Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist celebrating St Edward’s life on the day of the national pilgrimage to his shrine

19 October 2013 at 11:00 am

The Right Reverend Graham James, Bishop of Norwich

“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first must be the slave of all” (Mark 10.43,44)

These words of Jesus to his disciples two thousand years ago must have amazed them much more than they do us. At the time the idea that being a servant, or worse a slave, led to honour and greatness could hardly have seemed more ridiculous. This was a society, let’s remember, in which slavery was rife. The point about being a slave was that you didn’t have a choice.  No one was a slave willingly. 

It is one of those strange victories of Jesus Christ that what he thought was a paradox has now become a platitude. Everyone now wants to be thought of as rendering people a service.

We have the service industries, as they are called. They are possibly the most buoyant part of our economy. The supermarkets fall over themselves in wanting to be of service to their customers. Yet as servants they seem pretty powerful organisations.

When I was a bishop in Cornwall I used to visit the post office just outside the Cathedral in Truro quite often. Indeed, the post office is still there. Lucky Truro. Once you got to the front of the roped off queue you advanced to whichever counter clerk was free when a neon sign flashed ‘Service’ above their head. I always wanted to look up and say “I’ll have a sung Eucharist and two Evensongs please” but I never had the courage.  Service was serious business. It was so serious that the person doing you the service was separated from you by bullet-proof glass. These days it’s the servant who is often in a position of power. That’s the truly strange thing about the age in which we live.  We have become more cynical about service because politicians and business leaders as well as church leaders all claim to be our servants.  Back in 1987, not long before the Soviet Union collapsed through the weight of its own contradictions, the KGB celebrated its seventieth anniversary. It proclaimed “The KGB has always been the servant of the Soviet working class”. When even those who are spying on you claim to be doing you a service, you realise the words of Jesus are heard very differently now.

When Jesus said “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” he was speaking into a society where it did not matter how much service you gave to your fellow men and women, none of it would confer greatness or power upon you. If you were born as a member of the ruling class or of noble birth, you were great, whatever moral qualities you possessed or lacked. It would have sounded ludicrous to refer to someone as great who was a shepherd or a carpenter or a seller of goods. So we miss the irony in the words of Jesus. And the shock he would have caused.

In 1988 I was present in this great Abbey Church at a service to launch the Church Urban Fund. Three years earlier the Church of England produced a report called Faith in the City. It drew attention to the needs of our inner cities at the time. It caused political controversy. But most of its recommendations were directed at the Church of England itself. It prompted a new spirit of service to the poor, the neglected, the weak and the marginalised. All this was visibly expressed in the Church Urban Fund.  That spirit of service has spread across churches of all denominations and traditions in the past twenty-five years. An extraordinary range of Christian social action agencies has grown in almost every town and city in our land.  Christian agencies, many of them relatively newly formed, now look after almost all the work done in my diocese among those with drug and alcohol problems or with homeless young people, runaways and much else besides. Christians come together, whatever church they are from, knowing that they are called to serve Jesus Christ in others. Whether it is the street pastors in the night-time economy or one of our smaller Christian charities working with women in prostitution, the ethic of service, indeed being a willing slave to all, is embedded in our Christian character.

The bigger difficulty for Christians today is to keep our service humble. That’s because whatever form of service we offer our fellow human beings, we court influence or prestige, even if we are keen to avoid it. Think of the way in which service to our communities brings honours through MBEs, OBEs, even knighthoods and peerages. I preach to myself for I stand before you as someone who seeks to be of Christian service to others yet who sits in the House of Lords. I receive an honour no slave would ever get. 

So to be a servant isn’t enough. Humility is called for too. I recall a famous figure in public life once wrote a book about humility. It’s a dangerous thing to do, almost as dangerous as preaching a sermon on humility. I shall refrain from naming the author because it was rumoured that, on the publication of this book on humility, he went into Hatchards in Piccadilly and asked them why they didn’t have it displayed prominently in the window of the shop. 

There is an older story of a small boy sent by his class teacher to his Headmaster.  He was always being impertinent. He was clever and knew it but was ruining himself by constantly showing off. His headmaster told him he must learn something about humility. He must avoid the limelight.  He must stop making smart remarks in class. Things got better for a while but then the headmaster saw the boy as full of himself as ever. “What’s happened to the humility?” he asked. “I tried it” said the boy “but nobody noticed”.  That’s the problem. We do want to be noticed. But to be noticed is not always the way to being loved. 

We come in pilgrimage today to this great church re-founded by Edward the Confessor, King of England and Saint of God. His reputation for holiness and humility grew in his own lifetime. His service and generosity to the poor was celebrated. His humility led some to think him a weak king. But as St. Paul reminds us, “When I am weak, then am I strong”. St Edward the Confessor was noticed – for his accessibility to his people, his genuine devotion to God, his foundation of this great Abbey Church. We don’t remember him today for political wisdom but as a model of Christian living. That’s why we’re here.

A pilgrimage to a holy place brings us to our knees. We come today not in our strength, nor because we are proud of our service to God. We come to be renewed, to be anointed, to soak ourselves in prayer. For the strange thing about service in the Christian tradition is that those who give most recognise not their goodness but God’s graciousness. Perhaps that’s why Jesus calls them great and the first among us.

Those words of Jesus from our gospel reading which I took for my text didn’t come from nowhere. They followed a request from James and John, two disciples very close to Jesus, who got things wrong. At the heavenly banquet, that wonderful image of the life of heaven, James and John want the best seats. They don’t want to be in the back row with restricted vision. They want to sit on the right and on the left of the Lord himself. Jesus puts them down rather gently. But the other ten disciples aren’t so happy. They are angry with James and John for being so pushy. One of the reasons I know the New Testament is true is that no fake religion would present its central characters getting things wrong so often. We do get things wrong and we seek forgiveness. That’s another reason for coming on pilgrimage. We come to renew our journey in faith. We come to a holy place, to the shrine of a holy saint. We come genuinely hoping to catch the spirit of humility which is so characteristic of living the Christian life. We come longing to serve Christ and be of service. We come not for a little help along the way. We come to be remade in God’s image, the God who turns all our expectations upside down.

“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all”.