Worcester College Chapel, Choral Evensong, Sunday 17 May 2015
Luke 4.14-21: Jesus’ Manifesto
I wonder what comes to mind when you think of Liverpool? Anfield and Goodison, or Aintree, perhaps; or the Beatles? The Ferry across the Mersey, maybe, or the Liver Birds (whether in the form of the statues themselves, or, for those of a certain age, in the form of the 1970s TV sit com)? Maybe you think of Hillsborough, or of the Toxteth riots? Or Ken Dodd, perhaps, or Cilla Black; maybe you think of Scouse; maybe one or two of you think in Scouse?
Or maybe it’s David Sheppard who comes to mind, the cricketing bishop and icon of ecumenism, who (together with the Roman Catholic Archbishop, Derek Worlock) drew the sting out of a sectarian city. You may recall how he was a thorn in the side of Maggie Thatcher, a principal contributor to the Faith in the City report, and the author of that ground-breaking piece of practical theology, Bias to the Poor. And if at least some of that story is familiar to you, then (given two other factors, neither of my choosing) you may by now be listening to me in a state of heightened expectation. Factor number one is the outcome of the general election, in that, for the first time since 1992, the United Kingdom has elected a majority Tory government. Factor number two is the particular pair of lectionary readings for this evening: the first from the prophet Isaiah and the second (sometimes called ‘Jesus’ Manifesto’), a passage from the Gospel according to Luke in which Jesus quotes the verses from Isaiah. Both these texts are mission statements full of promise for the poor and the oppressed.
So: given Liverpool’s recent church history, and my association with one of the two Cathedrals which stand proudly at either end of Hope Street; given the frankly unexpected new political context in this country, which brings with it the prospect of further welfare reform and public sector funding cuts, with their disproportionate impact on communities such as my own; and above all, given the nature of the lectionary readings appointed for this evening, you may, as I say, now be listening to me in a state of heightened expectation – some perhaps in excited, and others no doubt in nervous, anticipation of a highly politicised sermon. Well, you’ll have to wait and see, whether or not // that’s what // this is.
I want to begin by summarising the reading from Luke, in order to draw your attention to two things about it. And then I want to illustrate how those two things currently shape our work at Liverpool Cathedral, because I take them to be hallmarks of authentic Christian mission in every time and place.
- Jesus’ Manifesto
First of all then, the reading from Luke: in the Third Gospel, this is really Scene 1 of Jesus’ public ministry. He’s been baptised and has been preaching in the villages of Galilee to some acclaim, and he comes to his home town on the Sabbath day. As usual, he attends the Synagogue, where a key element in the worship on the holy day is the public reading of Scripture. For one such reading, Jesus volunteers.
Luke tells the rest of the story with immense care and precision. We are invited to savour Jesus, unrolling the scroll, delivering the reading and then rolling up the scroll once again. And although the scroll of Isaiah is not one Jesus has chosen, it seems that once he has been given it, he does carefully choose the part of the scroll from which he reads – the opening verses of Isaiah 61.
In the light of the single sentence sermon Jesus subsequently delivers (‘Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’), what strikes me about the passage is how self-centred it sounds on the lips of the Lord. ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me’, he says, ‘because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives’. Actually, the Greek is arguably even more emphatic. It could equally be translated, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; to bring good news to the poor he has sent me’. Me, me, me. In our culture, those words almost always indicate an ugly preoccupation with oneself. But generation after generation of Christians has found in Jesus’ self-reference, here, an absolute appropriateness, an extraordinary rightness.
Yet Luke is quite open about the fact that Jesus’ first hearers were by no means happy about his focus on himself. At the start of our passage we’re told that the Lord’s early preaching in Galilee was praised by everyone. In the course of Luke 4, however, that praise turns, first, to hesitation, and then, to hostility. That’s the first striking thing about this passage: Jesus’ preaching is focused sharply on himself.
The second thing I want to stress is that the prophecy from Isaiah, which Jesus has apparently chosen as his mission manifesto, is focused also on the vulnerable. Listen to these words once again, if you would: ‘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 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.
