we approach our tasks in the right way, in the right key, a Christian key.  ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me’ stands as the motto and truth over each of our lives.

The theme of this conference has been worship.  At the heart of what we have learned is that to worship Christ is to acknowledge that he is our great High Priest whose own worship before the Father, in his ascended humanity, we are invited to join as members of his Body here on earth – with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.

I offer the suggestion that if, in our ministries, we don’t put worship and prayer first, we’ll find ourselves on the wrong track, no matter how fast we appear to be travelling.  We’ll be on the Bakerloo line, while the Spirit of God is on the Piccadilly line.  I realise that that’s more easily said than done, and that standing here I must acknowledge my own shortcomings and failures in how many of my days are spent.  But the priority of prayer is spelt out here, and not least in the fact that Matthew puts the Lord’s Prayer at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.

The readings for today’s service are those given in the RCL.  I did not choose them; they chose me.  But I believe they could have not been more appropriate for us.  The challenge to each of us is to answer the question: is our spiritual house built upon the rock which is Jesus Christ?  We may shape the answer in different ways, but at the end of the day we have to strive to give the same answer.  That is our unity in Christ, the only unity that really matters.

Today is the Feast Day of Cyril of Alexandria, the early fifth-century Patriarch of Alexandria.  He was at the heart of the Christological controversies of the early centuries, and played an important part in securing the orthodox Christology which we declare in our Creeds.  His particular concern – as you’ll all instantly recall- was to avoid an undue separation between the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ was one person, the Son of God, who in his unique incarnation brought together earth and heaven.  There may have been two natures in Christ, but the whole point was that there was only one person who united them.

He realised that this said something about God as well as about the world.  It is in Cyril that you will find a deep reflection on what it meant for God that Jesus Christ suffered in the flesh, almost an anticipation of the twentieth-century insight that ‘only a suffering God can help’.  In Jesus Christ God takes the form of a servant and is obedient unto death, even death on a Cross.  That is the loving-kindness of God in action.
The unity of Jesus Christ is indicated in the familiar text from Ephesians 4: ‘One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.  It is a text which recurs frequently in Cyril’s writings. 

It is easy today to listen to the seductive voices that alongside the one Lord Jesus Christ there are other Lords, and other Saviours.  We can give other religions and belief systems respect without denying the unique and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ. 

‘One Faith’ means that we can acknowledge different theological traditions within the Church, provided they all witness to the same Jesus Christ.  There is a genuine complementarity between different strands of churchmanship and their associated theologies; presumably not all the Apostles were as keen as St Matthew to arrange the ornaments on his mantelpiece just so.  But any theology which claims to be Christian must draw its inspiration from the one Lord Jesus Christ, and the riches of his grace.

One Lord, one Faith,  - and also one Baptism.  If the Redeemer is one, and the Christian faith is really one, so must the Church be one, because baptism denotes entry into the Church.  The Church is the Bride of Christ, and Christ does not go in for polygamy.  There can only be one Church of God, one Christ as Head of his Body.

We have to acknowledge that in the history of the Church, and especially in recent centuries, this rule of Christian unity has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance.  This is a deep sadness to me, and it should be to all of us.  I sometimes see the tragic sight of soldiers returning from Afghanistan with legs or arms amputated, and think how the Church on earth must appear to our heavenly Father.  But the quest for the unity of the Church is not at heart a human quest for Church unity as an end in itself.  It can only be a quest to recognise the one Lord Jesus Christ as Head of his Church.

The Church on earth will never be perfect, any more than we can be perfect, but it’s God’s will and goal that it should be.  We’ve learned the hard way that Christian unity cannot be engineered by a series of ecumenical political fixes – but neither can we downgrade the vision for the unity of the Church which the Gospel sets before us.  ‘May they be one, Father, as you and I are one’ prays Jesus on his final journey to the Cross.

It is my hope that these triennial clergy conferences will provide an opportunity to renew our vision, and, very importantly, to draw support and encouragement from each other.  But that will only happen if each of us will seek to build the house of our ministries upon the one foundation and rock which is Jesus Christ.

We face many challenges as the Church of England continues its migration from being part of the culture of this land towards its increasingly counter-cultural existence in the twenty-first century.  We will face these challenges best by facing them together, in a common confession of one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.

Peter Forster