Light and life: A call to radical love

The following is the text of a sermon preached by Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, at a special service at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ont., on Oct. 28, 2007, commemorating the sesquicentennial of the diocese of Huron.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz. VIANNEY (SAM) CARRIERE
Archbishop Fred Hiltz. VIANNEY (SAM) CARRIERE

Two weeks ago I was in England for a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and a visit to the Anglican Communion Office. Arriving at 7:30 in the morning Paul Feheley and I decided to go to a 9:00 a.m. Eucharist at Southwark Cathedral – a lovely cathedral dating back to 852 AD. Looking about the place, my eyes were drawn to a modern work of art affixed to a chapel wall. It bore these words superimposed, one line upon another

God is Light
God is Life
God is with us.”

As I read them I thought of you and the theme of your Sesquicentennial “Light and Life.”

One hundred and fifty years ago this very day, October 28th, Benjamin Cronyn, the first in Canada to be called to Episcopal ministry through an electoral synod, was consecrated in the Chapel at Lambeth Palace.

I recently stood in that very chapel where the consecration had taken place and I thought again of you. As always at such moments I was moved by our Communion with all forbearers in faith – by the courage and steadfastness of their labours for the Lord, and I was humbled by our calling to follow their good examples that with them our lives may be directed in the same spirit of service and sacrifice.

Upon his return to the Diocese of Huron, Cronyn took up his duties with energy, passion and zeal. An evangelical through and through he wrote, “Among the many means of grace which God has appointed, the preaching of the Word stands pre-eminent.” It was this very conviction that drove him to establish a college where candidates for holy orders could be trained as history records, “under his eye”. Incorporated and opened in 1863, Huron College and the manner of its training clergy colored the theology of the diocese for many years.

He is remembered as a tireless worker – in the 14 years he was bishop, the number of clergy had doubled, the number of parishes had risen from 40 to 160, and no fewer than 100 new churches had been built. Every document to the effect of letters of orders for clergy, establishing parishes and consecrating churches, he signed “Benj. Huron”.

In his History of the Anglican Church of Canada, Philip Carrington wrote, “The new diocese of Huron and its energetic and forceful bishop became a power house for the whole Canadian Church.”

In many respects the whole Canadian Church is represented at this great celebration. Through the presence of the National House of Bishops, every diocese “from coast to coast to coast” rejoices with you; as does every synod of the ELCIC with whom we are in full communion; as do our brothers and sisters represented by the wider ecumenical delegation here gathered.

From beyond Canada, come greetings from your companion diocese Bishop Sitembele Mzamane of Mthatha, the Archbishop of Canterbury in England and the Archbishop of Armagh in Ireland.

Rowan Williams writes

“You are gathered here today to pay tribute not only to the founder of your diocese, but to all those who throughout the last 150 years have continued to dedicate their lives to the work and mission of the Diocese of Huron. I join you in tribute to them…I pray you will continue to work through the challenges ahead with a fresh commitment to God’s mission.”

Light and Life is a beautiful theme for the Sesquicentennial wonderfully grounded in the Johannine writings. In the Prologue of the magnificent Gospel according to John, the evangelist writes.

“In the beginning was The Word and The Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. In Him was life and that life was the light of all people.”

Like a thread through a beautiful tapestry, the theme of light and life runs through this Gospel. The commonly known “I am” sayings speak f the life God wills for us through his Son. Each one is an invitation, overflowing with promise… Hear are some of them.

“I am the light of the world – whoever walks with me will not walk in darkness but will always have the light of life.”

“I am the bread of life – whoever comes to me shall never be hungry, whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

“I am the way, the truth, the life. If you know me you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, they will live and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

John concludes his gospel by re-iterating his purpose in writing it –“that we may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that believing in him, we may have life in his name.”

Into this life

  • We are born through the waters of baptism,
  • Nurtured through the food and drink of the eucharist,
  • Strengthened through anointing and the laying on of hands with prayer,
  • Commended at the hour of our death, confident still of the never-failing love our our Lord.

