The Scriptures, The Hope and the Mutual Welcome: farewell sermon by Tom Wright

Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:1-13

a sermon at the service of celebration and farewell in Durham Cathedral, Tuesday 13 July 2010 by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N T Wright

copublished, with permission, with the Diocese of Durham site

In 1986, our last summer in Canada, Maggie and I went to Vancouver to do some lectures. I was invited to preach at a large Baptist church in the city, and I chose as my text Psalm 24, which we sang just now. I gave as the title for my sermon the great question of the Psalm, ‘Who is the King of Glory?’ Imagine my horror when we arrived at the church and saw a huge sign-board saying,

This Sunday

‘Who is the King of Glory?’

The Reverend Tom Wright.

I preached the sermon with some embarrassment, and bided my time. Two years later, I was invited back to the same church, and this time I chose my text more carefully. I preached on Luke 15; and, sure enough, when we arrived outside the church there was a far more appropriate headline:

This Sunday

‘The Prodigal Son’

The Reverend Tom Wright.

Now I hasten to add that identifying myself with the Prodigal Son is not a prelude to my asking the Dean for half of the Cathedral endowment and making off to a far country to waste it on riotous Scottish living. Quite apart from anything else, teaching doctoral students is hardly the same thing as feeding pigs. But there is an echo of the parable of the Prodigal Son in one of the two main things I want to say this evening, because I trust that this evening really is a celebration, not of my ministry as such but of the source and goal of all our ministries; and part of that celebration must be welcoming one another in God’s name. St Paul put it like this: welcome one another, as the Messiah has welcomed you, for the glory of God. And it was of course in explaining his welcome to all and sundry that Jesus told parables like the Prodigal Son, or as we might call it the Welcoming Father.

But before we get there I want to emphasize the point Paul makes here in Romans 15, summing up the entire epistle and thus, appropriately enough, drawing together a lot of what I’ve been trying to say for the last seven years: ‘Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,’ he says, ‘so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.’ Scripture and hope, scripture and hope: we have been surprised by hope, and as often as not surprised by scripture, as we’ve contemplated the biblical vision of new creation, of a world not abandoned but flooded with God’s justice and peace. This is the vision Paul evokes when he quotes, at the end of this evening’s passage, the key verse from Isaiah 11, joining this evening’s two readings together. Isaiah’s vision of a world set right, of the wolf lying down with the lamb and the leopard with the kid, and a little child leading them, will come about because, he says, the earth will be full of ‘the knowledge of YHWH’, full of ‘knowing-the-Lord’, as the waters cover the sea. If I leave one thing behind me here in Durham, perhaps it’s this. God’s plan for the whole creation is not to throw it away and snatch us off to a disembodied heaven. After all, as we sang, ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and all that therein is.’ Rather, God’s plan is to bring heaven and earth rushing together into a glorious new creation, full of justice and equity and faithfulness and truth, so that the poor will rejoice and the meek will be glad, and there will be a cosmic sigh of relief and celebration, because creation knows in its bones that it’s made to be flooded with God’s restorative justice, and one day it will come true. And the point of the Christian gospel is that this has already happened in Jesus.

You see, the new creation won’t happen under its own steam. We’re not talking about a steady evolutionary process gradually arriving at some utopian goal. That, after all, is subject to the problem: what about all the bad things that have happened on the way? That problem reminds me of the elderly don who, every time his desk got a bit too much out of hand, simply spread out a copy of the Times over the whole lot and started again. After his death they found it, like an archaeological dig, layer upon layer of unmarked essays, unpaid bills, unanswered letters, and even, so legend has it, an open umbrella. All that mess underneath the clean surface. That’s what you’d get with a Marxist Utopia, or even a Theilhardian one. But Isaiah’s vision, and Paul’s vision, is different. This is a vision of creation renewed, of peace flooding in retrospectively as well as prospectively, of resurrection, of forgiveness, of old ills dealt with, old wrongs righted, old sorrows eased at last, and every tear wiped from every eye. Learning to distinguish different types of hope, and learning to celebrate the Christian hope for what it is, is one of the primary tasks of our generation. If we don’t get this right, we produce a parody of Christianity, with people appointing themselves as policemen to enforce their own particular version.

