The biblical passage: Colossians 1 v 15-20
Who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are upon earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; that in all [things] he may have the pre-eminence. For it pleased [the Father] that in him should all fullness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things to himself; by him, [I say], whether [they are] things on earth, or things in heaven.
It is my privilege to share with you today as you worship in this city, a congregation which is part of its painful history and yet also representative of the rich diversity which been part of your story over many centuries. I bring you warm greetings from Coventry, a city which today reflects the way our diverse cultures as Europeans now exist side by side in local neighbourhoods. There are two Polish supermarkets in Coventry city centre, servicing the culinary needs of those from Poland who now call our city home.
Together we come to a weekend in your worship and sharing life together, when you receive the Coventry Cross of Nails and reflect on the tragedy and loss of war and the cost of reconciliation. In the second half of the 16th century one of Poland’s most important Jewish communities was established here in Lublin. It continued to be a vital part of the city’s life until the community ceased to exist during the Nazi Holocaust. Students came to Lublin from all over Europe to study at the yeshiva which became a centre of learning of both Talmud and Kabbalah. The great scholarship of those who studied here led to the city being named the “Jewish Oxford”; the Rosh yeshiva received the title of rector and equal rights to those in Polish universities. Such was your story of living with difference until it was taken away by forces determined to eradicate the diversity at the heart of human life.
Earlier this year the City of Coventry was declared a City of Sanctuary, part of a movement to create places of safety, hospitality and welcome in the UK for those who today are refugees from war and oppression in their own country. In nearly every case such conflicts are aimed at eliminating those who are different – in religion, or ideology, politics or national allegiance, race or ethnicity.
This serves to remind us that the challeneges of reconciliation are not simply in the past but are a major part of our present and will continue to shape our future.
Being Christians – followers of Jesus – in today’s world cannot be only about our heritage and traditions, our buidlings and our status in society. If the events of 14 November 1940 in Coventry and throughout Europe during that dark period teach us anything, it is that even our churches, in all their glory, are of little consequence in the face of the violent convulsions that shatter human communities and leave destruction and trauma in their wake.
The desire to dominate others and destroy what we do not understand or like, released an orgy of violence which destroyed so much of our heritage, our economies, the lives of our people and, if we are honest, the witness of our churches.
Since then we have gone on a long journey of restoration and rebuilding, of renewal and reconciliation. Europe as we know it today stands as the most significant political process of reconciliation, not based on the power of a dictator, but on the freely negotiated consent and participation of its nations and peoples.
Throughout this time the Coventry Cross of Nails has stood as a powerful symbol of the Christian ministry of Reconciliation. An appropriate witness to the brokenness of the church and its witness to the hope we have in a God of new beginnings. We must ask ourselves yet again what it means for us to be committed to its message.
It is imperative that in a world where the life of so many nations is dominated by the structures of war and a culture of death, we show ourselves to be the children of God, peacemakers, those who know and live an alternative.
This is at the heart of the purpose of the Community of the Cross of Nails. Our common commitment to building a culture of peace.
Events throughout the arab world, in Africa and even in our own communities continue to bring into focus the profound alienation which remains at the heart of the human experience. We live with continuing instability and violence; of misunderstanding and exploitation; of traumatic change in our understanding of ourselves, of each other and the world which we share.
Our awareness of the diversity of human experience and existence has never been greater. Yet our capacity to learn to live with our deepest differences has rarely seemed so problematic. This too is part of the challenge of being in the Community of the Cross of Nails.
At the reformation the question of European identity was violently contested and our inability to live with religious differences cost the lives of thousands. Today, how different ethnic and cultural groups share Europe together, even the question of whether belonging to a particular religion excludes a person, is at the top of the political agenda. As follower of Jesus in whom God was reconciling the world we need to engage with this debate.
We cannot allow another generation, burdened by the wounds of history, haunted by its ancestral voices, to be seduced into a new intolerance.
We need to nurture the moral imagination to tend and heal these wounds and silence the voices that call us to respond to historic communal hurt with fear and hate. We are called to embrace the stranger in our midst and in so doing to embrace Jesus.
As the Community of the Cross of Nails we need the voices of the prophets, angry and impatient with the way things are and longing for what they could and should be. They are easily drowned out in the cacophony of the noise of hate and violence, of fear and insecurity. Then we are left with the quite voice of the poet, the lyric and melody of song and music and the representation of the artist to provoke and disturb.
Of the many artists at Coventry Cathedral which speak of our post war history as a place of healing history’s wounds, the presence of the work of German sculptor Ralph Beyer is provocative. His engraved stone tablets of the word adorn the walls of the nave. Christ’s words of invitation – the bold statement of the gospel story – by an artist whose people where the former enemy.
It was the prophetic words of Provost Howard after the bombing in 1940 which offered the gospel hope of a more Christ like world, in which former enemies would work together. But it is this symbolic act of a German artist proclaiming the good news in an English Cathedral which remains a powerful testimony to what Christian faith stands for in a world of deep historic conflicts.
Of equal significance is the work of Jewish sculptor Jacob Epstein. Born to Polish refugee parents in New York his statue of the Archangel St Michael defeating Satan is on the outside wall of the Cathedral. Here we have a reminder that the work of reconciliation is a struggle not simply against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers of this world.
In this unique way Coventry Cathedral embodies the living hope of today’s Europe, a people reconciled, a place where British, Polish and German, Jew and Gentile, together declare the glory of God.
Paul writing to the church in Colossae sets out for us a great vision of God’s action in a broken world. It is a vision which incorporates the whole of created order and puts reconciliation at the heart of God’s mission.
‘He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he may have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’
Here the alienation of creation finds its resolution in Christ. Here we find the bringing together of the cosmos with the church, of our responsibility for healing the brokenness of creation and the alienation of humanity – of understanding that there is nothing outside the reconciling ministry of Jesus, to which, as Paul tells the Corinthians, we are called and appointed ambassadors of reconciliation.
In Christ all things are reconciled; all dimensions of our alienation are addressed – with ourselves, with others, between peoples, with the earth and with God. It is the Cross of Christ which makes this possible. The crucifixion of Christ stands against the insanity of our pagan impulse to sacrifice each new generation in violent conflict because we neither have the imagination nor moral resources to find an alternative way to live with our differences.
As the Community of the Cross of Nails in our worship of the cosmic Christ, we need such fresh insight and imagination. The prophetic witness of the preacher may awaken our conscience but it is the creative witness of the artist that fires our passion, clears our vision and lifts our eyes above what we know and to see what is unseen, to imagine the possibilities of a new world, a new life together, the living witness of a faithful community.
Beyond politics and social policy, it is the vision and character of a reconciled and reconciling people that will change our world. It is their story of living hope that will fire the imagination, a story shared in the worship, words and actions of people that bear witness to this truth, that in Christ the fullness of God dwells to reconcile all things. This is the good news on which our world depends and to all of us is given the responsibility for making it relevant for today.
Together, we share a story of pain and hurt, healing and hope. It is not just Europe’s story but the gospel story. A story we remember in the Eucharist and in this sign of the cross which you receive today. Our story, our gift of hope to a broken world.
Canon David W. Porter, translated by Dr Joanna Teske