More than 1200 people jammed into Auckland’s Holy Trinity Cathedral this morning for the opening Eucharist of the Anglican Consultative Council meeting.
There wasn’t a spare seat in the place, in fact, and the overflow crowd spilled on to the forecourt.
That congregation saw the cathedral at its best – with the colour and pageantry of bishops and ACC members assembled from nga hau e wha (the four winds).
They heard it at its best, too: by turns quiet and still, and then glorious in its worship. During all-stops-pulled passages of the hymns you could kid yourself that the stones themselves were singing.
Of course, the cathedral is not always that full.
No. People had flocked there this morning to see and hear Dr Rowan Williams, who today preached his first and last sermon in this cathedral, and who will in a few short weeks lay down his crozier as Archbishop of Canterbury.
He took as his text John 15: 17-27, which is the gospel reading for today, the Feast of St Simon and St Jude.
That’s a portion of the Gospel which quotes Jesus at the Last Supper, talking to his disciples.
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own.
Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…
Because Jesus knew that he was about to be betrayed, and to be handed over, one might assume an urgency about that message. He really wanted his friends to grab hold of that one.
And is there something in common there with Dr Williams?
Because he too will soon disappear from sight. And while he still holds this job, he may be wanting his fellow Anglicans to grasp that which is most important to him.
If that is the case, he is urging his fellow believers to catch his vision of what he calls “The reckless love of God.”
The John 15 passage, he said, was “easy to misunderstand.”
It is often taken just to mean that the world “is a very unpleasant place –a world that hates Jesus and his Father, and therefore hates us.
“So when we feel that we’re unpopular, or misunderstood as a church… we can feel a bit better about things… and console ourselves when people don’t like us.”
But that is a surface meaning. Because the defining thing about “the world”, said Dr Williams, is not so much that it is a place of “hatred and misery and darkness”, but it is the place “where love is conditional”.
It’s the place where love is apportioned to “the people who belong.
”People who are really rather like you.
“And what Jesus is doing here is to puncture that view of love in the most dramatic way possible.
“The love that is embodied in Jesus Christ, and in the friends of Jesus Christ, is not a love for people like you.
“Not a love that is completely bound up with belonging.
“It’s a love that perseveres when it’s not returned.
“It’s a love that is extravagantly poured out on the unlovable.
“And just in case you’re wondering, the unlovable in this case is not 'them'.
Dr Williams went on to say that God’s love for the world is “extraordinary. Without cause, absolutely free, absolutely, overwhelmingly unreasonable.
“And that’s the kind of the love we are invited to become part of.
“If the world hates God without a cause, as it says in the reading, God in return loves without a cause.
“And there is the foundation laid for our Christian life and faith….
“The love that spills over, constantly, from that little world of people like us.
“And never acknowledges any stopping place – because there is absolutely no reason why God should ever stop loving.”
Dr Williams continued to push deeper, and to suggest almost mind-bending implications of the final sentence in that John 15 – 27 passage: “You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”
In other words, to suggest that “before we belonged to anything, before we did anything, before we achieved anything – even before we believed anything, God was loving us.
“From the beginning, we were there.
“And, of course, since we were there with God, in God’s mystery, in the eternal utterance of the Word and the Spirit, before time began, we are bound up in the immense mystery of God’s outpouring of Himself in creation and in redeeming love.”
The Archbishop finished by suggesting that “the world” is simply “that large bit of us” which says it cannot cope with God’s love.
Dr Williams’ sermon is profound – and it’s transcribed in full here .
Where the wind blows
And after he’d finished, you could tell yourself that God himself might have been saying: Amen!
Because on this brilliantly warm spring morning, the side doors of the cathedral had been flung open.
And the centrepiece of the cathedral – an utterly simple but dignified altar – was dressed today in a white altar cloth, with its two sides draped over the ends of the altar, hanging almost to the floor.
And ever so gently, as the wind blew where it pleased, those two ends would softly wave.
And then, when we were urged to “go out to love and serve the Lord”, we filed out through the great western doors of the cathedral.
To see, on the far side of St Stephen’s Ave, fluttering from a flagpole atop the Selwyn Library, the flag of the Compass Rose, sign of the Anglican Communion.
Flying out there in the world, as it were, where Dr Williams had encouraged us to be.