This theme of Light and Life is also grounded in the way we pray at every Eucharist – be it a gathering of two or three or several thousand in Christ’s name. Having made our Communion, we prepare for the transition from the place of our worship to the place of our service, praying

“May we who share his body live his risen life
We who drink his cup bring life to others.
We whom the Spirit lights give light to the world.”

In that prayer, we know so well, is the essence of our vocation as a gospel people.

The very stuff of that vocation is also pronounced in the readings chosen for this celebration. They speak of blessing, fellowship, and radical love. It is the Old Testament reading that speaks of blessing. Of a return from exile, the rising again of Zion. Isaiah writes,

“Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1)

“The sun shall no more be your light by day nor for brightness shall the moon give light by night.
But the Lord will be your everlasting light and your God will be your glory.”(60:19)

Here is hope for a people harassed. Here is a word of redemption for a people weary and worn; a word of joy that heralds a return to their homelands; a promise of restoration and renewal.

We often hear this first in Advent as we anticipate the celebration of the Birth in time of the timeless Son of God, the one of whom we sing at Christmas,

“Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in His wings.”

This is the blessing that is at the heart of our calling – God is Christ, shining upon us, each and everyone, gracing us, as the old Huron Carol says “with beauty, peace and joy.”

Of this calling Herbert O’Driscoll writes

“For a Christian, the source of light in their life is Jesus Christ. Our vocation is to so live by that light that through our living a portion of that light is released into the world. Our lives may seem tiny in the great scheme of things, but we cannot tell how a faithful word or act may be used by God as a means of grace in circumstances beyond our knowing, perhaps even in our lifetime. The world is changed toward darkness or light by every single human decision and act. Let us then live by the light, which is Christ.

At every baptism we are reminded of this teaching. As the newly baptized receive a candle, the entire congregation says “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

It is the New Testament reading for the first letter of John that speaks of fellowship. Encouraging an early community of faith in its life in Christ the author writes,

“This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sins.”

It is important that we never lose sight of this gift of fellowship in Christ – within our parishes, within our diocesan families, within our beloved Church across Canada and throughout the world. The call to fellowship brings to mind the language of friendship with which Jesus spoke to his disciples at the last supper, and the prayer that was his on the very eve of His Passion Death and Resurrection. “that they all may be one that the world may believe.” The call to fellowship brings to mind the commentary of the earliest days of the Church “See how those Christians love one another.”  And it calls to mind the sad history of brokenness in the Body of Christ. We are no more soberly reminded of this than in one of the anthems appointed for Good Friday, through which the Lord speaks to the Church universal.

“I sent the Spirit of truth to guide you and you close your hearts to the Counselor. I pray that all may be one with the Father and in me.

But you continue to quarrel and divide. I call you to go and bring forth fruit but you cast lots for your clothing”

In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness Desmond Tutu with characteristic passion set out his credo

“There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things to reverse the awful centrifugal forces of alienation brokenness, division, hostility and disharmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, towards unity, harmony, goodness, peace and justice; one that removes barriers. Jesus says ‘And when I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw everyone to myself’ as he hangs from his cross with out-flung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone, everything, belongs. None is an outside, all are insiders, all belong. There are no aliens, all belong in one family, God’s family, the human family.”

Let us pray friends that we be caught up afresh in this movement, giving ourselves to it with heart and soul. Pray for the Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery, pray for church leaders that in all their labours they may unite us in a holy fellowship of truth and love, pray that we may be humble enough to be guided by the counsel for our Archbishop of Canterbury who has said, “Whatever else divides, let the friendship of the baptized remain.

It is the Gospel reading that speaks of a radical love. It is the account of the Lord washing the feet of his disciples, teaching them the meaning of the act, and giving them the new commandment to love one another.

