Sermon preached at Rochester Cathedral
24th March 2016 – Maundy Thursday
Some of you will have stood in the departure hall of the Zaventem airport in Brussels; some of you may have travelled through the Maelbeek metro station; all of us will have shared on Tuesday morning the shock and outrage at what happened in those places. The thought that I or somebody close to me might have been there, or that something similar could so easily happen somewhere else where I happened to be – these thoughts will have passed through many minds. But, as others have pointed out, there is a disturbing dimension that, while we may be shocked, many of us may not have been surprised.
This seems to be the world in which we live? A world where an ordinary commuter journey may suddenly be overtaken by violent death or horrific injury; a world where, despite our developed-world levels of sophistication, life is seen to hang by a very fragile thread; a world in which there are those who think it right to attack apparently innocent people in the name of their cause – even a religious cause. And of course, before we point our fingers too much in the direction of others who do these things, our own history is not too glorious – we don’t have to look too hard before we find examples of people stirring up hatred and even violence in the name of our faith.
There is no denying that the world in which we live can be seen and experienced as a frightening and unstable place in which to live. Three of my fellow bishops have just returned from a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they met displaced Christians, Yezedis and Muslims, both Shia and Sunni. There they heard harrowing accounts of displacement, forced conversion, rape, torture, kidnap and murder. Millenia-old communities are being decimated, ancient religious sites destroyed, and the social fabric of a once diverse region torn apart. The language of genocide is being used by some; it reads like something from a past and more brutal age. But again, let us not forget that horrors done sometimes in the name of our faith took place as recently as the 1990s in parts of the Balkans – matters even today being played out afresh in the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague (read Alan Little’s piece on the BBC website today). And all of this seems increasingly close – doctors in a city only 200 miles away from here are using the language of ‘war wounds’.
The language of broken-ness, destruction, violence, hatred, devastation and much more in that vein may not seem out of place. But lest we think that we are somehow different, we are part of a church which also carries its wounds. Our own divisions over matters of sexuality are well-known and surface in a range of ways. There are those in our midst who feel deeply wounded by the attitudes of other Christians towards them and, it has to be said, by the institutional stance of the church. Wherever we stand on the substantive issues, that human reality is one of which I am increasingly aware and with which I wrestle. And of course the sorry tale of the abuse and exploitation of children and young people in church settings over decades is now almost daily in the news. And however faultless our personal behaviour may be in these and other respects, we are implicated by history and association. Woundedness, bewilderment, sorrow and guilt are just a few of the emotions which result.
The prophet speaks of good news for the oppressed, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming liberty and release to those held bound in captivity, and comfort for those who mourn. Very explicitly, Jesus appropriates these words and points to their fulfilling in his person and calling. Upon him, we are to understand, the Spirit of the Lord rests to bring in this time of God’s favour – a time which is marked by the healing and release proclaimed by the prophet. And, though this doesn’t get into the Luke passage, Isaiah also gives us that phrase about the day of vengeance of our God. We find that language rather uncomfortable, but I think it may be rather important. The context of vengeance is that of the desire to right wrongs. In the Hebrew penal code as we have it in Scripture, individuals cede any right they may have to exercise vengeance to those who are leaders of the community – and thus a recognisable penal system begins to take shape. In turn those leaders of the people exercise vengeance – the righting of wrongs – in the name of and on behalf of God; for ultimately the right to exercise vengeance belongs to God. And let us remember that the wider context is a nation which was always a minor power, often being wronged at the hands of those more powerful empires which surrounded it. This is the hope of God who comes to make right the evils of the world, the evils of human existence and experience – ultimately, to jump forward a few chapters in Isaiah, to bring in a new heaven and a new earth. Thus the words, ‘I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.’
And this week is the focus of that redemptive action of God which is prefigured in the prophecy, whereby healing and release, comfort and restoration are made real. Garlands and oil are given for ashes and mourning; strong trees will be planted to flourish, and devastated and ruined cities rebuilt and repaired – powerful words if your home is Mosul or Aleppo, or you are viewing the wreckage of a bomb damaged metro train and station. In this week, Jesus walks the way of the Cross, bearing thereby not only the weight of our individual acts of sinfulness, of wrong, but also that wider and deeper wrong whereby the whole of creation is spoiled and humankind so tragically and painfully fractured – the outworking of which we see every day.
And so we dare to speak of hope. The hope of restoration, of healing, the ending of oppression, the overcoming of division, the coming of justice, comfort and release – garlands in place of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning. In this week, we see the arms of Christ outstretched to draw all people to himself; from the midst of his pain, we hear his words of forgiveness, restoration and welcome; we understand that the healing and the glory are not just for Easter morning, but are part also of the grace of Calvary – by his wounds we are healed.
The prophet speaks of the oil of gladness; and my namesake James speaks of the ministry of elders in the pouring of oil for the healing of the sick. The application there is for individuals – a ministry I treasure and in which we share this morning; but may we not see here also a wider calling for the church to pour out the oil of healing for the restoration and wholeness of humankind, even the whole creation? Our vision is indeed of a new heaven and a new earth; a city in which the sounds of weeping and distress are heard no more, where the old live out their days, labour is not in vain, and people live in their own place in security and peace with the means of their livelihood around them and no threat from another. As the prophet writes, ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.’
And we pour that oil of healing through our prayer and our proclamation of the gospel, through our seeking after justice and our acts of mercy, through our engagement within our communities, and our working that the church itself may in its own life show a new way. The world’s sickness is clear for us to see, and that sick world calls for us to anoint it and to pray for it. And for that, our calling and commitment we renew today.