Church’s Hope only in Christ - by Archbishop Rowan Williams, a talk given at the 3rd Encounter

Church’s Hope only in Christ - by Archbishop Rowan Williams, a talk given at the 3rd Encounter

I count it a great privilege to spend sadly a short time, but hopefully a time of real sharing and fellowship, with you. As has been said more than once already, the focus of the centre of Anglican energy in the world is very clearly in the global south in our time and it is therefore for me an experience of learning, as well as of fellowship, to be with you and to seek to understand better how it is that you witness to our one Lord Jesus Christ.

Now during the preparations for this meeting, a number of suggestions were made as to what I might speak about. I think it was suggested that I might speak about the oneness of the church, or about the holiness of the church, or about the catholicity of the church, or possibly about the apostolicity of the church. So I’m actually going to talk about all of them. You will already have heard from some very distinguished and very searching presentations on all these matters, and I’ve been greatly helped by being able to read the notes of those other presentations. I want then simply to suggest this morning one way of holding together the four marks of the church; one way which to me seems simply the best way of seeing them as essentially about the same thing and, in the light of that, to offer you some reflections on each of those marks of the church in turn. But the simple thing I want to say is that all four marks of the church are about Jesus Christ. The church is one because Jesus Christ is one; the church is holy because Jesus Christ is holy; the church is catholic because Jesus Christ is the saviour of all; the church is apostolic because, as the Father has sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us. In other words, if we are to understand the nature of the church at all, we are to understand who Jesus Christ is and what he does.

And to see the nature of the church in these terms is, I believe, to be liberated from any idea that the oneness, the holiness, the catholicity, the apostolicity of the church are either characteristics that we possess in our own right, or even goals that we can plan for. Before we can even begin to think about what belongs to us or about what goals we should have, we must think about Jesus Christ. And I say this partly because as I read St John’s Gospel, I find in the 17th chapter, so often quoted in speaking of the unity of the church, I find there Jesus spelling out all four marks of the church in his prayer. And I read to you briefly from John 17 beginning at verse 17.

“Sanctify them in the truth. Thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world, and for their sake, I consecrate myself so that they also may be consecrated in truth. I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word. That they may all be one, even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me”.

Meditate on those verses and you’ll see how in them the whole nature of the church is expressed. Jesus prays that we will be holy because he consecrates himself. Jesus says that he is sending us into the world and the word in Greek is indeed apostele, from which comes the word apostle. Jesus prays for those throughout the world, of all conditions and all backgrounds, who will believe because of the disciples; he prays that they will be one as he and the father are one.

And I would say that in those few verses lies the foundation charter of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. This is what Jesus prays for. Now if I’m right in believing that all four marks of the church are actually characteristics of Jesus which are shared with his disciples, what does that mean in turn? Let me then think aloud with you about the unity and the holiness the catholicity and the apostolicity of the church.

First of all, unity. I’ve said that the church is one because Jesus Christ is one. That is to say, there is one place and one place only where we may stand and call God ‘Father’. One place and one place only where that participation in the divine life which we hear of in 2nd Peter, which was referred to this morning, becomes a reality. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, we read ‘No-one has seen God at any time, but the only God who is next to the Father’s heart has made him known’. In the best manuscripts of John’s Gospel, that is what is said; ‘the only God’, not ‘the only Son’ monogenis theos; the unique God who stands next to the Father, in the bosom of the Father. So from the very first chapter of John’s Gospel, we have before us the image of the only one who is in eternal intimacy with God the Father; the only one who is next to the Father’s heart. Making God the Father Known. So the oneness of the church is about how the church is the community of those who are led to the one place at the Father’s heart where he can be known, where he can be seen. St John’s Gospel is indeed about the unity of believers but I think we misunderstand it if we treat that just on a lateral level; unity between believers. It is about the unity of the community as it exists standing in that one place where the only God, the menogenis theos of chapter one of John’s Gospel, stands. And so I believe that one of the external signs of the unity of the church in a sense more basic than the universal Episcopal order, more basic than the creed, more basic than the instruments of unity of the Anglican Communion, even, more basic than Holy Scripture, is that Christians are called and enabled by the Holy Spirit to say ‘Our Father’ because they stand in the one Christ and are brought next to the Father’s heart, by Christ. ‘When you pray say “Our Father”’, and when we pray our Lord’s prayer, we affirm we stand with the one Christ, the one eternal son, the one word in the Father’s bosom.

