Bishop Stephen's sermon at the Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist

Posted on Thursday 18 April 2019
On Maundy Thursday, clergy and lay ministers from across the diocese gathered in Ely Cathedral to affirm their ministerial vows. At the service, the oils to be used in services throughout the year were blessed. Bishop Stephen preached at the service, reflecting on what it means for our vocations to be fully alive in Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6)

As we gather as ministers – lay and ordained – at the beginning of these great Three Days, we do so to renew our promises and to affirm our commitment to the ministries to which God has called us. Before I say anything else, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all that you do, in so many ways, in the places where you serve.


I have just licensed Megan Daffern as our first full-time Director of Ordinands and Vocation. With all of us supporting her, she will build further on the excellent work already done, and I want to acknowledge with particular thanks all of Anna Matthews' work as DDO.


And as we promote new discernment of vocation and pray for our own vocation to be made fully alive, we acknowledge the narrow way set out by John and by Matthew. The Greek used by Matthew makes it clear that we are called to agonise and strive, to make tough choices and sacrifices when the pull is to an idolatrous self-fulfilment. Nonetheless, we celebrate the fact that Jesus is the Way and the Door. He tells us that he is the only way to salvation and our only guide. As we read Isaiah 61 as proleptic gospel, only the Messiah can set the captives free. He is the only source of radical jubilee and the transformation of community so that the world is turned the right way up.


As we promote the calling of individuals and communities, our vocation is to explore just how wide the narrow way of grace might be. Unfashionable sacrifice and discipline are written in to our DNA. Blind Bartimaeus was given his sight by Jesus in Mark 10 only to follow Jesus in the way and to be a witness to the crucifixion, without the security of his right to beg.  But we can deploy a strictness which is not the way of grace when the real focus of every vocation is to serve the way to jubilee, to a mystical society which transforms all our expectations and sets God’s people free. That freedom is found in the true inclusion of people with disability or the welcome of the stranger, the pursuit of climate justice or the radical commitment to the change of the world by contemplation through dwelling in the Word and the adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I invite all of us to check out how we currently inhabit the breadth of the Narrow Way and test its boundaries for ourselves.


“The truth will set you free” is a text emblazoned on the portico of many an academic institution, including colleges in Cambridge. It has been adopted as a rallying cry for academic freedom. However, the text from John 8 is not about academic freedom, or even freedom of speech or thought: it is fundamentally the freedom that comes from knowing that Jesus is Lord and that in him there is no falsehood at all. It is the perfect freedom found, as Augustine knew, in Christ’s service.


Just imagine what it might be to live a life without falsehood, where we would be open to our friends having access to our internet browser history and to the emails we compose at midnight, or the cognitive dissonance between our public face and our ugly unconscious biases. Our calling is continually to be open to living the truth, to having our eyes opened to the one who is the truth. I was very moved on Palm Sunday to be with a church in vacancy. I got rather sniffy in advance that we were not saying the creed in the Eucharist. The technology and I got it quite wrong. In the right place in the liturgy we were invited to sing a very rich credal song, but the PowerPoint did not work. The congregation just unanimously broke into song and I knew that this proclamation of the truth of the Trinity was in their heart and I was deeply moved and contrite.


We can so easily speak the truth but not live it. This is not true for God. The Word is a person who in Creation and Incarnation lives and speaks without differentiation. The great I Am has the words of eternal life. The truth may be discussed as philosophical theory or proposition, of course; but that truth is personified in character and service because we seek to live into the character of Jesus who is the personification, the embodiment of very truth . Being always leads to the drama of truth in relationship.

We see this writ large in the Passion narrative. In John 18 Pilate asks him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ Pilate is both mocking and musing. He is the ultimate pragmatist who would rather not have seen Jesus made a victim because it was a political inconvenience. But Jesus is the witness that the choice of truth is a life and death choice and that every vocation is the choice of life over death, whatever the consequences. This is why our differences as Christians cannot be swept under the nice carpet of convenience, and also why our commitment to genuine mutual flourishing ought to be a prophetic witness to our world.


Last week I was in Slovenia as a member of the International Reflection Council of l’Arche, a network of 140 communities in 40 countries of core members with a learning disability and long-term assistants forming mutual community. I am now one of the four international church leaders accompanying l’Arche. Bishop Rowan got me into this ten years ago when he was Archbishop. Our job was to begin the process of re-writing the l’Arche charter. I was paired with a young French woman with a disability and we were asked to produce words and images which gave us energy for the future. I produced a very busy tableau expressing an anxious church worried about its own future but overcome by hope. My partner had no patience with this at all. It might very well be true, but the most important thing was the truth represented by her sheep. She had trained her flock to hoover up the grass between rows of vines so that all the nutrients of the soil went to the flourishing of the vines. My calling, she averred, was to be ‘un mouton de Jesus’.


One of my favourite beers is Riggwelter from the Black Sheep Brewery in the Yorkshire Dales. It takes its name from a local term for an old sheep stuck on its back and unable to get up on its own. I am familiar with feeling like a foolish stuck and stricken old sheep; but I have confidence in the Good Shepherd who promises me abundance of life and who continually puts me on my feet again and leads me to green pastures beside still waters. The way, the truth and the life all come together.


With Ian Cowley and Jane Keiller I recently led a mini retreat with thirty of our clergy on the theme of refreshment and rest. We reflected on our own need to be cared for. Some of us will wash feet at the Eucharist this evening. I invite us all to be particularly thankful today for all the ways in which figuratively our people and parishioners and our friends and spouses wash our feet throughout the year. The truth is that even when we feel that the Church fails to care – and we know that sometimes that can be true - Jesus gives us a garland instead of ashes, gladness instead of mourning and praise instead of a faint spirit. Easter transformation is the reality of Jesus’s promise to his disciples that ‘your pain will turn into joy’ (John 16.20). In all our frailty and nonsense, we are still called to be sturdy oaks who have energy, vision and resolve. The promise of restoration by the Messiah in Isaiah is not necessarily or even ordinarily to happiness and contentment. The gospel of jubilee restores us to fullness of life and joy in transformed communities of justice and hope..


Being ‘un mouton de Jesus’ means being a priest and minister of disciplined and focused ministry who channels God’s life to the vine. It may be the way of suffering; but it is also the way to friendship and fruitfulness in God. When I was a curate in Sunderland cars were always vulnerable during church services outside a church where I regularly covered services. Mrs Anyhow – I never knew her real name – had a leg at each corner of her considerable being and knitted throughout the Mass at the church door. Nobody dared to threaten random harm. ‘Anyhow, Father, I’ll just sit here. I reckon it’s where Jesus puts me. I’m not afraid.’ Jesus has called us and put us here. We need never be afraid. Amen.