The Seven acts of Mercy

Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod

27th February, 2016

“Blessed are the merciful” Matthew 5.7

Long ago, the church in England loved the number seven.  In 1281, the Archbishop of Canterbury called together the English bishops at Lambeth. Together they agreed a pattern of teaching for every parish in the land.  Four times a year, the clergy were asked to expound the faith.  The Bishops defined what was to be taught: the creed and the commandments.  Then a collection of sevens: the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; seven vices and seven virtues (the seven deadly sins still survive in popular culture).  Then came the seven sacraments of the mediaeval church.  And finally the seven acts of mercy[1].

These seven acts of mercy are probably the least well known part of the way the faith was taught.  They are based on Jesus picture of the judgement of the nations in Matthew 25.  You will remember the passage:

The Lord says, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”.

These are the seven acts of mercy of the Christian tradition: to give food to the hungry; drink to the thirsty; to welcome strangers; to clothe the naked; to care for the sick; to visit the prisoners and the seventh, added by the Church to this list, to bury the dead.

They are not meant to be an exhaustive list of works of mercy, of course.  They are not meant to be a way to earn salvation or to earn God’s favour.  These acts of kindness are a way of responding to God’s grace. They are a way of living out our faith in practical ways through our care for one another and for God’s world.  They are for all of us.

We perhaps take these acts of mercy too much for granted.  How is it that mercy and kindness have always been such a deep, integral part of Christian faith?  Our faith is not simply about what we believe or how we pray.  There have been religions which have nothing to do with how people behave.  The Christian faith is something we live through kindness and through mercy.

The Church is called to kindness, first of all, because we believe that the God who made the heavens and the earth is merciful and kind.

The world is not here by accident.  We are not subject to cruel or random chance or to the movements of the stars as the astrologers tell us.  The gods are not jealous or hardened to human suffering as were the pagan gods of ancient times.  Nor are we subject simply to random physical events as the new atheists believe.  God is love and mercy and kindness, and that kindness and gentleness should be the mark of God’s people.  As Psalm 136 tells us over and over again, 26 times, God’s steadfast love, God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy endures and endures for ever.

Second, we are called to mercy because of God’s gift to us in his Son, Jesus Christ.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3.16).  Jesus shows us God.  The God Jesus reveals to us is mercy and compassion and love.  Jesus’ life and ministry are full of acts of mercy and more: food for the hungry, healing for the sick, freedom for the prisoners, new life for the dead.

In Jesus, God becomes a human person: the Word, God’s love, takes flesh.  In this immense event at the centre of our salvation, Jesus Christ gives such dignity and value to every human person in creation.  In the remarkable words of Matthew 25, Jesus says: “What you did to the least of these….you did to me”.

Kindness has not always been at the heart of human culture.  The Greek and Roman gods were cruel. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes about how this one profound truth that God became a person has reshaped our view of every human person.

He writes:“…we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down’s Syndrome child, the derelict, the wretched or broken man or woman; the homeless, the diseased or mentally ill….To be able to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls”.[2]

Hart argues that this revolution in human kindness and mercy springs directly from the Christian faith, from Jesus.  He goes on to warn us that a culture which loses its hold on Christian faith will lose its hold on mercy.  A society which becomes post-Christian will ultimately become posthuman.  Kindness will begin to disappear from our institutions and our culture.

Third, as we look back through Christian history, the Church has returned again and again to the ideal of mercy. To be sure the Church has often and terribly fallen short of this ideal and does today.  We should be sorry and repent where that has happened.  But we should rejoice in the many stories down the ages and today of kindness and self-sacrifice, of women and men stirred up to acts of mercy in great multitudes of ways in every generation.

It is the kindness and mercy of God reflected in and through the Church which is the most powerful witness still to the truth of Christian faith.

The American historian and sociologist Rodney Stark describes how the Christian community expanded and grew to be the dominant religion of the Roman empire in less than three hundred years.  He describes how acts of mercy played such a significant role in the growth of the church in the first four centuries, particularly in times of plague and desolation.

Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote these words in an Easter letter to his community around 260 AD following a great plague across the ancient world:

“Most our our fellow Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another.  Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ and with them departed this life serene and happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains”[3]

The Christians stayed in the city and cared for the sick when everyone else fled.

God is love.  Jesus sets the pattern for our lives.  The Church in every generation has cherished mercy.  For all of these reasons, we need from time to time to remind each other that we are called individually and together to acts of mercy, not to earn God’s favour but in response to God’s love, and that these acts of mercy should be the hallmark of a Christ-like church, the kind of church we want to be.

