Final Sermon as Diocesan Bishop


Delegates, clergy and guests gathered at the Church of St. Paul at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday 14 February for this Service of Thanksgiving. Bishop Reeves was the celebrant and preacher. The Rev’d Peter Thomas, Rector of St. Paul’s, assisted. The Epistle was read by Mr. J.C. (Ted) Proctor, the Gospel by Deacon Leigh Halliwell and the prayers of the people were led by Mr. Richard McHugh. The Bishop’s son, Mr. George F. Reeves II, acted as the Bishop’s Chaplain and the Bishop’s wife, Adele and daughter, Cynthia Pond, bore the Oblations. The Messrs. James Nord and Keith Shafer conducted the combined choirs of the Church of The Good Shepherd and Saint Paul’s Church, Augusta, Mr. Andrew Long,soloist. The Rev’d Jacoba Hurst was Master of Ceremony.

The following is the final sermon preached by Bishop Reeves as Diocesan.

“It would be difficult for me tonight to be sincere without being sentimental were it not that I an acutely aware that we are, in a special way, in the presence of God.

Paul ReevesAs I preach my last sermon as Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia I feel a compulsion even stronger than usual to try to be wholly honest and to avoid the trivial.

Reviewing the nearly fifteen years I have been with you, I note that this has been a turbulent time in Christendom generally, certainly so within the Episcopal Church. Between that day in May 1969 when I was elected Bishop Coadjutor of the diocese, and the day in September when I was consecrated, there occurred a Special General Convention of the Church in South Bend, a convention that concentrated on the role of the Church in social outreach, a convention that was marked – and marred – by demonstrations, political maneuvers, and strident oratory.

At the same time, we had entered the long and frequently upsetting period of Prayer Book revision; and during this same era we saw our small part of the Anglican Communion opt to go its own reckless way, and change the accepted discipline of nearly two millenia, and say that women could
be ordained to the priesthood.

These three events occurred during a time of social, economic, political and moral upheaval in our own country and in the world generally.

I know of no one who is competent – and I know I am not – to make a final judgement on these phenomena, whether in the long run of history they will be seen to have been positive, or negative, or merely incidental and transitory.

Already we see emphasis changing. The sometimes one-sided concentration on social programs has diminished, and there has arisen- perhaps as a reaction – deeper concern for the life of the spirit expressed in a broad range of movements usually called as a whole “Renewal”. Some of its manifestations, too, have been unbalanced; but I suspect that renewal will leave a more permanent mark on the Church, a mark mainly for good.

The history of Christendom has seen many such periods of crisis and change. Within Anglicanism I mention only two, both well known and easily traced: The rise of Methodism, and the Oxford – or Tractarian – Movement. With neither of these spontaneous eruptions was the Established Church sufficiently open, sufficently catholic, – dare I say? – sufficiently Christian, to see what was being offered as enlightenment and revitalization.

In our time the problem is a different one. There seems to be a willingness to embrace almost any novelty that is offered and to turn away from almost anything that can be labeled ‘traditional’. Many of the champions of this attitude say that they seek a return to the faith and practice of the Gospels and the Apostolic Fathers. But even in those cases where this really is the intention, it leaves out two important factors.

We do not live in the Second or the Third century, and it is impossible for us to return to the ways of living, much less the ways of thinking, of that time.

Also, as has been pointed out – perhaps most persuasively by John Henry Newman – there is, and always has been, what Newman called “the development of doctrine”. Such legitimate development from already-present nuclei is a far cry from what currently is called “revisionism”, a parody of development, which, Alas!, is taught even in some of our seminaries.

As a Church we have brought on ourselves just criticism by acting as if we have competence in areas in which we do not. Economics, sociology, psychology, and politics are not disciplines which the Gospel addresses. Which is not to say that we do not need Christian economists, Christian sociologists, Christian psychologists, and Christian politicians: We need them, and we need them badly, as that leaven in the lump of society which our Lord and St. Paul alike called us to be.

And if we sometimes pontificate on, and pass resolutions about, matters in which we have no real expertise, so also too often do we run after the latest popular causes in peculiarly discriminatory ways. For instance, these days we hear from some of our bishops and councils a great deal about the horrors of apartheid in South Africa. Horrors there are there, horrors aplenty. But I cannot remember similar outcries from these same Church leaders about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the ongoing slaughter there, much less about the systematic extermination of millions of Russian people by their own leaders.