So our unity is, at its deepest, the unity which the spirit gives in enabling us to call God ‘Father’; it is the unity given in baptism, in which the spirit is given to us so that we may pray like this; so that we may pray the prayer of Jesus. It is the unity expressed in Holy Communion, not as the result of what we share as human beings, but because in Holy Communion we are drawn into praying the prayer of Jesus, standing where he stands, by the Holy Spirit, alive with his life. One of the things which I think I have learned over the years in dialogue and in engagement, particularly with Lutheran Christians, is that deep sense of our unity as something that is given in baptism. I was at an ecumenical conference with German Lutherans several years ago, where we were talking quite a lot about bishops and structures and things like that and at one point one of the Lutheran participants said ‘this morning we were together praying at the Lord’s Table; what more is there to do?’ I’m not quite sure of the answer to that, but I think it’s a very good question and the very asking of the questions expresses something that we forget at our peril. There must be moments in our Christian life, in our Anglican life, dare I say, when we just say ‘what more is there to do?’ We are given by the Holy Spirit the authority and the privilege to say ‘our Father’ because of the one God who is next to the Father’s heart, in whom is the one way to fellowship with the Father and participation in the life of God.

So over and beyond all our anxieties about our structures, our anxieties about our ministerial order, our anxieties about visible unity, we should not forget the gift of the Spirit in the one Lord. Our oneness is our common rootedness - and I was so pleased to hear Bishop John this morning speaking about the importance of the word common - our common rootedness in Jesus Christ, being where Jesus is, and I’ll have more to say about that in a moment.

So to approach the unity of the church in this way is to invite a number of questions and challenges, questions and challenges which we cannot escape, which sometimes make our life quite complicated If our unity is about standing in the one Christ, then it’s quite clear that those who seek to stand in another place are automatically breaking that unity. And when I ask myself, ‘where is it in the New Testament that we find the clearest statement of what breaks or betrays the faith’, there are perhaps two places which cast some light on this question.

One is in St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, in the first and the third chapters of that letter. You’ll remember that in the first chapter, St Paul speaks of those who ‘preach another gospel’ and tells his Galatian friends what their attitude should be; tells them in very firm terms even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed’ Galatians 1 v 8. And what is that Gospel? It’s made clear, I think, in Galatians 3; ‘Did you receive the spirit by works of the law or by hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the spirit are you now ending with the flesh?’ The gospel which for Paul is non-negotiable is that it is by the work of God’s grace and by our trust in God’s grace that we are saved and not by our achievements. So that Paul marks off very, very clearly, what is and is not part of the unity of the church and its faith because, if you refuse to believe that you are saved by the grace of God which demands complete trust, if you go back to reliance on the achievements, on the works of the law, you are ceasing to stand where Christ stands; you are trying to find some other way than the one way of coming into the life of the one, the only-begotten God who is next to the Father’s heart.

