Here's the full text of the sermon Archbishop Rowan Williams preached at Christ's College in Christchurch on Sunday, November 4 - which was All Saints' Day, and also the 131st anniversary of the cathedral's dedication.
He took as his text the Gospel reading for the day, John 11: 32-44.
Before anything else, I simply want to say: Thankyou, (Bishop) Victoria and (Dean) Lynda, and all of you, for being able to spend this brief time in Christchurch.
As many of you know, this is a city that has rather a special place in the thoughts and the affections of ‘the other Canterbury’, back home.
And I know that people in the city, and in the cathedral congregation back there would want me to pass on their love, and the assurance of their prayers to you all.
It’s a privilege to be able to come and share that with you. And to share some of the extraordinary experience of this city.
So thankyou, it’s a delight and a privilege.
So where were you?
I want to speak for a few minutes about the gospel reading we’ve just heard.
Because in so many ways, it’s a deeply challenging, even shocking story.
The reading begins with one of the sharpest cries of criticism and protest against Jesus that we meet anywhere in the gospels.
‘If you had been here,’ says Mary, accusingly, ‘my brother would not have died.
‘So where were you?’
In the wake of any kind of suffering, disaster and loss, it’s the question that springs to the lips of all of us.
And even if God were sometimes to intervene, to lift the burden of disaster, to prevent something happening – we would then meet the second great cry of protest and criticism, which comes from the bystanders in the story:
‘He opened the eyes of the blind – couldn’t He have stopped this man from dying?
‘He does this miracle – why doesn’t He do a few more?
So right at the start of this reading, God, in Jesus Christ, is on trial.
It’s a theme that runs through the gospel of St John, in fact, again and again.
Jesus appears to be in the dock.
He’s facing criticism, He’s facing challenge.
In the great climax of chapter 19 of the gospel, He faces his trial before Pilate.
And eventually, He falls silent in the face of Pilate’s question: ‘What is truth?’
But here in chapter 11, it’s as if the personal feeling of countless human hearts is given expression.
‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.
‘So where were you?’
Take me to where it hurts most
And the first thing we might take from the gospel reading, is that God doesn’t seem to want to silence our questions.
Jesus doesn’t round on Mary and say: ‘Shutup. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
He doesn’t say: ‘Don’t ask me awkward questions.’
What does He say?
He says: ‘Take me to where the body is.’
‘Take me to where it hurts most.’
‘Come and see’, says Mary.
And when our cries of protest rise to God about suffering in our own lives, suffering in the world, suffering in our neighbours, that’s the challenge of the gospel:
Are we able, like Mary, to say: ‘Come and see’?
‘Come on God. Come on Jesus. I’ll take you to where it hurts most.’
‘I lay bare my heart, and my circumstances to you.
‘Come and see.’
God does not shut us up.
God does not say: ‘Don’t ask awkward questions.
But he invites us to enter in, to see, to witness.
What touches you, touches me
And what happens next?
In what is, famously, the shortest verse in the Bible, it is recorded:
Not only does he not say to Mary: ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about’… he doesn’t even say: ‘Well, actually, I have an explanation for all this.’
‘If you just sit down for half an hour, I’ll explain the universe to you, so that it all becomes perfectly clear, and you can see how it was absolutely natural and inevitable that your brother died.’
Often, of course, when people say they’d like explanations for suffering, they don’t really mean it.
Because if He’d said that to them: ‘Sit down for a moment, and I’ll explain the universe to you, and you can see why there’s no problem at all’ – I don’t think people would thank him for that.
Jesus doesn’t explain.
His first reaction is that He has indeed come, and seen.
And He weeps.
He expresses his solidarity, his absorption, of the pain.
He says: ‘This is mine, too.’
Jesus says: ‘I am not a God who lives far away, in a distant Heaven – to whom all these sufferings on earth are a matter of indifference.’
‘What touches you, touches me.’
‘I’m going to be there, where it hurts most.
‘If you invite me to be with you, where it hurts most – know that I carry that grief in my love.’
Trust – and you will see glory
But there’s still more.
As I say, this is quite a shocking story.
Jesus comes in for a great deal of challenge here.
Not only Mary, but her much more bossy and forthright sister Martha is determined to add her voice as well.