For whom is the message of Jesus good news? For whom is the year of the Lord’s favour proclaimed? That is to say, are we to understand the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed, literally or metaphorically?
Well, Isaiah’s original prophecy was certainly addressed to those who were literally captive and oppressed – literally exiles in Babylon. And Jesus certainly healed those who were literally blind. But his gospel also brought sight to those who were metaphorically blind; it liberated those who were captive to sin and guilt, death and the devil. So there’s no exclusive literalism here. His good news is for all who confess themselves to be poor.
On the other hand, as I’ve just indicated, it really isn’t possible to evade that literal element altogether, any more than it is in relation to the words the choir sang for us just a little earlier, from the Magnificat, which is, of course, another excerpt from the early chapters of the Gospel of Luke: ‘he has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away’.
It was precisely passages of Scripture like these, which led Bishop David Sheppard to coin that phrase, Bias to the Poor. In his book, he shows (to my mind unarguably) that God has a particular care for the vulnerable: for those who are literally orphans and widows, aliens and strangers, literally poor – although, as it happens, these same people are also, very often, the spiritually open too.
- Liverpool Cathedral and the mission of the church
So, let me say something secondly, about Liverpool Cathedral and about the way those two emphases are currently shaping our life. In my view, a focus on the presence and finality of Jesus, on the one hand, and on what in Roman Catholic social teaching has become known as God’s preferential option for the poor on the other, are the twin hallmarks of all authentic Christian mission, in every time and place.
In Liverpool at present, we express our allegiance to Jesus by ensuring that at the heart of our life is the call to discipleship: for us, the Christian life is simply this, the intentional following of Jesus. For this reason we have on our staff a residentiary Canon for Discipleship, we run Alpha courses and offer to new believers a baptism by immersion. We have conducted over 120 such baptisms in the past two years, and it’s fair to say our congregations are thriving. Sometimes, it’s true, our unashamed proclamation of salvation in Jesus creates jitters. We note this jitteriness not least in funders, who are, we think, unduly cautious about awarding grants to faith-based institutions. We don’t often, thank God, face hostility on account of our Jesus-centred-ness; but we’re well used to facing tentativeness. The prevailing liberal, inclusive ideology in our society hasn’t quite worked out what to do with the confident commitments of faith. But in this aspect of our work, we believe, on the basis of Luke 4, that we enjoy the smiling approval of the Almighty.
And our focus on the Lordship of Jesus is matched by an intentional solidarity with the poor. In the last two years, our Hope+ Foodbank has fed over 15000 guests – that’s about 150 guests a week on average. Last October, we entered into a partnership with Liverpool Jobcentre Plus, to provide a programme to assist the longterm unemployed back into work. We have a significant ministry to asylum seekers, supporting them through a tortuous and highly unpredictable legal process. In the face of such work, again we find central government is not quite sure how to respond. On the one hand, some seem all too ready to demonise our guests and clients; on the other hand, isn’t this the Big Society at work? In all this work, too, we believe on the basis of Luke 4 that we enjoy the smiling approval of the Almighty.
Of course, every Christian community is different, and Christian mission is always thoroughly contextual. And anyway, Liverpool Cathedral is far from perfect. We could be doing more in both these two key areas of our work, and what we are already doing, we could doubtless do more effectively. But my plea to you this evening is this: if you are ever tempted to ridicule those who use food banks, please don’t – at least unless you’ve met some them, and have heard their stories. And if you are ever tempted to vilify those who seek asylum, please don’t – at least unless you’ve met some them, and have heard their stories. And if you are ever tempted to condemn those who rely on benefits, please don’t – at least unless you’ve met some them, and have heard their stories.
Why? Because the hallmark of Jesus’ ministry, and the hallmark of authentic Christian mission in every time and place is this: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because he has anointed us to bring good news to the poor; he has sent us to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.
Pete Wilcox, Dean of Liverpool