So it is not surprising that the other dramatic instance which I’ve found in the New Testament of this is in the First Letter of John; from 1 John 2 chapter 22: ‘who is the liar, but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ; this is the anti-Christ; he who denies the Father and the Son’. Once again, the denial that Jesus is the only One is what fractures the one place where believers stand, and it’s taken up in 1 John Chapter 4 v3; ‘Every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God’. So the unity of the church is the unity of its standing together by faith in Jesus Christ, praying ‘Our Father’, and it is the desire to stand somewhere else and to rely on something else that ruptures and breaks that unity. And when we ask as we do these days, what is it that most deeply threatens and most deeply undermines the life of the one church, I think that those two spiritual instances in Galatians and in 1 John give us a test to apply. Are we, are others, seeking to ‘stand somewhere else’ than in Christ? Are they depending on something other than Jesus Christ? And it is in that context that we look at the structures and public institutions that serve the church and ask whether they really do contribute to unity. When we speak of the way in which our church is organised, the demands the requirements of visible and structural unity, our question is as we examine them and sometimes as we seek to reform them, ‘do they or don’t they serve that kind of unity’.

Just in passing, I mentioned in passing ‘the instruments of Unity of the Anglican Communion’. I would be much happier, I have to say, if we spoke of the ‘servants of Unity in the Anglican Communion’, because whatever the instruments of unity are, I don’t think that they are in any sense conditions to be met for Christian faithfulness. They are human institutions which seek to serve the unity of Christ’s body and I would put all those instruments of unity, not least the Archbishop of Canterbury, under the rubric of St Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3; ‘it is not ourselves that we preach, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake’. Whether it is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ACC, the Primates, or the Lambeth Conference, that must be what they hold in front of them. I think someone recently said that ‘the path to heaven doesn’t necessarily lie through Lambeth’. I agree entirely. The path to heaven lies solely through Jesus Christ our Saviour and the unity he gives, and the only use and integrity of the instruments of unity is when they serve that.

One last thought about unity. We stand together in Christ, brought by his grace into that fellowship where we are enabled to say ‘Our Father’. And we stand together in a community which, humanly speaking, is often very confused, full of the frail and sick. St Paul is, especially in his Corinthian letters, very clear that when one part of the body suffers, all suffer. ‘When one rejoices, all rejoice’. We can see this at several levels; the body suffers in different ways. It suffers as, we were reminded this morning, because of persecution and it is a poignant but important fact that we are here in this place this week, a few days after our Coptic brothers and sisters have suffered so dramatically in this country and I know that they will need our prayers, our love, and our support in the days ahead. The church suffers because of persecution but, as St Paul says, the church also suffers because of its own members’ weakness. ‘Who is weak’, says St Paul, ‘and I am not weak? Who is caused to stumble and I am not aflame with anger?’ We are part of a body whose failures are our common failures. It is always a temptation to say ‘We are the true church, they have abandoned us’ and yet even as we make necessary disjunctions and separations, there is a point at which we must remember in our prayer, this is our suffering; this is our loss, we are together in sin as well as in grace. I believe that is part of what St Paul’s vision of the body obliges us to say. I believe that it is what the Gospel of Our Lord himself obliges us to say and because we are where we are, I finish these thoughts on unity with two stories from the Fathers of the Egyptian Desert; stories about Makarios the Great, that great monastic saint of the 4th Century, who spent most of his life not far from here in the Wadi al Natrum.

There was an assembly of the monks in the cells to condemn an evildoer. As sentence was pronounced, Makarios rose to his feet and left the assembly saying ‘I too am a sinner’. There was an assembly held to judge, among the monks, and Makarios the Great came from his cell and in his hand was a pitcher of water with a crack in it and the water ran out of the hole. ‘What are you doing, father?’ said the monks. ‘I’m going to condemn another,’ replied Makarios ‘while my sins run out behind me like water on the sand.’

Our unity involves that also; that recognition is not the stranger on the other side of the universe - the sinner is me and my neighbour. And one of the hardest tasks we have when discipline is exercised, when discriminations are drawn, is how we remain in loving and prayerful fellowship with those who are our fellow sinners, not wholly strangers to us. Who accompanies? Who, like Makarios, rises to go out with the expelled sinner? To sit and pray and love? That, too, is a challenge of unity.

And all of that leads us on, of course, to talk about the holiness of the church. And so I move secondly to reflection on that.

