Abundant Life


On Saturday 3rd March we held the second of our Common Vision Area Days in Green Park Conference Centre in Reading.  Around 150 people joined us live (despite the weather) and over 100 joined us for part of the morning via live streaming. The PowerPoint presentation which goes with this address is below.

In the very centre of the Fourth Gospel, John sets this profound and beautiful story of the raising of Lazarus.  The turning point in the story.  The seventh sign.  The greatest miracle. The most profound of the “I am” sayings.  Looking back to the ministry.  Looking forward to the cross the resurrection.

The Lazarus story contains several of the great themes of the gospel.  Instead of Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi we have Martha’s good confession: I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  Instead of Jesus’ agony in the Garden we have his tears and agony before the tomb of Lazarus as he in one command raises Lazarus and sets his face towards the cross.  Instead of Matthew and James and John leaving everything to follow him, we have Mary anointing Jesus feet and laying herself before him as a sign of our discipleship and of our worship.

Most strangely and wonderfully, the story of Lazarus is not actually the story of Lazarus.  We know very little about Lazarus except that he becomes ill and dies and that he has two sisters.  We know less about Lazarus than we do about the Samaritan woman or the man born blind in the same gospel.  If you have ever tried to preach on this story by focussing only on Lazarus, you may have struggled.  The story of the raising of Lazarus is actually a story about Jesus.

This is a story about Jesus who is fully God.  For this Jesus calls out Lazarus from the tomb.  The power of the Son of God overcomes even death so that Lazarus is set free from all that binds him, not just the bandages.  But this is also a story about Jesus who is fully human.  The Word has become flesh and dwells among us full of grace and truth.  This is a story about Jesus who lives the abundant life, the life in all its fullness which he promises to those who follow in John 10.10.

This is Jesus who is the model and prototype of the Church.  We are to be like him.  At the end of the gospel, the risen Jesus will gather the disciples and breathe on them and say: “As the Father sent me so I send you”.  We are to be like this in the world.  And why would we not since this is life in all its fullness.

We are exploring all of what it means to be called to be like Jesus Christ.  We long to be a more Christ-like Church.

We have explored those themes first through the beatitudes of St. Matthew’s gospel.  We are called as a Church to be poor in spirit; mourning for the suffering in the world; meek; hungry and thirsty for justice; merciful; pure in heart; peacemaking and willing to bear the cost of our discipleship.

And now in this second half of the year, we are exploring what it means to be a more Christ like Church through this second text, the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.

We see the same qualities at the heart of the story as we have seen at the heart of the beatitudes.  These are the qualities which we want to focus on and embody and live out as the church in every part of our diocese.

We are called to be, like Jesus, more contemplative.  More compassionate.  More courageous.  These qualities together explore what it means to live abundant life.

These qualities are good news for our world: like water on dry ground.  They are deeply counter cultural.

Our world believes that the abundant life is about being busy and filling our life up with things.  Our world believes abundant life is about living for a long time.  About being able to please ourselves.  About pleasure and pleasing ourselves.  About finding a place where we can keep ourselves safe and warm and well provided for.

That is not what Jesus models.

Jesus in this story is contemplative.  What do I mean by that?  His whole life flows from his relationship with God.  He listens to a different story.  In the story of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus continually does the unexpected. First he stays and then he goes and then he waits and then he talks to the Father and then he says: Lazarus come out!

A good, abundant life is a contemplative, reflective life, a life full of gratitude to God and meaning and depth.  A life lived to a different song of joy and hope in the world.

Jesus in this story is compassionate.  When Mary enters the story, Jesus’ compassion is revealed.  Mary’s tears provoke Jesus tears.  Jesus tears provoke our love.  Jesus is deeply disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  He weeps.  Again we are told he is deeply moved.  The compassion and love of God shape the person of God’s Son.

This compassion as well as the contemplation of the Father’s love shape Jesus’ response to Lazarus’ death.  To understand the miracle we need to understand that in order to release this great power of resurrection for his friend, Jesus himself needed to be prepared to die, to offer himself.  Jesus is moved to that sacrifice and to this victory not only by obedience to the Father but out of love for his friend and for his friends.  “Greater love has no-one than this than that he lays down his life for his friends”.