Our indignation may be righteous, but often it is strangely selective. As another instance of this, it is not difficult to contrast the pleas for human rights for some segments of the population with the thundering silence about the rights of millions of unborn human beings whose approaching births are seen as inconveniences or embarrassments: Selective compassion indeed!

The Gospel must be translated into the language of each time and each place, of course, but we must take greater care that the translation does not distort or subvert, or erase the Gospel message.

On this point, there is an interesting story in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. That greatest of Christian missionaries, St. Paul, in the course of his second missionary journey, came to Athens, a center of learning and sophistication.

In Athens, this brilliant Christian apostle took on his clever and skeptical hearers, and preached to them a sermon which you can read in the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Acts.

At first look the sermon seems to be a masterpiece of logical reasoning and persuasive philosophy. Yet we read that Paul made only a few converts in Athens. He never returned there. We have no Epistle to the Athenians. Significantly, we should note that in his learned discourse, Paul never mentions the name of Jesus Christ, and he never mentions the Cross.

The narrative in Acts goes on to tell us that Paul “left Athens and went to Corinth”. Now, we do know a great deal about the Church in Corinth; in the two letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians we have some of the most familiar and exalted chapters in all his correspondence, such as his hymn on Christian love and his teaching on the Resurrection.

I make a guess that as he wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians Paul was remembering his failure in Athens, and facing the reasons for it; and so he wrote to the Corinthians: “Christ sent me to you to preach the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the Cross of Christ be emptied of its power… When I came to you I did not come proclaiming the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among’you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

What, then, is the task of the Church? That is to say, what is your job, and mine, and this diocese’s? We are called to know and to love God, then to love our neighbors, and to love them as Christians love. Too often we overlook or scant the first step. As a result the second step is misdirected. We are called, first to come, then to go. But in that order – nor is it an Either/Or, but a Both/And.

At the root of our failure often is our leaving out one other necessary step, and that step is Penitence, a very unpopular commodity these days. We can hardly be expected to feel the need for a Saviour, or to preach that need, unless we believe we need saving. We cannot preach the glorious liberty of the children of God unless we have known that we are slaves. The forgiveness of sins has no meaning to those who do not know that they are sinners, and know just how they are sinners.

The sense of sinfulness will not come from morbid introspection.

In that process each of us has become expert in rationalizing and explaining and excusing. A fair estimate of ourselves will come, not from looking into ourselves, but from looking to God. To look as steadily as we can at Jesus Christ, Crucified, Risen, Ascended and ever-Living, to look at Him is to begin, at least, to see ourselves as He sees us, and to realize our real lack and real need.

The way to this is so old and so simple that we ignore it. We must remember, first, that the only record we have of the life and the teaching of Jesus Christ is in the four Gospels. Here we meet Him. Here He confronts us.

This meeting happens not only in our careful, grateful reading of Scripture, but also in that vast activity we call prayer, regular and disciplined prayer. And the encounter takes place also in our worship, as Sunday by Sunday we gather with our Christian community to offer to God our selves, all we are and all we have.

These activities – Bible study, private prayer and public worship – must be governed, not by the way we feel, but by what we will. We simply must, if we would follow our Lord, make the time, be guided by the best counsel we can get from really good living teachers, and from those Christian writings that may be old, but that are ever new. We must train ourselves – and no easy job it is! – to ignore passing moods, to master distractions and to bring to our devotions no less seriousness and no less sacrifice than we bring to our work and our recreation.

The Gospel periscope we heard read earlier tonight [Matthew 24:3 – 13] records our Lord speaking as He always did, realistically and to the point. Many of us have felt in our lives the vivid truth of His forecast:

‘Then many will fall away, and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise, and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold.’

But thanks be to God! Our Lord’s final word in this context was: ‘He who endures to the end will be saved’.”

A banquet honoring Bishop Reeves directly followed the service. Speakers were: Mr. William Whipple (University of The South), The Most Reverend Raymond Lessard (Bishop, Diocese of Savannah), Mr. Robert Robinson (Church Pension Fund). The Master of Ceremonies was the Hon. Malcolm Maclean, Chancellor of the diocese.