Perhaps this is most clearly the note of the church where we are aware that it is Christ not ourselves we are talking about. In the Greek Orthodox liturgy, when the bread and wine have been prepared and consecrated, the priest lifts them up and says ‘Holy things for the holy people. ‘Ta hagioi tois hagiois’ - Holy things for holy people. And the congregation protests in reply and says ‘One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father’. I wish we said that in our Anglican liturgy, because it seems to me the best thing we could say as we come to Holy Communion; ‘One is holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ.’ And if we turn again to John chapter 17, we find those words which I referred to earlier, about ‘becoming holy’. ‘Make them holy in the truth’, says Jesus in his prayer ‘your word is the truth.’ Make them holy in the truth; that is holy in Jesus, who is the way, the Truth and the Life. And in verse 19 ‘for their sake, I am making myself holy, so that they may be made holy in truth’. And that gives us, I would say, a very important clue as to what Christian holiness is about; here is Jesus, the night before his crucifixion, saying ‘I am making myself Holy’. He is going forward to his crucifixion, where by the shedding of his blood, he makes peace between Heaven and earth. And that is ‘the holy place’ just as in Ancient Israel, the Holy Place, the Holy of Holies was where the blood of the atoning sacrifice was taken, so the Holy Place, indeed the ‘Holy of Holies’ is now the Cross of Jesus. And when, famously, St Paul in the third chapter of Romans, speaks of how God ‘puts forth’ Jesus as a hilasterion, a propitiation in Greek, he is almost certainly saying that Jesus is, so to speak, the Sanctuary of the New Temple; the place of atonement; the ‘Holy of Holies’.

So Jesus says ‘I am making myself holy, I am becoming the altar of sacrifice where peace is made between earth and Heaven’. And on the day after, on Good Friday, he establishes himself as the Holy place; his cross is the place of peace the peace that comes from the shedding of his blood, as St Paul tells us more than once.

Move on from the fourth Gospel to the very beginning of St Paul’s letter to the first Corinthians and you’ll find an echo of those words.

‘Paul, summoned as an Apostle of Christ Jesus, by God’s will, and brother Sosthenes, to the Assembly of God which lives in Corinth; to those people who have been made holy by Christ Jesus and who have been summoned as Holy People.’

Exactly the same word as you find in St John’s Gospel - hagiasmenoi - ‘those who have been made Holy’ - and this interesting and telling phrase - ‘kletois hagiois’, ‘called as holy’ or ‘summoned to be holy’. And there of course is the little tension in our Christian understanding; we have been made holy and we are called to be holy. Peace has been made between earth and Heaven, by the Cross of Christ, and we are made holy in just the way that Jesus prays in John 17. We are made holy by his making himself holy and then we are called to be holy. So that the holiness of Jesus and the holiness of the church is something a great deal more than being ‘good’ or ‘virtuous’; it is being in the place where God through Christ makes peace between earth and heaven. It is being under the cross, in short. For a Christian to be holy is to be under the cross. A person may lead a deeply impressive moral life; they may even have a deeply impressive spiritual life, and yet if they don’t ‘live under the cross’, we can’t call them holy, in the biblical sense; and that living under the cross I first of all am acknowledging the unique and unrepeatable debt that we owe to the grace of God in the death of Jesus, living in gratitude for the gift given by Christ’s death and it is the seeking, day by day, to let that Cross live and work in us as we carry the cross in putting away our self-defending, self-justifying, self-protecting habits in every area of our lives. Holiness is living under the cross, the place where Jesus makes himself holy, so that we may be made Holy. It has all been done for us in the cross; God be praised; it is all, for each one of us to discover, day after day, in that self-emptying, that self-forgetting struggle to let Jesus live in us. No-one else, no other power, no other spirit.

