The Bishop of Southwark's sermon at Jeff's re-licensing: 14th May 2017

Published by Giles Goddard on Tue, 16 May 2017 09:41

Sermon by Bishop Christopher Chessun on Sunday 14th May:

Though it is always a joy to be here at St John’s Waterloo, today is special.

This is one of the churches in my diocese which I have occasion to visit more often than not. But though I bow to nobody in the value I place on well-conducted church governance, I rejoice with a much fuller heart to be here to celebrate the Parish Eucharist together rather than for another Diocesan Synod! For here this morning is not just the Church, the noble structure ready and waiting for further redevelopment. Here is the Church the body of Christ. Us, together!

And yet more, it is a privilege to be with you today, at this joyful season of Eastertide, when there is so much to celebrate, so much to look forward to, so much to hope for: good news with half the funding now in place for Phase 1 of the ambitious redevelopment project, the start of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land on Tuesday, and above all in licensing Jeff Risbridger as Assistant Priest heartfelt thanksgiving for his return to good health and for the blessing he has been as part of the clergy team here at St John’s.

Today we can indeed look up with the eyes of faith and ‘see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’. And as we look up, we do not forget that St Stephen’s vision came to him at a time of the most severe trial. For in the Christian life our joys do not block our ears to the sound of lamenting; our hope has come to us through suffering; the Resurrection body bears the wounds of Our Lord’s passion as was visible to the disciples in the resurrection accounts in the Gospels.

The true joy of the Easter life lies in not denying the reality of the suffering that is endemic to life in this fallen world, but in going hand in hand with God through the valley of the shadow of death and letting him, in his own time, lead us to the banquet which he prepares for us.

This very building testifies to this truth. Built to commemorate the climactic battle of one great European war, it was all but destroyed by bombing in another. And the story of that bomb on 8th December 1940, whilst congregation and clergy sheltered in the crypt, has been lyrically told on the stone tablet with which we are all familiar: how ‘The old church, the mother of souls in the parish… gathered the full force of the blast into her heart and gave her life for her children.’

Truly we meet together in a building that speaks not of easy comfort, but of a true and lasting joy that has been hard won and I sincerely hope you will soon be able to go forward with your exciting plans as energy and determination combine to re-order this building to serve God and his people
in the 21stcentury. This testifies to the strong good work and vision for the flourishing of this community of faith now and into the future.

It is only right to remember at times like this what St Stephen says in the passage leading up to the one we have read, himself echoing Isaiah – ‘the most high God does not live in houses made by human hands.’ (Acts 7. 48 and cf Isaiah 66. 1) Buildings are indeed not ends in themselves. But then, neither is music an end in itself, nor bread and wine, nor even the verses of our Scripture
readings: these things live and have infinite value if they lead us to God and are useful in His service. And I know that it is just these priorities that are at the heart of the redevelopment
plans for this building. May there be a dwelling-place here for all who seek peace and hope here.

A community with such a generous heart as this one, a community that rejoices in inclusiveness, openness and welcome, will I am sure draw encouragement from our Gospel reading which speaks of God the Father who is always reaching out to his children. God made us and God loves us and longs for us to know that love both now and for all eternity. But our unique treasure as Christians is that in Christ God is with us.

If you walk, as some of you will soon be walking, in the streets of the Holy Land you will hear three year olds calling “Abba” to attract the attention of their fathers. This is what it is to come to the Father, who is in Christ, and in whom Christ is. Through Christ we know God not just as a distant and mighty creator, but as Abba, the kind and protective and loving father, a loving father and also as the Liturgy says ‘How wonderful are the works of your hands, O Lord: as a mother tenderly gathers her children, you embraced a people as your own.’

This intimate reality of knowing God in this intimate way is not cosy or sentimental. It is part of a
whole, often hard life. I do not want to tell his story for him, so I will not say very much about this: but I was very moved to read Jeff’s reflections on his recent illness. As many of you know, Jeff underwent two emergency operations and was in intensive care for eight days, his life in serious jeopardy.

He writes of being brought to a place of utter dependence on God, and even beyond that, to a point where he lost in his suffering any sense of God’s presence, and yet knew that he was ‘somehow cradled’ by God throughout. This is an essential part of what it is to know God in Christ. Through our times of deepest pain we come to now the yet deeper love of our Abba God. It is only
through Good Friday that we come to Easter. Jeff is, and we give thanks to God for this, entering into the Easter Season of his own life. We will seal his restoration in health when he is licensed as your new Associate Priest.

I have of course a pastoral care for Jeff and so I urge you not to overtax him and to help him not to overtax himself as he continues on the road to full recovery. But I say this mostly because I suspect Jeff of possessing a high sense of duty and a great joy in serving the Lord and his people, which can be a costly thing for a Priest! Having anointed Jeff in hospital on St Stephen’s Day with the oil of the sick it will be a joy to anoint him today with the oil of gladness as he commits
again to joyful service of the Lord.

So there is much, as I say, to celebrate. And there is yet more. In a couple of days a merry band of pilgrims, including Jeff, will set off for the Holy Land, experiencing a very special sense of the intimacy of our faith as Scripture and Place and God’s Loving Purposes come together for them in what I am sure will be remarkable and memorable ways.

And in equally remarkable and memorable ways the journey we are all on deepens that sense of intimacy with God and a deepening awareness of His loving purposes for each of us. So as we give thanks today for many blessings, as we go out on our pilgrimage, or as we continue our daily pilgrimage as God’s pilgrim people here in Waterloo, may we keep our eyes always on the risen Christ, who leads us, and is himself the Way that we tread: the Way, the Truth and the Life.

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