'Trust in the invisible God who calls us to obedience' - Archbishop's sermon in San Jose, Costa Rica


The Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and members of the anglican delegation take part in a Eucharist at the Catedral El Buen Pastor in San Jose. Neil Turner

Read the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, San Jose, Costa Rica.

Readings: 1 Samuel 8:4-11; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

I was asked to focus in the application of what I want to say on the question of migration. But all challenges to the life of the church begin with our relationship with God. For example, in the first reading from the Old Testament, 1 Samuel, the sentence that condemns the people of Israel for Samuel and for God, is this one: ‘Give us a King that we may be like the nations round us’. 

The people of God are always called to be different. They are not to follow the votes and decisions of people and crowds simply because they are in the minority. They are to trust God and follow the command of God. A famous politician in France in about 1790 saw a crowd rushing past the house he was in and he called out, ‘I must go and see where they are going so I can lead them!’, in other words, he was not leading but following the crowd. 

In the UK at the moment, as everywhere in the world, the question of migration and immigration is a huge political question. We are in the middle of an election campaign. What will decide the election, according to the opinion polls, is who is most convincing about stopping immigration. So people on one side are trying to show that they are even tougher on immigration than their opponents. One of the politicians is saying ‘if they come across the English Channel in small boats, I will order the Navy to push them back into the Channel, and if they drown, so be it’. And the church is saying, as here, that they are human beings made in the image of God for whom Christ died on the cross. Of course, we cannot take every person seeking refuge. But we can treat everyone with the dignity of a child of God. 

One of the interviewers on the BBC said, ‘Don’t’ you realise that the majority of people in this country disagree with you?’. And the answer is, yes, I realise that, but the will of the majority is not always the same as the will of God. That’s a difficult thing to say, it’s very unpopular. I’m not a candidate in the election, but if I were, I would lose badly! And for a million other reasons as well, I’d be a terrible Prime Minister. The question is, who we do trust? Do we trust God or human will? Notice that, in this story of Samuel, Samuel and God are in a minority of two. That does not make Samuel wrong. 

When we go on to Mark, the values and commitments to family in first century Palestine were enormous. Think of the commandment, honour your father and mother. Jesus says, basically, ‘She’s not my mother, the people who do God’s will are my mother, father, brothers and sisters’. The whole congregation would have been aghast. It would have been as bad as me saying I don’t like the Anglican Church. No, let’s not use that example. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey in the 1960s, was in his office, and his secretary and his chaplain heard this rhythmic knocking noise coming from his office. They put their heads around the door and they found him hitting the his head on the desk. They said ‘are you alright?’ and he said, ‘I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England’. 

The point about that is Jesus is again saying convention is not a reason for doing wrong. What matters is obedience to God with whom one is in friendship and relationship. In the epistle reading, 2 Corinthians, it says just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture, we believe and so we see. And it goes on to say, so we do not lose heart. Because we trust in the invisible God who calls us to obedience. 

What has this to do with migration? It is not a command to do the impossible. It is a command, first of all, to treat other human beings of all backgrounds, riches and poverty, the well-educated, the ignorant, those in full health, those with disabilities, the men and the women, the small children, those of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, as equally valuable to us.

The first thing the church can do about this huge crisis of migration is to work with other churches in ecumenical co-operation and with civil society groups of goodwill, to set the lines, the limits to what is right and wrong. 

Too often the church has gone with the way of the world. In Parliament in England in London in 1833, there was the vote on abolishing slavery in the British Empire. There were 26 bishops in the upper house, the House of Lords, and all 26 voted to keep slavery. I believe God and his angels wept. In the end they lost the vote. The non-Christian groups and the Methodist groups won, and abolished slavery. In Germany in 1933 the Lutheran church voted unanimously to support Adolph Hitler. 

To go against the will of the people expressed in a vote, to vote for something that will cost us money, these are hard things to do. Governments find it very hard. They need strong voices in civil society pointing to what is right and just because as a European politician said recently, ‘We often know what is right, but we usually don’t know how to get re-elected after we have done what is right.’ 

So the first thing is we must work together. Realistically, and with deep concern for the communities where migrants arrive, because they suffer also, like those in migration. And we must encourage politicians and people to act rightly. We must use our own resources, as much as we have them, for example, when the war in Ukraine began and Ukrainian refugees came to England, I am glad to say that almost every bishop housed a Ukrainian refugee family. They could not stop the war. They could not force the Russians to go back, but they did what they could. 

So the first thing is we do what God gives us the resources to do, and in addition to that, we trust God for the future. If we are unpopular for doing right, that is God’s problem, not ours. It may feel like ours, but it’s above my paygrade. If we are popular for doing wrong, that is our problem, for we will answer to God. 

So with migration, in the short term, do what we can and don’t feel guilty about what we can’t do. Persuade who we can, with those who will work with us, and don’t worry if we cannot persuade enough people. Give what we can. Trust God for the future of the church and the future of those parts of life we cannot solve. And as Paul says to the Corinthians, what can be seen is temporary, what cannot be seen is eternal. Amen. 

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