There is always room to grow in love.  But the principal thing I want to say this morning is that as I look across this Diocese, in the Church of England and in the other churches, this is what we see: Christians engaged in acts of mercy, individually and together. I do not want us to boast or become proud.  But I do want to hold up a mirror and remind us all of the remarkable kindness and mercy which is shown by the people of God across this Diocese.

Together we are engaged in feeding the hungry and giving the thirsty something to drink, in welcoming strangers and clothing the naked, in caring for the sick and the prisoners and in burying the dead and caring for the bereaved.

We have recently done some fresh research.  We know that there are 50-60 Food Banks across the Diocese of Sheffield.  It would be excellent if none of them were needed but all of them are.  Most of them are connected to churches and to other faith communities who supply volunteers and donations of food.

People use foodbanks when they do not have enough to eat, when they cannot feed their children, when they are faced with a choice between being warm or going hungry.  Most people use them only a couple of times a year, in times of special need, when their benefits are sanctioned.  They represent practical acts of kindness, God’s mercy in action, feeding the hungry and giving the thirsty something to drink.

Together we are involved and active as the Church in this region in giving clothing to the naked and shelter to the homeless.  The Cathedral Archer project supports around 70 people each day in the centre of Sheffield.  In the last year it has provided 671 food parcels, 606 nurse appointments, 144 dentist appointments. On average it supports over 1000 people over the course of a year.  Mercy and love in action.

Together we are welcoming the stranger.  The Churches are active in their support of Assist, the charity which works with asylum seekers.  Assist is currently supporting 87 asylum seekers in Sheffield with weekly cash payments and bus passes.  These are mostly people who have nothing, whom no-one else is helping.  City of Sanctuary cares for refugees in a similar way.  Many local churches offer a warm welcome across the Diocese for those who are strangers in this land or new to this part of the world.  Project Paddington, started by a small group of Christian parents in Sheffield, has recently delivered 25,000 teddy bears to refugee children in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan and has raised £40,000 for refugee projects.

Together we are visiting the sick.  We have over 27 ordained, licensed or accredited hospital chaplains in the Diocese together with over 90 volunteers working in hospital chaplaincy.  Scores of clergy and lay ministers are involved in visiting and taking Holy Communion to the housebound and supporting those in acute and long term illness within and outside the Church community.

Together we are visiting those in prison.  We have a prison population in this Diocese of more than 3,000 across four different prisons.  They are served by three Anglican chaplains, when at full strength, together with scores of volunteers who give their time to acts of mercy.

Together we offer love and care in funeral ministry and in caring for the bereaved.  Our clergy and lay ministers together take over 3,000 funerals each year, an average of around 30% of all funerals taken in the region.  This ministry is costly when exercised year by year.  Taking a funeral is about far more than officiating at a service.  It involves care for the bereaved, often involving other members of the church or congregation.

Through our church schools we are teaching kindness year by year to more than 8,000 children.  We are passing on to them not only the stories at the heart of our faith but a way to live in love of God and of our neighbour.

In some of these acts of mercy and kindness we act as the Church of England.  In many we act with our fellow Christians in other churches or with people of different faiths.  In many of the charities we act together with people of good will who may not share any faith.  In all of them we offer practical love and service in every community and congregation to people of all faiths and of none.

This morning I simply want to give thanks for these ministries and record them as a quiet, daily, ongoing miracle happening all around us.  As a Church we are doing our best to reflect the love and mercy of God, to increase the sum of human happiness, to pattern our lives around the life of Christ, to live as we are meant to live.

Of course there is much more that we could do.  Of course mercy alone is not enough.  We are called to proclaim the great message of salvation and the story of God’s love (and we do that).  We are called to transform the unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation (and we do that).  We are called to care for God’s good earth and be stewards of creation (and we do that as well).

But it helps me from time to time to remember, and I hope it helps you and the wider community we serve, to give thanks that these seven acts of mercy still form a large part of our core business.   They stand at the heart of who we are, as we invite others in our community to come to know this God of mercy and love, the God of Jesus Christ and join in God’s great mission of love to our world.

One of my favourite windows in our Cathedral is visible from where I most often sit during services.  I’ve spend some time pondering its images.  It depicts six of the seven acts of mercy from Matthew 25.  Next time you visit the Cathedral, give thanks for all the mercy which is shown across this Diocese and ask God to show to you and to us all, the ways in which we can extend and deepen that mercy in the coming years.

“I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25.35-36).

[1] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p.53

[2] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p.214

[3] Dionysius of Alexandria, quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 82

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