So to be holy is to be found in the neighbourhood of Christ’s cross. And that means that our holiness takes us where Jesus goes; our holiness takes us to those Jesus died for; it takes us into the neighbourhood of those whoa re forgotten, who have no voice; those who need healing and forgiveness. It takes us into very strange places indeed and the holy person, as we all know, is often found in very odd company. The holy person, like Jesus himself, is to be found not among the righteous but among sinners, not among the healthy, but among the sick and a holy church is one that goes with its proclamation and integrity and its fidelity, among those who need healing - literally who need healing - those whose physical lives are wrecked by pain and disease and disaster. A holy church is one that, as you have heard more than once this week, stands alongside those who live with the scourge of HIV aids; a holy church is a church that labours as some of you have done so generously, alongside those who have been made homeless or bereaved by natural disaster, like tsunami and earthquake. A holy church in my own country is a church which will go into the heart of the city and sit with the homeless and the addicts and the destitute.

About three weeks ago I visited a holy place in South London- it’s called the 999 club and it was started by the local church 14 years ago. Under the inspiration of a very remarkable and unconventional priest who had a great impact on that entire area of London - and he persuaded and enabled his lay people to go and open a centre just over the road from the church, where everyone would be welcome, where the homeless and the addicted could simply be cared for and there would, all day long every day, be people there to sit with them, to pray with them, to make them cups of coffee, to serve them meals, sometimes to look after their children, sometimes to offer them a bed for the night. It was a centre that has had great problems with the local authority and with regulating authorities of all kinds, but I came away feeling with all my heart that I had been in ‘a holy place’, where Christians had gone to where Jesus was. In 14 years, that centre has never had the police called in; every crisis and challenge has been handled by the people there, and that in itself is a remarkable work of God, I should say.

Holiness is being under the cross, giving thanks for the Cross, letting the cross live in us, being where the crucified Christ is, among his suffering people and a suffering world.

And that, of course, opens out onto the third mark of the church; Catholicity, a word so often misunderstood or trivialised. It doesn’t just mean ‘universal’ - it means ‘whole’. You might even say ‘wholesome’ although the word is a weak one in our context. The catholic church is a church for the whole of the human race, not just geographically. It deals, as St Cyril of Jerusalem said in the 4th Century, with the whole human person and it preaches the whole divine gospel. And, yes, you do have a passage from St Cyril quoted in your service book and Bishop John is carefully looking it up for me!

The whole human person is touched, healed, and transfigured by the Gospel and the catholic church is the church which is able to address every level of human being; heart, mind, and body. A church which promises healing for our material lives, which addresses poverty and disease, both in work and in prayer. A church which does not suppress, but nourishes and purifies the life of the mind. A church which touches our emotions and disciplines and sanctified them. Every level, the whole person is transfigured. And when people talk about ‘holistic mission’ as they often and rightly do these days, we might say that they are talking about catholic mission in this sense.

But there is also, in the understanding of the word ‘catholic’ a very necessary element which will be particularly significant for all of you, though it is significant in the North and the West as well. And that is the constant search for a language and a style of worship which are authentic in the place where you are. Not something borrowed from another culture, not a second-hand suit of clothes from somewhere else or second-hand words, but the Gospel coming alive in this place, for this culture, in this language.

In all sorts of ways, the church over the centuries has lent itself to the error, indeed the sin, of trying to make cultural captives, whether it is the mass export of Hymns Ancient and Modern to remote parts of the mission field, the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church centuries ago to take seriously the challenges of Asian culture in the first days of its mission there, the abiding colonial shadow, the shadow of the British Empire that hangs over our own Communion, or the export of American values and styles to the whole world, we are all involved in a real difficulty here.

I spent as you know ten years of my Episcopal ministry in my native country of Wales. And in Wales we were used to having bilingual worship; our prayer book was in Welsh and English. But the Welsh prayer book was a translation of the English prayer book and for hundreds of years, Welsh speakers had not had the confidence or the courage or indeed the encouragement, to write their liturgies, their prayers, in their own language. They’d written hymns, great hymns - they’d prayed privately, but in the public worship of the church English came first and Welsh was a translation.