‘Take away the stone,’ says Jesus, when He gets to the grave.
‘You must be joking,’ says Martha.
‘There is a three-day old corpse in there – and in case you hadn’t noticed, this is tropical weather.’
And again, Jesus doesn’t say: ‘Shut up and pay attention.’
He says: ‘Remember what I said to you. Trust, and you will see glory.
‘Trust and you will see glory.’
The first reaction that Jesus shows is solidarity, and compassion.
And the next thing He speaks about, is promise.
‘Trust me, and you will see something.’
‘You will see something extraordinary, that you never dreamt of.’
And all of that, I think, frames something of how each one of us, and all of us together as a Christian community, respond to suffering and disaster.
We don’t silence the protests. We let them come.
We say, in the name of Jesus: ‘Take us to where it hurts most.
‘Let us come and see.’
And we say: ‘Trust, and you will see.
‘Something will be uncovered for you, in the middle of all this.
‘In the middle of the pain, the grief and the confusion.’
This how we respond in a God-like, Christ-like way, to the challenges, to the world’s pain, to the world’s suffering.
To our own wretchedness, and muddle.
To disaster that strikes our city, our community. Don’t silence the protests. Go to where it hurts most. Be a sign of promise, and say: ‘You will see something, if you hold on.’
Spotting the saints
And because this is, today, the commemoration not only of the cathedral’s dedication, but of all the saints of the church, it gives us just a bit of a clue as to how we recognise saints.
Saints are very definitely not people who have perfect explanations for everything that happens.
Saints may have their failings – but they’re not that annoying.
Saints are people who don’t silence us.
They let us speak out of what is most real to us, even if it’s painful. Even if it’s challenging.
A saint is somebody who says to you: ‘You have God’s permission to be yourself – even if that means pouring out anger, misery, guilt and confusion.’
A saint is somebody who says: ‘Let me come with you, to where it hurts.’
And a saint is somebody who says: ‘Trust, and you will see what you never imagined.’
Because the saints in the church are, above all, the people who give us hope.
The people who show us that things can be different.
That humanity doesn’t have to work in the sort of cyclical, miserable, reworking of resentment, unhappiness and selfishness.
Saints break that open and they tell us: ‘Trust God – and God alone knows what you will see in his world
‘And what you will see of him.’
And it might be worthwhile this morning, as we worship and reflect together, for each of us to think just a bit about people in our own lives who have done some of that for us.
The people who’ve allowed us to be ourselves.
Who, when we have faced deeply difficult and challenging moments, have said: ‘It’s all right to be a mess about that.
‘It’s all right to express that you’re angry. That you’re confused.’
Think of people in your experience who’ve been with you when it hurts most.
Above all, think of the people who’ve given you some sense that it could all be different.
The promise of change
Last night, at the great concert organised for the student volunteer army, I had that vivid sense that things could be different.
I was surrounded by people who were, in their own way – though they would have all been deeply embarrassed by it – showing holiness.
That is, they were showing that something could be different.
They were trusting in the belief that they would see something. Something changed.
In that sense, they were standing where Jesus stands in this morning’s Gospel.
Not denying the confusion, the hurt or the pain – but going where it hurts most.
Above all, promising.
Promising the new life that bursts out of the end of the gospel story, when Jesus speaks his great word: ‘Lazarus! Come out!’
And the dead man comes out, and life is restored.
A change, greater than anyone could have expected, arises out of that blur and swamp of anger, accusation and confusion in which the story begins.
That’s perhaps why St John’s Gospel is, for so many Christians, so very dear to them.
Jesus is on trial, Jesus stands before his accusers, receiving and absorbing the questions, the accusations they throw at him.
But instead of embarking on self-justification, instead of trying to avoid the question, instead of trying to silence people, He lets them speak – until they run out into silence, and then He just says: ‘Take me to where it hurts.
‘Trust. And you will see.’
For all those who have helped us to see, and been with us in those moments…
Thanks be to God.
They are around us this morning. Living or departed, as we celebrate this feast of new life.
As we affirm the great change that Jesus brings, taking into ourselves, His life as our food and drink.
We thank God for new life, never exhausted, that is His, and ours in Jesus Christ, and in the gift of His Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.