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Sermon preached on the fifth Sunday after Trinity (8 July 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel
2 Corinthians 12: 2-10 Mark 6: 1-13
Mutual dependence is often considered a signal of weakness while proud independence is strength. The Christian Gospel, however, turns the world upside down and challenges received wisdom and usually shows it up to be lacking.
Mutual dependence is, in fact, one of the hallmarks of Gospel Christianity so that there is truly strength in numbers both when one is succeeding and when one is suffering. Which means, of course, that there is strength in weakness.
In the episode recounted in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’s ministry is severely hampered by the jealous scepticism of his family members and townspeople. The power of God is hampered by a lack of response on the part of people whom Jesus wishes to help and indeed on the part of people who fail to recognise their need of his help. Even Jesus’s power to save is dependent upon faithful response.
And what is extraordinary about this episode is not so much the failure of these people to believe – after all, they have actually witnessed the deeds of power being done by Jesus’s hand – but the sheer jealousy, antagonism and refusal to cooperate which they exemplify.
The power of God relies upon the faithful response of the people. The power of God is epitomised by mutual dependence. And that is not its weakness. That is its strength. And, by starting at the top, one sees how vital it is that that truth cascades down through human society and all of its communities and structures.
Jesus himself weaves the whole concept of mutual dependence into the blue print which he gives for the mission and ministry of the Church when he sends the disciples out in twos to preach and to heal – to talk about God and to lift people out of their misery. If they get no welcome and no response, then there is no mission and no ministry.
The priest has no power to bless bread and wine unless the people hold out their hands and express their weakness and their need.
Despite the enthusiasm of certain ministers of religion, the love of God cannot be imposed on people. It must be willingly received by people who entertain it in their hearts by showing their weakness and their need because weakness is strength and need is friendship.
It’s not easy: not only because society champions independence as the hallmark of strength but also because a willingness to accept mutual dependence involves a willingness to accept the risks and the obligations that go with mutual dependence.
Something along these lines is happening to the Church of England right now. The General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, is meeting in York and tomorrow will make decisions concerning whether women should be consecrated as bishops: part of a lengthy process of debate and consultation and prayer over the last few years.
One of the several complicated arguments against a decision to consecrate women as bishops is the perceived strength of the tradition and continuity of the historic episcopate as it has been received down the centuries. Another argument against such a decision is the suggested incompetence of the Church of England to make such a decision without damaging the unity of the universal Church.
These are powerful arguments but they seem to me to be risk-averse and that makes me suspicious of them. I’m worried that they’re overly concerned with maintaining a position of strength – strength, that is, in the eyes of the world – and I find that hard to reconcile with what I hear in this morning’s gospel lesson and, indeed, in this morning’s epistle about strength lying in weakness and about the need to accept risk in order to achieve the mutual dependence that lies at the heart of Christ’s teaching about the love of God.
Once, I would have been sharply critical of the people who opposed the ordination of women but a recognition over the years that we should approach every issue on the assumption that we might be wrong has tempered my criticism and now I merely want to ask my friends to take a great risk tomorrow and enable women to be consecrated as bishops as part of the expression of mutual dependence which turns the world upside down and makes it all the stronger for its weakness.
Of course, it can’t be done without an extraordinary degree of give and take on all sides but one of the other great lessons that the Gospel teaches us is the value of mutually worked out compromise.
A fuller expression of the breadth of humanity within the oversight of our Church may well break some of our links with the past; may well weaken our relationship with other denominations of Christianity; may well be a great risk. But is it not brokenness and weakness and risk that makes us, in this act of worship, hold out our hands in need and express our mutual dependence on God and on each other?
There is no value in proud independence but there is something divine about a willingness to accept the risk and obligations of mutual dependence. Jesus recognised that in this morning’s gospel lesson. We can recognise it too.
Because when I am weak, then I am strong.