I have a feeling that could be echoed in a good many of the countries and churches that you represent, and, as we thought about the reform of our liturgy in Wales over those years, the question came back again and again ‘how do we encourage people to write liturgy, to write prayer books, to write Eucharistic prayers’, first in their language with the rhythm, the association, and resonance that your own language has for you and no other has.

It’s a very different kind of challenge for each culture represented here and I sense that we’re still in the Anglican Communion in a phase of ‘English first’ at the back of the mind; that our liturgies are still, nine times our of ten, translated from English into another language. I think it’s one of the most creative and interesting challenges that lies ahead of us in the next century or more; to think our prayers in our own tongue, to make them fully our own. Not, as I say, second-hand clothes. And there is one of the great opportunities for creative minds throughout our communion to work.

In other words, a catholic church is not a church that seeks a uniform global culture. The unity of the church is not cultural; it is in Christ - one Lord, one faith, one baptism - and any number of languages and costumes. It’s been said recently by one theologian that the catholicity of the church is really a kind of great protest against globalisation; the really catholic is the opposite of the globalised, because the catholic is about wholeness, about the wholeness of the person, the wholeness of local culture and language, therefore it’s not simply opening the same fast-food shop in every village on the globe, and it’s not like the global economy, in which people are drawn into somebody’s story and somebody’s interests which in fact makes others poor and excluded. The catholic is the opposite of the globalised because the catholic is about everyone’s welfare, everyone’s growth and justice. And particularly in our globalised world this witness to what I would call the truly catholic is perhaps more important than ever. The affirmation, the rights and liberties of local persons, but ‘rights and liberties’ is a weak and perhaps misleading phrase; the language of rights has not stood us in good stead in the church. Let’s say rather the Christ-touched dignity of every person and every culture. That is what the catholic church honours in its fullness and that is why the catholic church protests about a globalised system that works in the interests of a minority, whether in the church or in the world.

And so I come finally to the nature of the church as apostolic, and I’ve already drawn your attention to that keystone of our understanding, in Jesus’ words in John 17; words taken up again after the resurrection. Jesus says to the Father that the Father has sent him into the world and he now sends the apostles. After the resurrection he says ‘As the Father has sent me, I send you’. And while we can and rightly do concern ourselves with apostolic integrity in terms of continuity and recognisability in the church, we ought not to lose sight of the fact that the language of ‘sending’, the apostolic language of scripture, is first of all about God’s mission in Jesus, or indeed we could say God’s mission as Jesus. And the forms, once again of apostolic continuity, especially the forms of apostolic ministry are to be seen in that context: they serve the mission of God which is in Christ Jesus.

The church is one in Jesus and holy in Jesus; the church is catholic in Jesus and it is sent in mission in Jesus. It’s a good thing that the marks of the church come in that order, we might say, because we begin where we cannot but begin and indeed end, in the oneness of Jesus Christ - the only begotten next to the Father’s heart. But we move from there into understanding that from the Father’s heart, the kolpos tou patros, the bosom of the Father in John’s Gospel; from there comes the mission that takes the Gospel to the ends of the earth. From the Father’s heart comes Jesus Christ, whose grace and salvation are there for all. And because of Jesus Christ we are the bearers of that news to the ends of the earth.

At Lambeth 98 those who were involved in the section on mission and evangelism had quite a bit to say about the bishop as a missionary and evangelist. For me that was one of the most inspiring and focussing elements of the conference. It needs reaffirming again and again. The apostolic role of the bishop is not simply to be a witness of tradition, though that is important. The bishop is the guardian of what has been delivered, that is true, but what has been delivered is a gift that demands to be given and shared, to be taken into evangelism. And what we take is not just words and ideas; what we take of course is as St Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, sprit and power. Our apostolic mission is a mission in spirit and power; that is, it is a mission that leads to transformation. Which is why, I think St Paul, certainly in 1 and 2 Corinthians associates being an apostle with being a witness of the resurrection. The good news as the good news of transformation, a changed and healed world, begins in the resurrection, where we are shown how the worst, most desperate sin of the world’s history, the deliberate rejection of God’s chosen and his humiliation, torture, and death on the cross is turned by God into the gate of glory. The crucified, rejected Christ is raised from the dead by the Father; he breathes his Spirit into the apostles and equips them to go and tell every creature that God is more than death; that God is more than sin, more than failure. He bids us go and preach the resurrection. The apostolic church is the church which exists and renews itself day after day in the power of the resurrection.

