Sermon: Archbishop Desmond Tutu

One Sunday morning after little sleep I awoke and turned on the radio and listened to the news followed by the Sunday morning service on BBC Radio 4, which that morning was broadcast from the Chapel of King's College, London. The service was led by the Dean of King's, the Revd Dr Richard Burridge, the sermon was delivered by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was at the time Visiting Professor in Post-Conflict Societies at King's.

Part of the vision of a previous Dean of King’s, Sydney Evans, was to bring people from South Africa, so they could study at King's and then return to serve their country and church. Archbishop Tutu was a student at King's in the 1960s.

It was an amazing sermon, with a powerful and moving message, it reiterated what I had recently been reading in What's So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey.

I wrote to Desmond Tutu, and he kindly sent me a copy of his sermon, which I reproduce below.

But first the context, Mary discovering the empty tomb of Jesus, read that morning from John 20:11-18:

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

God’s Dream: Sermon delivered by Desmond Tutu at the Chapel of King's College, London (Sunday 22 February 2004):

In St. John's Gospel our Lord says the highest title he can give his disciples is to call them friends. Therefore what he says to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection stands out prominently. And he's talking about people, one of whom betrayed him, another denied him not once but twice, and they all deserted him, like craven cowards and were now skulking behind closed doors.

We would have understood perfectly had he been thoroughly miffed with them and spoken dismissively and even derisively of them. Well, what happens? It would have been startling to have called them his disciples after what they had done. And quite mind-boggling even to have called them friends. Well, he decided to knock us over with a feather.

Just listen to what he says to Mary Magdalene: "Go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father. To my God and your God."

Now that really is quite unbelievable. This craven despicable lot - my brothers indeed! But clearly Jesus meant this to be taken seriously. That we, his followers, belong in one family - God's family. Is there anything else in the bible that seems to support this assertion?

This Jesus came - not to an ideal world - but came to a world that was polarised, fractured, divided. Divided into hostile and often alienated groupings. There were the much hated occupying Romans, resented by the subject natives, and Jews did not share a cup with the Samaritans. The Jewish community of His day was stratified, fragmented. There were the Sadducees and Pharisees, the zealots and the collaborating tax collectors. There were the rich, the poor, male, female, young, old - and there was a sharp divide between Jew and Gentile, represented by a wall of partition in the temple precincts to go beyond which spelt death for the Gentile unbeliever.

And people saw a veritable miracle happening before their very eyes with the advent of the new community of the followers of Jesus. They saw those who were formerly alienated and hostile flocking into this new fellowship. And they marveled and remarked "How these Christians love one another."

It would have been revolutionary for a slave to have been accepted as the equal of his former master. But no, they were not just equals - no, they were brothers. They were sisters in one family. An equal you can acknowledge once and forever after ignore. You can't do that with your sister or brother.

You don't choose who your relative will be. Sometimes we wish we could, given just how difficult some of them can be. Well, we don't always know what they think of us! No - we don't choose our family members. They are God's gift to us, as we are to them.

Do you recall when Saul went to Damascus to arrest Christians there and was blinded? And the Lord asked Ananias to go to Saul's lodgings to pray for him to have his sight restored. Do you recall Ananias quite flabbergasted telling the omniscient Lord "Lord, do you know this man? He has been harassing your people and came here to arrest us. No, Lord, you can't be serious." Well Ananias went, and when he arrived said about this persecutor of the Christian community "Brother Saul".

Yes, I believe the words of the Lord to Mary Magdalene to be his most radical utterance. We are family - all of us. We belong in God's family. There are no outsiders. All are insiders.

When Jesus spoke of being lifted up on the cross he said "I, if I be lifted up will draw.." - he didn't say "I will draw some" - he said "I, if I be lifted up will draw ALL - draw all to me to hold them" all of us drawn into the divine embrace that excludes no-one - black, yellow, white, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, male, female, young, old, gay, lesbian, so-called straight - yes it IS radical. All, all, ALL belong - Arafat, Sharon, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, George Bush, Tony Blair, Palestinian, Israeli, Jew, Arab, Protestant, Catholic - all, ALL, all belong in this family.

And in a healthy family the rule is from each according to their ability, for each according to their need. And so if we are serious about being family we would not spend obscene amounts on budgets of death and destruction, when we know a small fraction of those budgets would enable our sisters and brothers - members of our family - God's family, God's children - EVERYWHERE - they would have enough to eat, clean water to drink, adequate health care, education.

Go and tell my brothers. Go and tell my family. We are all, all family God's family. The human family.

There is probably none who understands grace and forgiveness better than Desmond Tutu. When Nelson Mandela left prison after 27 years, he could have called for vengeance, retribution against the Whites, he did not, he called for forgiveness. He called upon his old friend Desmond Tutu and asked him to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The rules were simple: the perpetrators had to tell the truth, the whole truth, and their victims were given the opportunity to forgive.

Many of the atrocities were truly horrific. A policeman called van de Broek told of how he and his fellow officers shot an 18-year-old youth, then burnt the body. Eight years later they went back, took the father, and forced his wife to watch as he was incinerated. She was in court to hear this confession and was asked by the judge what she wanted. She said she wanted van de Broek to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial, van de Broek agreed. She then added a further request, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing Amazing Grace as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but van de Broek did not hear the hymn, he had fainted, overwhelmed. [see Rumor 88 'Love made van de Broek faint' in Rumors of Another World by Philip Yancey]

A few days after placing this on my web site, I was talking to David, rector of St Peter's, about Desmond Tutu and he asked me if I had read No Future Without Forgiveness. A couple of days later, I was in London, and bumped into the man himself, well almost. I was in Trafalgar Square and there was a big party for the tenth anniversary of freedom in South Africa, and who should be on the platform, why none other than Desmond Tutu.

A couple of weeks later, the theme at St Peter's was God. The speaker ended his discussion of God, with grace, and gave as example the moving account of the appearance of van de Broek before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and how he was shown mercy by one of his victims. Talking to the speaker afterward, he had got his account from the same source as myself - Philip Yancey's Rumours of Another World.

further reading

Johann Christoph Arnold, Why Forgive?

Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

Desmond Tutu, The Rainbow People of God

Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness

Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream

Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?

Philip Yancey, Rumors of Another World

For Estie, on whose birthday I first heard this very moving sermon.
Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 2004 -- May 2004 rev 3