Because, as I say, new creation doesn’t happen all by itself. The King has to come and make it happen. That’s what Isaiah and the Psalms say, again and again, just as also in the Psalms, as Paul quotes here, the righteous one bears the pain of God’s people and of the world. But finally there shall come forth a shoot from the stock of Jesse, David’s true son arriving at last, and YHWH’s spirit will rest upon him, bringing wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And it is under his rule that the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, that justice and mercy will flood the whole creation. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, says a later prophet; behold, your king is coming to you.

This cannot therefore be a private vision for those who happen to have had a particular kind of religious experience or to hold a particular kind of religious belief. This is either public truth or it’s nonsense. It is about Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and therefore as the Lord of the whole world, the one at whose name every knee shall bow. Paul, summing up his greatest letter, draws it all together here with that quote from Isaiah 11: the root of Jesse shall rise to rule the nations, and in him the nations shall hope. This is, after all, the real reason why the scepticism of the last two hundred years has done its best to squash the rumour of Jesus’ resurrection: because if he is raised from the dead, as Paul found at Athens, the wisest judges in the world are themselves called to account, the most powerful rulers in the world can’t compete with the new sort of power now let loose, and the cleverest cynics in the world glimpse a new worldview in which everything suddenly makes a new sort of sense. No wonder there is massive resistance to the otherwise well attested event of Jesus’ resurrection. This is the foundation for a new sort of hope, a hope which humbles us even as it exalts us, a vision of a world set free, set right, suffused with God’s love and justice, a vision that challenges at their core all other human visions of wisdom, justice, power and truth, showing them up as parodies in the light of the creator’s new reality. It is because of this Jesus that we have this hope.

And in this wisdom and justice we find hope, not only for the ultimate future but for the intermediate and short-term future. This is where we come in. This is the difference between Christian faith and all other kinds of faith: we are called to live in hope on the basis of something that has already happened, something that’s happened in the real world, something we can build on within that same real world. Jesus’ resurrection is the ground plan for all our work for growing God’s kingdom, bringing signs of hope and new life to our region that needs them so badly. We hope for new heavens and new earth, but we don’t have to wait till they arrive in all their fullness. Jesus is already raised from the dead, and we go in that faith into the council chamber and the old pit village, into the dales coping with foot and mouth, factory where another three hundred face redundancy and the refuge for frightened single mothers, into the naval warship coping with wounded and dying people and their families, into the hospice and the prison and the housing project, and into the depths of a thousand human souls that long for mercy and, yes, hope. Maggie and I have been privileged to work with some of you in some of these areas, not least prisons, farmers, and the Navy; and I trust that in these seven years I have laid to rest any suggestion that to be interested in social justice you have to deny the resurrection of Jesus, or that to be interested in eternal salvation you have to treat the world as irrelevant. When I spoke in the Lords a few months ago about the future use of our massive and untapped coal stocks here in the north-east, I had Radio Newcastle on the phone. What, they wanted to know, was a bishop doing talking about coal? Fortunately Psalm 24 came straight to mind. Well, I replied, in the good book it says that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, and you can’t get much more fullness of the earth than all that coal down there. That’s why the Miners’ Gala which we celebrated last weekend remains so important to us here in Durham. God and creation belong together. In Isaiah’s vision, in Paul’s exposition, they belong exactly together. The root of Jesse, Paul declares – in a letter to Rome of all places! – ‘rises to rule the nations’. The resurrection serves notice on Caesar that his time is up, that he is reduced to a secondary role – still important, but strictly limited; and every act of justice and mercy puts that victory into practice.

It is vital to grasp this today, as some voices are suggesting we should now put the cart before the horse and have the church dance to whichever tunes the government of the day want to play. Not so. That is simply to allow the iron law of political correctness to trump the liberating grace of Jesus. The church must not only work for justice but must challenge the world’s self-serving notions of what justice is and how you get to it. We had to do that in the credit crunch, as the government bailed out the super-rich bankers in a way they had refused to do for the super-poor third world. We must do it in relation to asylum seekers and climate change and marriage and a thousand other issues. We must do it in relation to genuine compassion and caring for people who get squeezed out, not because we’re following political fashion but because we are to be people of hope – not only people who hope, but people who are the cause of hope in others. You know that old line about the person of whom they say, ‘He doesn’t have stress himself, but he’s a carrier?’ Well, we do have hope ourselves, but the main thing is to be carriers.