We don’t just meet on Sundays because it’s a convenient day that somebody chose by putting a pin in the calendar. We meet on the Lord’s Day - ‘This is the Lord’s day, the day that the Lord has made, it is wonderful in our eyes’ - we say that at Easter, but we should say it every Sunday. ‘This is the day that the Lord has made’ or ‘This is the day that the Lord has acted, and it is wonderful in our eyes’ because week by week we are returned to the celebration of the resurrection. The church is perhaps never more apostolic than when it gathers to praise the risen Lord. But it should not suppose that simply praising the risen Lord and then going home and then just shutting up shop is apostolic integrity, because the gift and the glory - the gift that we praise when we praise the risen Lord - is the gift now in our hands, our mouths, our voices to share with the world, and then the apostolic gift given to us comes alive in the transfiguring of the lives we touch by God’s gift, by God’s grace.

And it is as we perform this apostolic task that of course we are drawn back again and again and again to where we started. The one Christ, the one source of divine life and power. Because you see the apostles in the New Testament are not heroes; they are saints and martyrs but they are not heroes. They struggle, they fail, they repent, they return. Peter himself betrays his lord and is called afresh. Paul speaks of how he’s not even worthy to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church of God. And Paul in 2 Corinthians with great irony spells out just what it is to be an apostle; a series of stressful heart-breaking, body-breaking experiences and humiliation, failure and struggle, yet sustained always by the one Lord.

So, just as the unity of the church is a solidarity sometimes in sin and struggle, so the apostolicity of the church must be seen in that light of failure, repentance, restoration. An apostolic church which continues the labour and witness of the apostles is a church always engaged in repentance, always open to renewal, always trusting the one Lord for his faithfulness, always depending on him for its future.

All I’ve said this morning is really an attempt to put before you a vision of the church; a church so deeply focussed on Jesus Christ that, in a sense, it finds its unity, its holiness, its catholicity, almost by accident; not by human planning, but by faithfulness to Jesus. What would St John have said if someone had tapped him as he lay against Jesus’ shoulder at the Last Supper and said ‘Would you like to explain to me something about the oneness, the holiness, the catholicity, and the apostolicity of the apostolic band around the table?’ I think St John would have said, perhaps rather fiercely - he was after all a ‘son of thunder’ - ‘I’m listening to the Lord. Shut up!’

The more we are focussed and drawn in to the mystery of Jesus, the more these things become not matters that we passionately struggle to work to master for ourselves, but things that flow from our relationship with Jesus. Now I don’t suggest that we can forget the practical questions before us; the many appallingly burdensomely difficult questions that are laid upon us at the moment in our Anglican fellowship. But I do say that we shall never begin to answer them adequately unless our eyes our minds and our hearts are with Jesus, where Jesus is. Out of that, who knows what will come. And as we are prepared to be silent and patient with the Lord, like John at the Last Supper, who knows what God will do. John listened at the supper; his head resting next to the heart of Jesus, just as Jesus rests next to the heart of God - have you noticed it’s exactly the same phrase used in 1 John and in the account of the Last Supper - en kolpo, in the bosom, next to the heart. There the beloved disciple listens.

And what does he hear?

‘Sanctify them in the truth. Thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world, and for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth. I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word that they may all be one, even as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.’ John 17 v 17 ff.

ENDS

© Rowan Williams 2005

1 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. Tim Gray Says:

    Thank you