October 10, 2021

Black Saints: Nelson Mandela

A sermon preached by the Revd Aaron Kennedy on 10th October 2021 as part of a series reflecting on black history month.

Isaiah 61, John 13:33-35, Colossians 3:12-15

A Sermon Preached by Reverend Aaron Kennedy

Sunday 10th October 2021

Nelson Mandela has been close to my heart

since a retreat I took some years ago.

Grace, of course, is South African,

and my sister lives in Durban with her family,

so before coming here

we had been discerning a vocation

to live and minister in the Anglican church there.

As it happens such was not God’s plan for our life;

but the discernment, which included reading several books by, and about, Nelson Mandela,

and the wider struggle to end the racially motivated

segregationist system of apartheid

has left a lasting impression on me.


In one memorable scene from his autobiography

Nelson, who had been in prison for many years already,

is invited to meet the prime minister,

and leader of the racist National Party,

which was responsible for apartheid,

at his private residence.


The black power movement had gained great momentum outside the prison walls during his imprisonment,

and the free Nelson Mandela movement,

emerging from the sense of many

that he was fast becoming a key national leader,

was beginning to put the government under the squeeze.

So they had to engage with him.

Perhaps, they thought, he would be open to a compromise

– a generous, as they saw it,

increase in rights for black people,

his own personal freedom

to return to his family, his wife and children,

to his career as a lawyer,

so that the National Party could remain in power,

and not be shut out of international relations and trade links.


So he was given a suit and a pair of shoes,

which he duly polished to a high sheen the night before,

and driven in a government limousine the short drive

to the prime ministers house.

Having grown in up from the age of about 18

in quite extreme urban poverty

sleeping in a lean-to shack

on the side of someone else’s small house,

walking several miles barefoot to and from the city each day for a decade or more,

having had it drilled into him by wider society

that he was a second class citizen,

to many not quite human,

and having spent so many years in prison,

some in solitary confinement and many in hard labour,

you might have expected him to willingly accept.

To be wowed by the might and wealth of the white governing classes,

the grand residence of the prime minister,

with all of its furnishings and finery.

You might have expected him to be modest in his hopes and expectations for his life,

and to feel that he should be grateful

if he could indeed achieve a significant minor victory

for black South Africans.

And that yes, he could take this offer,

leave prison and return to his life

and his own precious personal freedom.

Putting myself in his shoes,

walking down the driveway

to that grand colonial residence

– itself a symbol of white supremacy,

I can feel a sense of unworthiness settling in my gut,

I can feel a clenching of anxiety in my heart,

a breathlessness, sweaty palms.


But Nelson Mandela did not quail, or quiver,

he did not flatter and fawn,

apologise, hang his head or hang back.

But neither, on the other hand,

did he grandstand, finger wave,

lecture and harangue.


Rather he stood in his true identity,

in the dignity of the one of the princes of his people.

A man who was raised, long before, in a royal household,

one of the more privileged in his community.


He was calm and dignified.

He listened graciously,

and responded compellingly, unapologetically.

In short he acted like a true statesman,

and a spiritual and political leader of a nation in waiting.

Needless to say,

the compromise was not accepted,

and eventually a very great victory was won

on behalf of all South Africans.


And at heart of Mandela’s leadership,

was his commitment to holding in tension

his own and his fellow black African’s dignity,

with that of the oppressor.

With that of the white, racist apartheid National Party.

He refused to relinquish that tension either way.

To accept the paltry excuse for justice offered by the government,

which fell far short of the true freedom and equality due;

Or, on the other hand,

to accept the demands of those on the right of his own party,

who understandably espoused

equally racist sentiments against their white overlords.

He could have left prison long before his eventual 27 years were up

if he had.

But his understanding, his vision, was crystal clear,

and he bore with that tension,

he bound the two poles of it together within himself,

and in partnership with a millions of other people,

generated a breathtakingly ­satisfying and peaceful

– though imperfect, resolution,

which saved countless lives,

and brought to birth the most successful

of the post-colonial African states,

the Rainbow Nation,

the new Republic of South Africa,

a place unmistakably bathed,

despite its continued inequality, violence and poverty,

in faith, hope and love

– unmistakable signs of the Kingdom of God.


