A sermon preached at St Mary Islington, 25 September 2005
We tore ourselves away from them and, putting to sea, made a straight run (Acts 21:1)
A nice dramatic translation there, from The Revised English Bible, capturing the intensity of Paul's farewell to the elders of the church at Ephesus: "We tore ourselves away." And there is more "tearing away" to come. St. Paul's company puts in at Tyre; the disciples there urge him to give up his journey; but a week later they have to escort him to the beach, kneel down and pray with him, and bid goodbye. In Ptolemais there is just a single day spent with the brotherhood. In Caesarea "all the local people", we are told, "beg and implore" the apostle to stay put. Once again he will not be persuaded, but hits the road, escorted on his way again by local Christians. As we follow Paul on these last steps of his journey round the Eastern Mediterranean, we find at each place the same striking tension: the local community wants to keep him with them, he presses on determinedly to Jerusalem.
What is it that draws Paul forward towards the conflict that faces him? What is it that makes the churches want to hold him back? There is a personal element, of course. They care for his safety, and he cares for the responsibility he bears, to give an account to the apostolic church of all God has done among the Gentiles. But underneath the personal urgency there is a universal urgency that lies at the heart of the church's existence: the urgency of the word of God itself.
What makes the church? We have a simple description early in the Acts of the Apostles: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers" (2:42). On the one hand, the apostle's teaching; on the other, fellowship, both material and spiritual. On the one hand, the universal word of the apostolic Gospel; on the other, the local gathering of believers who share meals and pray together. On the one hand something common to all believers in all times and places; on the other something specific to one time and place. From the beginning the church is universal and local, catholic and particular, spread throughout the world and gathered, one and many.
And as we read on in the Acts of the Apostles we find this is reflected in a twofold service that supports the church. There is the service of the word, on the one hand; and there is the service of "tables", on the other. A useful word, "tables". In the ancient world you served food on them and you used them to count money on. All material and pastoral administration is summed up in the service of tables. Out of this twofold service tradition developed the ministries we now know of bishops, priests and deacons. The essential point, however, is that the service God gives the church is always two-directional: turned inward, and turned outward. There is the intensive care of the gathering community; there is the extensive outreach of missionary communication; the inward horizon of charity, which links us in neighbourhood and mutual service, and the outward horizon of proclamation, which reaches to the ends of the earth.
And so Paul is carried on by the ministry of the word. The word is universal, and never allows him to put down roots. "The word of God is not bound" as he wrote, when he found himself, for a short spell, incommodiously restricted by four prison walls, but got through them by sending one of his precious letters. As the word of life was always moving, out from Jerusalem where the news of Christ began, round the known world and back again to Jerusalem, so its minister, too, was on the move. And the word and its minister left behind them a chain of local communities, each giving concrete and enduring witness in its one place to the power of the Gospel to give life in all places. When Paul set out on this journey, we were told (Acts 18:23), he went to settle all the disciples. He has taken in Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, Troas, Miletus, Ptolemais, Tyre, Caesarea on his way, and in each place has left a settled community of love and worship and praise.
It is the idols of whom the Psalmist says that they have mouths but speak not, and they do not make a sound in their throat (115:5,7). Of the living God, on the other hand, we read that "his word runs very swiftly" (147:15). It goes forth from Jerusalem still, the place of God's self-disclosure on earth; and the gate by which it issues is that of Holy Scripture, the testimony of apostles and prophets who saw with their eyes and touched with their hands God come among us in Jerusalem. And the Word going forth still circles the earth and returns to where it came from, bringing back to God the praise he covets, the true tale of what God has done. "So it is with the word that goes forth from my mouth, it will not return to me empty" (Isa. 55:11). And, as on that journey of Paul's, the Word of the Lord heads unflinchingly towards its moment of conflict, to do battle with the lies that vex God's ransomed earth. For the only possible point of reconciliation is the message of life, and the message of death must be banished. If this sounds very imperialistic, we must understand that the mission of the word is God's, not ours. It is not a mission to propagate our household arrangements and systems, or to impose our local convictions. It is to shed abroad the Gospel as a seed that will bear its own fruit wherever it grows. The Word is the true possession of each community that receives it, its authority shared by all to whom it has given life.
That is why Christians in the West are bound to listen to the voices of the Asian and African churches that speak to us about our common life as Christians. Next month will see the very important conference of the Anglican churches of the global South meeting in Egypt, on the theme "one holy, catholic and apostolic church". It is not that their word on any question has to be the last word. It is simply that we shall never know what the last word is unless we have first attended to their word very carefully, weighed it up, learned from it. Historically, our Northern churches were in place before most, though not all, of theirs. That does not entitle us to treat them as anything less than full partners. I won't say what I think of a certain mission society that has been putting around a poster bearing the words "Meet the World Church", showing a picture of a grinning Asian peasant clutching a live chicken in his arms. That kind of patronising image too often stops us learning from churches with extensive experience of the perils and opportunities of globalised modernity and a high sophistication in thinking about it. The word has born its fruit among them, a testimony of praise that we, above all, may not ignore.
