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Goodbye Bishop

E rere te manu

Bishop Philip's sermon for the service of farewell to +Helen-Ann, Bishop of Waikato,

16 December 2017

St Peter’s Cathedral Hamilton

 

Ki a whakaroriatia ki te Atua I runga rawa, ki a mau te runga kit e whenua, ki a pai te whakaaro ki nga tangata katoa

 

Glory be to God on high and Peace to all people on earth.

 

Bishop Helen-Ann, – I am sure we have both had the experience of being referred to as baby bishops and we certainly both had the experience of having to forge our episcopal identity alongside an experienced colleague – with all the benefits and challenges of that reality. We have both sat in meetings and had our colleague referred to as ‘bishop’ or ‘archbishop’ while we ourselves have been referred to simply by our first name. Although I confess while you have often had only half of your first name used (a name recalling both you grandmothers, a name which, as for us all defines us) only occasionally have I been referred to with a shortening  to “Phil” which I do not like.

 

We both also know the pull of extended family. For us Taranaki brought us that much closer and we were able to support my parents in the last years of their lives.

 

The obligations of love are never easy. They always pull in several direction at once. But ultimately it is about obedience, obedience to the one who calls us. And the call is always into and for community, the new community God is bringing into being. A new community of peace and justice and righteousness.

 

The image of community that emerges from John 15:1-17 is one of interrelationship, mutuality and indwelling. To get the full sense of this inter-relationship, it is helpful to visualise what the branches of a vine actually look like. And it is chaotic!

 

In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine. What this vine image suggests about community, is that there are no free-standing individuals in community, but branches who encircle one another completely. The fruitfulness of each individual branch ultimately depends on its relationship to the vine, nothing else. What matters for John is that each individual is rooted in Jesus and hence gives up individual status to become one of many encircling branches.
 

The communal life envisaged in the vine metaphor challenges contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and privatism. At the heart of the Johanine model is social inter-relationship and corporate accountability. The metaphor exhorts the community to steadfastness in its relationship to Jesus, a steadfastness that is measured by the community’s fruits – vv 4-5.  To bear fruit – that is, to act in love, is a decidedly corporate act. To live as the branches of the vine is to belong to an organic unity shaped by the love of Jesus. The individual branch is subsumed into the communal work of bearing fruit, of living in love and revealing itself to be one of Jesus’ disciples. To live according to this model then, the Church is a community in which members are known for the acts of love that they do in common with all other members. It is not a community built around individual accomplishments, choices, or rights, but around the corporate accountability to the abiding presence of Jesus and corporate enactment of the love of God and Jesus.

 

The triune community life of God is our inspiration and our calling. The Father is creative love revealed in the Son; the Son is redemptive love incarnate and bearing witness to the Father: the Spirit is the life-giving love, which moves between them.

 

Love is the basic mode of knowing, the love of God is the highest and fullest sort of knowing that there is. (Bernard Lonergan). When we love we affirm the differentness of the beloved. We are passionately and compassionately involved with the life and being of that which we are loving.

 

We are like a family called to rediscover and re-establish our original communion with each other not just because this is our beginning, but also because this is the very life of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. It is not so much that I have something to give to you – like a product called salvation – but rather it is that all I have is myself and that I give to you whole heartedly – because that is what God has done.

 

Father of all,

we give you thanks and praise,

that when we were still far off

 you met us in your Son and brought us home.

Dying and living,

he declared your love,

gave us grace

and opened the gate of glory.

May we who share Christ’s body

live his risen life,

we who drink his cup

bring life to others,

we whom the spirit lights

give light to the world.

 

These beautiful words from our Prayer Book Eucharistic liturgies speak of the grace and love of God. They proclaim the heart of it; that we are utterly, unconditionally and unreservedly loved and that we are called to live and love in this same unconditional and unreserved way; that all might come to knowledge of their need of God and be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  

 

What we need is the strength to change our lives that comes from being truly loved. And what we need is the courage that comes from having faith and hope that there is something more to this life than just the endless return of “the way things are.” In Jesus, God acts to give us those gifts. In Jesus, God pours out a love that is able to change even the most stubborn sinner! In Jesus, God injects life into this world that can create in even the most confirmed skeptic the faith and the hope that there truly is something to live for. Faith, hope and love—St. Paul says that they abide when everything else fails.

 

In Christ, God has fulfilled the obligation of love, and has inaugurated the coming of the Kingdom, that new community of Peace and Justice and Love, which is nothing less than the redemption of the whole of creation. God calls us individually and collectively to participate in that great adventure, the great call, that great obligation of love. That is a call to mission!

 

There is a grace of ordination. It is often spoken about, but this has never been more abundantly clear to me than since my ordination to the episcopate.

 

Without God I am nothing. It is through the grace of our faithful and loving God that I find myself upheld time and time again. Each day I become more profoundly aware of my need of God. I find myself often waking in the middle of the night struggling with some issue, usually some concern or even conflict within one of the communities for whom I have responsibility. When this happens I find coming into my mind either those lovely words “Be still and know that I am God” or that short prayer often referred to as the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. As I allow these words to work their way into my consciousness I have found that I can let the issue go and give it to God. God meets us in the Son and brings us home…

 

Self awareness is a critical dimension of Christian spirituality and is part and parcel of knowing my need of God, my utter dependence upon God and God’s unreserved grace. It has been my discovery that a Bishop must be one who is prepared to go down deep, becoming aware of one’s own weakness and fragility; risking the pain of that journey. The journey into the depths of the human spirit is a journey of intense vulnerability and risk. This is something of the essence of the journey to Jerusalem and on to Calvary; perhaps most poignantly expressed in Gethsemane. A Bishop is one prepared and able to partner and encourage others on the way because he or she is already a fellow pilgrim on this journey. A Bishop who minds the vulnerable frontiers of Spirit must do so with great tenderness and compassion, qualities which are most readily found in the person who has been prepared and continues to be prepared to face their own vulnerabilities.

 

A shepherd’s staff can be used in many ways. It can reach out and retrieve or rescue; it can prod or encourage along; it can be used in defence and it can we used by the shepherd in the middle of the fold to reach out and reassure those on the edge with a gentle touch to the back – thy rod and thy staff comfort me.

 

Helen-Ann you have been such a shepherd for this Diocese. You have been the priest who gathers the Diocesan family around the table of the Lord to be fed for the journey and challenged anew to respond to the call God places on the lives of each one of us.

 

+Helen-Ann, my sister, be faithful to the call on your life and all joy will be yours in Christ Jesus.

 

Myles, dear friend you have given more than you will ever know to us all. You have lived through separation and yet been unstinting in your love and support.

 

Go with our love and our gratitude. God bless your future and your being together. We are grateful for all we have shared and delight that we will always be part of each other. We have formed and shaped one another.

 

My Brothers and sisters we are the Body of Christ,

By one spirit we were baptised into one body.

 

 

 

Story Published: 21st of December - 2017

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