Bishop of Doncaster

Chrism Eucharist 2017

As we are aware the diocese has been on a journey and I don’t intend to rehash again the things I said in my pastoral letter and Presidential Address to Synod.  As I’ve said before, this is a day when we come together as lay and ordained colleagues from across the diocese.  This is a solemn time, but also an occasion of great joy as deacons, priests and bishops renew their commitment to serve made at our ordinations.  And the whole people of God - licensed ministers or not - recommit themselves to the service of God as his disciples.  The Chrism Eucharist is very much about building our confidence; as we gather together in shared commitment to ministry and mission, as we gather around the altar united in the Eucharist, renewed in God’s service through the strength of the Holy Spirit symbolized in the oil of Chrism, the sign of God’s anointing Spirit empowering the church and his people.

As we gather around the altar together we know that none of us are worthy of our calling, none of us are really great.  We know that we’re not called to promote ourselves or our ministry as being the greatest.  We’re called to proclaim the greatness of God in all we do and say and him alone.  We’re called take up our cross in humility and put the service of God and others first.  That’s the mark of Christian leadership and we can only do it through God’s grace, and the strength of the Holy Spirit.

Through God’s good grace we gather at this service which draws to a close our seven days of prayer for healing and reconciliation.  On Friday we celebrated the appointment of Pete Wilcox as our new Diocesan Bishop and that is one of the pieces in our healing journey.  We will of course get to know Pete over the next few months and years, and we look forward to welcoming him to the diocese in due course.

But this service is the first opportunity we’ve had to come together as a diocese since the announcement of Bishop Philip and the events surrounding it - both within and from outside the diocese.  This is a time for us to recommit ourselves to God’s mission, to each other and to the process of moving on, without in any way diminishing and undermining the questions and issues that we still need to face as does the wider Church.  One of the things that’s remained steadfast throughout these months has been our commitment to God’s mission as focused through our Diocesan vision and strategy, and in that I take great comfort and rejoice in this.

As we approached this week I’ve been helped in my own thinking by the well-known story the story of Jacob and Esau which reads like a juicy novel.  The brothers are born to Isaac and when Isaac is near death he desires to give Esau - the older of the brothers - his blessing.  In biblical times, a blessing was to grant the other person a place of honour and status usually given to the first born son, in this case Esau.  Yet, as the story unfolds, the father is tricked into giving the blessing to Jacob the younger son, whose name means “He deceives”.

Imagine the shock and horror that Esau felt when he learns he’s been cheated.  How on earth are these two characters ever going to be reconciled?  Biblical reconciliation is the process of two previously alienated parties coming together, coming to peace with each other.  And why is this the case?  Because God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ and if that’s the case, we can surely be reconciled to each other.  We should no longer be counting our offences but be focused on Jesus and what unites us.  The absence of reconciliation robs the church of the power of unity.

Prayer and openness are a critical part of the process of reconciliation. When in prayer we come closer to God and listen to what he’s saying to us rather than our own voice, our own inner thinking.  God reveals to us all sorts of things amongst which is a desire to look at broken relationships and put them right.  Prayer is like ointment for the wound of the broken relationship.  The wound will often be messy and infected by hurt and hardened feelings and emotions running high. God will need to soften the hearts, ease emotions if the wound is to be healed.  God will in prayer bring understanding to the reconciling parties.  So one guiding principle in reconciliation is – Don’t seek God in prayer unless you want to make things right with others.  Unless you want to change.

We’re told that the angels met Jacob – but why, we may ask, did they turn up.  Whatever the Angels said to him it was powerful enough for Jacob to feel the need to make amends, he had to be right with his brother. 

Here’s the second principle – You can’t live in peace and harmony with God until you’re living in peace with each other.  Broken relationships result in a broken relationship with God.  Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift to the altar, leave your gifts there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:23-24).  If you’re offering a gift of money or praise and remember someone has ill will or hard feelings against you, go to that person, seek reconciliation, make amends, be at peace.

Jacob knew he’d done wrong and needed to make it right.  He had to take the first step.  He needed to take the initiative. So here’s another guiding principle, it has to be intentional.  Restoring a broken relationship is like mending a broken leg.  If you break your leg you have to go to the hospital so that the Doctors can set the leg in plaster and healing can take place, otherwise it’ll never mend.  The same is true with broken relationships; they won’t mend by accident, you have to intend mending them.  When you’ve broken your leg there’s only so long you can ignore the pain and hurts and so it is with a broken relationship. 

