Palm Sunday: it's time to get out of the boat
From Brother Ivo:
If there is one thing we can be sure of when reading the Bible, it is that the morning Saul of Tarsus took his breakfast before setting out along the Damascus road, he was a man at peace with his certainties.
He was a scholar who had sat at the feet of Gamaliel, and was accordingly well-versed in both the scriptures and the interpretation of them through a long line of learned commentaries. He had his marching orders from high authority. He carried the necessary legal paperwork to enable him to root out heresy in those Jewish communities falling under the malign influence of those seeking to overturn thousands of years of tradition. He had the confidence in his own ability, for, as we can read for ourselves, Saul/Paul can craft an argument with the best of them.
Paul was versed in logic, emboldened by his Roman citizenship, comfortable in his skin – and about to have his world turned upside down. He arrived in Damascus shaken, blind, and with no better plan than to hear instruction from Ananias, who might have been forgiven had he thrown his would-be persecutor out into the street to fend for himself.
Brother Ivo thought of this Bible passage when mulling over the Gospel passage chosen by Archbishop Justin for his sermon at his enthronement ceremony this week.
He chose the text when Peter was called by Jesus to get out of the boat and walk with him on the waters, and it has remained with Brother Ivo over subsequent days.
It was a good choice and it probably sets the tone for the Archbishop’s term of office.
There is, of course, a big difference between these stories of Paul and Peter. Paul has no choice: Jesus hits him like a bolt from the blue and, having struck him, leaves the broken and confused Paul few options but to comply. Peter, on the other hand, has a choice. Any of us who has teetered on the edge of a diving board, or stood at a similar decision point, will understand the difference. Peter has a choice to take or reject a leap of faith, and amazingly finds himself able to do so and to become the person Jesus destined him to be.
We don’t always see what we need to see, however.
Before Archbishop Justin read the Gospel with life, vigour and exciting inflection, a group of African drummers preceded him. Some said they were celebrating the Archbishop. They were not. This was a Gospel procession: they were drumming and leaping for joy for the coming of the Gospel!
We are so used to seeing a dignified slow walk that many did not recognise that the underlying form of the service remained whilst the expression of it was culturally enriched. An exuberant welcoming of the Gospel – how terribly and embarrassingly un-Anglican. Put a stop to it at once!
In both the form of the service – with several innovations and by his sermon message – it seems that Archbishop Justin is calling us all to take similar leaps of faith. Surely his words were nothing if not an exhortation to ‘get out of the boat’.
Yet some fell on stony ground.
Reading the timeline on His Grace's blog it was clear that, far from being open to getting out of the boat, there were a number urging the Archbishop to circle the wagons. All might be well, but only if he turns his back on women’s ministry, refuses even to talk to Peter Tatchell, and consigns ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ to Room 101 where all such abominations rightfully belong.
Yet circled wagons are just not going anywhere.
Getting out of the boat is scary, decidedly perilous, ill-advised and utterly counter-intuitive.
Yet this is what the Archbishop plainly believes we should do and he does so for a simple reason that suffused the service in Canterbury. The reason is the transforming power of Christ.
He is not ashamed to proclaim the transforming power of Christ Crucified. It is not a social gospel or a tradition, but a living transformative relationship. If Jesus wants Peter Tatchell, He will shall welcome him just as he reached out to that other dreadful fellow, Saul, and He knows how to encourage even the most timorous to get out of the boat.
The enthronement sermon can usefully be read in conjunction with the Archbishop’s previous one when he was enthroned at Durham. In that sermon there is a striking passage:
In Africa in 2010 I stood with a group of ten men, by the mass grave holding the bodies of the majority of the village’s women and children, cut down in a raid a few days earlier. In that darkness, because of the gospel, with other raids around us, they spoke of reconciliation. A few years ago I met a cardinal from Vietnam, an Archbishop who had spent 13 years in prison for his faith, tortured, told he was forgotten. In that darkness, because of the gospel, he had led his torturer to faith in Christ and then trained him for ordination when he too was imprisoned, and started a church in the prison, celebrating Mass each day with a grain of rice and enough rice wine to hold in the palm of one hand, and preaching the gospel in whispered sentences during roll call.A bishop who comes from those experiences knows a thing or two about transformation, daring to step into the unknown and being amazed by what the God of Surprises can achieve when risks are taken.
So the challenge is there for all of us. Which of our certainties, securities, logics and traditions are we prepared to put aside to follow the African dancers leaping and dancing as the living Gospel makes its way through our hallowed buildings?
How ready are we to ‘get out of the boat’?
(Posted by Brother Ivo)