But of course, as Paul says earlier in Romans, hope that is seen is not hope. That is why hope is a virtue to be practiced – to be practiced by constantly celebrating Jesus’ resurrection – rather than a vague optimism or a wishful fantasy. We in this diocese know what it means to go on hoping in the dark, to see our clergy numbers cut by national regulation while not having the means, as some other dioceses do, to support more ourselves. We know what it means to put parishes together and still try to provide the wrap-around pastoral cover and support for which the Church of England is rightly famous. And I want to pay warm and grateful tribute to those of you on whom this burden has fallen: our parish clergy in the dales, in the inner cities, in the old mining communities, looking after two or three or five or seven parishes and doing so faithfully, cheerfully and fruitfully. You are the people of hope; you are the people of the scriptures; you are the people whose steadfastness has brought encouragement to many, myself included. You are the people it has been my privilege to serve, to pray for and with, to encourage. There are people who are alive today because of you, people who might otherwise have been overwhelmed with despair. There are marriages that are intact today because of you, as you have counselled and befriended bruised and angry couples. There are children who love Jesus because of you, as you have gone yet again into the local schools and told the stories which our society has all but forgotten. There are communities that are places of hope because, when everything else had collapsed, you were still there and you took care of them. I salute you.

So we are a people of hope: ultimate hope, but also intermediate and short-term hope, because our hope is rooted in Jesus himself and in his resurrection. And that is why Paul declares that our hope comes through steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures: we are a people of hope because we live in the great scriptural story of hope, without which we collapse into mere optimism or grinning denial of reality. Scripture, and scripture alone, tells the story of God the creator, God the slave-liberator, God the life-giver – the story that reaches its climax in Jesus and then spreads out to all of us. New creation has already begun and our job is to make it happen all around. As I’ve often said, How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Jesus has already changed it; it’s your job to go and switch it on.

But if we are a people of hope we are also, more briefly, to be a people of welcome. Paul speaks powerfully in Romans 15 of the mutual welcome we are to offer one another within the body of Christ. ‘We who are strong ought to put up with the weaknesses of the less able, and not to please ourselves.’ Tricky, today, to say who is weak and who is strong, but the point is that there are many different opinions within the larger Christian family and we have to learn how not to please ourselves, but to make room for one another and learn to live in harmony. It is fatally easy to squeeze out or sneer at people who for whatever reason appear not to fit our model; and when we do that, we more or less guarantee that they will not be able to hear, let alone believe, the message about Jesus that we preach. But this business of not pleasing ourselves is not only hard to do, it’s hard to discern. It’s fatally easy to imagine that all my prejudices are theological convictions and that all your theological convictions are mere prejudices. That’s not to say that there aren’t such things as genuine convictions and prejudices, only that it’s often difficult to sort out which is which. But we here in Durham should be as well placed as anyone to work on precisely those questions, thanks to the project of Receptive Ecumenism which has been growing apace here and in which Maggie and I have been privileged to share. I’m delighted that Paul Murray, its prime mover, is here tonight, as also that Bishop Seamus has represented our shared love of scripture by reading our first lesson. (I must add, of course, while we’re thinking about Anglican-Roman relations, that I am specially glad to celebrate the first-ever victory of the Anglican golfers in our annual match three weeks ago. Perhaps it’s time to cash in the challenge I made to the late Bishop Kevin, Seamus’s predecessor, that we were going to play for a dogma a hole. The clergy, of course, love to play in the match, because they can claim full expenses, since they’ve been on a course with two bishops.) And I’m delighted too that friends from so many other denominations have been working closely with us and are also here tonight. We have some way to go, but the difference between the ecumenical climate now and what it was like fifty or a hundred years ago is like night and day, as we’ve seen in our visits to North Elbia and Rumania. Again, I’m very pleased that we have two Rumanian guests with us tonight. And I’m specially thrilled that this ecumenical work has been focussed recently on the Big Read, which began as an idea in the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops twenty months ago and has blossomed so wonderfully under Bishop Mark’s leadership, drawing in Christians from all the different traditions. We are learning how to welcome one another, and that is both a sign and a means of hope.

