Archbishop in Hong Kong: We must be a repentant church
Tuesday 29th October 2013In this sermon preached at St John's Cathedral in Hong Kong, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that as God's people we are meant to 'know our own failure'
In a sermon preached during his visit to Hong Kong this weekend, the Archbishop reflected on the question of what God wants his people to look like in our age.
Speaking at St John's Cathedral, Archbishop Justin said the church most embody three qualities: repentance, faithfulness and dependence on God.
The Archbishop is currently on a 10-day visit to Anglican Primates in Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.
Watch the video above, or read the sermon below:
Archbishop Justin's sermon at St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong, Sunday 27 October 2013
Readings: Jeremiah 14:7-10; Psalm 84:1-7; 2 Timothy 4:6-8 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Mr Dean, Your Grace, thank you very much for the privilege of being invited to be here with you today. It’s a huge pleasure to be here for both Caroline and myself, and it’s wonderful to find ourselves in this fabulous cathedral, and to delight in the fellowship and the company of all those who are here.
And it’s a delight especially because we are at the beginning of the four weeks that run up to Advent, known as the Kingdom season. And whereas in England the shops already have their Christmas decorations out, for the people of God it is a time of reflection and asking ourselves, ‘What does God want his people to look like in our age?’
And the readings today take us to three very different situations, but all under great pressure. The prophet Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, is talking to us about something that perhaps particularly as Anglicans – especially because of the history and the big buildings and all this – find it very hard not to be in control of life.
But at the heart of our Christian discipleship is remembering that we cannot secure things ourselves, we cannot give ourselves security; we have to accept the uncertainty of life and the failure of life. It is a fundamental reality that we do not control our own future, nor does an impersonal fate; but we are in the hands of the living God. And it is the most fundamental issue of the Christian life, because whenever we try to take things into our own hands and control our own future – whether it’s as an individual, as a church, or even as the Anglican Communion – whenever we try to control our future, we immediately set up idols which we worship, and very often those idols are ourselves. We have to accept the future to which we are called by God, and not try to substitute our own.
In the time of Jeremiah – as you will have heard from that reading we had – the people of Israel were puzzled and distraught, saddened, worried. They could not understand why things were going so badly for them. They knew they’d gone wrong in the past, but surely they were the people of Israel, somehow they should always come out on top. They should win battles; they were Israel; they should control their own city of Jerusalem – and instead they found themselves with bad government, defeated, destroyed, dispersed and going into exile. And Jeremiah struggles with the truth of what they have done and the consequences of it. He asks questions which are direct and almost rude. He says to God, ‘Have you rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion? Why have to you struck us down?’
It is a normal part of everyone’s experience of life where there are moments when we need to say to God, ‘Why do I feel abandoned?’ When as a church we sometimes say to God, ‘Why are things so bad? Why is our church divided? Why is our Anglican Communion not in agreement? Why do we struggle with where we go?’ But although that is a good question, we need to listen to the answer that Jeremiah gives, or that God gives Jeremiah, which is: You have sinned, and sin has results – and the only way out of them is repentance; it is to turn round and go in the opposite direction.
And so the first thing that God’s people are meant to be, day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, is we are meant to be a people who know our own failure, and who come to God with nothing in our hands, with no strength of our own, simply seeking his forgiveness, admitting our weakness. One of the great failures of the church in European history is that too often it is taken in by the appearance of strength and forgets its need of God. Over recent years we’ve done that over issues of the abuse of children in Europe. We’ve failed to say where we’ve gone wrong. We are to be a repentant church.
It is very easy to be confident in your own resources. When I was at university, which was sadly a very long time ago, two friends and I decided to walk across Scotland. It was about 230 miles, so it took about two weeks. We were good walkers but bad map readers. So we probably did 300 miles because we kept going one way and having to come back another. And on one occasion we were walking in western Scotland, and we came to a valley that split into two bits, and after a little while we realised that the valley we’d taken after about four miles ended in a cliff, and the other one had the main road. So we went back, and as we were going back we met some other people coming along the same bad route. And so being nice people we said to them, ‘This is the wrong way, there’s just a cliff at the end.’ And they said, ‘No there isn’t. We know this is the right way.’ So we smiled politely and we went on, and when we got back to where we should have gone from, we sat down and made a cup of tea and waited for them to appear, looking embarrassed.
