faithful shepherd of your Father’s sheep:
teach us to hear your voice
and to follow your command,
that all your people may be gathered into one flock,
to the glory of God the Father.
Reading: Acts 4:5-12 (NLT)
5 The next day the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, along with Caiaphas, John, Alexander, and other relatives of the high priest. 7 They brought in the two disciples and demanded, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?”
8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of our people, 9 are we being questioned today because we’ve done a good deed for a crippled man? Do you want to know how he was healed? 10 Let me clearly state to all of you and to all the people of Israel that he was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, the man you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. 11 For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says,
‘The stone that you builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.’
12 There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.”
Last Saturday, I was at a conference called Dismantling Whiteness. It was a collection of theologians, clergy and activists who wanted to look at the problem of racism from the perspective of being white. It wasn’t about being negative about white people at all. And it wasn’t about saying that all white people are racists. Rather it was about what we do about a world which for too long has assumed – sometimes explicitly and sometimes without thinking about it – that white people are better than black and brown people and has organised itself in such a way that reflects that. This heresy – for all humanity bears the divine image of God and to suggest otherwise is an offensive lie – has led to racial injustice which carries on throughout generations and still affects our sisters and brothers today. The conference was about recognising that this problem of racism and injustice isn’t a problem that we should expect our black and brown friends and neighbours to solve. It is actually a problem which to a large extent has been created and continued (whether we mean to or not) by white people. White people have a part to play in dismantling whiteness as a form of oppression and working with our black and brown friends to reimagine our whiteness in such a way that all of us – black, white, brown or whatever – can all live in healthy, loving, equal relationship.
Sounds quite positive, doesn’t it? Perhaps like something God might want us to do. However, our conference attracted some attention on social media and many of the participants, in one case myself, were recipients of a concerted campaign of unpleasant messages from people who accused us of being racist against white people, being woke, bleeding heart liberals, deluded and part of a cult and so much more. Now I have never been much of a believer in the saying “sticks and stone break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Words can really hurt and intimidate, and I found the experience of being a group under attack in this way rather scary.
In our reading from Acts today, we find Peter and John held prisoner by the authorities for firstly healing a man and then for sharing the good news of Jesus. In his commentary on this part of the book of Acts, the African American theologian, Willie James James Jennings writes this:
Speaking holy words has serious consequences. These are not words that simply speak of God. There is nothing inherently serious, holy or dangerous in God-talk. The holy words that bring consequences are words tied to the concrete liberating actions of God for broken people. Such holy words bring the speakers into direct confrontation with those in power.
In the case of my colleagues and I at the conference, the concrete liberating action was saying that racism is unacceptable and white people have to look at themselves as part of dismantling racism. Those words brought us into conflict with people for whom whiteness is a form of power and superiority. However, for Peter and John, their words had even greater peril – they were arrested and held prisoner by those with religious and spiritual power. Peter and Johns’ message of new life and freedom in Jesus threatened the religious and political status quo and those who benefitted from things as they were did not like that at all.
However, Jennings continues:
Jesus not only spoke such words, but he was such a word. He was predestined to challenge those in power and confront the powers, spiritual and human. The disciples knew this confrontation – the confrontation we see in this reading – was coming. The struggle against those in power that marked the life and death of Jesus was coming for them as well. The great illusion of followers of Jesus, especially those who imagine themselves leaders, is that they could live a path different from Jesus and his disciples. They believe somehow that they can be loved, or at least liked or at least tolerated or even ignored by those with real power in the world.
And that is the reality – we are not here to be liked. As a good-news-proclaiming community, as Jo encouraged us to be last week, we will find ourselves speaking out against all sort of status quos that are unhealthy and unjust. If the gospel, which literally means good news, is to BE good news for those who need it, we will find ourselves challenging poverty, racism, unjust trade, the climate emergency, consumerism, cronyism and so much more. And if we do it well, if we really begin to have an impact, we will upset people who benefit from keeping things just the way they are. People will try and shout us down or discredit us, and it won’t be fun. But we need to do it.
