Readings: Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35
If you hadn’t noticed, we are in a period of intense political activity - in London, in the UK, In the United States and the Philippine Presidential elections. There are as many choices open to us as in a supermarket- how London will be governed, whether the UK will remain part of the EU, and how America and the Philippines will be governed. The pulpit generally isn’t the place for party political exhortations but the right and duty of the church to offer its insights on the health and direction of society, including our political life will continue. One of my favourite remarks of Pope Francis recently was a response to a journalist’s question when he returned from the Island of Lesbos with Syrian refugees in his plane. The journalist asked whether the church was getting too involved in politics to which he responded that those who say that the church should not be involved in politics need to see a psychiatrist. So in this political frame, and with the American elections in mind, no advocacy of any particular candidate was being suggested when we sung the hymn This Joyful Eastertide with its line “Till Trump from east to west shall wake the dead in number.” The politics of Libya are also much in the news right now as it struggles not to become an offshoot of so-called Islamic State, and it’s Libya which gives me the three images I want to use today, when we hold our Annual Meeting, look back at what we have been up to, and plan for the future. I have used these images before, but return to them again and again as they give me my manifesto for how churches work. In the East of Libya, not far from Benghazi, you will find a Museum called Qasr Libya, with a fantastically beautiful sixth century Byzantine mosaic floor of a church. It is a riot of colour and creation, and in the middle of it are three images of veiled Byzantine women called Ktisis, Kosmesis and Ananeosis. These three Greek words describe the life of all churches in all places – they mean foundation, decoration, and renewal. They are a cycle and one leads to the other which leads to the other in a continuous cycle. They are also a brilliant summary of what the Easter season means.
First, Ktisis. Foundation. All churches have foundation narratives- founded by St Peter, founded by St Augustine, founded by Gregorio Aglipay etc. You will see our foundation narrative from 1845 onwards displayed in the history exhibition around the organ. I believe there are startling similarities now with 1845, when we were founded. Here are some of them. London growing at an unprecedented rate, fuelled by immigration, new technologies emerging which were transforming society, a struggle within the Church of England for dominance from the warring factions within it, but above all a growing disparity between rich and poor – in our case, with the rich at the top of the hill, and the poor, and migrants, elsewhere. This is one of the reasons why, as we celebrate 10 years of the Filipino Chaplaincy, this church made a bold and prophetic move, which at the time generated some visceral reaction from some sections of the press. Here’s an extract from the Evening Standard at the time. Referring to me, the article said “He has filled the church with cleaners.” Actually, I think I’d like that put on my tombstone, please. How we perceive our foundation remains basic to our identity, which the Easter Season reminds us is none other than the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the empty tomb. This is the ultimate foundation. The other thing of course, which gives this church its identity now, is how, in the second half of the twentieth century, new structures were drawn on the ecclesiastical drawing board, forming Parishes joined together with St Mark’s, All Saints, St Clement and St James, and St Peter’s, leading to our re-foundation as St John’s in the twenty first century, discovering our new, twenty first century vocation. All were products of the time, and all have contributed to shaping who we now are. But foundation is not only backward looking – like the Roman God Janus, it looks behind and before, so now we turn to Kosmesis.
Kosmesis, or ornamentation, leads naturally on from foundation. As the ekklesia, or church, looks to its foundation, at the same time it grows, beautifies and adorns itself. This may be manifested in gold on the altar or in the icons, but more importantly, beautification is a process which all Christians and all Churches are called to. In a culture of Botox and liposuction, this is easily misinterpreted but the basic question for each and every one of us as individuals and as a church remains – “How can I become that person of incredible beauty which God intended me to be?” The paradoxical answer to that question from Christian theology is of course through our death. We are not yet what God intended us to be, and the Resurrection of Christ from the dead tells us that this is work which continues beyond the grave. The Orthodox Church calls this doctrine Theosis – if we allow God to work in us, we become creatures of indescribable beauty, especially when we have shed our failing and corruptible bodies. It was the second century church father Irenaeus who said “The glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” Kosmesis has also been some of the rationale which has led us to raise and spend more than £1.5 million on improving our facilities so that we remain what we were created to be – the centre of the community, worshipping the Triune God, with Font and Altar defining us, and in the process beautifying and transforming the world. At the back, you will see a display of the next stage of this work in lighting, decoration, and the Tree of Life. This is an incredible vocation, and one which daily energises me more and more. It’s this which makes Parochial ministry not a drudge, but a spiritualised form of a daily high intake of Red Bull – a constant explosion of energy, which leads to Ananeosis, or renewal.
