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The Road to New Creation

Isaiah 35.110; Luke 10.2537


Sermon at the Service of Re-dedication for the Priory of England and the Islands
of the Most Venerable Order of The Hospital of St John of Jerusalem
Durham Cathedral, Saturday 23 September 2006
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

There is a great theme in the scriptures which gives meaning and purpose to all
of our life, and sets the framework for what we do here this afternoon. This
theme is present in a thousand passages, celebrated in poetry and song,
articulated in rich and dense theology, lived out by the Lord Jesus himself. And
yet this theme has routinely been ignored or at best marginalised, and
sometimes even thrown into the ditch and left to die as the religious and
secular worlds pass by on the other side.
The theme of which I speak is new creation. Our readings speak of the road to
new creation, the pilgrim path we are called upon to tread, the highway to
Zion, to Jerusalem, the city of the living God. And as today we celebrate the
work of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, with its historical echoes of
pilgrimage, hospitality and healing, I invite you to pause and contemplate the
work of this Order, the work to which we rededicate ourselves this afternoon, in
terms of this new creation, of the new world which God has already begun to
create, and of the pilgrim highway which leads to that new creation, the road
by which we are called to travel.
Over the last two hundred years the western world has seen a great divide in
the way people look at life; and both halves, I suggest, have been deeply
unhealthy. On the one hand, the expansion of empires and industry, of
commerce and entrepeneurship, has created a climate in which the individual
is what matters, and where that individual has to look out for him- or herself.
Theres a ridiculous advertisement just now for instant coffee, which says Its
all about You. It isnt, of course; its all about company profits; but the
advertisers know that our culture has encouraged us to see ourselves as the
centre of the universe, to believe that human flourishing and fulfilment come
from looking after Number One. Insofar as you think about anyone else, you
think of them as an extension of your individuality: your family, your town,
perhaps even your country. But ultimately, as we were told twenty years ago,
there is no such thing as society, only individuals working for themselves. In
that sort of world, you only stop to help the ragged, pathetic figure in the ditch
if you recognise them as an extension of yourself a friend, or family member

or if you think that by doing so you will gain some advantage, make some
useful friends, cut a fine figure, or develop a good reputation for being a nice
person. Ultimately, its still all about Me.
On the other hand, religion in the western world has been less and less about
the renewal of creation and more and more about escaping from this wicked
world and going to a better place, called heaven going there ultimately
when we die, but going there by anticipation in the present through prayer and
meditation. This essentially other-worldly hope and spirituality has fought its
corner robustly against the materialism which has insisted that the only things
that exist are things you can touch and see and money you can put in your
pocket. But if you turn Christian faith into simply the hope for pie in the sky
when you die, and an escapist spirituality in the present, you turn your back on
the theme which makes sense of the whole Bible, which bursts upon us in
everything that Jesus the Messiah did and said, which is highlighted particularly
by his resurrection from the dead. A religion that forgets about new creation
may feel some sympathy for the battered and bedraggled figure in the ditch,
but its message to him will always be that though we can help him a bit,
ultimately it doesnt matter because the main thing is to escape this wicked
world altogether. And that represents a tragic diminishing and distortion of
what Christian faith is all about.
The God in whom we believe is the creator of the world, and he will one day put
this world to rights. That solid belief is the bedrock of all Christian faith. God is
not going to abolish the universe of space, time and matter; he is going to
renew it, to restore it, to fill it with new joy and purpose and delight, to take
from it all that has corrupted it. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
the desert shall rejoice and blossom, and rejoice with joy and singing; the
desert shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. The last
book of the Bible ends, not with the company of the saved being taken up into
heaven, but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth,
resulting in Gods new creation, new heavens and new earth, in which
everything that has been true, lovely, and of good report will be vindicated,
enhanced, set free from all pain and sorrow. God himself, it says, will wipe
away all tears from all eyes. One of the great difficulties in preaching the
gospel in our days is that everyone assumes that the name of the game is,
ultimately, to go to heaven when you die, as though that were the last act in
the drama. The hymn were about to sing ends like that, because thats how
most people have thought. But thats wrong! Heaven is important, but its not
the end of the world; God will make new heavens and new earth, and give us
new bodies to live and work and take delight in his new creation. And the good
news of the Christian gospel is that this new world, this new creation, has
already begun: it began when Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on Easter
morning, having faced and beaten the double enemy, sin and death, that has
corrupted and defaced Gods lovely creation.

