Sermon: Sunday 29 May 2016
First Sunday after Trinity
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director – Leicester Cathedral Revealed
Strong words from the lectern. Strong words from the pulpit. St Paul, writing to Galatian believers of the first generation of those who came to Christian faith says: “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed”.
Jesus, speaking of a Roman centurion, who most certainly could not be called ‘Christian’ even if the word had existed, says “I tell you not even in Israel have I found such faith”.
And Solomon, dedicating the glorious temple he has had built, prays that “all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.”
How do we make sense of these three strands of what we reckon to testify to our faith, here in a city as plural in faith and no-faith as any in the UK, and at a time when those actively claiming Christian are in an ever diminishing minority?
You may also remember the powerful and moving culmination of Bishop Martyn’s welcome service two weeks ago – when faith leaders stood together with the new Bishop in Cathedral Gardens, and committed themselves:
“Renouncing what is wrong and holding fast to what is good
We pledge to give honourable and faithful service
To all the people of the City of Leicester and the County of Leicestershire
To work together for the common good
With love and mercy and for justice and peace”
Whilst earlier on in the service, in the Cathedral, Martyn had made his equally ringing declaration of belief in:
“the faith which is revealed in the holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularise of the Church of England bear witness”.
The Cathedral Exec team is made up of all the clergy, plus the Administrator and Deputy Administrator, and as well as meeting weekly on a Monday morning, twice a year we go away together overnight to take time together with a little more leisure to review where we’re at in our roles and leadership. This week was one of these, so on Thursday and Friday we were at Launde Abbey, thinking about the Cathedral’s evolving Strategic Plan for 2016–20, and its three main thrusts: renewing our congregation; renewing our mission and renewing our building. And when it came to the second of those, we came across, not a disagreement certainly, but a what you might call a creative tension between the view that what matters most ultimately in our relationship with our fellow men and women is bringing them into Christian faith, or the view that what matters most is serving them in their needs and standing up for what is right. It’s the same tension implicit in those two parts of Martyn’s Welcome service and in the three readings of today’s lectionary – itself part of our Anglican and Christian and inheritance.
So what are we to think? What are we to do? How do we hold these things together? I think probably in the end that’s your question to answer, but it’s my job to help you think about it.
What exactly was going on for Solomon, Paul and Jesus? Solomon lived at a time when Israel was as strong as ever in her ancient history, but still it was a grand claim that the God who had protected that small nation was, in fact, a God who claimed the loyalty and worship of the entire world. A claim those who worshipped other gods would have found laughable or insulting. And indeed a claim that a few generations later would have rung hollow as Israel was conquered in battle, and taken off into captivity, never to regain that same measure of independence again.
Jesus came as a Jew living in that heritage, at a time the nation was under the rule of Imperial Rome. His good news was clearly for more than just the Jewish people – and the incident with the Roman centurion was just one of countless ways he demonstrated, in both his words and his deeds, that his life and his coming death would be “for the whole world”.
Paul, himself a devout and religious Jew, had initially been vehemently opposed to that idea. But he had had his own dramatic turn-around, and become convinced that Jesus was indeed saviour for the whole world, and not just for the Jewish nation. And if you ask what it was that got him so worked up when he wrote to the Galatians that he spoke in terms of people being ‘accursed’, it was some others telling them that the only way they got to be followers of Jesus was by first becoming Jewish – through circumcision. In other words, that it wasn’t actually for the whole world, but only for a certain cultural and identified group. To Paul that is not an acceptable difference of opinion within the church – that is an utterly different gospel. The stakes were that high.
So I think we can see a consistent thread emerging. Whatever the good news is, it is meant for everybody, not just for some. Let’s take that back to what it means to be a Christian community, a Cathedral, and a bishop, for Leicester in the 21st century.
To me it means first of all that the values we stand for, “love and mercy, justice and peace” are universal, and we should stand alongside anyone who can speak and work honestly for the same. This is what Martyn did at the conclusion of his welcome service.
Also to me it means that the commitment he made to belief in the faith revealed in the Holy Scriptures, which we also make weekly as we pray the prayers and say the Creeds, tells us that faith is offered to every person not just some, and that any person can respond to it. This clearly includes people who currently hold other faiths, or none.
Now I know we need to temper those words with qualifications, and of course there’s always more to be said than a short sermon spot allows. We must respect people as people; we should love them as fellow humans made in God’s image; we ought never to manipulate or coerce into faith; we should be open to hear listen truth about God from all people. But none of that means the gospel is not for all people. And none of that means we are somehow absolved from sharing it – just because it’s not popular in today’s world to be religious, or to appear too definite about anything, or because people are entitled to their own beliefs, or opinions. All of that may be so, but if the gospel is good – and there’s no question but that it is – and if it is news – and for most people that is certainly the case – then it seems to me we’re under obligation to share that with our neighbours. And if you were to ask ‘Who is my neighbour?” then of course Jesus had an answer to that as well…
So the good news is good news for sharing. Solomon knew that nearly 3000 years ago. Paul was urgent about it 2000 years ago. And Jesus whose death and resurrection lies at the heart of that gospel calls you and me to live it and share it now, in the third millennium after those crucial and pivotal events that transform history, illuminate the past, and give meaning to our present lives.
And indeed if Paul hadn’t been brought by God to see it that way, we wouldn’t even be here today as Christians asking ourselves those very questions and wondering what a Cathedral is for in the 21st century in Leicester.
Well, that’s how I read it. How about you?