Reading: Acts 4: 1 – 37
Theme: Inclusion, Justice, The Church of England, Racism.
From Inclusion to Justice
The sermon script
I wonder if you will think back with me to a time when you have visited a different church to the one you regularly attend. Whether that be for a family event such as a baptism, or because you are on holiday in a different part of the country. Let’s imagine that this service, or event, is taking place during the service and you have arrived in plenty of time, nervous that you may not find the church or be able to park. You arrive as it is with plenty of time and you enter through the doors, unsure of what to expect. You are greeted by someone who is friendly, potentially too friendly for an “anglican” church. They give you your books, oh the days when we collected liturgies and hymn books before services began, and you enter the main body of the church. Now you face the real dilemma, you see back in your home church you know where to sit. Three pews back on the left, preferably behind the pillar so the Vicar can’t see you snoozing during the sermon. But, here, in this new place you do not know where to sit, you do not know the etiquette of this space, the subtle dance of choosing a seat. Eventually you settle for a seat, because this church does not have pews, 4 rows back and on the right. You feel settled, far enough away to not be noticed but close enough to observe what is going on. Then someone arrives, you know you have chosen the wrong seat, they look at you with disdain as they walk past. You are in their seat. You begin to feel uncomfortable, wishing you could leave, glad you don’t have to come back. You don’t look like this congregation anyway, don’t sound like them, so at the end of the service you slip away, unnoticed, unwelcome, uninvited, unsure who sat in your pew while you were away.
We have all been in a situation where we have felt judged, felt that others have looked down on us because of how we look, what we have said, what kind of education we have received. This does not just take place in society but in the church as well. A fresh light this week has been shone on the Church of England and has demonstrated the extent to which those who are not like “us” have often been sidelined and not heard. I do not know how many of you have watched this weeks Panorama documentary but it was an important moment because it revealed the extent to which the Church of England has failed to include the full diversity of our world in the life of the church.
The reading we had this morning from Acts (Acts 4: 1 – 37) demonstrates that this problem is not a modern one; power only sees power. It is the same now as it has always been. Those who speak a certain way, hold certain positions and think they are entitled to certain privileges often ignore, or mistreat those who do not have those same privileges. Yet, in the face of the situations in Acts 4, Peter and the other disciples stand in the face of this and proclaim a different message. Often, the church has talked using the language of “inclusion’. In fact a whole charity has been formed to focus on the premise that we can make our churches more inclusive. More and more I find this language disconcerting. In our reading from Acts “Peter stands next to the man God has healed not by the power claimed by the elites…. but only through the Holy Spirit” (Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary of the Bible, Westminster, John Knox Press: Louisville, 2017).. The language of Inclusion creates an image which portrays a certain group as holding the power. It is suggesting that the judges can heal the man without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Inclusion suggests that we, as Norbury Church, hold the right to invite others to the table. It suggests we can sit in a position above God and choose what our church looks like.
There is though another way. A way modelled for us by those early disciples. A model that should hopefully move us from “inclusion” to “flourishing”. A system which does not make us into the builder who picks and chooses which stones to build our church but instead becomes a community that reflects the full diversity of the Kingdom of God. Peter, part way through our reading stands and offers this model. He demonstrates that in Jesus we have an example that was rejected, a judge that was judged in our place. “Jesus is the cornerstone of any building effort that would move us towards life. Jesus enacts a new social order that saves. No one else can do this.” There was a powerful moment in a Panorama documentary this week where the current Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell is presented with a stack of reports which have been written in the last 50 years that depict the issues of racism in the Church. Going all the way back further than the Faith in the City report written in 1985 the Church has known about these issues, the Archbishop acknowledged that he had helped write many of them, but still things have not changed. The elites, who have made it to the top, sit and look down and judge, often thinking they are sitting in the place of God. Yet, “God waits in silence with those brought in courts, standing in front of tribunals, juries, and officers of the law and listening as the judge of this world, not only in courtrooms but also in boardrooms and legislative halls, decide on their future and plan their destines, and God reminds all those in power that a judgement is being brought on their decisions and their lives” (Jennings, Acts). Often God waits in the Church as well. Waiting for us to listen, waiting for us to understand, waiting for us to respond. Hoping, beyond all hope, that we will hear the truth that is on offer. That “Jesus is the cornerstone of any building effort that would move towards life. Jesus enacts a new social order that saves. No one else can do this” (Jennings, Acts). No report, no Task-Force, no one other than Jesus.
I often return to the writings of James Cone when discussing race because his work is seminal. He understood, and located, that challenge of the black man in America within the arms of Jesus. He saw in the lynchings of the 1960s a proclamation of God’s saving power. Not in the hands of the elites, not in the power of those who judge, but in the dying arms of Jesus on the cross.
It is in the arms of Jesus, not in a desire for inclusion, that we can all find our equal nature. Jesus came, not to save you and me, not to make a cosy social club of like minded individuals, not matter how inclusive we try to be, but instead to make us all equal. To remind us that God, in all His power, comes to be judged. Comes to enact a new world order; one not based on the power of the elites but a boldness of the oppressed. A boldness to speak out and be heard. I pray that we can do that listening. I pray that we can listened to our brothers and sisters who have not been heard. I pray that we will not be so anxious about loosing control that we will be willing to let others come and occupy this space. A space that God has prepared for all His children. I pray that we will not be like those judges, that we do not become choosy about which bricks to use, but that all may come and find a hope in this place. That all may come and enjoy the fullness of God’s Kingdom, not because we are “Inclusive” but because we have all been included by the saving power of the Cross.