Bishop Pete's sermon from his service of installation
Posted by Bishop Pete Wilcox on 24th September 2017
Service of Installation, Sheffield Cathedral, 23.09.17, 3.00pm
2 Corinthians 08.01-09: Grace, gratitude and generosity
Let me begin, if I may, with some thanks. Cathy and I are hugely grateful for the warmth of the welcome we’ve received since we moved into Bishopscroft in June. We have very quickly been made to feel at home and among friends, here at the Cathedral and across the Diocese, here in this city and across the region. I’ve been particularly grateful for the warmth of welcome I’ve experienced this past week, as I’ve walked from one extremity of the Diocese (almost the farthest point from this Cathedral Church) to this place. If you didn’t know, that’s basically what I’ve been doing this past week, Monday to Friday. I’ve covered over 50 miles on foot, passing through 8 of the 12 deaneries of the Diocese and 25 of its 175 parishes - and if my itinerary didn’t take in your deanery this week, don’t worry (or, for that matter, don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet) - I hope to put / my walking boots / on again soon / to complete the set. Where I have been this week I’ve been moved by the reception I’ve received and I mean it when I say that Cathy and I are really glad to be here and are very much looking forward to getting to know you and to working alongside you in the mission to which God is calling us together, for the sake of the Gospel and of his coming kingdom. We are grateful not least for all the assurances we have received of people’s prayers and we do urge you please not to stop praying for us any time soon!
It is 15 months since the farewell service took place here, to mark the conclusion of Bishop Steven’s ministry in this Diocese and obviously this is not the time to rehearse all that has taken place since then. But almost no-one here will be unaware of the heavy burden which has been borne during that time by the members of the Bishop’s staff and above all by Bishop Peter in his role as Acting Bishop and I wonder if I could ask you please to take this moment to express your appreciation to the Bishop's staff in general but especially, and very particularly, to Bishop Peter.
I also want to thank Dean Peter, Canons Chris and Keith and all the Cathedral staff and volunteers for the arrangements you’ve put in place for today. Thank you too to those of you who’ve come to support Cathy and me from farther afield: it means a great deal to us to have you here – friends not only from Liverpool, but from Lichfield and Walsall, from Gateshead, Oxford and Teesside, from Durham and Worksop. Do join us over at the Cutler’s Hall after the service if you can: we would love to greet as many of you in person as possible.
And finally, I’d like to thank Sky television. Sky has no interest at all in this occasion, of course; but when the current Championship fixture list was published in July, after we’d agreed this date for the installation, it showed that the first Sheffield derby of the season was also scheduled for this afternoon. So, somewhat reluctantly, we moved this service to tomorrow — only for Sky to nominate the derby match for live broadcast, so moving it to tomorrow and freeing up our original first choice slot for this service. The fact that the match now conflicts with the Sheffield 10k road race, also scheduled for tomorrow, is, thankfully, somebody else’s headache. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Now, for the next 10 minutes I want to turn my attention to those verses from 2 Corinthians chapter 8 which Heidi read for us a few moments ago. In the process I want to speak to you about Jesus, the grace of God and generosity. Jesus, grace and generosity. This is not the last time you will hear me place the emphasis there. In fact, though I hope never to bore you, I do expect to become predictable in the way I return again and again to just this: Jesus, grace and generosity.
Jesus, then, first of all. The only explicit reference to Jesus in our reading comes right at the end, climactically — so at the risk of offending fans of The Sound of Music, who will doubtless feel that I ought to begin at the very beginning, I suggest that on this occasion the final verse of our reading is the very best place to start. ‘You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty, you might become rich’.
At the heart of the Christian gospel is a transaction, an exchange, by which every individual believer is transformed because of what Jesus has done. This, ultimately, is what we Christians mean when we talk about Jesus as our Saviour. Once we were lost, but now in Christ we are found; once we were blind, but now in Christ we see; once we were hurt, but now in Christ we are made whole; once we were dead, but now in Christ we are alive again; once we were bound, but now in Christ we are set free; once we were poor, but now because of Jesus, we are rich.
The focal point of that transaction, that exchange is the cross, on which Jesus died as our Saviour, but from which God raised him from the dead; the cross through which at the cost of his own life Jesus won for us the salvation he now calls us to hold out to the world.
But here’s the thing: where our English translation says in that reading ‘you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ’, the original Greek text, says ‘you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’. What Jesus did so generously, he did by grace, he did as grace: he offered himself for our salvation as an act of grace, to manifest fully and finally the unmerited favour of God. He did it as something utterly undeserved by us, as sheer gift.
2. Grace and Generosity
Having said something first of all about Jesus, then, let me say something further about grace and generosity.
I wonder when was the last time you received a gift which you knew in your heart to be undeserved? Perhaps it was also unexpected. To touch you, it need not necessarily have been an expensive gift. Most of us know what it’s like to be disarmed by an inexpensive gift from a child or by the spontaneous kindness of a stranger. If you can call to mind a gift you’ve received, whether recently or long ago, that you know to have been unmerited, undeserved, you’ll also be aware of the effect that gift had on you, on your heart — you’ll be aware of your gratitude. Thankfulness is the only proper response to a gift. Gratitude is the only proper response to grace.