[Our passage from Isaiah

which is quoted, and personally owned by Jesus

at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4 v 21

reveals the heart of God for social justice,

to redress inequalities,

to restore fortunes,

to comfort the grieving,

to release the prisoners.

In Isaiah’s beautiful language,

to give to those who mourn a garland instead of ashes,

the oil of gladness instead of mourning,

the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.


If this describes the social and external intent of God

in establishing his Kingdom,]

our gospel passage and epistle unpack for us

something of the interior experience and demands,

of following in the way of Christ,

which Mandela illustrated so beautifully with his life.


And on one level it’s as simple, and as difficult as,

Love one another.

But obviously such behaviour wasn’t a foregone conclusion for Jesus.

He knew that it would not be easy,

that’s why he gave this new commandment.


The love that would reflect his own,

was not the love merely of those we like.

Not just those we find it easy to love.

But even our enemies.

Those who oppose us, speak ill of us, undermine and attack us.


In his epistle, Paul fleshes this out,

by calling the Colossians to be clothed

with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.

Period. Not just in what we have to do with friends and family.

And not just when it suits us.

With everyone. All the time.

He counsels us to bear with one another,

to forgive one another.

To love one another,

which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

And to let peace rule in our hearts.


Wow. That is a rich definition of love.

That is not a definition we hear in society at large.

In which the concept of love has been debased to mere romance and lust.


And at the heart of this divine notion of love,

is this: bearing with one another.

Carry, support, include, retain, remember, hold onto.

God’s love, says Paul, binds everything together.

Refuses to relinquish the tension,

refuses to expel, reject, give up on,

the offender, the oppressor.


Of course, such love is far from easy.

In fact, it is deeply costly.

It cost Nelson Mandela 27 years of his life in prison.

His marriage collapsed.

His children were without a father,

and did not always understand or forgive his refusal to compromise.

It cost Jesus his very life.


Nicholas of Cusa has said that Christ was crucified

by the coincidence of opposites.

He held together, he bound together in love,

the conflicting realities of life,


the divine, and the human,

he hung between heaven and earth,

between the good thief and the bad thief.

between his male body and feminine soul,

between his personal desires,

and the Kingdom he was bringing to birth,

the nation in waiting.


Likewise, Nelson Mandela held together in himself

the dignity of black people,

with the dignity of their white oppressors.

He held together in himself the needs of his family

which broke his heart

and the needs of the nation he longed to see born.

He held together the need for peace,

with the temptation to violence.


And while there was undeniably permanent damage to his family,

to his personal life,

the tensions did eventually resolve, but not before time.

Not before their consequences were full wrought.

Mandela was not Christ.

He did not do it perfectly.

But he did it wonderfully. Truly beautifully.

And he is an example to us all of how we are called to live in Christ.


The deeper reality that Mandela’s example,

after the form of Christ’s life, death and resurrection,

points to is the cruciform nature of all human life.

Suffering is an unavoidable part of life.

But there are different ways to approach it.

We can resent it, resist it, be distorted by it,

and distort those around us in consequence,

like the bad thief who hung to Jesus left on the cross;

or we can, like Mandela, and like the good thief

hanging on Jesus right,

draw near to, and embrace, the suffering and pain

of our lives and that of those around us,

allowing ourselves to be radically changed in the process.

Our hearts enlarged,

our souls remaining free.


In a stark contrast to a great deal of the shrill, polarising,

dehumanising protest of recent years,

Mandela, following the shape of Christ’s life, death and resurrection,

has revealed again to us

that it is only those who carry crosses

who embrace the necessary suffering of life,

and refuse to relinquish the tensions,

binding them together in love,

who ever really change the world.


May we, the body of Christ in this place,

we who are white, black and everything in between,

may we, after the example Christ, like Mandela,

though in our own small – but never insignificant ways,

clothe ourselves with love,

which binds everything together in perfect harmony,

and let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.




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