Sermon by Rev Chris Davey Sun 29th October 2023
I believe that for a church with a command to love at its heart that there must indeed be at the heart of that church a willingness to love. Such a belief lies at the heart of my own theology of an inclusive God who draws all people to himself so that in relationship weare embraced, healed, forgiven and restored.
What living a life of love looks like is of course the challenge and in seeking to love, as Jesus commanded, the Gospels are an important reference point for our behaviour. For me love in Jesus looks like service and invitation, reaching out to everyone but especially those on the margins and inviting them into relationship. In his life and ministry Jesus effortlessly breaks the boundaries of cultural and religious norms which both dazzle and outrage those who seek to follow him and those who oppose him.
But for me at the heart of the Jesus story is an invitation – “come and follow me”.Fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, women, recovering Pharisees, the underdogs, and also rans, a real ragbag ensemble! In his story telling Jesus made heroes of the outsiders and national enemies at the cost of those most respected in Jewish society who interpretation of the law saw them pass by on the other-side of the road with a disregard and indifferenceto need.
When I look at Jesus I see a revolutionary who wants to erase the boundaries that the faith of his day has constructed, for some it looked like freedom but for many it looked like anarchy. It threatened the status quo andJewish sensibilities and the prejudice that they masked beneath a veneer of religious respectability.
Jesus however scandalously allows women to sit at his feet, he willingly reaches out and touches lepers, he eats with tax collectors and those society had branded sinners, why? Because he loves them. You shall love your neighbour as yourself - because to do so is the proof that you really understand the love of God. But boy do we struggle with love as a church. It shouldn’t surprise us, let’s just look again at the Gospel reading, when Jesus talks about the need to love, the Pharisees are there to trap him so he springs a trap of his own.They shy away from the command of love and it’s outworking because in their hearts the have lost sight of love, who is Jesus and seek to use theological conundrums to distractthemselves and trap Jesus.
Jesus has just spoken to them of the deepest of religious truths, that life is all about love for God and neighbour and all they can think about is trapping him. How little things have changed.
In the last two thousand years, like the ripples cast from the ministry of Jesus, our understanding has continued to spread out from his initial touch. But at every stage of becoming more inclusive it has been a real struggle that has led to friction and sadly,fracture. When faced with the opportunity to love more radically we draw back and prefer to spend our time arguing about the rules or what the consequences of such a move would be. We see that now in the Church of England over issues of sexuality which it has been struggling with for many, many years.
In 2017 the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the need for the church to move forwardwith a new expression of Radical Christian inclusion. He said, and I quote “The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ - all of us, without exception, without exclusion”. Such a deep statement about love, loving our neighbour as ourselves was widely welcomed as profound and timely, deeplyreflecting the heart of the Gospel. but almost as quickly as the words had left his lips people began to think about their consequences andin the face of love chose to draw back and began to argue over the minutiae.
All the work on moving forward with issues of sexuality, which led us through the seven year process of Living in Love and Faith, a wide-ranging and often challenging and painful consultation exercise has now all but stalled. In February of this year the bishopsproposed, as an out working of the archbishop’s vision of a new radical Christian inclusion, a new set of prayers to use to bless those in same sex relationships who, because of our doctrinal understanding, the church is not able to marry. This was an enormous step forward and although the voting on general synod was close, the prayers were accepted.Since then, battle lines have been well and truly drawn, trenches dug, and alliances forged in a noisy and often deeply unpleasantvolley of offensive and counteroffensive,usually across the no man’s land of social media. The vision that Archbishop Justin spoke about so passionately seems to have been lost in battle or at least wounded so badly it is hardly recognisable as a new radical Christian inclusion at all.
For many like me, it is both deeply disappointing and intensely frustrating to be constantly promised a recognised new dignity, a more honoured place and then to see that place disappear time and time again, behind the smoke of ecclesiastical appeasement.
We should be clear the Archbishop’s vision is not part of some left wing woke agenda. For me and many of us it in the church it is a Gospel imperative to be welcomed as inspiration and faced with courage, to build what Jesus lived and Archbishop Justin Spoke of.
What attracted people to the early church was not how well they adhered to the law but how courageous they were in seeking to live the Gospel. It wasn’t their orthodoxy which touched the heart of new believers but their commitment to living love radically and riskily. Jesus called them to walk on water so they stepped out of the boat of expectation and tradition and began to live the ancient teaching in a more authentic way. It spoke to people, attracted people, healed and brought people to the light of the God of love and the church grew quickly and energetically.
I believe Archbishop Justin’s call to the church in 2017 was prophetic, it was a call to get out of the boat even though it might be stormy and to trust that amidst the choppy waves a calm would follow. But instead we build the sides of the boat ever higher seeking to stop anyone attempting to climb over the side perhaps terrified that they might drown or perhaps the truth is, terrified that they mightsucceed. The Church of England is the most divided I have known it in my thirty years of ministry, the gentle way we used to disagree is widely acknowledged as long since gone. In its place, if the last synod meeting was anything to go by, the gloves on all sides are off and there is real and obvious anger and resentment playing out.
I have often, perhaps misguidedly, thought that silence in such circumstances is the better part of valour but like others I am no longer prepared to say nothing. I believe that God called me as I am not in spite of it. I hope my ministry for the main part has been faithful and fruitful. Being myself was one of my biggest stumbling blocks in my personal discernment for ordination but then in the midst of the storm of doubt and questioning, early one morning on retreat I was sat in a quiet chapel trying to make sense of how on earth God could be calling me! Then in that moment I heard a voice say ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’ and a deep peace filled me and I had the courage to step out of the boat. That moment and the deep reassurance I felt is a big part of the reasonthat I feel I must consider the direction of my own journey with God in the church, I know I am not alone in that, I know many now face the choice of continuing to struggle trying todismantle the barricades, or to jump overboard into the water, to leave the boat behind and with the faith of the early church find a way to either walk on water or use the debris to build a raft!