More than 400 Kiwi Anglicans crammed Auckland’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre last evening to see and hear the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, during his racing stopover.
Archbishop Welby, who is in New Zealand for just 24 hours, preached on a night when the beautifully-restored 135-year-old wooden Gothic Revival church creaked and shuddered like a Spanish galleon in the teeth of a late-winter blast.
He’d spent the afternoon with our three Archbishops and their wives, talking about challenges facing the Communion – from slavery to the persecution of Christians in strife-torn places like Iraq and northern Nigeria – and he'd learned something about the life of the church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.
Archbishop Welby told journalists after the service that “the most challenging thing for me... has been hearing about the extraordinarily radical way in which the Anglican Church in New Zealand is structuring itself to represent its communities.
“Giving integrity to each one, yet being woven together as one – it’s a real blessing for the rest of the Anglican Communion.”
The evening service itself bore out what Archbishop Welby had earlier been told by the local Archbishops – with hymns and Bible readings in Maori, English, Samoan and Tongan, and performances by Pacific Island choirs and action songs by a Maori kapa haka troup.
Archbishop Welby told the journalists he was well familiar with multicultural settings, but not with the degree of interweaving he’d just seen at Holy Sep: “It’s much more bound together here,” he said. “There seems to be a really deliberate sense to it, which is very exciting.
The absurdity, the insanity of the cross...
Archbishop Welby drew his sermon from the texts for the evening – Psalm 72, Proverbs 8: 22-31 and John 19: 23-27 – reflecting on the impulse to fear in the world, and the overcoming of that fear that is the Christian’s birthright.
He acknowledged, too, that this is the bicentenary year for the church in Aotearoa New Zealand.
“Even after 200 years of the gospel,” he said, “it is good to remember the absurdity, the insanity of the cross.
“In John’s Gospel the cross is the place of exaltation, of triumph. John himself says that was clear to the disciples only after the resurrection.
“For everyone else apart from Jesus, the spectacle, the sight of a man on the cross led them to get Jesus wrong.
“For the soldiers, playing dice at the foot of the cross, the error is to see nothing out of the ordinary.
“The world is being saved around them. By this figure, at whose feet they gamble.
“And they gamble… to make the most of a dull day.
“The disciples, those who have not run away, huddle in despair and anguish and defeat. Their error is only to see their crucified rabbi.
“They do not see triumph. The throne of the cross.
“The world passed on its way that day, as it would every other day – and as probably we would have done, if we’d been going into Jerusalem on that day.
“Across the Holy Land, the dying died, the suffering suffered, all over the world. Many other deaths happened, unremarked, that day. And this day was much unremarked, among those who were there.
“And yet only this one death made human history, made cosmic history, completely different.
“And the challenge for us as the family that was created through and after that event – God’s family – is to be the sort of people who enable the mistakes that were made then, and are still made today, to be set right so that the light may shine.
“Because for Christians, all our actions should be governed by this figure. And by the way of his death.
“A figure on the cross. By the empty tomb. By the gift of the spirit of God – by our vocation to be Christ in this troubled, and for many, this terrible world.
A world propelled to fear
“This evening, the appalling events of Iraq, the equally terrible killings in Northern Nigeria and in Syria, the war in the Ukraine, and in so many other parts of the world…
“The seemingly endless repetitions of the terrible tragedies of Gaza and the whole of Israel and Palestine… all these events and movements propel the world towards fear.
“And fear takes people to self-protection, and self-protection takes people to actions that only make things worse.
“There must of course be actions. We are an active people.
“Christians are called by God to serve, to transform.
“Yet the pattern of our action is set by the figure on the cross.
“There are millions of reasons for fear. There’s probably about six and a half billion in this world at the moment – and they are every single human being.
“We look at human sin and violence, and that gives us reason to fear.
“We look at natural disasters – and you know so much more than we do about that – and we see millions and billions of reasons for fear.
“Against those millions and billions, there is only one reason for courage, for hope – and that is God.
“The God of cross and resurrection.
“And that one reason overwhelms every other reason for fear.”
Footnote: To see a story and photos about the Archbishop Canterbury's unveiling of the foundation stone for a new chapel at Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral on Friday, click here.