Sermon by The Most Reverand Dr. John Neill, Archbishop of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, at St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh. General Synod, Scottish Episcopal Church.
Some words the Gospel of John: "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last." (S.John 15:16).
I come to St.Mary's Cathedral, and to the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church, with warm greetings from your fellow Celts across the sea, from the Church of Ireland, and in particular from my own diocese and province of Dublin. In terms of friendship we have many links. Historically the Irish and Scottish Churches are drawn together in our common memory of Saint Columba, a memory rooted in our common mission.
The Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Ireland each have rather different stories to tell. This General Synod has a much longer history than that in Ireland. Our Synod began only in 1870 at Disestablishment. However today with similar structures, our two churches are indeed sharing something of a common pilgrimage. The logo that appears on your documents defines your journey at a deep level: "Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order". This same theme could be offered also as an articulation of the vision for both our churches in the service of our Risen and Ascended Lord.
The concerns of Synods may sometimes frustrate us! Nevertheless taken at a certain distance these concerns can be pointers to some of the key issues that must concern us as Christians in this twenty first century. In Ireland, we spent much time in the late eighties and early nineties discussing who might be ordained, and this was the time that we began ordaining women to the priesthood, and cleared the way for the possibility of women in the episcopate. Out of that experience we began to ask various questions about the deployment of those in ordained ministry. For the last decade, the Irish General Synod became somewhat overwhelmed by liturgical reform. This process was completed last year. As recently as last Sunday, the Book of Common Prayer 2004 became the official Prayer Book of the Irish Church. At the same time, there was within this same decade much thinking concerning the wider implications of Ministry, and lay ministry has now come centre stage. The mission and the ministry of the people of God is now a far greater challenge to us all than the structures of ordained ministry.
From the reports that I have heard, the Scottish Episcopal Church has faced and is facing similar issues. This is a reflection of the twin bases of Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order. Apostolic Order concerns among other aspects the historic threefold ordained ministry, but it does not stop there. Apostolic Order is about the whole ministry of the Church and that includes the ministry of the whole people of God. Evangelical Truth, the truth of the Gospel calls on every member of the Body of Christ to be effective in Mission.
I return to the text that I quoted a few minutes ago: "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last." We hardly need to be reminded that we are living in a fast changing society, in a society without many certainties, a society with a distaste for moral absolutes, a society built around a marketplace - be that a marketplace of pounds and euros, or a marketplace of ideas. This same society is structured around built-in obsolescence - things are not meant to last. Yesterday's way is automatically wrong - and it seems as if Christians are so easily part of yesterday! Yet we are challenged to produce "fruit that will last".
The temptation is to attempt to turn the clock back. How often we hear it expressed that if only people could be formed on the foundations that were once there - the foundations laid through long years of Christian formation in church, in home and in school. Is this the only way that we can bear "fruit that will last"? Firm foundations in teaching are indeed very much part of the tradition that we have received from the beginning. The incarnate Lord spent time teaching and forming his disciples. But this teaching was not an end in itself; it was part of drawing the disciples into a living relationship with the Lord.
I was in a school a couple of weeks ago with a high proportion of children with special educational needs. As we looked at the superb computer room, the principal teacher said to me - "You could probably only learn this by being taught, or by studying a manual - but our children simply come in here and press the keys apparently almost at random and gradually they learn, and then quickly go on to become expert." I might add that learning like that is the sort of learning that can really last - it is almost as if a relationship is established between the child and the machine. The Gospel is very concerned about a relationship, but with a person, with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
Last Sunday, we celebrated God as Trinity, God as three persons in relationship, and from that it is of course but a small step to see that same God seeking to draw us into this relationship. The Gospel reminds us of the words of Christ "I have called you friends" and " I chose you". It is indeed in that very context that we hear the call: "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last." It is the relationship with Jesus that is fundamental to our mission, or rather our place in God's mission.
The Church of Jesus Christ is truly in mission, that is it is fulfilling the ministry with which it is entrusted, as it builds relationships. St.Paul speaks of the Church as a people reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, and entrusted with a ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation is the building of a renewed relationship.
The perfect relationship remains that within the Holy Trinity. The Gospel, the Good News, is that this relationship is not exclusive, but that through Jesus, the Holy Spirit enables us to be part of that perfect relationship, so that we can call God, Abba, Father. When the Christ speaks of "Fruit that will last", - he indeed speaks out of the wonder of that relationship that "the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name". He does not stop there either. He goes on to show that relationship reaching out to draw others in - "I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another".
Is there something very important here that we have to recover? - The fruit that will last is not at its most real when it is simply truths learned. It is not founded even on years of religious observance. The lasting fruit of mission is above all a living relationship with the Living God - a relationship made real through Jesus, sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit. This relationship is forever reaching out and drawing others into its embrace.
The fact that worship issues and mission issues often come together on our Synodical agendas is hardly surprising. Worship is about the forming, nurturing and enriching of the relationship between the human and the divine. Common worship or COMMON PRAYER is about this nurturing done in common with others building up the Christian community. Ministry and mission are about this relationship reaching outwards, and drawing others into relationship with God and with each other.
Nobody needs reminding that human relationships themselves are under pressure as well as everything else. But in the middle of all that, we are also learning that God does not break off his relationship with us, when we fail in human relationships. Where human forgiveness may fail, where human relationships may pass beyond all hope of restoration, the divine forgiveness never fails. God does not break off his relationship with us.The Gospel is not a reflection of our brokenness. It is transforming vision and power in the midst of that very brokenness. The Gospel is about God's faithfulness in relationship with us.
The Anglican Communion at the present time is feeling intense pressure in the relationship between different Provinces as it comes to terms, or fails to come to terms, with different attitudes towards human sexuality. As Anglicans, we differ within parishes and dioceses and within provinces on these very issues. The sad thing is not that we differ, because our grasp and understanding of truth is of its very nature a complex thing. The sad thing is that some feel it necessary to build walls around themselves and establish boundaries that will exclude and restrict their relationships with other Christians. Boundary walls do not serve the truth of the Gospel. The Gospel does not need such protection, if we are prepared to take the risk of staying close to all who are in a living relationship with Jesus the Lord. We are not asked to agree in all things, but we are called to belong together.
Some years ago I came across the description of Christian mission as "Living together in a world falling apart". If it was true then, it is even truer today. We live in a world that never seems able to learn. We have within recent decades seen much of Europe come together with hardly a single shot fired, and yet we see the Middle East devastated more than ever, falling apart more than ever, because some thought that they could solve everything by weapons of warfare. The Christian voice has been quite strong in all this pointing to another way, and it must grow stronger and stronger. We see relationships between East and West, between the developed and the developing world, between Christian and Muslim civilisation deteriorate by the day. Nothing will last whilst this continues.
"Fruit that will last" is about building relationships, reaching across boundaries, taking the risk of reconciliation. We cannot speak to the world out there about building relationships, unless we Christians are living that way ourselves. If we allow ourselves to be torn apart, we have little to say to a world falling apart.
A Church Synod brings together a wide variety of people from scattered parishes and dioceses, and its strength is in the relationships that it fosters even more than the resolutions that it passes. It is in these relationships that mission takes root and becomes effective. It is in this way that lasting results can be achieved.
But such building of relationships is not simply the concern of our central church gatherings. The building of relationships is the mission for all our parishes and congregations - a living relationship with Jesus as Lord and Saviour, a relationship that is infectious, a relationship that is nurtured in worship through word and sacrament, and a relationship that simply cannot do anything but spread outward in mission - this is our ministry as Christians today. "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last."
Article from: Church of Ireland Press Office