Diocese of Leicester Chrism Eucharist 2023
Ephesians 2:11-22, John 13: 1-17
“Priests share with the Bishop in the oversight of the church, delighting in its beauty and its well-being.” So says the introduction to the service of the ordination of priests. But what does it mean to delight in the beauty and well-being of the church?
In the next few minutes I want to explore that question with you. But first I stand here looking out at you all and I want to say that it's a beautiful sight. Some of you I've known for the whole of the seven years that I've been Bishop here. One or two of you I've known even longer. And some I've known for just a short period since you arrived in the diocese. But for every one of you, I give thanks to God for your ministry and for our shared ministry in God’s church. We may not think of ourselves as beautiful, indeed the world often tells us that we are anything but beautiful, but I dare to believe that each of us individually, and collectively, brings delight to God. So thank you for persevering in ministry and thank you for your patience with me as I continue to learn what it means to be a Bishop.
So what does it mean for us together to delight in the beauty and well-being of the church? Does it mean that we must overlook every flaw and stop campaigning for change? Does it mean that we should robustly defend the church against every accusation of wrongdoing? Does it mean that we should strive for perfection, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make the church as beautiful as possible? Of course not. The calling is to “delight in”, rather like we delight in the beauty of a Turner painting, or a Wordsworth poem, or Beethoven symphony. We don’t for a moment think we can improve such works of art. We simply enjoy them. Hard work may still be necessary, as when I climb a mountain to enjoy the view from the top. And I wish the view wasn’t spoilt by a man-made quarry or warehouse, but I can still rest, sit for a while and take in the colours and contours of the hills all around.
So I want to explore with you what it means to delight in the beauty and well-being of the church by starting not with the church but with God the Holy Trinity. Some of you will have heard me quote before from the International Commission for Anglican Orthodox Dialogue 2006, which says: “By the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit, the church is created to be an image of the life in communion of the Triune God.” It's a profound statement of our calling, and it suggests that the model for our common life within the body of Christ is based not on any organisational structure, or hierarchy, but rather the communion that exists between the three persons of the Holy Trinity. And as with Rublev’s icon, we are invited to sit and contemplate the communion table with the three persons sat, heads slightly bowed, expressions of love on their faces, and wonder at the fact that we are requested to join them at that table. And not just me, but all humanity.
Our Gospel reading today illustrates the humility and submission of the second person of the Trinity, expressed not only within the Godhead but also within the new community that he is establishing here on earth. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me… for I have set you an example that you should do as I have done.” So, “by the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit, the church is created to be an image of the life in communion of the Triune God.”
And if the Trinity is the basic colour wash in this beautiful picture of the church, the next layer in this masterful painting is the incarnation, the Word made flesh who moved into the neighbourhood, or pitched his tent among us. The mysterious, awful beauty of this never ceases to overwhelm me, most particularly because of just how costly this was to God.
Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote often of the incarnation as an act of sacrifice: “Christmas is as costly in self-giving as Good Friday” he said. And he went on to link this to the church: “the death to self qua self, first in Christ and thence in the disciples, is the ground and essence of the Church… In Christ, God's power is manifested in self-emptying love, and to be made man, to die, to be buried is the power of God no less than the creation of the world.” So the “ground and essence of the church” is self-giving, dying to self, being with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection.
We cannot sound the depths of the mystery of the incarnation or the Trinity, just as we cannot describe fully the nature and beauty of the church.
A further layer to this beautiful water colour painting is the cross of Christ, which similarly has so much to say about the nature of the church. As many of you will know, I have just completed my Lent Pilgrimage – 90 churches, 120 miles – and a lot of fun. Extremes of English weather, best of church hospitality (cake everywhere I went) and an opportunity to pray with hundreds of people. And in many places, I gave people a holding cross – a small wooden cross made from olive wood, grown in Holy Land / Israel / Palestine. People very appreciative – one woman ran after me down the church path to say “I’m not religious but thank you for this cross. I will treasure it!”
And in each place, I went on to explain meaning of the cross. Now I wonder how you do this. When you have just two or three minutes, what is your “elevator pitch”, your explanation of why the cross is so important for Christians? There are so many possibilities. Augustine said, “All that Adam lost by despising God’s command, Christ found on the cross. Here is the great reversal – the cross planted in the ground and yet reaching to the sky at once purifies the air and cleanses the earth.” Another writer, also makes a link to creation, but this time to the theme of new creation “The cross is where God’s life crosses our life to create a new life otherwise unimaginable.” So just as the incarnation is a bringing together of the divine and the human, so the cross is a bringing to together of God’s creative power in our earthly existence such that we see a glimpse, even within ourselves, of the new life which we are otherwise powerless to initiate.
Timothy Radcliffe observes that God’s offer of forgiveness comes to us through the cross. He says: “If forgiveness were forgetting then God would have to suffer the most acute amnesia, but it is God’s unimaginable creativity, which takes what we have done and makes it fruitful. The medieval image of God’s forgiveness was the flowering of the cross. The cross is the ugly sign of torture. It is the sign of Humanity’s ability to reject love and to do what is utterly sterile. But the artists of the Middle Ages showed this cross flowering on Easter Sunday. The dead wood put out tendrils and flowers. Forgiveness makes the dead live and the ugly beautiful.”
Again, what a beautiful image – the flowering of the cross – which speaks of the flowering and flourishing of the church when we experience forgiveness and when we extend forgiveness to others. The tragic, terrible beauty of the cross, and all the possibilities it creates for the church.
And so finally, I want to take you to our first Bible reading, Ephesians 2. Because here, the writer paints the detail of our watercolour of the church with image after image of our life together. We are the new humanity, where those who were without Christ, without God, without hope are brought near by the blood of Christ and made one. And we are a single body, where those who were far off have been brought near, both groups have been reconciled to God, where the dividing walls have been broken down and the hostility taken away. We are members of the household of God, build on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, growing into a holy temple – the dwelling place for God. This is extraordinary language, hard to take in. “So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” My friends, this is the beauty of the church, and we are called to delight in its beauty and wellbeing.
God is not done with the church in the UK. As a human institution, we are weak and fragile, full of failures – from safeguarding, to racism, to sexism, to all the divisions which preoccupy us. But just as the human and divine are held together in the person of Jesus Christ, so also the divine Spirit of God is at work in the church to bring forth flowers from the dead wood.
We were created to be an image of the life in communion of the Triune God - humanly we may struggle to express that communion, but the same power is at work in us as the power which raised Christ from the dead.
So as we reflect tomorrow on the meaning of the cross, so I hope we will experience afresh the power of forgiveness and hope of reconciliation. And as we celebrate on Sunday, the fact of Jesus’ resurrection, so I hope and pray that we will not be afraid to delight in the beauty and wellbeing of the church. Thank you for all you do to serve the members of this body and draw others into communion with God the Holy Trinity.
+ Martyn Leicester