Reflection: "More than these?"

From the November issue of ADVance, the newsletter of the Anglican District of Virginia. Go here to read the original text (or hear the audio) of Bishop Sandy Millar’s sermon.

Bishop Sandy Millar’s Visit to Truro
By Mary Ailes, Truro Church

I first met Sandy Millar twelve years ago when I attended the Alpha Course at Holy Trinity Brompton and went to church there during a six-week sabbatical. He is one the bright shining lights in Church today, shining the light of Jesus to a world – and a Church – darkened by sin and despair. It was with great joy that I learned that he would be speaking at Truro for the installation of Tory Baucum as our new rector last Sunday, Oct. 27.

Sandy Millar, now the Missionary Bishop in London, opened his time with us by presenting the talk “How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?” on the first night of the Alpha Conference on Friday, Oct. 25. The event brought together hundreds of leaders from all over the area from many different Christian traditions and Truro was packed to hear how being filled with the Holy Spirit is the first step in ministry. The talk was followed by a wonderful time of ministry and prayer guided by Bishop Millar.

On Sunday, however, he brought us something more I think than was just for Truro’s ears. If I can be so bold to say, I think he brought us a prophetic word and one that we may all benefit from hearing, especially now.

When we first read the Windsor Report we learned that the British have a way of saying things more diplomatically, more politely than perhaps we Americans do. We are known for our directness in speech, to put it kindly. While Bishop Millar was winsome in his speech, his content was direct.

He took as his text the Gospel reading for Sunday on Jesus’ questions to Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” He took time to unpack the story “where Jesus looks at the expectant, slightly apprehensive face of one of his closest friends.” Are we not also in such a place right now, expectant, slightly apprehensive? From the onset, Bishop Millar called us into the place like that of Peter, for do we not see that same expectantly, slightly apprehensive expressions on our own faces these days?

The question that Jesus puts before Peter, not once but three times – and that Bishop Millar put before us again in Jesus’ words was “Do you truly love me more than these?” Bishop Millar then went on to say that “I think it is true that Jesus draws near to us at different stages in our life and different moments, always with great love as we try to battle with some of the great questions, the real questions in life.” Are we not asking some really tough questions right now as well, like Peter and the other disciples, find ourselves in our own boats, tossed about by the rough seas? Our questions right now are really tough, dealing with theology, the Church, the buildings, lawsuits, enemies who were once friends, well, the list goes on. Bishop Millar assures us that Jesus draws near to us as we go through those great battles, those great questions – but he asks us a direct question, “Do you truly love me more than these?”

As Peter answers Jesus’ question three times, Jesus commands him to ‘Feed my lambs’, ‘take care of my sheep’, ‘feed my sheep’ – if we do this, then we know who we truly love.

But why is it so important? Bishop Millar said “Before Jesus can entrust this eternal task to Peter, to Tory, to any Christian or any Christian community and before he can entrust this task to you the people of Truro he has to know, he has to establish the basis of ministry, his ministry.” Our ministry, our churches will not remain healthy, will not grow, will not do much – no matter what struggles we find ourselves in – unless we honestly ask ourselves the question and answer it honestly, “Do we truly love Jesus more than these?” We don’t know “more than” what? But we can imagine.

“If the answer is yes,” Bishop Miller said, “then the ministry is safe, the sheep are safe, the lambs are safe, if you love me.” But what if the answer is no, or not yet, or we’re not sure? What happens when we do not love Jesus truly, I wondered. Is that now how idols are born, even good things, to take the place of Jesus?

Bishop Millar quoted St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1145 AD). “Do not trust too much to your present disposition,” St. Bernard said to the pope of that period. “Nothing is so fixed in the soul as not to decay. I’m afraid that you will despair of an end to the many demands that are made upon you and you will become calloused. It would be much wiser to remove yourself from these demands even for a while than to allow yourself to be distracted by them and led little by little to a place that you certainly do not want to go. To where? To a hard heart.”

As some of you know, I attended the House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans in September and it shocked me so much I am still trying to make sense of it, trying to learn from it. I’m realizing that the ships have been burnt and there is no going back, not in the state things are now. It was heart wrenching to see. I look forward and I see the challenges before us, the trial, the uncertainty and I wonder if we are not being led to place where we do not want to go.
And what if that place is a hard heart?

Bishop Millar spoke warmly, but the message was clear. A broken and contrite heart God will not despise, but a hard one will not feed any sheep, that’s for sure.

“Every Christian has to face again, again every day really, the penetrating question that our Lord asks with such love and with such grace,” Bishop Millar said, “and he asks us for our sake: ‘Do you truly love me, more than all of these?'”

But in addition to the call, Bishop Millar also reminded us of the cross.

“In the stories of Medieval battles including many described by Shakespeare,” Bishop Millar said, “there always comes a point where the orderly ranks of archers and cavalry and all the rest are broken and the fighting concentrates around the king, and that is where the final outcome of the battle will be decided. And for us too today the battle is taking place around the King, the person of Jesus Christ himself, in Jesus Christ the word of God, the son of God, the saviour of the world, and that is the real point of course at issue.”

Is this not true – that at the heart of the battle is the King himself, the person of Jesus, in the Word of God, the Son of God, our Savior – isn’t that what is at the center of this great struggle? If we are not completely clear that we truly love him first and foremost, how will we ever survive?

Bishop Millar said that while he was praying for us recently, he felt the Lord remind him of the story in Mark 6 where we learn that “the disciples were straining at the oars, the wind was against them and the waves were beating into the boat and we are told in St Mark’s gospel that they were making headway painfully.” Bishop Millar thought this was the Lord’s message to us, to our bishop, and I wonder if it isn’t a word for us all.

Unknown to the disciples, Jesus was standing on the hillside watching them struggle. And then what does he do? “We are told that he came in from the water,” Bishop Millar said, “walking across the water and got with them into the boat. ‘Fear not’ he said: ‘It is I, take courage, don’t be afraid’ and then he climbed into the boat with them and the wind died down.”

“I don’t need to remind you that there is a war on for the very soul of the Church,” Bishop Millar told us. “But your courage, if I may say this, humbly, and your steadfastness in the face of a new and speciously sophisticated manifestation of evil has won you many admirers all over the world.” I know that encourage word is not just for Truro, but for us all, I’m sure of it. We are together for a reason.

So what do we do now?

“The wind is blowing, and the Lord’s promise is as real today as ever it was. As far as you can, put the unpleasant things behind you. The Lord is doing a NEW THING do you not see it? There are thousands out there waiting to hear that God loves them. There is a task to be done before the Lord returns. There are millions of people to be touched with that sense of joy and peace and purpose and grace and forgiveness and love which you carry as the messengers for God. But it starts, it continues and it ends with Peter’s cry from the heart ‘Lord, you know everything’ ‘You know that I love you’. And Jesus’ kind reply ‘Feed my sheep’.”

This is not a pastoral response, but direction. We will know if we truly love Jesus as we feed his sheep, but we can only feed His sheep if we love Jesus.

And when will we do that? When the litigation is over or the buildings are secured or reconciliation has been accomplished or when Lambeth happens or at some other unfixed time in the future? Isn’t the time to answer Jesus’ question now, at such a time as this?

Will we be as astonished as the disciples were to see Jesus at work in our midst? Is there anything else we can do but love Him truly?