A good life well lived is a compassionate life: a life which is open to the suffering and pain of others and the suffering and pain of the world, which can only be born as we are held in the perspective of heaven.  This is the kind of Church we are called to be and the kind of life into which we are called to draw others.

Jesus in this story is courageous.  Jesus is courageous as he journeys to Bethany.  Thomas says Let us go also so that we may die with him and he is not exaggerating.  Jesus is courageous because he sees beyond Bethany.  He sees the resolution of Caiaphas the High Priest who will say, as the Council meets in response to the raising of Lazarus, “it is better for one man to die for the sake of the people”.  Jesus sees his arrest and crucifixion and death.  Yet still he is able to say, courageously, Lazarus, Come out!

A good life well lived is a courageous life: a life lived from the heart, not bound by fear or greed or sin or death.  This is the kind of Church we are called to be and the kind of life into which we are to called to draw others.

We are called to be a Christ-like Church.  We are not called to be like the Christ of our imaginations but the Christ of the gospels: contemplative, compassionate and courageous in our common life across the one thousand and more churches and schools and chaplaincies in the Diocese of Oxford.

What might that mean in practice.  There is real energy around this call to be open hearted and tender hearted and whole hearted.  But how might it work itself out in the life of our diocese.  This is where there have been most questions.

Let me begin with what it might mean for individuals and then talk about what it might mean for local communities and then for the whole Diocese, kind of things we might do together.

Individual disciples: clergy and lay.  We need to be formed so as to be contemplative, compassionate, courageous in our living.  We need to pay close attention as a Diocese and in every local church to the formation and support of individual Christians and the formation and support of lay and ordained ministers.

Disciples who are formed and sustained to live this abundant life in the power of the Holy Spirit will have the capacity to turn the world upside down and transform it.  There are many examples of good practice here across the Church.  But as I have listened, this seems to me to be an area where we need, by the grace of God, deep renewal.  There are too many churches where the idea of an adult coming to faith is a long distant memory.  We have forgotten the deep disciplines which are needed to form Christians who can live courageous lives.

The Bible and the tradition of the Church have a name for the habit of forming disciples, laying the foundations of faith and accompanying new believers to baptism.   It is a name which has fallen into disuse but the term is catechesis.  Not the learning of dry doctrine but learning to accompany enquirers and new believers as their hearts are set alight by the Spirit and as they encounter the risen Christ and are formed in this abundant life.  Renewing catechesis and deepening our practices in every local church is I believe the foundation stone of the renewal of the Church.  As we accompany new believers and journey with them, we ourselves are renewed in our discipleship because we come back to the very heart of the gospel.  We are also laying and relaying a foundation for discipleship lived out in the world.

In our formation of ministers and lay leaders we need to pay close attention to growing leaders who are contemplative, compassionate and courageous.  There is too much anxiety in the church and too often the outcome is ministers and leaders, lay and ordained, who live over busy, hectic lives and who do not have time to dwell deeply in God.  When that happens our hearts grow hard and calloused.  We lose our compassion.  We become overwhelmed by the details and busyness of our ministry and forget how to be courageous.

We need to pay close very attention to the well being and support of our priests and lay ministers and Church officers.  We need good rhythms in ministry.  We need the right support in place at diocesan level and local level and we will need to review that.  We need the right culture so that people do not neglect their inner lives at the expense of the ministry to which God has called them.  We need to pay attention to equipping one another for a courageous and compassionate witness in the world.

What might it mean for local communities – churches, chaplaincies and schools to be more contemplative, more compassionate and courageous?

It will mean thousands of different things because many of us are in different places.  I learned early in my time as a bishop that it’s not realistic simply to tell local churches what do do – to prescribe programmes.  As a diocese we need to nurture a clear and simple vision of what the Church is called to be.  As we listen to one another we can identify some common priorities – that is beginning to happen through this year.  But those have to be incarnated and lived out locally as you discern as the body of Christ in each place where to put energy and effort.

