When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see his face again.(acts 20 : 36 – 37)
Now even though I have an inflated ego I do know that I am not St Paul. But this little verse when St Paul finally leaves his friends in Ephesus shows that goodbyes have always been part of church life and have always been sad. As George Deare said to me when I first arrived ‘Deans come and deans go but George Deare stays forever’.
St. Paul’s vocation was to journey around the known world and work with the small communities of faith – to preach and teach the Good News, to build them up when he could and to encourage them to grow strong in faith and hope and love – and this is still the vocation of every parish priest in our Anglican tradition – to preach and teach, to build up and to encourage – and so, somewhere across the Atlantic ocean there is a small parish waiting for me now, with just 30 or 40 people on an average Sunday morning. They need the same encouragement in the Good News, as perhaps you did six years ago. And in the eyes of God – as we know – all are equal, great and small, and I believe that God has called me to them now, just as I believe God called me to you then – and therefore, I know that all will be well.
So what then, as I stand before you this morning do I want to say to you as my parting shot?
Well I could not have chosen a finer reading than the passage from Colossians. It prays for strength and patience for the future : May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience. It prays for joy and confidence ‘joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. it affirms all that has been done ‘God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. and it proclaims Jesus – at some length – as the one who is the only head of the church, the icon of the invisible God, and the one who has reconciled all things in heaven and on earth. Strength, patience, confidence, joy and Jesus – what more could we want? What more could I add?
But I think the one word which is not there, and which I would like to add. The word which holds them all together is that we need ‘faith’ – I pray that we may all have faith – faith which saves us, faith which makes us whole.
I know that many people struggle with their faith. They struggle with difficult or over-simplified doctrines in a complex and diverse world. They struggle with creeds and teachings which seem to limit them rather than expand their minds.
They struggle with weighing up rational earthly arguments for eternal heavenly mysteries, with trying to understand and contain the wild and incomprehensible, with trying to explain scientifically things which are paradoxically miraculous. – faith – if we mean it like this – is very a difficult word. For all of us.
My own crisis of ‘faith’ came when I was just about 35. I had been everything up until then. I started off life as an evangelical Anglican reading John Stott, then I became a liberal Anglican reading John Robinson, then I was a conservative Anglican reading Cardinal Ratzinger, then an orthodox Anglican reading Bishop Kallistos Ware, then a catholic Anglican reading Bernard Haring and Vatican II – and then I devoured the writings of Bishop Jack Spong – the Episcopal bishop of Newark – He shattered my idols, tore down prejudices, challenged unquestioning faith which leaves no room for doubt – a faith which leaves the intellect at the door – and I still enjoy reading his hard and uncompromising logic, just as I enjoy reading all the others in their own ways. But although they all taught me what the faith had been, and although Spong taught me what it no longer was, they left me with very little to believe in now – a God who is more cosmic energy than person, a Bible which is more human musings than Revelation, prayers and sacraments which were more self-help than grace, a church which was more like a group of friends than a means of salvation – and ultimately an eternal life which was actually nothing more than a finite death. But where next? What is faith?
But as I grew older and through my doubts, I came to realise that faith is something else – not so much a ‘what’ word – what do we believe is true – but more of a ‘who’ word – who do we choose to believe in? And the answer – of course – is Jesus.
Not what do I believe about Jesus, but quite simply do I believe in Jesus – as a person, as a teacher, as a spiritual guide and ultimately as a Saviour – do I have faith in what he says, what he does, who he is?
I do not understand the mysteries of life and death, the workings of the incarnation and the resurrection, – but still I have put my trust in Jesus, – the reign of Christ in me – and that is enough. Actually it is more than enough.
But Faith in Christ is also faith in the Body of Christ. And this is perhaps harder than faith in Jesus. If it is hard to believe in mystery, miracle and in an incarnate and transcendent God, then it is much harder to have faith in our common humanity. In this world of hate and prejudice, warfare, violence, greed and ignorance, it is hard to believe in each and every person, in the image of God in each and every person, in the goodness that lay in each and every person.
But we must, and we must start here with one another in this cathedral. I have enjoyed being the dean who loves to say yes. I love to say yes when Rosemary wants to dance to the glory of God with her dancers. I love to say yes when children want to sing and play to the glory of God in the hymns. I love to say yes when Patrick and the choir want sing some new and exotic piece of music to the glory of God. I love to say yes when SJAG want to lay on an event for justice, or advocacy or peace or whatever – all to the glory of God. I love to say yes when people want to offer vestments or gifts to the glory of God, I love to say yes when the LGBTI group want to meet and share their friendship, their joys, their fears and their faith – to the glory of God. I love to look at each person and have faith in them – in the hundreds of different ways God calls each of us to give glory – to sing, to dance, to read, to pray, to clean, to organise, to feed, to care, to love ……and so I hope you will be a congregation which continues being able to say yes to people’s dreams and visions and prophecies, that you will strive to see the best in one another – that you will strive to build one another up in love, encouraging one another in your faith, with words of praise and joy and thanksgiving.
This Cathedral – my friends – is a very wonderful place. But in spite of your very kind words to me, very little of it is actually my doing. It is all your doing – I have merely been the one who likes to say yes. – the one who teaches and preaches, the one who builds up and encourages – and yes – the one who is not ashamed to put Jesus right at the heart of all we do.
And so, over these coming months, May you be strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience. joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. For ‘God has rescued us from the power of darkness and has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Let us all say yes to that.