Author: Andy Walton
Date: 07 November 2011
By Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Woolwich
It is amazing to think what and who we have gathered under roof of this historic parish church – a church over six hundred years in its history, a history which keeps changing. What does not change, though is that as a parish church this is for all the people of the parish; so it is good to have Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist contributions, worship led by members of different Christian churches, and people of every age, community and civic leaders, all gathered together in the presence of God. This is what London looks like, and it is great that we can come together to bring all this into prayer.
If it is amazing what is gathered under this roof, it is still more amazing what it represents out there, in the local communities that make up this part of London. It shows the reality of faith alive and active in our city, and it shows the way in which people of faith can and do trust one another, co-operate together, form friendships - and as a Christian, I want to say that all this is a blessing from God, who has given us the opportunity to live in such an exciting place, so many opportunities to broaden the horizons of our thinking, to enlarge our heart, to deepen our faith as we come together.
How do we understand all this as people of faith? How do we make sense of this extraordinary diversity that we live in? As a Christian, I look to Jesus for an answer. Each of us will have different answers from our own faiths, and probably every Christian will have different answers too, but I want to pick three words that Jesus used about himself, according to John’s gospel: ‘way’, ‘truth’, and ‘life’. John says that Jesus said something like this; ‘The way, the truth, the life – that is what I am. Anybody coming to God as Father must travel on this way, must see this truth, must live this life’. Let’s think a bit about each in turn, in reverse order: life, truth, way.
First of all, life. Here it is, all around us. The life of faith is a special kind of life, a life that looks beyond the boundaries of everyday life, but because of that it sees everyday life in a new way. We believe that what really matters is given to us from beyond, and given to us as a trust to use rightly. ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ Paul asked the early Christians. Human life is a gift, to be used as God wants us to use it; the life of our communities is a gift, to be nourished by the values God has given his people; the life of our planet is a gift, handed over into our stewardship, our responsibility. Because we think in this way, we people of faith want to give whatever we can to the life of this city, to work together with one another and with everybody of good will. Our churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, faith groups are an active and vital part of fabric of civic life, giving because we have received. We are very good at bringing people together, sharing the conviction that our life is a gift.
Of course, lots of people have values and beliefs that make them get involved, but then there is that second theme from John’s Jesus; as people of faith, it is truth that motivates us. We think that truth has come to us – not that we possess it, but rather
that truth possesses us, has grasped us, shaped who we are and what we do. ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’, Jesus said: free from just following fickle public opinion, free from accepting whatever we hear or read in the media without question, free to have a fresh insight into how things really are. And the truth that has grasped us is ultimate truth, the sort that really matters, the truth that won’t leave you alone, the sort that you want to share with others. There’s a bit of an issue here, because we don’t all believe the same thing, not at all; our different faiths aren’t just different brands of the same product with some variation in the labelling. I believe some things quite different from Sheikh Fawzi, and he from me; and both of us from Steve; and all three of us from our Hindu and Buddhist colleagues; and so on. Of course we don’t believe the same; and some of the differences are really big. But the point is this – we have the opportunity to get to know one another, to trust one another, to talk about the things that really matter to us, to learn that you don’t have to be either a fool or a knave because you won’t see the truth that I see. Because we disagree doesn’t mean we hate each other – that is the secular myth about religion; look at us here tonight and you can see it’s not true.
We live lives that are given to us, we see truths that have seized our minds and hearts; and alongside the truth and the life, Jesus spoke of the way. As people of faith, we know that we are in some sense travelling through this world. Our service tonight has a title that speaks of just that: ‘Pilgrimage – Together on the Road of Faith’. Or perhaps we might say ‘the roads of faith’, because if we could all draw on a piece of paper where we thought we were coming from and going to in this life and beyond, it wouldn’t look like a motorway; it would look more like the tube map, with lines going here, there, everywhere; or in South London, it would look like one of those spider maps of bus routes, because the ground was too marshy south of the river to do much in the way of excavating underground. Anyway, as people of faith we are all going here and there, but we encounter one another at the meeting points of our city – in schools, in places of work, in hospitals, at times of celebration and of sadness, and in events like this. Jesus told his disciples to go out into the world, and greet people, saying ‘Peace be to you’. In our great city, with all its sufferings and all its diversions, that is what we do: we greet one another as pilgrims on our way, and we say ‘Peace be with you’. And that strengthens our resolve to continue as pilgrims, trusting in the truth the Spirit gives, looking forward to the life that is life indeed, walking the way every day of our life; as the hymn says:
Since, Lord, though dost defend us with they Spirit, We know we at the end shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away.
I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim.
May we all be blessed as we travel on our ways of faith.