I suspect that on Monday evening many of us watched those awful images of Notre Dame ablaze. A cathedral which took 200 years to build was shockingly devastated within a matter of minutes and hours.
The images were awful. And it wasn’t long before we were hearing messages of condolence from around the world, and statements of commitment regarding repair and rebuilding.
Sadly such empathy and commitment is not always so forthcoming in response to other scenes of devastation in our world. I confess I am left wondering when we decide to toll church bells and when we don’t.
When I hear those words of Isaiah about the devastations of many generations, and building up the ancient ruins and repairing ruined cities, I cannot help but think of that image of a blazing Notre Dame – but there’s also another recent news image which comes to mind, and it’s that of the Pope kissing the feet of the leaders of South Sudan in a poignant gesture of commitment to repair and rebuilding in the face of devastation and ruin.
And I am reminded yet again of words from the Lent preface to the Eucharistic prayer which have lived with me this Lent – words about ‘learning to be God’s people once again’.
The book of Isaiah written hundreds of years before the coming of Christ on earth, repeatedly points to God’s people needing to learn to be God’s people again, and the verses we heard read point to a time of return to Jerusalem after captivity and exile in Babylon.
And it is against that backdrop that we hear images of brokenness, but they are set alongside words of repair and healing and freedom and planting in a powerful vison of transformation. And it’s a vision of hope, even then pointing to the coming of Christ and the birth of a new people – the Church – the Body of Christ of which we are now part.
And so that vision from the Book of Isaiah is picked up by Jesus hundreds of years later as he speaks in the temple, points to himself and articulates the shape of the kingdom of God.
Today, says Jesus, ‘this has been fulfilled in your hearing…’ And in these words of Jesus there is Interpretation, invitation and challenge.
When Jesus says ‘Today this has been fulfilled’, it wasn’t a passivestatement – It was a statement of interpretation containing both invitation and challenge, and it resonates with ‘learning to be God’s people once again’.
How do we respond to the invitation and the challenge to join in with this vision fulfilled in Christ?
Undoubtedly activity and effort is implied. Bringing good news, releasing captives – Beautiful words but I also hear something which sounds quite active – even potentially overwhelming.
I do wonder if Jesus’ first disciples ever wondered about initiative overload when it came to bringing good news and releasing captives!
We are 2.5 years into our diocesan LIFE vision and as I go around the diocese I am encouraged by so much of what I see and hear. Signs of good news, healing, recovery, release…
I’ve seen that this week being alongside chaplains in prisons and hospitals. In recent months I’ve seen such signs in those coming for confirmation; and in visits to schools. Signs of good news at the recent event about under 5s; conversation with people participating in the THRIVE programme; Groups discussing ‘Shapes for living‘; transformed church buildings. I see such signs here in the Cathedral – not only in physical transformation but in worship and human engagement. I see good news and release in engagement with local communities; engagement with the homeless, those with dementia; farmers; engagement with young people; visits to our international partner dioceses; the Gloucester City funeral project; worshipping communities intentionally focusing on everyday faith …. (These are, as the song goes, ‘just a few of my favourite things’!)
I’m also aware that we need to do more work on the future shape of mission and ministry across each of our deaneries. Thought and planning is already going into this. The coming years are going to see more and more new housing; changing contexts – urban and rural. In the different places of our diocese how are we going to allocate appropriate leadership – lay and ordained? And of course our financial resources are key in all of this.
And amid all the activity, we are called to be Christ-like bold interpreters – To courageously name what we are doing and why.
But I do know that sometimes living a vision can feel overwhelming.
I know people can feel overwhelmed with information and events and various resources; news of mission developments such as our new Church Army centre or the potential for doing church differently in sports and community centres…and and and. It can all feel like lots of extra.
Yet all the information and activity is emerging from our life vision – nothing is in addition to it. And no one is being asked to engage with everything, but everyone is being challenged to discern what you are being called to in your context – and to interpret and articulate your mission and ministry in the light of our LIFE vision and life in all its fullness.
But I do recognise that living visions can feel overwhelming and perhaps sometimes even disheartening. Sometimes when we hear other people talking of repair and good news it can seem so far from where things are in our context. And let me say again that well-being is important. (If you need another copy of the letter I sent out just after Easter last year – or if you haven’t seen it – do let me know).
And because living a vision canfeel overwhelming and even disheartening, it’s very important to look again at Jesus’ interpretation of Isaiah’s vision; and to look again at Jesus’ invitation and challenge.
It is Jesus who says ‘Today this has been fulfilled’. It doesn’t begin with our striving, our plans, our good ideas. It begins with and in Jesus Christ.
Yes, there is effort and activity required in the work of kingdom transformation as we live our LIFE vision, but the activity begins with our abiding in Christ and receiving from Christ.
‘Learning to be God’s people again’ has at its heart, a still point of being and abiding: a fresh recognition that we are known, called and loved by God – a recognition that we are God’s people.
We need to receive Christ’s good news for ourselves – Allow Jesus to bind us up in the places where weare broken-hearted; receive God’s forgiveness and discover more of Christ’s freedom in those places where in truth, we have become imprisoned; Acknowledge our own ashes and shame and the places where we are broken, so that we can be healed, repaired and receive the oil of gladness.
Today as we renew our commitment to ministry may we open our hands and hearts to receive afresh from God. Part of that might be taking up the offer of prayer for healing after the service.
It is only from a place of abidingin Christ andreceivingfrom Christ that we then respond to the invitation and challenge to join in with bringing transformation to our broken world, because of course we are the Body of Christ, so we are mysteriously caught up in the coming of God’s kingdom fulfilled in Christ.
When Bishop Robert and I issued our letter in relation to Brexit, encouraging worshipping communities to bring people together over food and drink and prayer, it wasn’t meant to be about the polite niceness of Christians drinking tea. It is about the Church being God’s people committed to hope amid deep brokenness, anxiety, frustration and division.
And that means that we too are to be people of interpretation, invitation and challenge – within our worshipping communities, and within our local contexts and beyond.
Incidentally, the vocation bookmarks today are part of our being those people of invitation and challenge. So too our prayer maps for children…
Let me draw to a close: Today as we hear Isaiah’s vision of hope and transformation fulfilled in Christ, may each one of us root ourselves once more in Christ; be anointed afresh for our own calling as we continue that path of learning to be God’s people once again.
And as we turn outwards to the brokenness of our world may we be interpreters, inviters and challengers: It may not be as dramatic as Pope Francis’ action, but may we be bold interpreters of what we do and who we are; inviting people to discover the good news of Christ, and inviting and challenging those who do know Christ to join in with God’s kingdom work so that the poor hear the good news, and those held captive are released and those who are oppressed go free.
Together may we go on discovering and sharing Christ’s life in all its fullness.