Bishop John's Lent message 2012
'Abundance in an age of austerity'
Below is a transcript of Bishop John's Lent message.
We have become used to living in what is often referred to as an ‘age of austerity'. All of us will know people who are suffering significantly as a result of the recession and the hardship it has created. We may well be feeling the pinch ourselves.
It is heartening to see the response of our churches to such hardship, in initiatives such as the new food bank in Worcester or the homeless shelter which was set up over the Christmas period by Churches Together in Redditch.
What I want to concentrate on in this Lent message, however, is God's abundance in this age of austerity. I don't for one moment want to neglect the genuine hardship and anxiety which some are facing at the present time, but that seems to me to be all the more reason for us to concentrate our attention on all that God has given us.
Materially, pretty much everyone in this country is better off than the vast majority of people in the world today, and of the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived.
When ministering in one of the most deprived places in this country on Tyneside, I would sometime muse about what ‘the poor' in places I had visited in Africa would feel about ‘the poor' in my parish: I am sure they would have thought them unimaginably wealthy, with hot and cold running water, heating, fridge, television etc.
But it's not just counting our blessings as far as our material wellbeing is concerned that will do us good this Lent. It's reminding ourselves of the overwhelming abundance of God's love, material and spiritual.
The gospel accounts tell us of the amazing extravagance of God's love: the first miracle of which we read in St John's gospel is of Jesus changing water into wine at Cana of Galilee when, according to my calculations, he created 1140 bottles of wine at a stage in the party when some might have thought that ‘enough is enough'.
It's worth noting, too, that it was our ‘gladness' rather than our ‘sorrow' that Jesus visited in his first miracle. Then we read of the five loaves and two fish being transformed into enough to feed five thousand, with twelve baskets of bread left over. Jesus offers both material and spiritual substance in abundance.
These episodes remind us that we have been given all we need to be a Eucharistic community. A Eucharistic community is, literally, one that gives thanks. That is our primary duty and joy: ‘it is meet and right at all times and in all places to give thee thanks and praise', as the Prayer Book puts it.
We give thanks for the abundance of God's love for us in Jesus and the blessings he pours down on us. As we do so, God will work wonders through us just as he did through the servants at the wedding at Cana in Galilee and the disciples who distributed the bread to the five thousand on the hillside in Galilee. It was in their hands that the miracle took place, not Jesus's. Abounding in thanksgiving, we are called to let the power of Jesus love be shown through us.
What about our church life? It's all very well to speak of God's abundance, you might say, but what about all the problems we face as a Church? - lack of money, lack of people, and lack of influence in an increasingly secular society.
As far as this is concerned, I was struck recently by something written by Sam Wells, who preached at the ordination here three years ago. Sam has ministered mostly in deprived areas in this country and is shortly to return from a stint ministering in the United States to become Vicar of St Martin in the Fields in London.
He says that he considers himself lucky to have recently had the experience of living in the American South where the churches, considered together, have all the things the Church of England thinks it needs - numbers, money and social influence. ‘But it turns out,' he goes on ‘that the Kingdom of God is no closer. Living in this rather different culture and seeing the same questions from more than one point of view has helped me better understand and appreciate where the power of the gospel truly lies.'
The power of the gospel lies in God's love in Jesus - and the fact that through it he is able to work wonders through you and me, poor broken vessels that we are. It's worth remembering, too, that the changing of the water into wine and the feeding of the five thousand occurred at moments of crisis - when the wine had run out and when people were hungry.
If things seem to be in crisis for the Church in this country, maybe that all the more reason to believe that Jesus can and will do great things with our meagre offering, just as he did with the five loaves and two fish brought by the boy on the hillside. It's a moment of opportunity in which we can no longer be complacent.
In my travels I see God powerfully at work through the people of the churches of this Diocese. One parish in vacancy I visited recently, for example, invites the families of those who have been baptised during the previous year to breakfast in church before a family service once each month. Many people respond to the invitation and learn about God's love and how to share it: the atmosphere of love and joy in that church is great to behold as young and old and ‘in-betweeners' come together to worship and encouraged to serve others.
I think also of the good work being done among refugees in the Halas team to Street Pastors just getting off the ground in Bromsgrove: there are so many examples.
The 2020 Group is asking us to share examples of the good things that God is doing in our diocese, however unspectacular we might think they are, in order that we might be able to encourage one another in being Kingdom people.
I know there are lots more good news stories to be told about things that are happening in our parishes and we are looking forward to hearing them - and to learning, too, about how use is being made of the particular opportunities presented by the Queen's Jubilee and the Olympics.
May God give you grace this Lent to become ever more aware of God's abundance in an age of austerity so that we might together become a truly Eucharistic community, at all times and in all places giving thanks to God and sharing his love.