Last night I presented the findings of Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission to the Borough’s Cabinet. It has been a privilege to chair the commission. I logoam immensely proud of the work put in by Commissioners, Young Commissioners, the support team from the Campaign Company – and happy that the process seems already to have led to some specific initiatives which will make a difference in Croydon, especially to the poorest. It’s been very nice to be thanked and congratulated. But no-one’s asked me why I’m doing it – why did I say yes to what turned out to be another part-time job for a year, when I am pretty fully occupied anyway.

So I thought I’d ask myself, and share the answer here. It’s all because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Behind my desire to make things better for people in Croydon; behind the pressing need to bring together parts of a fractured and sometimes mistrustful community; behind the desire to help Croydon tell a story of itself which will make its inhabitants proud to live here. All of those things spring for me from the incarnational mission of God in Christ.

God does not engage in a helicopter rescue for human salvation: he doesn’t lift out the lucky / righteous from the world while leaving the rest to burn: that doesn’t seem to me to be true to the biblical story. God comes among us, lives with us, lives as us, so that the whole world may be saved. God’s ambition is not so small as to want to save just a few: God wants to save the whole world. The whole world, not just the human beings – the whole of creation is in God’s sights for his renewing and saving love.

That is the gospel of incarnation as I understand it, and it is that that makes me passionate about working in the world for the good of the world. Why did I do it? Because I hope that in a small way, with all my imperfections and mistakes, I was joining in with God’s mission of love to the world.

It feels odd to be back in Croydon. I’ve just spent a couple of weeks with others from the church in this area, visiting the Anglican churches in Central Zimbabwe. It’s a link we’ve had for a long time, supporting each other in many different ways. While we were there we dedicated a hospital the church is building (at present the whole area has none at all), and attended an anniversary celebration. If any of you find church services a bit long, in Zimbabwe they can be into five hours on special occasions like that.

What’s really amazing to me is what the people in Zimbawe achieve in a country whose economy is at rock bottom. Unemployment is 80% (that is not a misprint). The currency collapsed years ago so everyone uses US dollars, and it seems to me, they have to pay US prices. But they haven’t given up, or just sat there waiting for someone else to sort out their problems. Despite the country being in deep trouble, local people – especially in the churches – are doing extraordinary things for themselves and one another: building their own schools and hospitals, setting up projects to grow food and develop jobs. While I was away Croydon’s Opportunity & Fairness Commission, which I’m chairing, published its interim report. I was sorry not to be in the country for that, but I’ve come back all the more convinced that despite national and other forces we in developed countries have many of the solutions for our local needs in our own hands. If the people of Zimbabwe are able to do so much with so little, why is it we feel so powerless?

I’m beginning to think that one of the most profound difficulties facing us in the developed world is that we’ve developed such a strong sense of our own impotence that we’re scared even to try. And of course there are far more rules and regulations.

I’m not suggesting we all just ignore the rules of our society. I am suggesting that maybe we have, collectively, internalised a sense that someone else will always stop us if we do anything that pushes the boundaries, that’s really new or radical. Maybe we’re living a myth of powerlessness, while all the time having power we just don’t use. I think it could be worth finding out.

I have been privileged this week to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was visiting Croydon to see, and celebrate some of the work of the Tutu Foundation (whose first Chair was the late lamented Colin Slee). With many hundred others, I saw a dance performance blending south Indian music and rhythms with salsa and western dance music, and listended to music combining a drumming ensemble and classical musicians. These were emblems of the Foundation’s work to bring together people of different traditions and backgrounds, and to enable them to celebrate what each has to offer the other. The Foundation has been working in Croydon, as in other area of possible social dislocation and division, to promote ubuntu. What is ubuntu (when it’s not a computer operating system!)?  – here is the Foundation’s own definition:

Said to be the ‘glue’ which held together the volatile and fragile nation of South Africa after the end of apartheid, ubuntu teaches us to look beyond ourselves – and in so doing, to become more fully human. Ubuntu is a traditional Southern African philosophy which emphasis our common humanity; our connectedness and interdependence as fellow human beings.

“I am, because you are” says Archbishop Tutu; “how I behave impacts not only on me but also others around me because we all belong together.” So a person with ubuntu is generous, thoughtful and respectful towards others, appreciating the differences that together make us greater than the sum of our parts.

Reflecting on ubuntu also helped me to recognise the gift that I received from our recent visitors from the diocese of Central Zimbabwe. The most precious gift was exactly that sense I had when with them, that our human identity is something that springs out of our relationships with each other, rather than coming first. We are not first of all individuals, but first of all we are in relationship.

That is an insight of many centuries in southern Africa, and it is also profoundly Christian. Many Western Christians have lost sight of the fact that we are called into faith in a body – the body of Christ, which is the church. As Christ lives in us and we in Christ, we are also equally intimately linked to one another. Some Christians in richer countries worry about how our relationships with believers in places like Zimbabwe can be an equal one, when we have so much. We may need to heed again the message to the church in Laodicea, in the Book of Revelation ‘For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing.” You do not realise that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.’ (Revelation 3:17). The riches of human relationship which the philosophy of ubuntu opens up – and which the gospel teaches – are far greater than any amount of material wealth.