The Bishop of Ebbsfleet preaches at the Licensing of Fr Jones Mutemwakwenda as Priest in Charge of All Hallows, Easton (Bristol)
Fr Jones Chibuye Mutemwakwenda was born and ordained in Zambia. He was formerly Archdeacon, Diocesan Administrator and Vicar General of the Diocese of Lusaka. Having undertaken further theological studies in England and served as an Honorary Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity, Westbury-on-Trym, he was licensed as Priest in Charge of All Hallows, Easton (Bristol) on 16March2015.
Jesus said, `Love one another as I have loved you: (John 15.12)
The ancient Greeks, well before Jesus, had a saying, From Africa there is always something new: Well, my dear Fr Jones, through all the long history of that ancient proverb, it’s true in its very best sense tonight. We thank God for you, for Gladys and for your family; for your love of this place, and your desire to serve here as its new priest-in-charge.
Thank you too for directing our attention, in your choice of gospel reading for this evening’s celebration. It takes us, like a well-aimed dart, right into the heart of Jesuss teaching at the Last Supper, and right to the heart of what this parish is called to in the coming years. Luke’s Last Supper is 38 verses, Matthew’s 15, Marks a tiny 13; but John’s account of the Last Supper is a whacking 155 verses, full of teaching about the nature of our relationship with Jesus Christ and one another. In the verses just before our reading, to emphasize his unity with them, Jesus is reinterpreting the great Old Testament image of the People of God as a vine: `I am the vine stock, you are the branches; remain in my love, grow from me, he says to his rather worried disciples, and you will bear much fruit.
All Hallows is one of the smallest parishes in the Diocese of Bristol, and statistically it is the most socially deprived. The challenges to the people who live in this part of the city are huge; and the little flock ofJesus Christ here can easily seem overwhelmed. But that is not bad news. If the story of salvation and the experience ofJesus are anything to go by, All Hallows is ideally placed to do great things for God: or (to put it better) is ideally placed for God to do great things through it. The only condition is the word from the Lord which arrives with Fr Jones tonight: `Remain in me, keep my command; Jesus says, and you will bear much fruit’.
Let’s stay with St John a moment, and try to bring out one or two key thoughts.
First, Jesus is giving a totally new commandment. You remember, he begins with parables like the Good Samaritan, teaching his hearers to recognize and love their neighbour as much as they love God (cf. Luke 10.25-28). Later, he takes them further: You have heard it said, `Love your neighbour, and hate your enemies’; but I say, `Love your enemies: But now, in his Last Supper, as he hands himself over to his disciples before ever he is handed over to the authorities, he goes even further and provides both a model and a measure of love. It’s no longer just `love your enemies,’ but `love one another as I have loved you’ — without limit (John 13.1). Here is the one Christian commandment — the only one by which, if it’s lived out, you can recognize the disciples of Jesus (cf. John 13.35). This is the condition for Christianity. In one of his letters the same John explained, No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God remains in us’ (1John 4.12). This is Christianity: nothing else! And whenever it loses its centrality, its uniqueness, its clarity in the lives of Christians, then Christianity ceases to be good news; it even becomes bad news, as empty religion so often can.
But there’s a second crucial insight here. Loving as Jesus loved us means loving unconditionally. The world out there, the world around us in Easton, has its difficulties, its violence, even its darkness; but the most obvious thing about the world is that it is a place where love is conditional. In the world, we humans love people like ourselves. But at the Last Supper we hear Jesus puncturing that view of love like popping a balloon.
The love that is embodied in Jesus, and in the friends of Jesus, is not a love for people like us, not a love that is completely bound up with belonging to this or that group. It is a catholic love: a love that is extravagantly poured out, that perseveres when it’s ignored or rejected or injured, that knows no boundaries. Jesus reminds his friends in these words that God’s love has no start button, no stop button. God’s love has no cause; its totally free, totally sovereign, and utterly unlike the worlds conditional love. Jesus tells us Christians to love one another as he loves us because in his every moment, his every word, his every act, in the death he endures and the life he regains, Jesus is the stream of his Father’s unstoppable causeless love. This unconditional love is what makes the Church catholic, what makes it evangelistic. And its a constant challenge to the Church, because inside each human being (all Christians included) is the deep-rooted desire to love people like us rather than to love with the Lord’s divine and catholic love.
Jesus forces us to rethink love, to rethink belonging, to rethink our future; and he draws us to himself, so that with his unconditional love we can go to every other conceivable human situation and create more belonging, create unity. We’ve got to go to where our almighty Father’s unreasonable love already is, to catch up, and make his welcome and mercy and grace available for our contemporaries. Our job is to create the belonging-in-Jesus that God’s universal overwhelming love wants to bring to life. That’s what the Church is for: that’s what the Scriptures declare, what the Sacraments nourish, what all the Saints witness to.
Now it’s well known that All Hallows stands for a tradition in the Church of England that is not confined to the Church of England. When it identifies itself as `Catholic; its proclaiming that it is part of a universal tradition, the Church of all times and places. It takes its confidence from the habits and commitments of that universal tradition. Dear Friends, you must not be afraid to embrace that identity and grow in it. Catholic tradition is not a `style’ of worship, or a range of goods things alongside others: it is a teaching and a belonging and a destiny as universal and overwhelming as the catholic love of God in Christ. It is a life obedient to Jesus Christ, caught up in his resurrected and ascended life. It has come to us from the Apostles’ preaching and witness, and we share it with catholic Christians across the globe.
Tonight this parish starts on a new stage of its pilgrimage, under new leadership. In recent years you have been fortunate in your pastors, particularly in your last priest in charge, Fr Richard Hoyal. The past two-and-a-half years have been difficult ones. But you have survived, and even grown stronger in adversity. Now you welcome a new pastor, Fr Jones Mutemwakwenda.
Beloved brother: do not fear. You are a gift to us from the catholic riches of Christ. The greatest gift you give to All Hallows is simply yourself and your priesthood, a person and a priesthood that was nurtured and grew up and flourished far from here, far from England. Remain in Christ, and you will soon see what needs to be done. Just at the moment when Christianity in Europe is tired (even in some places in a state of barely-stifled panic), Africa reminds us that where God’s catholic love is received with faith it can transform every condition of human life.
Your challenge now is to embody Jesus Christ for the people of Easton, and to motivate your own congregation to keep his command, and to work enthusiastically with you to show their love for one another in the world around. As your Bishop, I shall always be ready to support your ministry here. Never be afraid to ask my help when you need it.
And to others from the neighbourhood here this evening, I would say: give Fr Jones a huge welcome; help him to be himself, and let All Hallows be itself. And to the people of Westbury-on-Trym who are here, I say: Thank you for showing such love and friendship to Fr Jones and his family while they have been with you. Please let unconditional love and friendship well up and overflow into a friendship between the two parishes.
`I am one with you, Jesus says; `Remain in me, love as I have loved you, then you will bear much fruit, and your joy will be full’