Repentance is when you know you’re going the wrong way and, rather than going on, you turn round and go back and take the way that God has shown you. We are to be a repentant church. That is part of the culture of Christian faith.
And the second thing: we are to be a faithful church. We turn to 2 Timothy, this extraordinary letter which I have always loved. ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I kept the faith.’ And yet, like Jeremiah, Paul writing to Timothy was aware of difficulty and stress. His life was about to end, he was about to be executed. And yet, his own church had abandoned him. ‘At my first offence, no one came to my support, but all deserted me.’
It is the normal life of the church that we don’t always support each other as we should. And yet, in this reading, there are six words that are crucial: ‘But the Lord stood by me.’ We are to be faithful to each other as Christians of all sorts, despite our differences, despite our arguments, not because we choose to be, but because God is faithful to us, and therefore we belong to each other. There’s an old saying in England, you choose your friends but you’re stuck with your family. And believe it or not, you and I are family. We are of the family of God, and your stuck with me and I’m stuck with you, not just now, not just in this life, but for all eternity… so we’d better get used to each other.
Faithfulness is such a beautiful virtue in the church. The church that is faithful to one another, that visits the prisoner, that cares for the sick, that remembers those who are slipping away because life is too hard for them, and they cannot to keep to their faith in God, and friends come alongside and strengthen them.
The Lord was with Paul. And that needs to be the testimony that we can give. It starts with prayer and scripture for ourselves to see and love the Christ who is faithful. It is a challenge to a world where people are only faithful when it is to their advantage, when they think they can get something back. It is a challenge that as Christians we need to show that we love people because God loved us, and therefore we are faithful.
Faithfulness puts the idols of this world in perspective. One of my colleagues in England, when I was named as Archbishop of Canterbury, said, ‘You suddenly have a lot of new best friends.’ And I keep getting letters which say ‘You may remember that we have been good friends for many years.’ When you think about that sentence it doesn’t make much sense, but they still write it. It’s some people who have not been in touch for twenty years then suddenly I was their closest friend at university.
Idolatry shows itself in trying to control our own future, in trying to decide to whom we are faithful. God gives us the people to whom we are faithful, and it is the people He loves. And we need secondly, therefore, to be faithful. Repentant, faithful. So that the church can testify to the love that there is within it.
And thirdly, if that is going to happen, we need to be dependant. Go back to the gospel reading, and again it is the issue of control. It is such a temptation to control our lives. The Pharisee wants to be in control. He lists the things that matter, that show that his life is controlled. He fasts twice a week, once more than necessary. He gives much more than he should. He is in control of God, because God must accept him, because he does the right thing.
It is a question for us to reflect on: where do I seek control? Where do we seek control that is not properly ours to seek? We are roughly eight weeks from Christmas, and at Christmas we remember that God took for himself the most weak position that he could find: a baby, in control of nothing. Nothing. Not even their own bodies. And that is God. That is the measure that he sets us for dependence. We are to be dependent on God for everything. The publican, the sinner, who was simply standing far off from God, saying, ‘Be merciful to me, a sinner’. This tax collector was dependent on God and nothing else. How do we find that dependence? It comes only from seeing afresh the person of God, in contemplation, in adoration, where I do not even control my prayers.
I like control. I have structures for prayer. When I spend time in prayer in the early morning I know who I pray for on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday…. I know how I pray. And I’m having to learn again and again, week by week, to put time aside simply to be in contemplation of God, where it is for Him to meet me, and not for me to tell Him.
A church that is dependent accepts failure and forgives, loves each other and heals, has order but not dominance, and has freedom of service but never abandonment of purpose.