When I was, in my small way, getting some flak last weekend for my participation in the Dismantling Whiteness conference, one of the things that really helped was being part of a community. Jennings, commenting on Peter’s courage to keep speaking, even in the face of opposition, says:
Peter speaks boldly, but this boldness is not the result of character refinement or moral formation – e.g. Peter isn’t brave because he has learned to be brave – Peter has not become the great man who stares down his enemies with epic courage, the kind that creates an odyssey or a heroic tale. Indeed, there is no such thing as individual boldness for the followers of Jesus. Of course, each disciple can and must be bold, but their boldness is always a together boldness, a joined boldness, a boldness born of intimacy. The modern lie of individualism is most powerful when we imagine that boldness comes from within. It does not. It comes from without, from the Spirit of God.
The theme of my sermon today is the courageous community, but the community is just as important as the courageous. It is being part of a community, of people who love the same God, and who share the same gospel values, that gives us courage to stand up to the unjust powers of our world. We are not expected to do it ourselves. We don’t need to fight all the time – sometimes we are the ones who speak out, sometimes we let others take a turn and we encourage and pray for them. And most importantly, we are a community formed and enabled and enlivened by God’s Spirit of Love, which encourages us – literally gives us courage – to say those holy words that the world needs to hear.
So, what does that mean for us here, for St Paul’s Stockingford? Well, you have a long history of speaking out and then acting on your convictions. You have supported Christian Aid for many years. You have been a Fairtrade church. You were one of the first churches to welcome ordained women. You have made choices with your re-ordering project to consider the climate and to be responsible in your choices. You have hosted job clubs and credit unions and family summer lunch clubs to support people facing difficulties of different sorts. The first thing I want to say is that these activities were never optional extras in the life of the church – they are a core part of living the gospel, of speaking holy words to the powers who keep our world unfair and unjust. Keep doing this, and if you are newer to this church family, get involved! The second thing is that as we emerge from lockdown and as we try to grow our church, whatever that new future looks like, we need to ensure we keep that holy truth telling, that speaking which might land us in trouble, at the centre of who we are. And we need to do it together.
And I would encourage us to ensure racism is one of the things about which we are prepared to speak truthful, holy words. A few days ago, on Stephen Lawrence Day, the Archbishop’s Anti-Racism Task Force produced a report on how we can work for racial justice in the Church of England. For too long the Church of England has not been a welcoming and supportive place for black and brown Christians. The report is breath-taking in its scope and ambition, and if implemented fully -which I hope it is – will go a long way to changing the culture in the structures of the Church of England. But the real Church of England is here (indicating the heart) and unless in the hearts of the community which is the church, both here in Stockingford and across the nation, are willing to learn, change and love, things will not change enough.
My final point is that sometimes the holy words need to be spoken to ourselves. I will confess that understanding how racism has impacted black and brown friends in the church has not been comfortable. It is never easy to hear how the world has benefited me and been unfair to another on something as basic as the melanin in our skin. But sometimes the greatest courage is not in changing the world, but in being willing to change ourselves. And, that is where the Gospel comes in again – Christ died that we might be saved. Our ignorance and complicity in the brokenness of the world do not define us and need never be the end of the story. There is new life now, new chances to live the lives we should be living and build the communities and repair the hurts and rebalance injustices now. All we need is a little courage.
So, by the grace of God, in faith in the redeeming work of Jesus, in the strength and equipping of the Holy Spirit, may we be a courageous community. Amen.
Fountain of Mercy and Justice
In a world of inequity and pain
May our actions be our prayer.
We cry out for Shalom, fullness of life to all.
Let the Spirit of Truth guide us.
Let the Spirit of Love free us.
Give us the compassion, courage and resolve
to become the light, we seek
that many may see life and their dignity restored
Inspire us to embody a world without injustice and prejudice
Form us into channels of your love and peace
Let the river of justice and mercy flood our imperfect world
Quenching the thirst of parched souls and lands.
Abide in us o Liberator that we become the Word
so that the world may have Life, Life in all its abundance.
Taken from the book Christian Aid book Rage & Hope: 75 Prayers for a Better World’, Edited by Chine McDonald.