What vessels of transport does the word use as it makes takes its sweeping course from one end of the world to the other? Not the mighty multi-volume encyclopedias that ply the grand cruise-lines from library to library. The word travels in small boats, the thought and speech of human beings, living the life of faith like any other believer, set aside for this ministry. Few vessels are less capacious than the mind of a single person, and so the word requisitions many of them, rather than relying on one or two big preachers. Once requisitioned, they are subject to an austere discipline to fit them out for their service: a discipline of living constantly with, and out of, the text of Holy Scripture; a discipline of bending the mind to the question, of focussing on the point of intersection where Scripture sheds its light upon our living concerns; a discipline of patient dialectic and argument, teasing out each aspect of a question carefully and justly, for difficulties unresolved that one carries in one's hold make the boat list and divert it from its straight course; a discipline of studying the journeys Christian preachers have gone before them, learning of the shoals and currents; a discipline of the use of words, carefully clothing the Word with our words, not saying the first thing that comes into our head, and riding the dangerous current of rhetorical fashion or polite observation, but searching and wrestling to find the apt word, the fitting word, the word that glorifies and adorns the Word of God itself.
To be requisitioned for the service of the word of God is to be committed to this perpetual and incessant voyage. One may sit at the same desk in the same room for forty years, the very image of sedentary and unadventurous stability, and yet be always caught up in the perpetuum mobile of the word. New questions, new problems, new discoveries. And new dangers! Pray for your ministers of the word, that they may not lose their way upon the trackless ocean. When the Scriptures slip from their hands and their thoughts run free upon their own preoccupations, they are in danger. When they shy off from the bitter moment of confrontation with lies and deception, they are in danger. But equally, when they become locked into a posture of conflict as though a muscle had seized up somewhere in the mind, unable to follow the Word through to the point of truth which will be a focus of reconciliation, then they are in danger. When their minds develop their own habits and they say the same things that they always say week after week, turning round in circles instead of making a straight run, then they are in danger upon the high seas...
St. Mary's Islington has a long and distinguished history of service to the Gospel. Before my only previous visit, I had known about its leading role in the eighteenth-century evangelical revival. Then thirty eight years ago, when I was a student, I came here on the annual Islington week for those exploring a vocation to the ministry. There was at that time, as I recall, a curate in his first year of ministry, so astonishingly youthful in appearance that you might have thought he was ordained by the bishop straight out of his pram. Though I never spoke personally with him then or subsequently, his public words about his early experiences of ministry had a cherubic freshness that had a curious effect on me. "If this baby-face can cope with it all, I expect even I can," I thought. Today he is a revered greybeard theologian on the other side of the globe. Islington's contribution then, as continually, has borne its own fruit far beyond the roar of London traffic. But well settled churches face a standing temptation: to settle back into themselves, to draw entirely on their own experience and history, to live within their own enthralling horizons. So let me offer you a sobering, but at the same time, I hope, exhilarating thought: God never meant there to be a church in Islington; God meant there to be an Islington in the church.
In the eighth stanza of that curious and beautiful poem, Psalm 119, we read of the servant of the word, the poet, as one engaged in perpetual travel. Like the ancient Levites who had no landholdings, he says: My landholding is the Lord; for I have promised to keep your words. Like the pilgrims who travelled every year to Jerusalem, he says: I have sought thy face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to thy promise. He has studied his route, planned his journey, and wasted no time: I have considered my way, and turn my feet to thy testimonies. I hasten and do not delay to keep thy commandments. He has run into delay, but keeps pressing on: The cords of the wicked ensnare me, but I do not forget thy law. He has risen from his hotel bed in the small hours to make an early start: At midnight I rise to praise thee because of thy righteous ordinances. He has found travelling companions of one mind with him: A companion am I of all who fear thee, of those who keep thy precepts. And then at the climax, where we expect him to reach Jerusalem, he discovers that his journeying is endless, for the whole world is the place where the Lord makes himself known: Thy steadfast love fills the earth, o Lord; thy statutes do thou teach me.
These are the terms in which I have spoken to you of the ministry I have engaged in now for more than thirty years past, and Graham Kings for a quarter-century. Forgive me for glorifying that ministry. It is certainly not to glorify either him or me. Indeed, I sometimes feel that only now, as in the course of nature my bodily energy grows weaker, do I begin to see the extraordinary scope and promise of this ministry. Least of all is it to denigrate that other ministry, the ministry of settling the local church, of rooting, grounding and establishing, the ministry of constant care and attention to neighbourly realities, purging tradition to fit it for mutual service, deepening familiarity into costly charity, strengthening bonds of affection that they may bear the communion of the Holy Spirit. The ministries God gives us do not compete with one another, but strengthen one another and make one another more effective. The ministry of the word is to make the local ministry rich with the treasures of the Gospel. The further the ministry of the word reaches out, the more deeply the Islington that is within the church can put its roots down.
Professor Oliver O’Donovan FBA is Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at the University of Edinburgh. Before moving to Edinburgh he was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford and a Canon of Christ Church.