You are set free: Sermon for Canon Biggar’s retirement from Christ Church

Sermon Trinity 10


21 August 2022

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Christ Church, Oxford

Today at Christ Church we are saying goodbye to Canon Nigel Biggar. He has been a canon of Christ Church since 2007, not quite the eighteen years of bondage that the woman in today’s gospel had experienced. It has not been an easy time, particularly in the last six years, for anyone at Christ Church, but I hope that it has not felt like bondage – although he has been rather cheerful as the end approaches.

I asked Nigel whether he would rather preside or preach today and he passed the short straw to me. But when I looked at today’s readings and particularly at today’s gospel it seemed appropriate for wishing Nigel well in his continuing work.

The gospel we have just heard is about freedom.

The freedom to live that is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.

I have come, Jesus said, in John 10:10, that you may have life, life in fullness, life in abundance, life in completeness. 

And it is that abundant life that the woman has not had.

Her life has been constrained, contained, restricted.

Jesus gives her permission to be free.

So one point of this story is the freedom that Jesus brings, that he offers to each one of us to be free.

But the story is also about the misuse of religion to constrain God. Jesus heals this woman on the Sabbath.

The biblical sabbath is a wonderful gift to the people of God of freedom. Freedom from work.  A day of rest, of joy and celebration.

The glory of the sabbath is well described by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading. If we observe the rest that God gives us in creation we will ‘ride on the heights of the earth’.

But take a look at what else the sabbath consists of in Isaiah:

offering food to the hungry

satisfying the needs of the afflicted

The sabbath is not about us, me, ourselves, it is precisely about not ‘pursuing our own interests’, not exploiting others, bringing freedom to those who are oppressed by hunger and afflictions.

Our second reading today doesn’t mention the sabbath. 

In our second readings we work our way through a new testament book and we are now almost at the end of the letter to the Hebrews. It is a good commentary on today’s gospel reading. It tells us that the fullness of life that Jesus gives to the woman, that he promises us, that is justice for the hungry and afflicted is a dangerous thing.  A consuming fire.

Freedom is dangerous. Fullness of life is dangerous.

We saw the cost of freedom last week in the attack on Salman Rushdie.

Not, thank God, physically, but Nigel has also carried the cost of daring to write and say things which are unpopular, unfashionable in some circles.

We live in an age of high anxiety, perhaps not surprising given the destruction of the planet and the economic and political uncertainties in which we live.

In this anxiety it is easy to imagine that things would be better if we limited freedoms. It’s the illusion of control.

Freedom can be frightening and disturbing, better the prison we know than the freedom we don’t.

The woman in the gospel is free after eighteen years.

We can only imagine the excitement, the fear, the shock, that she begins her new life with.

As many of you know I was a headteacher in south east London for some years. Rather than have a punishment system to ensure good behaviour we introduced practices of Restorative Justice. It was a powerful tool for changing behaviour permanently, for enabling young people to see the consequences of their actions for other people and not just for themselves.

One of the aspects that fascinated me about Restorative Justice was that it concentrates on actions not motives. Often when we deal with children we ask them why they did something. Usually they don’t know, they can’t answer that question. As human beings our motives are too complex, too irrational to be easily explained,

I think Jesus would understand that.

When he sees the woman in today’s gospel he is not interested in her psychology, nor that of those who want to preserve the sabbath and are cross with him for healing on the sabbath. There is a straightforwardness about Jesus that is deeply attractive.

Just look at the gospel we’ve heard today. He sees the woman and the gospel says “When he saw her he called her over.” He doesn’t interrogate her. He simply says “Woman, you are set free.”

This is the freedom that Jesus offers every one of us. The simple freedom of being fully alive.

The task for each of us, for you and for me is to notice the things that make us unfree, the things that bind us.

Many of us will think of all the psychological factors, the experiences of our lives that bind us, that limit our freedom. These are, no doubt, important, but perhaps the task is simpler, more straightforward than that.

Perhaps there are simple choices that we can make not to be bound in life but to live the freedom that Jesus gives.

We human beings like to complicate things. To put up barriers, to turn the joy of the sabbath into the rules that must be kept. To limit the sharing of bread and wine in the Eucharist to those who fit, who tick the right boxes.

When Nigel takes bread and wine and says the prayers in a few moments, he is celebrating the feast of freedom. 

This feast is food to sustain us in living freely for the rest of the week. To see what we are bound by and to let it go and walk away from it.

The justice of God is restorative, it restores us to the freedom that God wanted for us when he made us. That freedom that unbinds us from the narratives of our lives, of resentment and cynicism and self-obsession. It is the freedom of Jesus who does not ask ‘why’, but simply says ‘you are set free’.

We walk freely as we ascend to the altar because we have “come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus …”


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