There’s a scene in Dogma, that great comedic film exploration of the vagaries of faith, where Bartleby (played by Ben Affleck), one of the fallen angels come to earth, rants in a car park and bemoans the way in which God cares for the human race: “These humans have besmirched everything he’s bestowed upon them. They were given Paradise — they threw it away. They were given this planet — they destroyed it. They were favoured best among all his endeavours, and some of them don’t even believe he exists. And in spite of it all… He has shown them infinite ****ing patience at every turn”.
Which is more or less what the parable of the fig tree invites us to reflect on. The infinite ***ing patience of God. A man had a fig tree. He came looking for fruit and found none. He challenges the gardener: “Three years I’ve been waiting for fruit on this tree. Cut it down. It’s a waste of soil!” But the gardener’s pragmatic response is – “Let it alone. A spot of manure and we’ll see what comes.” Actually, the patience isn’t infinite, but there’s an opportunity given for change and growth.
The fig tree says to us that we are all sinners. Probably the parable was aimed at the recalcitrant Pharisees of Jesus’ day. But it also reminds us of our own utter dependence on the grace and mercy of the infinitely patient God whom we follow in Jesus Christ. The Lenten journey, if it affects us as it should, draws us back to reflect on the way in which God’s grace, expressed in his infinite patience, has entered our lives. Lay minister, deacon, priest or bishop, when we come to this service of renewal of vows, we come and fall upon God’s grace, mercy and patience. He who has called us is faithful. Lent is a time for amendment of life.
And so, we reach Maundy Thursday and seek a fresh commissioning. Knowing ourselves forgiven sinners, knowing ourselves wholly dependent upon God, knowing his infinite patience, we are here, as the liturgy says, “to dedicate ourselves afresh to his service.” In some ways, I regret the presumption that the ordained and licensed make their renewal vows on Maundy Thursday while the baptised (which of course still includes those gathered here) renew their vows on Easter Sunday. It’s a separation that doesn’t reflect what we actually believe about the laos – the whole people of God. And particularly at this juncture when the Church of England is recapturing a vision for the ministry of the laity and we here in London are emphasising discipleship in the daily lives of Christians as ambassadors in the workplace, in their communities, in their households. I hope that your churches are getting involved in commissioning your people as ambassadors for Jesus Christ and hearing their stories, praying for them to be bold in witness, life and service here in London.
So, what follows does not ignore the calling of the baptised, but our Old Testament reading does remind of some of the themes of the liturgy of ordination, and to the apostolic task to which God has called us.
Isaiah 61: 1-9 insists that this apostolic task is carried out in the footsteps of the Servant, Jesus Christ, who appropriated this text to himself in the Galilee Synagogue and sends us as he was sent, as St John tells us. Our apostolic task is rooted in the Servant and in His character and in His work.
First, Isaiah 61 speaks of empowerment (verse 1) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me”. Both ends of the Church sometimes get terribly precious about anointing. Charismatics seek to discuss whether a particular preacher is under the anointing (and those present here today have probably already concluded that this particular preacher is not!). Catholics can reputedly become ultra-legalistic about who anoints whom, when and with what. But it is, of course, the Spirit of the Lord who does the anointing, including through the oils we bless for holy use today. It is His fresh empowerment which we seek this morning, not a gnostic super-spirituality; not a carefully circumscribed ceremonial.
This surely is the greatest safeguard we have against the cynicism that can easily overtake all of us who are called to ordained ministry. It would be possible – and we all do it – for us to regard Capital Vision 2020 as a corporate exercise designed to re-spin the Church in London. So it could become, if it were not the case that at its heart is the desire to be renewed as individuals and as a Church for our participation in the mission of God and to be renewed by the Holy Spirit. Empowerment by the Holy Spirit must be at the centre of all that we do, and this is our vaccination against cynicism about our task. One of Bishop Richard’s great motifs (and I’m sure we shall still be quoting him for some years to come!) was the need for us to avoid becoming “curdled”. Anointing is the great anti-curdling antidote.
Isaiah 61 is secondly about purpose (verses 1-3). “To preach Good News, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, to comfort all who mourn.” Here is another potentially difficult aspect of our calling here in London. It would be so easy to be deflected from our commitment to the poor, our passion for justice, our proclamation of jubilee, because of right concerns for evangelism and discipleship. But one of the great themes of Bishop Richard’s episcopate was that we stand together on the holistic pattern of the teaching of Jesus Christ. We must not, we cannot, we will not renege on continuing to be present at the heart of inner cities. We want to see new church communities, not merely based on the insights of church planting, but also churches that engage with the insights of community ministry ensuring that churches are rooted incarnationally in their context. If we share Christ’s sent calling, then those callings that allow the poor and oppressed to be our teachers will continue to be expressed in the ministry of clergy and laity alike.
We are the missional mixed economy Church. Parish and network. Chaplaincy and Messy Mass. Planting and persisting. During this year of discernment and waiting for the next Bishop of London, we shall not be hanging around. The London College of Bishops is full of energy and desire to carry on the work. That may entail the next Bishop hitting the ground running! So be it. (We have, by the way, put some prayers on the Diocesan website for liturgical use as we pray together as a Diocese for the Crown Nominations Commission process).
A word here about leadership in mission. I know this is a contested phrase for many of us and I don’t want us to become leaders before we are what the ordinal defines us to be as bishops, priests and deacons, but we do need those who lead churches to be people who burn with the mission of God in their souls. Unfortunately, the Church of England’s selection procedures have, in the past, too much emphasised the pastor-teacher role at the expense of the leader in mission role. What we are now looking to do is to say that there is a both/and about our calling. Marking time and just hanging about creatively are no longer options for us in how we exercise our priesthood. We must be people who are committed to grow in numbers, in discipleship and catechesis, in prayer and worship, in community.
Isaiah 61 talks about results, about actions. The imagery is of trees and buildings. “Trees of righteousness” reminds us of our calling to holiness; to be an example in prayer and in our loving of those who we serve. Again, Capital Vision is adamant that prayer is at the centre of our task. Those who find talk about mission, growth, leadership, and numbers unpalatable often object that this exercise is extremely low in spirituality. Contrariwise without the deep understanding of prayer it’s all completely pointless. Protestations about management-speak need to be heard. It is right that we should pay heed to the concern, but if at the heart of all we do is the relational life of God the Trinity, we need not fear.
The second image is buildings. The Isaiah vision is metaphorical as well as physical. There is a rebuilding here to be done in our great city. It is a rebuilding of faith, of discipleship, of our belief that it is a natural thing that people should become Christians in and through our churches and ministries. A natural thing that our schools should be places of unashamed Christian faith. A natural thing that every Christian is a bearer of their vocation in the workplace. A natural thing that we should continue to seek to increase the number of young people in our churches. The building is the work of God. As we reconnect ourselves to the apostolic task of the ordained ministry and the ministry of all the baptised we can ask the Holy Spirit to free, enable and equip us for that task together.
Images courtesy of Graham Lacdao