Put it like this, in terms of Jesus spectacular story. The world, and we humans
within it, are in a mess, left for dead in the ditch. The secular world walks past
on one side; it hasnt got time to worry about other peoples problems, because
theres a profit to be made and power to be grabbed. The modern religious
world walks past on the other side, believing that this world doesnt matter
because were going to leave it fairly soon and go somewhere else. (These two,
of course, reinforce one another.) But the living God has come with healing and
hope in Jesus Christ, has picked up the battered and dying world, and has
bound up its wounds and set it on the road to full health. This deeply biblical
theme, so well known to some other traditions (such as the Eastern Orthodox)
and so completely forgotten in much of the Western world and church, makes
glorious sense not only of the whole sweep of biblical thought but of the very
specific and practical work on which we rightly focus this afternoon. My friends,
we are here because, whether weve thought of it like this or not, we know in
our bones that looking after Number One isnt where its at; that in Jesus Christ
we are called not to save ourselves from the world but to bring salvation to the
world. We are here because we are committed to the pilgrim way, the way that
leads to Gods new Jerusalem, and because we know that on that road there is
healing: then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf
unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the
speechless sing for joy. New creation has begun in Jesus. There is a pilgrim
highway leading all the way from the cross and the empty tomb right through
to Gods new creation; and we are called, as befits the Order of St John of
Jerusalem, to walk that pilgrim way, the Holy Way, the way of healing and
hope. Strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees; say to the
anxious, dont be afraid your God is coming with judgment, coming with
judgment to rescue you.
The work of healing, therefore, to which this Order has given itself so
energetically in its modern form, is one of the main signposts on the way to
Gods new creation. More than simply a signpost, actually; it is a little bit of
new creation, coming forwards to meet us in the present. Tragically, much
modern medicine has been dragged into the world of commerce, as though the
gift of healing were simply another way of making money. You in this Order
know better. You are here because you know that the gift of healing, of sight for
the blind (my first contact with your Order was when I visited the Eye Hospital
in Jerusalem nearly twenty years ago), or help for those in need, is in its very
essence a gift, and you are offering yourselves freely to that work. One of the
many reasons why I was so delighted that my first public engagement after
being enthroned as bishop here three years ago was to open your new centre
at Meadowfield was because the work of this Order has the fingerprints of the
gospel of Jesus all over it. It offers healing and hope, not just as a crumb of
comfort before we leave this world and go somewhere else, but as a genuine
anticipation, and advance foretaste, of the new creation in which all wrongs will

be righted, all hurts will be healed, and God will wipe away all tears from all
eyes.
The work of this Order, then, to which we rededicate ourselves here and now, is
a work which embodies, both in what it does and in how it does it, that way of
life, that pilgrim way, which stands as a sign of contradiction before the two
misleading and dangerous paths I spoke of earlier. When Jesus told the story of
the Good Samaritan, he did so deliberately to shock his audience. Who is my
neighbour? asked the lawyer. Jesus turned the question back on him: in this
story, who turned out to be neighbour to the man in the ditch? Like so many of
Jesus brilliant stories, it operates at several levels. At the simplest level, of
course, it is a spectacular invitation to a life of self-giving love, love in action,
love thats prepared to roll up its sleeves and help no matter what it takes: yes,
precisely the kind of work we associate with the work of this Order. But at the
next level down, its a story designed to split open the worldview of its hearers
and let in a shaft of new and unexpected light. Instead of the closed world of
Jesus hearers, in which only their own kith and kin were properly to be counted
as neighbours, Jesus demands that they recognise that even the hated and
feared Samaritan is to be seen as a neighbour.
There are all kinds of lessons to be learned from that; but the point I want to
draw out now, in closing, is this. The work of this Order, the work to which we
now rededicate ourselves, stands within our contemporary culture as that story
of Jesus stood within his. The work you do not least the way in which St John
Ambulance, here in Durham as in many other places, draws communities
together into a common purpose which is larger than their combined selfinterest; not least the way in which the Order gives young people from any and
every background, whether Badgers, Cadets or members of the LINKS units, a
chance to make a difference, to learn and grow and discover that its more
blessed to give than to receive; not least the way in which all this work is done
by volunteers the work you do declares, more powerfully than mere words
can do, that there is a different way to be human, a way which shows up selfish
individualism for what it is, a way which answers brilliantly our current
questions about childhood and education, a way which declares, in the face of
all the postmodern cynicism and deconstruction, that there is such a thing as
self-giving love, and its glorious and it works. What you do, and what you are,
stands as a sign of contradiction to the follies of our world, because it stands as
a signpost pointing along the pilgrim way, the holy way, the highway to Zion,
the road along which you travel looking for those in need of healing and hope:
the road, in fact, to Gods new creation. So may God bless you and encourage
you, and make you signs of hope wherever you go; in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.