In his book The Scandal of Service, a reflection on the foot washing, Jean Vanier writes “The history of humanity has changed since god has knelt at our feet.” Never before would a king kneel before his subjects, or a teacher before his disciples. But Jesus does. The gesture is full of emotion for him and for them. Vanier writes,

“Jesus washes them of any ambition for position and place, title and honor. He washes them for the service of the kingdom, seeing in them a glory of which the prophet had spoken centuries before. ‘How beautiful are the fruit of those who bring good news, and publish peace.’(Isaiah 52:7)”

The act as we know it is not without struggle on the part of the 12. Through Peter it is given voice and argument. Eventually they surrender to what some one has described as their act of “uncommon gentleness.

Vanier says “It’s not just a matter of washing feet. It’s a sign and symbol of our attitude toward another. In a word Christ asks us to live and act humbly and lovingly.

In this call to radical love we are inspired by the saints, by all those whose lives and witness to Christ are commemorated in the calendar and by those whose names belong to our own time in history:

Mother Theresa – whose life’s ambition was to do something beautiful for God. She did   it among the poor and sick in India.

Jean Vanier – who has said of his life. “The Gospel gave me strength to join L’Arche but L’Arche has revealed to me the hidden meaning of the Gospel.”

Stephen Lewis – who in his capacity as the UN Special Envoy for AIDS called the churches to be the political voice. They have the potential to be – challenging governments to give so much more attention to the horrors of HIV/AIDS the worst pandemic in the history of humanity, inspiring men and women to march in the streets with placards reading

AIDS DRUGS for Every Nation
Time to Deliver!

… moving us to support the Partnerships for Life campaign grounded in the vision of A Generation Without AIDS.

Njongon-kulu Ndungane – who describes poverty as the new global apartheid, calling on the churches to make the politicians keep their promises with respect to the Millennium Development Goals which are rooted in a commitment to make “an irreversible difference in the lives of billions of people.

Frank Griswold – who in the aftermath of 9/11 gathered his fellow bishops in the climate of a mounting movement for a war on terrorism wrote “Let us wage reconciliation. Let us offer gifts for the carrying out of God’s o-going work of reconciliation, healing, and making all things new. To this we pledge ourselves and our church.

Robin Eames – the former Primate of Ireland who launched a project called Hard Gospel
grounded in the two great Commandments. It calls for a return to focussing mission in command to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Through that program the Church in Ireland us asking hard questions

Who do we say we are?
What is our greatest passion as a church?
What’s the relationship between our activity and the mission we’ve been called to fulfill?
What’s the culture of our organization – are we a body that openly addresses difficult issues?

“Hard questions” writes Eames, “expect hard answers. It’s in the answers that the power for transformation lies in the Church and in society.”

All of these are examples of the radical love for one another to which Christ calls. There are many others whose names are known the world over, many whose names are known in our communities and no doubt countless others whose radical love in daily duty is known to God alone.

I believe that all who feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the sick, shelter the abused, walk with the addicted, visit the prisoner, welcome the refugee are about radical love.

I believe that all who advocate for the basic human rights for all, who enable the voices of those who cannot or will not be heard, to be heard in places where decisions are made are about radical love.

I believe that in your regular and generous support of the PWRDF (Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund) you are about that radical love. That gospel is a call to bear witness to God’s healing love in a broken world.

All of these are vivid examples of what one of our bishops has described as “sensitive evangelism” It is “diaconal rather than imperial, designed for service not conquest. It aims to show forth the Lord Jesus in acts of witness and faith rather than to ruin souls who are deemed otherwise to be lost.

Divine blessing, holy fellowship, and radical love the heritage and the hope of Huron and of the whole Church for the sake of the world.

I conclude with the words with which I began,

God is light
God is life
God is with us

  • Words affixed to the wall of an English cathedral
  • Words that draw us together in this celebration
  • Words to be written on our hearts and proclaimed through our living

To God be thanks and praise, now and evermore. Amen

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