22 March 2015
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Right Revd Tim Ellis
Hebrews 5. 5-10; John 12. 20-33
It might be fairly said that William Temple was one of the most dominant characters in twentieth century Church history-perhaps the most dominant. Bishop of Manchester from 1921-1929; then Archbishop of York from 1929 to 1942, he finished his ministry, and died in it, as Archbishop of Canterbury for the excruciatingly short period of two years. It may also be said that he was controversial for his day, as he attempted to marry together the insights of the Christian Gospel with those of the burgeoning movement for social reform in the period after the First World War. So he led from the front, defending the rights of the working classes who had emerged bloodied and bleeding from the War in desperate need of proper housing, sanitation and education. He became the first President of the Workers’ Educational Association and chaired an international conference on the relationship between politics, economics and citizenship and brought together all the Churches to support the 1944 Education Act. During the Second World War he was one of the first to recognise and condemn the treatment of the Jewish peoples in Germany, and urged strong British Government action. A profound believer in the necessary unity of all humankind, he was a founder of both the British and the World Council of Churches. His understanding of the Christian Faith was founded in the understanding that humanity, and therefore human society, is fundamentally flawed and needs to look to being better. And the source of this cracked and broken human condition he located in our self-centredness and self-concern over and against the needs of others. Put simply, he believed the fault lines that run through our world arise because we care more about what affects us for good or ill than we do about what affects our neighbours for good or ill. When this attitude is magnified from the personal and local level to the World level we experience wars, oppression, injustice, inequality, mass starvation, slavery and abuse. The Christian who hears the words ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ and does not care about the way the world is politically, economically and socially ordered is not living out the import of those important words. And so, Temple movingly writes to us today to ground the woes of our society in spiritual causes…
When we open our eyes as babies we see the world stretching out around us; we are in the middle of it all; all proportions and perspectives in what we see are determined by the relation-distance, height and so forth-of the various visible objects to ourselves. This will remain true of our bodily wisdom as long as we live. The same thing is true of our mental and spiritual vision. Some things hurt us…we call them bad. Some things please us…we call them good. So each of us takes his place in the centre of his own world. But I am not the centre of the world, or the standard of reference as between good and bad: I am not-God is. In other words, from the beginning I put myself in God’s place. This is original sin.
When we fail to address loving our neighbour as ourselves we do so because we have also ignored the possibility that we should love the Lord our God with all our soul and strength.
Today is Passion Sunday, a day when we get a chance, before the hurly and burly of Holy Week and Easter, to gaze once more upon the Cross. And what do we see there? We see a God and man who was and is so utterly concerned with the world as it is, with all its daily mundanity and profundity, that he invested himself totally and utterly in this beautiful but broken world of ours to the extent that he died in it and for it. To share death is to share in humanity in its completeness. And it would seem that he did this, not for personal spiritual gratification or selfish gain, but that we may ‘have life and have it in all its abundance’: not the one or the few, but all of us…this is the shape of the Kingdom of God he came to usher in-it looks like Love.
If we reflect back on the passage from St John’s Gospel, we will find deep within the proclamations of glory and the predictions of a death which will be overcome, the words so often ignored…
Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of the world will be driven out.
When we hear the cry that the Church and its leaders should not be involved in politics, perhaps we must heed that call…for politics today is a muddied, besmirched, confused and discredited thing. And most certainly, I believe that the Church should be free of Party politics, as it must be unfettered to be prophetic and bring to bear the insights of the Gospel into our society today. But a Church and a Christian people who believe that humanity is fundamentally flawed-in original sin- and capable of great injustice, violence, hatred and inequality must perforce be concerned to question the way we are governed; the policies which lead to social exclusion and the diminishment of others; and the greed and self-seeking of certain systems. For it was to shine the penetrating light of love on these matters that Christ died upon the Cross.
And so Passion Sunday leaves us with the thought that, through our efforts in cooperation with God, we can be better; our communities can be better and our world can be better, for Christ died for it to show us how valuable and pregnant with possible goodness it is. We are building the Kingdom of God. And so, it is perhaps fitting that a Jew (God’s first people), Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, leads us gently into this future…
Religion is at its best when it becomes a counter-cultural force; when it has no power, only influence; no authority, except that which it earns; no claim to peoples’ attention other than by the way it creates values that cannot be found elsewhere. If in this, it loses its perennial tendency to corruption and becomes again what it once was-a startling new voice, redeeming us from our loneliness, framing our existence with meaning and telling us to remember what so much persuades us to forget-that possibilities of happiness are all around us, if only we would open our eyes and give thanks.