Now of course, as I stressed at our Diocesan Synod a few weeks ago, welcoming one another is not as easy as it might sound. Paul writes enthusiastically about overcoming the barriers put up by our ethnic backgrounds, but he also writes elsewhere about destructive patterns of behaviour which destroy Christian fellowship and which cannot be treated as differences of opinion to be overcome by a fuzzy ‘inclusivity’. That’s a topic for another time, though I hope this diocese has by now got the message that one of the most important lessons is to tell the difference between the differences that make a difference and the differences that don’t make a difference. That is what we’ve been struggling with in our multi-cultural Anglican family, and you in this diocese have supported me as I have tried to make sense of it all within the wider church.

And at the heart of it all is learning to worship together. Here, at the theological and pastoral climax of the letter to the Romans, it all comes together in worship – precisely ecumenical worship, trans-ethnic worship, which in Paul’s day meant Jews and Gentiles worshipping alongside one another as fellow-believers in Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. That unique focus of worship remains scandalous in our relativistic age, but it is absolutely basic to what we’re about. ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’, says Paul, quoting the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms to make the point. This was written into the script, he declares, from the beginning: the Messiah became a servant to the circumcised (in other words, to the Jewish people) because of God’s truthfulness: to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and so that the nations might glorify God for his mercy. That’s what it’s all about: God’s truthfulness and God’s mercy, and all of us being swept up together in praising God for it. I thank God that we have been learning to pray and worship together across traditional barriers. We have a long way to go, not least with our musical styles, and I repeat to you the challenge I’ve been issuing in recent days: find, as a matter of urgency, good strong and engaging ways of singing and praying the Psalms together, day by day and week by week. They’ve dropped out of sight for many contemporary Christians; we simply dare not let that happen. They are our lifeblood. Without them, the body of Christ will get seriously anaemic. Even in this short passage we can see Paul drawing on both ends of the range of Psalmic emotions: the suffering of God’s people, reflected now in our refusal to please ourselves, and then the shared worship of God’s people, discovering a new depth of fellowship.

Welcome and hope, then, go together. It’s when we find a warm welcome from people quite different to ourselves but equally devoted to Jesus that we find a new kind of hope welling up within us. It’s a tangible sign of new creation. Paul’s theology here is very practical. When he says, at the end of the passage, summing up so much of the whole letter, ‘may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’, this isn’t something you just have to drum up for yourself. It’s something that happens as a direct result of learning to worship and pray together across traditional barriers, something that you find beginning in small groups, and individual hearts, as the story of the scriptures takes hold of you and gives you the encouragement you need to persevere in the work of unity, the work of mutual welcome. That’s why the welcome you give to everyone who comes to worship is one of the most important features of any service. That’s why, when people finally summon up the courage to ask one of you pastors if they can have a word about something, the welcome you give to them, the gentleness and generosity with which you listen to them and dry their tears, that welcome gives them hope, before and beyond anything you actually say. That’s why the ecumenical welcome we give to one another in local groups as well as big services gives us courage and hope in the Lord Jesus to persevere in living his way and loving his people, not least when times are hard and the church is out there on the street where it counts. The scriptures, the hope, and the mutual welcome: these are the things I’ve tried to concentrate on these last seven years, and it has been wonderful to work at them with you.

‘Who is the King of Glory?’ asks the Psalm. That question receives many answers in many cultures, not least our own. We embrace this hero and that, this ideology and that, elevating them one after another, worshipping them until they let us down with a thump, and then ditching them and looking for another one. But the Psalm invites us to recognize and adore the one and only creator God, Israel’s God, YHWH: ‘The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory.’ And we who celebrate the climax of scripture in Israel’s Messiah go one stage further. In Jesus the promise has come true; in Jesus the promise will come true. We live between the one and the other. We worship between the one and the other. We work to grow God’s kingdom between the fulfilment which has already happened and the fulfilment that is yet to happen. We sing the ancient songs, knowing them also to be the future songs: that is what it means to be the people of the scriptures and thus the people of hope. ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold your king is coming unto you.’ That came true in Jesus; that will come true in Jesus, so that the justice and the peace already accomplished may flood the earth at last. For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. This, as I said, is a service of celebration, not of my ministry or even of our shared ministry, but of Jesus as the King of Glory: we preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Behold your king is coming to you. Israel’s King, the root of Jesse, rises to rule the nations; and in him the nations shall hope. You bet we will.

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