Farewell Sermon, 23 rd September, Ely Cathedral
John 15: 1-17
Little children, love one another.
Jerome tells us that St John, in his extreme old age, annoyed the church in Ephesus by saying nothing but this. When the disciples there asked why he did it, he replied that “it is the Lord’s commandment, and if it alone is kept, it is sufficient.”
So, I am very tempted to just sit down now and leave it at that. But … well, it would make a memorable sermon, but you might feel short-changed, so I’ll go on a bit longer, as long as you promise not to forget the main thing, that we are to love one another.
We’re living in an age where achievement is applauded, and there is a lot of rhetoric about recognition for all, while at the very same time the gap between the haves and have-nots grows ever wider, the whole superstructure of achievement itself grows ever more fragile, and anxiety grows.
What to do? I suggest that we need to turn our attention more fully not just to what we are wanting to do, but why and how we are doing it, because that will cause us to attend again to our true characters; and it is of those characters, the people we are becoming, that the kingdom of God is built and God’s good future forged.
That’s why it’s so important, little children, that we love one another. It is both the fruit of our being in God, and the sign of it too. We are commanded to do it because it is the mark, the imprint of our being in Christ who so loves us that he has given his life for us. And it is the precondition too for the flowing of the Spirit among us. It is the lifeblood of the people of God.
Speaking personally, the last ten years have turned out to be more about being than doing – a salutary lesson for someone who has not been short of ambition or drive. If I’ve not always made a very good fist of the “being” bit, I can perhaps take comfort that according to Douglas Adams at least, God’s own last words to his creation were, “We apologise for the inconvenience.”
But it is in fact healing to look back and see that while the CV has had a few more lines added to it, what I almost universally hear is thanks not for great deeds done but for just being there, and that I will be missed.
St Paul preaching in Antioch said that another David served God’s purpose in his own generation. And if I have managed just an echo of that, I would happily swap it as an epitaph for any CV. It’s good to hear talk too that when a new Bishop is finally appointed, the plan is that they will also have time to just be a Bishop and a listening ear among you as well.
Love one another. That passage about the vine has as you know been with me day by day, week by week, for all the time I have been with you, and I’ve probably preached about it far too often. Roots, shoots, – yes come on, all together – fruits!. I love the natural, organic picture of church growth that it gives. If we are rooted and grafted in Christ, and know the love of God flowing into us, we will through grace alone find that same love flowing into shoots of discipleship together, and bearing fruits in our lives as we give it away as freely as it has been given to us. The main thing we must do is stay faithful and say yes.
It can feel like the autumn of the church at the moment and perhaps the winter. Old glories are fading, the wind is blowing, and sudden sharp frosts are taking us by surprise. When the times and tides in history seem against us, I suggest that the challenge is to keep faith at the deepest level, to keep faith in the God of the resurrection, in the God whose very nature is to bring life out of death, spring out of winter. So we put aside all bitterness, we lay our despondency before the altar, we open the eyes and ears of our hearts to God, and we look for the signs of spring, for the call to come out into the fields again and join once more in the gardening of creation.
And unsurprisingly we find that as we touch base with the deep things of our faith we reinforce rather than replace the plans that we have prayerfully put in place in a more action-orientated way. The roots and shoots and fruits of the vine are closely aligned to the great commandments to love God, love one another and love our neighbours – even our enemies – as ourselves. And they in turn resonate strongly with our strategic imperatives to deepen, to grow and to engage.
So it matters to try and keep on underpinning our common life and strategy with these eternal and essential values of our faith, and, I would like to offer just three things if I may, to borrow a phrase from our esteemed diocesan secretary, to the various groups gathered here today, — and I am overwhelmed that there are so many of you, friends from every corner of the diocese and beyond: thank you all so much for coming.
To my senior colleagues, first, I want to say, have a special care for the roots. Give time amongst all the pressures of leadership and management to abide in Christ yourselves. The way in which we begin our meetings regularly by Dwelling in the Word is a real sign of spring. Carry on taking the risk of being the people who speak of the love of God in season and out of season, even in finance meetings or when pastoral reorganisation is on the table. Be the gospel we want to see grow. I have come to have enormous respect for all of you, and I see the possibility of a really creative interplay between the being and the doing, the prayer and the programme, the faith and the works if you like, and I’ll keep on praying for it too. The roots really matter.
To the churches and congregations represented here, ordained and lay, paid and unpaid members alike, I want to say thank you too: I have really valued having a ministry that has meant that coming out and being with you, in sorrow and in joy, has been my daily bread. But I also want to say, have a special care for the shoots. On a good day, every one of you, large or small, thriving or struggling, can be a shining witness to the transforming power of the love of God to build a new sort of community, a bit of heaven here on earth where the barriers built by our fallen humanity have come tumbling down. And if that sounds a bit ambitious or a bit strong, isn’t that what we pray for every time we say the Lord’s prayer: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
What is so tragic, of course, is that not every day is a good day. Of course we will always fall short. But for the very body that should be a sign of hope to become instead an agent of hurt is sickening. We are digging out the well of past abuse, and pray God we will not keep filling it again at the same time. But there are subtler ways too of hurting and harming, of excluding and ostracising. Beyond all party labels, every church is surely called to be an inclusive church, a welcoming church, a multi-cultural church, a variously-abled church. I am so glad that the Cambridge Deaf Church is part of our greater church this afternoon; I am so glad that we heard the sometimes-silent voices of those living with disability at a recent study day for clergy; I am so glad that a champion is in place to take that work forward. It is simply the very practical outworking of that same simple command – to love one another.
Finally, to the dignitaries gathered here this afternoon, I again want to say thank you. We often gather as the chain gang on formal occasions like this and have not a little fun and food to go with it. But I know the long hours and loyal commitment that you give as you serve our local communities. And to you, I want to say, keep on caring for the fruits. Do not let the fire of your love for those you serve grow cold. Nourish that fire of love in your own heart, and at a time when the economic and political landscape seems increasingly bleak, let that heart be especially warm for the most vulnerable amongst us, for those least like us, and do let those other heats of hatred and hurtfulness stay banished to where they belong. Let’s work together, councils and churches and all of good will to build the sort of world in which all can live well.
But goodness me, none of this is easy is it? When ministers are ordained it is made clear that we cannot bear the weight of our calling in our strength: it will always be in God’s. All our hope is founded on Him. It is his amazing grace from beginning to end that will see us through. But “with him and in him and through him” you, the Diocese of Ely, can see the fruit of the vine of the kingdom come. With him and in him and through him, you, the communities of Cambridgeshire and West Norfolk, can see the fruit of the vine of the kingdom come; however dry the desert or long the night.
And the Lord’s Prayer will come true, not as our achievement, but as the will and work of God, flowing through the unbroken chain of faithfulness that connects us across the generations and to Christ himself, back in the days of his first coming, here in his real presence now, and onward to the day when he will come again: a golden chain, whose hallmark is love.