And so it is in the Christian life. Those who truly experience the grace of God, who recognise it and embrace it, are bound to be thankful. I’d go as far as to say that gratitude is a characteristic mark of authentic Christian faith, in every authentic Christian disciple, in every authentic Christian community, and that when that is not there, something vital has been lost, some grasp of the grace of God has been lost. At least, this seems to me to be Paul’s argument in the passage Heidi read for us. Paul expects those who have experienced grace to practise it - those who’ve experienced the unmerited favour of God to extend unmerited favour to others, those who’ve experienced the undeserved generosity of God to live generously as a result. Generosity is the way grace works itself out in and through the lives of Christians and Christian churches: it’s in our DNA because Jesus puts it there.
So just take a look if you would at the earlier two paragraphs, the first eight verses of our reading, on page 19 of your service booklet. First, in the opening verses, Paul points out that the grace of God which has been granted to the churches of Macedonia, to the Philippians, for example, and the Thessalonians, has changed them. It has overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. That’s what the grace of God does: it generates generosity. Or take verse 5: because of what they were given, they gave themselves — they gave themselves to the Lord and to Paul and his companions. Those who receive the gift of grace can’t help // but give in response.
And so in verses 7 to 8, Paul urges the Corinthians to live up to their calling. Since they too have received grace, he is looking for their gratitude. You’ll see // that at the end of verse 7 // Paul urges the Corinthians, who excel in so much, to excel in what our English version calls ‘this generous undertaking’ (in fact the same phrase occurs at the end of verse 6 too). But the Greek text is simply this: ‘just as you overflow (it’s the same word he used in speaking of the generosity of the Macedonians in verse 2) ‘just as you overflow in everything, overflow also in grace’. The phrase ‘This generous undertaking’ simply translates the word ‘grace’: ‘since you have received abundant grace’, Paul urges here, ‘overflow with grace’. Let the grace you’ve received transform you, let it generate in you abundant generosity. Let it do its proper work: as you have freely received, freely give.
3. Generosity and Grace today
Which begs the question, what does this mean for you and me here today, and for the Diocese of Sheffield in the coming years? It’s with those questions that I want to finish.
You see, insofar as I have any sense yet of what the Lord has called me here for (as your new Bishop), it is to foster generosity, to call us all // back, again & again, to the grace which God has made known in the face of Jesus Christ and to the gratitude, expressed as generosity, which is the only fitting response to that grace. I believe the Lord is calling us, as a Diocese, to be generous with Jesus.
And by those three words, ‘generous with Jesus’, I mean two things. I mean, first of all, that those who align with Jesus are bound to be generous as he is generous. We are bound to be generous, both in the sense that an obligation has been placed upon us and in the sense that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of grace, will (truly will) form generosity in us. It’s bound to happen.
One of the striking things about our Bible reading is the fact that what Paul had immediately in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians in these terms was a collection: a collection he was organising among the mostly Gentile churches in Greece, to relieve the needs of the mostly Jewish churches in Jerusalem and Judea. I say it’s one of the striking things, because Paul never once mentions money in the whole of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. A generous donation to a charitable cause might have been his principal aim — but to get there, he holds fast to the language of grace and gratitude.
Now it’s true that shortly we will be singing a hymn during which a collection will be taken. And of course I hope you will give generously — of course I do. The generosity of Christians is rightly expressed in the way we use our money — and there will certainly be times in the days to come when you hear me calling for financial generosity. But the generosity to which you and I are called, as we seek to express our gratitude for the grace which has touched our lives, can never be confined to the way we use our money. No: our calling is to live generously, period. Our calling is to think generous thoughts, to speak generous words, to act generously in every way. You might well contribute generously when the collection plate comes around, but my friends, that won’t get you off the hook. If you have experienced the grace of God, your calling is to give yourself in response — and that will be manifest not least in the way in which you relate to other people, and especially those who differ from you. Your challenge, under God, is to deal generously with them. And it’s not enough simply to respond generously when others are generous to you: if you belong to Jesus, you are called to set the standard. That, by the way, is one reason I am so grateful for the tone, as well as for the content, of the Mawer report published just over a week ago. It sets a generous standard.
So that’s the first thing I mean when I say I believe God is calling us as a Diocese to be generous with Jesus: as those who are with Jesus we are bound to be generous as he is generous. But my final point is this: when I speak of being generous with Jesus, I also mean secondly that in seeking, as Christians and as Christian communities, to be generous, we will want to be generous not least with the Lord Jesus himself: we will want to share him. We will want to be generous with Jesus in that sense too.
In other words, there’s an evangelistic challenge here: a generous church is a missionary church. We can’t help ourselves: those of us who have received Christ freely, can’t help but give Christ freely away. We long for others to unite their voices with ours, in testimony to what the Lord has done for them. We long for them to say: ‘Once we were lost, but now in Christ we are found; once we were blind, but now in Christ we see; once we were wounded, but now in Christ we are made whole; once we were dead, but now in Christ we are alive again; once we were bound, but now in Christ we are set free; once we were poor, but now because of Jesus, we are rich’.
It is this sort of church that I believe the Lord has called me to assist in fostering, here in this Diocese, in the next phase of our life: a church marked out by generosity; a church full of gratitude; a church which, day in and day out, is shaped by its experience of God’s grace; a church in which, day after day, the grace of God generates in us an overflowing generosity; a church which is therefore generous with the gospel, and generous in its behaviour and above all in the way it relates across difference. Nothing less than a Diocese which is generous with Jesus is worthy of the grace which God the Father has lavished upon us, through the Spirit, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.