Homily by Peter Doyle, Bishop of Northampton, at the Covenant Renewal Service, 25 September 2016
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Thank you for the invitation to preach at this Covenant Renewal Service with the backdrop both of the Scriptures to which we have just listened and of the forthcoming celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of this church of Christ the Cornerstone. While my connection with the Cornerstone goes back just over eleven years, I am conscious that many of you have been committed to this venture since its inception, and I want to thank you for that commitment.
Our scriptures speak of Jesus Christ, of our relationship with him, and of our relationships with one another both in Paul’s letter written from prison to the Christian community in Philippi and in the image of the vine and the branches from the Gospel of John.
The image of the vine and the branches reminded me that in the early summer I was in Devon where I visited a vineyard established by a husband and wife team. The wife spoke lovingly of the way in which she tended the vines to ensure that there was the best possible harvest. She was definitely the vine-grower, a role no one else could fulfil. She took no hostages in her efforts to cultivate a good crop of grapes!
In the Gospel Jesus, the true vine, speaks of his Father as the vine-grower who prunes the branches to bear more fruit. To qualify as a branch which bears much fruit, you and I have to abide in Christ. How can we sinners ever possibly do that?
The answer to that question, of course, is the compassionate and infinite mercy and forgiveness of God. As you may know, the Catholic Church is celebrating a Jubilee Year of Mercy. It is the initiative of Pope Francis who wants us to experience the mercy of the Father, to see in Jesus the face of God’s mercy, and to become ourselves merciful like the Father.
A great focus in any Holy Year is the Holy Door in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But for this Holy Year of Mercy Pope Francis wanted there to be a Holy Door in every Cathedral and Basilica and place of pilgrimage around the world. The door is the symbol of Christ through whom we enter into the mercy of the Father. To quote Pope Francis, ‘We encounter the Lord’s life-giving mercy as we pass through the Holy Door. We approach that door bringing with us our entire past, its joys and sorrows, trusting that Jesus will grant us a new beginning and revive our hope in his promises. We, too, have been raised from the dead and given new life in Christ through the grace of baptism. The Church has become our mother, and we are called to be witnesses of God’s merciful love before the world.’
Yesterday a great crowd of people from Luton and from Kettering came on pilgrimage to the Holy Door at our Cathedral in Northampton. It was evident how much each of us needed to experience God’s mercy, to be forgiven, and to be pruned so that our lives could bear more abundantly the fruit of God’s grace. It was also evident how complex and messy and broken are the situations in which most of us live.
So, as we renew our Covenant this afternoon, I want to encourage us to be open to the mercy of God and to the hope that mercy gives us. I want to encourage us, as Paul wrote, to be of the same mind, having the same love – the same mind and the same love as Jesus Christ who emptied himself in the incarnation and then humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. It is only if the cross is at the forefront of my mind and heart that I can, to quote Paul again, do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit and in humility regard others as better than myself, not looking to my own interests, but to the interests of others.
My emphasis on the mercy of God and on the integrity of our relationship with Jesus flowing into our relationships with one another is that the work of unity can only flourish within a deep and convincing spirituality, a spirituality of Christian hope and courage. The renewal of the Covenant means nothing unless each of us is renewed in our faith that the unity of the Church is the will of God and that we do have one Lord, one faith and one baptism.
An added stimulus for us is that we are approaching the Silver Jubilee of this church. I look forward to being with you on 12 January. It will be an opportunity to look back and give thanks especially for the early pioneering members of this community, to rejoice in Christ the Cornerstone and to ask God’s blessing on today’s community, and to seek the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for the future.
In many areas there is a lack of motivation and enthusiasm for the ecumenical enterprise. Perhaps people have become disheartened at what they see as the lack of progress. Perhaps it is because people feel that the movement is not real, not confronting the realities of our disunity.
Here must be a beacon of hope where people accompany one another on the journey of faith, where the healing of historical memories and receptive dialogue on a solid doctrinal basis must continue, where the shared response to social concerns must expand and where the realities of our disunity are not glossed over but embraced.
Above all, may this place and this community be a ‘Door of Mercy’, showing forth the merciful face of the Father in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Bishop of Northampton