A sermon preached at a combined Confirmation Service for Anglican Schools in Cape Town, held at St Cyprian's School, on 26 August 2018: Readings: 1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11,23-30,41-43, Psalm 84, Ephesians 6:10-30, John 6: 56-69
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, dear people of God, heads of participating schools – Mrs Sue Redelinghuis of St Cyprian’s, Mr Stewart West of Herschel, Mr Guy Pearson of Diocesan College (Bishops) and Mr Julian Cameron of St George’s Grammar, educators, friends and families, it is a great joy to be with you today and share in this important milestone in the lives of the confirmation candidates.
A warm welcome to you all. Thank you for inviting me and, most importantly, thank you to the school chaplains – the Revd Andrew Weiss of St Cyprian’s, the Revd Lorna Lavello-Smith of Herschel and the Revd Bob Commin of Bishops, for preparing the candidates for confirmation. A special welcome to the parents and godparents of those to be confirmed during this service. Thank you, Fr Andrew, for preparing for this service and for this wonderful service booklet.
Today we have come in the presence of God to give witness to this special gift with which God, out of his goodness, will endow you, the confirmation candidates: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into your lives. The rite of passage that you pass through today, confirmation, will empower you to practise your faith more effectively in every aspect of your existence, deepening your relationship with God and strengthening your spiritual lives.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading: “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” As you have learned in your preparation classes, at your confirmation you receive also the seven gifts of the spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of God. These gifts, as we heard in the introduction to this service, are given to you to fulfil three important purposes: you receive the power of the Spirit for worship, witness
Let us look at our lives of faith through each of these three lenses and ask ourselves: what insights can we draw from each as we prepare to fulfil our confirmation vows in our Christian lives?
Of the three, worship
comes first. Everything else we do flows from this. Worship is what we do through praising and paying homage to God. It begins with fear of the Lord, which is one of the gifts of the Spirit. Fearing the Lord is not like fearing a lion, rather it is to be in awe of God, or as CS Lewis puts it, to “feel wonder and a certain shrinking” before God. Through worship we show respect for and love of God, admiring God with those who believe in him.
Worshipping God helps us, as Paul says in today’s reading from his letter to the Ephesians, to put on the full armour of God in order to stand firm in the face of the challenges of the changing times we live in. This he says because our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities of this world. And good worship builds good character, which is what our society needs.
Confirmation also requires us to bear witness
to the truth of the gospel. As confirmed members of the church of God we are to speak for God in all places and at all times. This requires wisdom – which is considered as the first of the great gifts. Wisdom helps us to discern what is wrong from what is right and instills attraction to that which is divine.
The Holy Spirit which you are to receive in this service will instil in you the courage to stand for what is right in the sight of God, especially under difficult situations, when standing firm can mean facing rejection, verbal abuse or physical harm. It requires firmness of mind to endure evil and stand for what is good. Perhaps this is what Jesus required of his disciples as presented in the Gospel reading.
The third reason you receive the power of the spirit today is to equip you for service
to God and to God’s world. God calls us to serve him and to do what he desires of us, submitting to his ways wholeheartedly so that he will be supreme over our lives. We are called to serve God so that his glory shines through us, and by serving God in faith we can be reassured that he will supply our needs.
Just as we are called to serve God, we are also called to be faithful in our Christian service. When God calls you and me, we are entrusted with responsibilities that will in the end glorify not ourselves but God. As we heard in today’s Old Testament reading, serving God is what motivated Solomon to build a beautiful temple for the Lord and to ensure that the ark of the covenant was brought back from the Tent of Meeting.
Looking at South Africa today through the lenses of worship, witness and service, what have we witnessed, and what are we witnessing today? Can we be called witnesses to the truth? And how best can we be of service to God in South Africa today, remembering again that our struggle is against the principalities of this world?
Travelling the length and breadth of South Africa this past week – traversing Mpumalanga, KwaZulu/ Natal and Limpopo – as well as recently returning from trips to North and South America and Europe, I am sad to report that confidence in our future is eroding everywhere. Inside South Africa, civil society has lost trust in our society's ability – reflected in government, business and labour – to emerge from our country's crisis of distrust. Abroad, the world is losing patience with the promise that South Africa offered two decades ago when we took a new path. Of course when I say the world is losing patience with us, I talk of our friends who know the complexity of the issues we face, not of presidents who know nothing about us or about Africa and whose idea of leadership is to send tweets.
While the darkest night we have experienced since liberation in 1994 has ended, it is becoming clear that the new dawn promised by the new administration is not yet visible on the horizon. The government is working hard and deserves as much support as it can garner, but the improvements it promises are hard to achieve while corruption still envelopes our country.
Many of you will know that I have in recent years been promoting the idea of a New Struggle to replace the old struggle against apartheid – a struggle to end economic inequities, to revisit the distribution and use of our land, to end the inequalities of service delivery, health care and education, and most of all to bring about equality of opportunity.
Now that we have taken the first step back on the road we set out upon when we adopted our new Constitution, the time has come to ask how we fulfil the dream, unique to us, that we had then. How do we arise from the ashes of pervasive corruption and return to South Africans the billions stolen from the public purse?
I don’t want to preempt the outcome of the Zondo Commission on State Capture, but how do we explain why no one has been convicted – or even arrested – for the crimes committed against us, our children and our grandchildren? Is it really the case that our law enforcement agencies are so corrupted or incompetent that the perpetrators will never be brought to justice?
By some estimates former President Zuma and his crooked cronies stole more than 100 billion rands from us. Added to what was stolen from South Africa's people under apartheid, the figures are mindboggling. If only the 100 billion is returned, this is what it means:
• Every student graduating from high school who is qualified could attend university free for the next decade;
• Rampant youth unemployment could be radically reduced by providing free practical technical training for artisans;
• Every home and school in every township could have modern bathroom facilities;
• We could have free health care for those who cannot afford it.
In John's Gospel, we are promised abundant life to all: not to some, as is the case in South Africa at present. And Jesus doesn't mince his words when he names those who would deny us abundant life: he calls them thieves and robbers who come only to steal and kill and destroy. From another religious tradition, Gandhi teaches us that “It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one's acts.”
South Africa has suffered from a pervasive abuse of power and position by those who allowed their consciences to decay as a result of greed. We allowed to rise to power leaders who compromised our national values as articulated in the Constitution. Justice must be done and they must return what they stole. Looking back to the past, no efforts will ever be enough to repair the harm done; yet, looking ahead to the future, we must spare no effort to create a culture in which such abuses will never occur again.
Historically, South Africans have achieved most when we have realised that if one member of society suffers, if one family suffers, if one community suffers, we all suffer. We succeed when we focus on what we can create together, when we allow hope to flourish and don't stress over what we cannot control.
If we are committed to embrace the New Struggle, my prayer is that we will now make the following choices:
• We will open our eyes and our hearts to the indignities and suffering which our fellow South Africans undergo;
• We will overcome the thirst for power and possession that are so often the roots of these evils; and
• We must say “never again” to the inequalities our society has experienced and work unceasingly to end them.
It is at turning points such as the one we now face that our destiny is shaped. Destiny is a matter of choice, not of chance. I call on all South Africans to embrace our New Struggle, to awaken their consciences and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of values-based decision making and care for one another. In that way we can be of good service to our schools, our families and our beautiful country.
May God bless you, your family and God bless South Africa.
And as you know, God loves you and so do I.