Of course, the relationship is easier to mend when the offender apologises to the offended.  But what happens if the offender doesn’t admit their part.  Scripture make it even more difficult for us because it tells us that the offended is to take the initiative in seeking reconciliation.  Jesus says “If your brother sins against you go and rebuke him in private.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (Matt 18:15).  Note that it’s just between the two of them.  The instinct for most of us, if we’re the offended, is to go round soliciting sympathy and support for ourselves and our cause; we plead our side of the story, to validate our own feelings.  But we don’t go to the person who offended us.  (Tell them the story about the school confirmation and what the children said about falling out with their friends.)

If we’re to reconcile relationships, we need to have the courage and conviction to go directly to the one who’s offended us and to do so not in a spirit of accusation or revenge, but rather in one of clarification. 

After many years Esau and Jacob met.  Jacob bowed to the ground seven times as his brother approached.  It’s an act of humility.  Jacob came with the right spirit and attitude.  He acknowledged that he’d done wrong.  He’d tricked his brother out of his blessing.  He was at fault.  Humility puts us in a position for reconciliation to occur.  A price has to be paid for reconciliation and that’s often called “swallowing your pride”.  Every act of reconciliation requires someone in the hurting relationship to admit some responsibility and a desire to repair the damage.  Our failure to practice humility allows fractured relationships to fester and puts us in opposition to God.  Remember “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

At the face to face meeting Esau ran to meet Jacob and hugged him and they wept.  It’s a picture of vulnerability.  To embrace someone else is to expose the heart and that reveals a damaged relationship.  At that moment you reveal the hurt and pain caused, admit wrong.  Reconciliation can’t happen until the heart is exposed to another.  The danger is, of course, is that as soon as you do that you risk it being broken again and many of us don’t want to risk it.  But the opposite is to shut out all humanity and surely none of us want to live our lives in isolation from others, however risky that might feel. 

Jacob wanted to find favour in the eyes of Esau.  He sought peace.  He desired to put the past behind him.  He humbled himself before Esau.  And then Esau spoke those life changing words “Brother, I forgive you.” 

Forgiveness isn’t an optional extra in the process of reconciliation.  Forgiveness means letting go so that you can get on with the rest of your life.  Forgiveness means hoping the best for the other. 

Jacob wanted to make things right.  He’d stolen his brother’s birth right and all the inheritance that goes with it.  Restitution is an attempt to restore that which has been damaged or destroyed and seeking justice whenever we have the power to act or influence those in authority to do something.  Restitution is really difficult though, when you have said words that have damaged a person and their character.

Jacob acknowledges his wrong.  Esau forgives.  The once broken relationship is mended.  Wouldn’t it be nice if every relationship ended that way?  And if we want it to it can.  In the story of Jacob and Esau we catch a glimpse of God.  Jacob says to Esau “For indeed, I have seen your face and it is like seeing God’s face, since you have accepted me.” (Genesis 33:10).  If you want to know what the face of God looks like, go to your sister or brother you have offended, ask their forgiveness, then hear them say, “you are forgiven”.

As Paul reminds us in Ephesians, God breaks down all barriers.  They’re reconciled through the cross to God and are to be reconciled to others.  It’s costly because reconciliation is cross shaped. 

Think about it.  We have broken our relationship with God over and over again.  We hurt God greatly with our disobedience and rebellion.  God doesn’t have to forgive us.  But like Esau and Jacob, God comes to us through his Son, Jesus Christ, embracing us all, calling us brother and sister and saying “I forgive you”.  As God has forgiven us, we are to forgive those who hurt us.  As God has reconciled with us, we are to reconcile with each other.

As an author Phil Cross put it “With only three nails and 2 pieces of wood, with one rugged cross, Jesus built a bridge”.  That is what reconciliation is about, it’s the bridge that Jesus built and which allows unholy people to be reconciled to God and each other.

We’re to live this out.  We are to overflow with reconciliation we’ve received from God, who changes our relationship to him and to each other, who enables us to be different.  He says, be the teachers of my way and my way is peace and justice and love, not violence, bitterness and conflict.  The gift of the church to the world is reconciliation.  

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