Local Church Renewal: PMC

One of the significant developments in local church life in recent years is mission action planning in its different forms. Many local churches and deaneries have good, strong mission action plans in various forms which have led to fruitful planning and investment and growth locally.

This process of finding Common Vision is not about starting again with all of that.  But there will be in the next couple of years as those plans are revisited and renewed a gradual process of integration.  If we discern together that we are called to be contemplative and compassionate and courageous, then how do we put those values right at the heart of our mission action planning.  It may be that as a Diocese we should support that by developing a next generation of mission action planning tools which put those values right at the heart of what we do.  But we need to preserve local discernment, local decision making, local leadership of God’s people and see what God can do through his people.

We are discovering as we listen that we need to pay careful attention to context in such a large and diverse diocese.  We need to make sure that we listen to the experiences of the rural church especially to discover authentic ways of being church which fit the present rural context.  We are doing a great deal of listening to the vision for the Church in Milton Keynes.  We are discovering the need to listen to the place of the Church in the other conurbations of Reading and Slough.

Some of the ideas which are emerging through our seven working and strategy groups will feed into this local planning process.  One example will be the concern and care for the environment which is emerging in many different places.  Another will be care for the poor and the possibility of taking new initiatives to combat the different forms of poverty across the diocese.  We need to help and support one another with these priorities.  We need to embed them locally in a way which is contemplative, compassionate and courageous, not simply try and implement the same programme everywhere.  We are called to reflect the abundant life and love of God through a thousand different lenses of churches and chaplaincies and schools as the Spirit works in us to God’s glory and the building of the kingdom.

Finally in what ways might these three values affect the priorities we adopt as a Diocese especially for new work we do together.  Some engagement in mission is individual.  Some engagement in mission is local.  Some engagement in mission is across a town or group of villages.  Some will be across a whole city or across three counties.  In all of it we are called to hold the same values and to be contemplative, compassionate and courageous.

Here let me mention three areas of focus.  It’s not an exhaustive list.

The first is schools.  We need a diocesan approach to schools as well as a local approach.  We need the strength and scale to engage with the evolving academies programme.  We need common approaches to building good links with church and community schools.  We need the resources of the diocese to continue to prioritise our work in education and to see that work integrated with the life of local churches.  As you know we have 284 Church schools and a widening influence in education across the three counties.  That is a significant legacy and a huge opportunity.

The second is our work with children and young people where we are just beginning to engage with what we might do over the next five to ten years.  There is a widespread consensus though that we need to do something and that this is an area where we need to call on and release considerable financial resources to enable fresh thinking and investment and engagement.  In too many of our churches, children and young people are no longer finding faith and belonging and the foundation of discipleship that most of us found when we were young.  Our contemplation leads us to be honest about that.  Our compassion leads us to do something about it.  Our courage inspires us to have a bold vision of renewal for the sake of the present and the future.

The third area is planting new churches.  There is an immense need here.  We have a population the size of Edinburgh moving into the Diocese in the next ten years.  Half a million people – possibly twice that number if all of what is promised in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor is developed.  There are many sections of our local communities which we are not reaching at present.  We need therefore to positively encourage new congregations locally according to need – many different fresh expressions of the church.  We need also to plant new congregations strategically in areas of new housing.  That will need to be a collaborative venture between the local church on the ground, churches which can resource planting on that scale and the diocese.  Again we will need to invest resources here.

God calls us to become a more Christ like Church.  The best Church we can be for this generation and for this time.  The journey will not be easy.  It will be beset with obstacles and difficulties.  But in the midst of them all we are called to live out this vision in our nurture and formation of individuals who are contemplative, compassionate and courageous; in our nurture of local churches which are contemplative, compassionate and courageous; and in our work as the whole body of Christ across the Diocese in daring to dream dreams and see visions come to reality in our schools, in our work with children and young people and in establishing new congregations.

Watch the live stream