A Sermon preached at Westminster Abbey
on Sunday 25th September 2016 at Evensong
(John 8, 31- 38,48 – end)
John 8;32,33 ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’
If you visit Birmingham Cathedral what will strike you is the extraordinary stained-glass of the Burne-Jones windows, vibrant with colour and light. Less striking, but no less powerful, is a simple carved stone in the floor of the Nave, just at the foot of the Chancel steps. The stone commemorates Leonard Wilson – Bishop of Birmingham and Confessor of the Faith.
Before taking up his episcopal role in Birmingham, Leonard Wilson was Bishop of Singapore during the 1930s and 1940s. He was taken prisoner by the invading Japanese forces, and brutally mistreated by them because of his role as a leader of the Christian Community. Leonard Wilson suffered for his faith – but he is remembered by the church as a Confessor not only because of his suffering, but for the compassion and forgiveness he showed to those who tortured him. Indeed, such was his Christ-like love that one of the prison guards was converted to Christianity through Wilson’s remarkable witness, and after the war Bishop Wilson baptised and confirmed him as a follower of Jesus Christ.
The story of Wilson’s faith takes us to the depths of the Christian gospel. As a follower of Jesus he suffered for the faith, as every Christian must be prepared to do. We who are marked with the cross in baptism must expect to take up the cross – though God willing very few of us will be tortured because we are Christians. But Wilson goes deeper – he suffers, and he forgives those who persecute him: “Father forgive them” cries Jesus on the cross; “pray for those who persecute you…” he teaches us as his disciples.
Sometimes it is very hard to embrace a going deeper such as this. We can put up with difficulty or opposition, but forgiving those who hurt us with a love like the love of Jesus Christ is a dimension that baffles or enrages – or simply feels beyond us. This is the challenge for the religious authorities listening to Jesus in the passage from John’s Gospel we hear this afternoon. In their scheme, Abraham’s faithfulness and example is the absolute foundation for what it is to be a child of God: he is the supreme example of God’s goodness and faithfulness towards his chosen people. But then Jesus reveals to them something more, something deeper beneath Abraham’s goodness – “before Abraham was, I AM” – that he is himself of God and with God from the beginning, before the beginning. Jesus reveals that there is more to the reality of God than they had understood, and the implications of this are too disturbing and radical to bear: the nature of God is love, and a love which will go to the farthest extent to save and set free, even love in the midst of rejection, torture and death.
To acknowledge this truth – that God is love, and love who embraces the very worst of human conduct in forgiveness – asks us to confront who we truly are – not just who we would like to be, but also the sinful and flawed dimensions of ourselves. When we think about who we are there can be few of us in this Abbey this afternoon who are not confronted with our boundedness, our flaws, insecurities and, if completely honest, our mistakes. The danger is that we seek to eliminate or overlook these experiences and realities in life and personality as we seek to narrate our lives to self and others. Accepting the revelation of who God is in Christ means we must also face ourselves – who we are in Christ – including some of the painful, contradictory and unbearable dimensions of our own stories. Without this going deeper into ourselves, and trusting in the depths of God’s love which Christ revealed in his own life, death and resurrection, there is no freedom. As Jesus says, it in only the truth which will set us free.
In the present age the person I most associate with freedom is – a man who was incarcerated for 27 years for a fundamental principle Nelson Mandela. He gave up his freedom for the truth that every human being is in doubt with an inalienable, God-given dignity and each person deserves not only equal status in the law but the fullest possibilities of opportunities to flourish as a human being. Whoever met Mandela whether the poorest black child or the most powerful Afrikaner politician testified that he treated them with respect. He recognised their dignity. People who came to revere him found him revering them. Despite his years of struggle and suffering, his cherished ideal gave him the freedom to treat others well – it was the truth that set him and others free.
This freedom and truth that gave Mandela the power to forgive and conviction to build a better world in which all people could have dignity and freedom and life and love.
At the end of his autobiography, The Long Road to Freedom, Mandela wrote this
‘the truth is that we are not yet free: we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey… Or to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’
With Wilson and Mandella – Let us nurture a true freedom in ourselves and for others – freedom to set others free – a freedom that stirs our complacency and gives us a vision of the gospel to fight for a better and freer world where all flourish.