Come over and help us
A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
It was a beautiful early summer day with the temperature already pushing towards the mid-thirties as the pilgrim group gathered outside Philippi in Greece. As had been done throughout our tour tracing the missionary journeys of St Paul, we read from the Book of Acts. ‘During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”’ (Acts 16:9) Paul, with his friends, including Timothy, went to Samothrace, Neapolis and so on to Philippi. There they met and baptised Lydia – now revered as the first person to be baptised on European soil. In the shade beside a babbling stream I led the renewal of baptismal vows and anointed each person of the tour party with olive oil. A month later Christine and I found ourselves in Queensland, spending three months in Mitchell, conducting Sunday services and writing up a thesis. Unbeknown to us that was to be just a taster of Aussie life.
Back in Wellington a few years later I received a phone call from the Archbishop of Adelaide – practically quoting the unknown Macedonian man, “Will you come over to Adelaide and help us.” On 12th October 2012 I was installed as Dean of St Peter’s Cathedral and parish priest of the Cathedral congregation. So began an extraordinary and wonderful season lasting eight and a half years. As Lydia did for Paul and Timothy in Philippi, so you have done for Christine and me, opening your homes, your hearts and lives to us. At Easter each year we have renewed our baptismal vows, committing ourselves anew to follow Jesus Christ, he who was lifted up from the earth, drawing people towards him.
A number of people have commented on my ‘legacy’ at St Peter’s Cathedral being the restoration of the Cathedral Organ, the fixing of the leaks following the plaster disaster, the paved driveway off Pennington Terrace leading into the Memorial Garden where we will have lunch today. But for me the real legacy of our time here will be the many people with whom we have shared the journey. Those who, like the Greeks coming to Philip, have asked to see Jesus. Those who have arrived here and, often after a very short time, have said, “This feels like home.” Those who have been here for many years, continuing faithfully to welcome, to serve, to read and pray, to sweep and dust, to polish and make coffee, who have created this place and community we know and love and have called home.
Worship, hospitality, education and outreach – these words and ideas have informed my ministry as I have sought to honour the different constituencies of a cathedral – the parish, the diocese and the city. Together we have embraced the idea of My/Your/Our Cathedral, enjoyed celebrating the past and dared to imagine the future. We have held before us the vision of St Peter’s Cathedral as a Christ-centred, sacramental, inclusive, thinking, mission-oriented, faith community.
But how do I say thank you to all who have travelled this journey with me? I started to name people – went on to three pages each with two columns and thought – this is ridiculous. I might just as well read out the parish roll!
Then a brain flash. Use the WWJD principle. Of course, why didn’t I think of that earlier – WWJD, the ‘What would Jesus do?’ principle. So back to the Gospels and a surprising discovery. As he prepared to leave his disciples Jesus did not say ‘thanks’ for the journey, thanks for coming along, thanks for your support. There was no thanks to John and James for being among the first to follow; no thanks to Mary for anointing him, or Martha for cooking another meal; no special mention of Philip or Andrew who were so skilled at welcoming people, drawing them in, and enabling them to get to know Jesus. (cf John 6 and 13)
After washing their feet at the Last Supper Jesus did give the disciples a new commandment– just as I have loved you, so are you to love one another. (John 13: 34) He did affirm the two great commands of God as found in the Old Testament: Love God and love your neighbour. He did send a message to the apostles after the empty tomb was discovered; they should go to Galilee and meet him there. Even then there was no vote of thanks but rather a very clear exhortation to continue to reach out, to make Jesus known, to embrace all people, welcoming them into God’s kingdom through baptism! (Matthew 28: 16ff) It’s probably worth including the words from Isaiah that Jesus quoted at the very beginning of his ministry, and which clearly informed his ministry throughout.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And then there is the apocryphal story which I have told before. When Jesus ascended to heaven he was met by a worried Archangel Gabriel. “Who’s going to continue the work you have begun Jesus?” Looking down at his friends in Galilee Jesus saw Peter and James and Matthew, he saw Mary and Martha and Joanna, and all the others – each with their varied gifts, talents, faults and weaknesses. Pointing to them Jesus said, “They will, they must, there is no one else.”
I think that is not a bad message to hear as this Dean prepares to leave and the search for the next continues. “They will, they must, there is no one else.”
Unlike Jesus, though, I will say thank you. Thank you from Christine, Viva and myself for the way you have embraced us, loved us, worked with us. We will go with very mixed feelings leaving a large chunk of ourselves in Adelaide. But what a journey it has been.
Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21