What will you leave behind when you go? In the week of Margaret Thatcher’s death and the fierce debate over her legacy this seemed a good question to ask of us as well.
The Bishop of Oxford’s tribute to Thatcher was helpful, as was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s talk on resolving conflict, which was part of the Faith in Conflict conference, all of which is worth looking at in detail.
Legacy; Readings: Acts 9:1-6, John 21:1-19
What will you leave behind when you go? We’ve been reminded this week of the importance of legacy, the importance of what we leave behind. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy was a deeply divisive one. I’m sure that there’s a range of opinions here over whether she was right or wrong, how right she was, and what she was right about. But, that she changed Britain isn’t in dispute.
In our reading from Acts we heard the start of one of the most significant legacies of the early Christian church, that of the apostle Paul. He went from being a persecutor of the church to one of its leading evangelists and theologians. Paul worked hard to bring the good news of Jesus to many different places and to defend the good news from distortion and mistakes.
Paul left the Christian church a different, and better place than he found it, from very unpromising personal beginnings, including killing and imprisoning Christians. That’s an important reminder of the radical love and forgiveness at the heart of Christianity. The person who caused death and suffering was able to become a major Christian leader. Is that a challenge for us? Do we believe that people can’t change? Do we carry grudges from things that have happened in the past? Do we feel unworthy because of what we’ve done or not done in our past? Do we need to ask God to know his love and forgiveness in our life?
I know that’s not easy. I know that often grudges are based on real hurts, with wounds that might not have fully healed. I know that it can take a long time to even start to want to ask God to help us love and forgive someone who has hurt us. It certainly took a long time for at least some of the early Christians to accept that Paul was genuine. People were worried about what he might do. I’m sure that some of them struggled to accept someone who had hurt them, their friends and relatives. But, forgiveness is about releasing us from the on-going hurt that someone’s past actions has caused us. Forgiveness is about releasing us from the continuing power that the person who has hurt us has over us. Forgiveness is about the restoration of something of the image of God in us that has been marred by the hurt caused to us.
And forgiveness is God-given. It is given to us by God, because of the death and resurrection of his Son. And the power of God’s forgiveness is given to us through God’s Holy Spirit. We’re not meant to do this on our own. We can’t very often do it on our own. We need God’s help and we need to ask for God’s help. And perhaps the help of those around us as well. We’re called to support our Christian brothers and sisters as, together, we seek God’s kingdom to grow in our lives and in our communities.
So, the example of Paul encourages to think about our legacy, and the example of those Christians who accepted Paul encourages to seek God’s love, forgiveness and power in our lives. That’s a powerful legacy in itself.
We’ve heard many tributes and comments on Thatcher and her legacy this week. Whatever you think about her, she made enough of a change to Britain for us to think about the importance of our legacy, of what we leave behind. We might not have the same impact on the country as Thatcher did, few people do. But, we can have just as significant impact as Thatcher on our families, our friends, our local communities or organisations.
One thing that the death and debate over Margaret Thatcher’s legacy reminds me of is that how we do things is as important as what we do. This was particularly brought home to me by what the Bishop of Oxford said. He said “Some of us perhaps wish that, on a few more occasions, the lady had been for turning – for turning has a good pedigree in Christian theology – but we can still applaud her many achievements while regretting some of the excesses.”
Turning has a good pedigree in Christian theology. We see the need to turn in both of our readings. Peter knew that he had to turn back to Jesus, having turned his back on him during Jesus’ arrest and trial. Paul’s experience on the Damascus road led to him turning his life to a very different direction. Repentance is about turning away, baptism and confirmation about turning towards. Turning is an important part of what we all need to do, turning away from the things we’ve got wrong, turning towards God and what God desires for our lives. That’s why at the start of pretty much all of our services we have a time of confession, a time when we turn, yet again, back to God. Turning. The acknowledgement that we got it wrong. The acknowledgement that we need to be alive to the fact that we can get it wrong, and can hurt other people even when we think we are right.
Whatever you think of Margaret Thatcher, whether she is your political hero or political villain, her way of doing things is not something that can or should be copied by the church. How we do things, how we get to where we are going is important in a way that it frequently isn’t, or isn’t seen to be, in politics. Because, we are called to grow the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. The fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
We’re called to grow all of those fruit in our lives, and those fruit need to be the basis of how we act towards one another, and how we act towards people outside the church as well. Of course, in this church, as in every other church that I’ve been involved in, we don’t do this. We don’t, because we’re sinful, self-centred, and frequently unable to see how things look from other people’s points of view. That of course goes for me as well. And I’m sorry for when I get things wrong, and for when even when I’m doing the right thing I do it in the wrong way. Another reminder of the need to turn, to repent.
We’re called to grow all of those fruit in our lives because we’re called to live as God’s chosen, forgiven family, to be part of the body of Christ. That means that we need to work together. That means that we all need to play our part, we all need to join in. Not out of guilt, not to try and do the same thing as the person next to us. But, as part of our response to God’s love and forgiveness and power working in our lives. And that’ll look different for each one of us, and will look different for us at different times in our own lives. But, we’re called to work together as the body of Christ. And to do that we all need love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
This isn’t necessarily about not having conflict. Conflict is part of our Christian experience. Paul was frequently in conflict with his fellow Christians. Peter was hurt by Jesus’ questioning. It’s about how we deal with conflict. We don’t deal with conflict by thinking that we’re right, or by drawing up battle lines, or by feuding with the person or group we’re in conflict with. All of which we’ve done over important issues such as women bishops, let alone issues in individual parishes. We deal with conflict by reconciliation. We deal with conflict by recognising our diversity, seeking a creative and common way forward, by recognising our need to turn, by honestly and truly considering that we might actually be wrong, or at least less right than we thought we were. We deal with conflict by using it as an opportunity to seek the fruit of the Spirit to grow in our lives.
There’s another legacy that we can reflect on this week, with three of our PCC members standing down, as they come to the end of their three year term. They, and the rest of the PCC, have provided leadership through a vacancy. Each of them, in their own different ways have sought to serve Emmanuel whilst also balancing their other responsibilities to family, work, and the like. So, as we come up to the Annual Parochial Meetings this Tuesday I think that this is a good time to publicly thank all the members of the PCC for the ways that they have sought to serve the church, represent the needs and concerns of the wider congregation, and sought to grow God’s kingdom here in Swadlincote. So, thank you.
But, of course, it is not just by being a PCC member that you can seek to grow God’s kingdom, represent people’s needs and concerns and serve the church. There are many people here who do those things, both inside and outside Emmanuel. I’d like to say a thank you to those many people as well. Thank you for your hard work.
During the last 3 years on the PCC there has been conflict, there has been tensions, there has been many opportunities to seek God’s love, forgiveness and power, many reminders of the need for the fruit of the Spirit in people’s lives. But, there has also been a positive legacy of God’s kingdom growing in Swadlincote. Often in small, unexpected, perhaps unrecognised ways. But, ways that are no less important for that, and no less noticed and welcomed by God.
So, we are called for our legacy to be one where the love, forgiveness and power of God is evident in our lives, where we have frequently turned back to God, where the fruit of the Spirit can be seen to be growing, a legacy where there might be conflict, but a conflict which leads reconciliation. And, as a result of all this, a legacy where the kingdom of God has grown in our life, in the lives of those around us, in some part of God’s creation. That is our calling. What will you leave behind you when you go?