As the cycle continues, all churches need to renew themselves. That’s a truism for all institutions, but especially for Churches – if they do not constantly re-invent themselves, they die. All the readings of the Easter season demonstrate the new life, or re-invention, of the Resurrection community. The Resurrected Christ says to his community – as we have shared the resurrection experience together, so now you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue my work. In other words – it’s now down to you, it’s now down to me, it’s now down to us, to get on with the job in hand. This is renewal, or ananeosis. We have experienced this renewal in this Church of St John over the past decade, when the Church has changed so rapidly that in many senses, it is a totally different Church from the one it was. 10 years ago, the Parish had an electoral roll of just over 100. Now our combined electoral rolls are over 400. One of the many encouraging signs for us right now is not only our growth, but also the fact that we are more reflective of the rich diversity of London, especially this cosmopolitan, diverse, and mobile part of it – look at the nationalities and languages present in this church now – Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Lebanese, Iranian, Egyptian, Sudanese, Lebanese, Singaporean, Filipino, Turkish, French, Spanish, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Eritrean, Welsh, Sottish, Irish, English, and even people from Yorkshire. This is Pentecost, and the life of a renewed church. Of course, it isn’t perfect, and there is much work to do – later on, we will be reporting growth in our income from lettings, and our repairs and renewals being under budget, but also our Achilles heel is our giving, which we call stewardship. As you know, our stewardship – the giving of money from each and every one of us, does not over the basic costs of the Parish. This remains a challenge for us, and one which speaks directly of faith - for we give, as we understand – Archbishop Justin, from a business background, often says that money is simply theology in numbers. So this is just a snapshot of our work. Through it all, remains the faithfulness of the people of God, day in day out, as we go about our work often unseen and unsung.
So on this day when we report on what we have done in the last year, I thank you, brothers and sisters in Christ, for being part of the ongoing story of faith in this place. The contribution to the life of this Church, which every person makes in good faith, is hugely valued. Each and every one of us is valued by God. All of us together are given the mandate to get on with the Opus Dei – the work of God in the world. The bigger picture of the international scene desperately needs our contribution, not least in supporting our persecuted brothers and sisters in the faith in the Middle East. This week I was taken by Muslim friends to see Another World: Losing our Children to Islamic State at the National Theatre. The play makes clear what we all know, but also what our secular fundamentalist society refuses to see – that where there is a spiritual vacuum, it will often be filled with poisonous ideologies and creeds, such as that manifested by Da’esh. With hundreds of thousands of others, I welcome the House of Commons Resolution this week that the actions of so called Islamic State against Christians, Yezidis, and others constitutes genocide. The ugliness of Da’esh, in this scheme of things, when it comes to an end (as it surely will) should lead to trials in The Hague for those who have committed atrocities against the beauty of the human person. As people of faith living the Resurrection life, we are called to show the action of God in the world as sheer beauty, and reject any distortions of the divine and human image. For my own part, I rejoice in this community, and this Opus Dei will continue to be my principal energy and focus for as long as I am able, in the grace of God, to do it. So together, we look to our foundation (ktisis) in God, our beautification (kosmesis) through his Son Jesus Christ, and our renewal (ananeosis)through the Holy Spirit. The fruit of this Trinitarian life will be shown by the quality of our life together as a worshipping community, as we say Thank God for the past, and “Yes” to God’s present and future.