Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Bishop Peter Carrell's first sermon

On his first Sunday sermon following ordination as Bishop of Christchurch, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Carrell called on his diocese to become catchers of people. 

Bishop Peter Carrell  |  12 Feb 2019

Sermon for Sunday 10 February 2019 

Christchurch Transitional Cathedral

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

By splendid coincidence the prescribed readings from the lectionary today, featuring the prophet Isaiah, Jesus our Lord and his apostles, [Paul and] Simon Peter fit perfectly with a new bishop speaking about a new chapter in Christ’s mission for the Diocese.

By terrifying coincidence, the prescribed readings today speak of prophetic and apostolic ministry and mission which was faith-filled, fruitful, and enduring in a manner which sets the highest of standards for a new bishop to attain to.

Isaiah receives a vision which terrifies him.

“Woe is me!”

No vague, ambiguous God confronts him through the vision.

Majestic, awesome, holy, the Lord of hosts sits on his divine throne.

But this overwhelming, Almighty God seeks a human servant – a missioner who can be sent to call Israel to return to God – and Isaiah is that servant.

“Here I am; send me!”

If we, the Diocese of Christchurch, believe in Isaiah’s God, what is God wanting us to do in God’s service?

Are we available to this God? Dare we say, “Here we are, send us!”

Isaiah’s call is set in a time when Israel had some hope that it could work itself out of a considerable mess in respect of its theology and its practice, but all too soon that hope was dashed.

Israel would not heed the prophetic message of Isaiah and other prophets.

God led it into exile - a severe punishment for unfaithfulness, for spiritual recklessness.

But it was not the end of Israel.

The same God led the return of Israel to its promised land, creating in the process a longing for a new anointed ruler, a new King David.

Those longings are motifs hidden within Paul’s phrase “according to the Scriptures” in the 1 Corinthians 15 reading, where he contextualizes the execution and then resurrection of Jesus into the history and expectations of Israel.

Those expectations were often put in pastoral images – sheep, false shepherds leading the sheep astray, a true or good shepherd to come.

And much talk about pastoral ministry in the church, including that of a bishop, is couched in this pastoral language.

We can excuse the first disciples Jesus called to follow him for being a little confused when the talk of a new future for Israel was about fishing and not about shepherding.

Luke’s gospel story of the net full and overflowing with fish illustrates that the God of Israel is the God of expansion and growth.

The mission of God which becomes the mission of Christ shifts focus from one nation to all nations.

Israel will grow beyond its racial and geographical boundaries to include new fish – new peoples, new nations.

God through Jesus Christ came into the world to gather together all the peoples of the world, a vast catch.

If Isaiah’s mission is to speak to Israel as sheep that have lost their way and become disconnected from God,

then the mission of Simon Peter and his fishing mates is to speak to the world as fish God wishes to catch and make connection with.

In both cases, God is at work in the world and amazingly invites ordinary human beings, frail and fallible people,

that is, you and me, Isaiah and Simon Peter, to share in the divine mission.

If there is one task in my time as bishop I want to make the stand out priority,

it is to challenge myself and all who will listen to me to actively share in the mission of God, to be co-workers in the mission of Christ.

The church ought to be primarily missional: outward facing, always available to be sent by God into the world, unafraid to catch people into the great net of God.

In theory, we know this, we nod in agreement with this but in practice we the church often find it hard to be primarily missional.

We often settle on primarily responding to our internal wants and needs.

Yet as long as we read Holy Scripture, God will challenge us to be primarily missional, as our readings do today.

There is a specific challenge in our Gospel reading that I draw to our attention.

In the background to this challenge are these observations:

The sober reality is that the number of Anglicans active in Christ’s mission in our Diocese is declining.

Our total Sunday attendance has been declining through the past few decades. Since the quakes, 70 ministry units have been reduced to 60 units.

It should not be surprising to us if in my time as Bishop of Christchurch we further reduce to 50 ministry units.

Yet such realities in the present time are at variance with the mission of Christ laid out in this event of an overwhelming catch of fish – an event which illustrates the expansive, universal heart of God.

In this passage Luke invites us to ask:

Are we joining with Jesus in great faith, believing that – even though the contemporary night seems long and the fishing to date has caught little – the best catch is yet to be?

A couple of years ago Stephanie Robson, now our new Ministry Educator, published a sober report into the state of our life as a Diocese.

In that report, Stephanie makes a very sharp observation about our tendency (in my own words) to avoid facing the double jeopardy of many congregations simultaneously reducing and ageing.

We are doing that avoidance, I infer from the report, on the basis of a vague hope that some new people might turn up, transferring to us from other churches;

or that a change in government immigration policy might one day lead to the recruitment of thousands of ready-made Anglicans from Africa.

No. Our hope should be directed to a different way of thinking.

If we are not to die as a Diocese, in approximately twenty years’ time, we must freshly offer ourselves to God to be part of an apostolate, of an evangelistic mission in Canterbury, Westland and the Chathams.

A mission which seeks to draw new people into the life of Christ.

Only if this is our mindset will we be taking seriously the words of Jesus:

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Ah, you may be thinking to yourselves,

“That is all very well, but isn’t Christ’s mission much more than evangelism? Doesn’t it include working for justice, seeking to meet the needs of the last, the least and the lost?”

Indeed, Christ’s mission is comprehensive, broad and far reaching and often it is better conducted by deeds rather than words.

But I will be failing in my obligation as the Bishop of Christchurch if I lose sight of the evangelistic mission of Christ and if I fail to challenge our Diocese to have the same mindset as Jesus himself had.

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

At stake is not simply the size of the Diocese but the future of the Diocese and its work in the mission of Christ.

In twenty years’ time, who will be available to reach out to the poor in our communities around the Diocese with the practical love of Jesus?

So what might we do, here and now, today and tomorrow?

A little introspection is good for the soul.

What if we were to ask ourselves this question:

What is so valuable to me about Jesus Christ that I want others to have what I treasure?

That is a loaded question, of course, because it raises the question how valuable Jesus is to us.

But it is great question because it leads us to a place of renewal.

If we have lost our first love for Jesus, Jesus is more eager than we are to renew that love.

If we have difficulty articulating why Jesus is central to our lives, Jesus is more eager than we are to teach us about himself.

When I returned to the Diocese not long after Bishop Victoria began her episcopacy here, I heard people saying things like this:

“Bishop Victoria has made it cool to talk about mission.”

That was and is brilliant.

Let’s keep talking mission.

Our challenge today, for the next ten years, at least, is whether we will all – together in Christ - make it cool to talk about evangelism at the forefront of mission.

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”