Unity and diversity

This is a sermon that I delivered today when we held a united service with our friends in the local Anglican church. It talks about the challenges of Christian unity, following the recent Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The readings for the service were: Psalm 133, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and John 17:20-26.

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. (John 17:20)

wpcu-2016-logo-large-300x259The final prayer of Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane is among the most powerful and moving passages in the Bible, and has been prayed by many followers of Jesus ever since. It poses a real conundrum for Christ’s followers, though. That prayer, that “they may all be one”, is a verse often quoted and prayed during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which we have just celebrated, and at many other times. Unity is a subject we often talk about in Watford, where we enjoy excellent ecumenical relations through Churches Together and a number of other organisations, and we enjoy good relations in Oxhey and Bushey as well. However, we cannot disguise the fact that Christ’s followers are palpably NOT one! Even in a small town like Watford we have: Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Quakers, Plymouth Brethren, Assemblies of God, evangelicals, Pentecostalists, Salvationists, Nazarenes, Seventh Day Adventists, and many more. When I was in Jerusalem last year, the variety among residents, tourists and pilgrims was even greater, with Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Old Catholics, Coptics, Ethiopian Coptics, Lutherans and many more to add to the mix. It is a very sobering reminder that when many of us talk about ‘the Church’ we actually mean our own local congregation, with very little concept of the wider meaning of the term.

Even within one denomination we can find great variety. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attend the World Methodist Conference, meeting in Durban, South Africa, which brings together most of those who share the appellation ‘Methodist’ across the globe. I was amazed at the variety of dress, styles of worship and belief that I found even there. And if we look across Watford and its environs, we know very well that we shall find a similar variety amongst Anglican and Baptist congregations. The sad fact seems to be that even though all Christians acknowledge one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, we seem unable or unwilling to fulfil his final prayer: that his Church be one.

Perhaps this is not surprising given that, even though – by and large – we share the same scriptures, Christians cannot even agree on what our churches should look like. I don’t mean their physical appearance, even though that is yet another source and sign of our lack of unity, but how we organise ourselves.

unity-logoAnglicans and Roman Catholics can look at their scriptures, especially the epistles, and tell us that the blueprint for what a church should look like is clear. You have a three-fold order of ministry, with deacons, priests and bishops (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:1, Titus 1:7); bishops, of course, being very important! Not only do they provide the oversight or supervision (episcope in Greek) to ensure that church life is ordered properly but through their ordination they also provide an unbroken link to Christ himself and the first apostles, from which their authority ultimately stems.

Congregationalists, like those we find in the United Reformed Church or the Baptist Church, would say that that was a misunderstanding, though. The Greek word presbyter, which is often understood as ‘priest’, actually means ‘elder’. Oversight of the church is meant to be by elders, selected from among the congregation, and deacons, who serve the will of the church. The congregation itself is a self-governing entity, just like the churches of Corinth or Ephesus, which we read about in scripture. There is no need for a bishop to start poking his nose in!

And Methodists would say, “well, you’re almost there”! What we see in the Bible is actually largely self-governing congregations but all of them inextricably linked into one connexion, providing mutual support and discipline. Paul, Peter and the other apostles were in fact the first itinerant preachers, taking the good news around the circuit of Mediterranean churches, just like John Wesley on his horse trotting along the highways and byways of England in the 18th Century.

Others would propose still different models and, to some extent, we would all be right. Like the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant, we all have some of the truth but not necessarily all of it.

csw2014bannerWe could say something similar about the fundamental question of who is in the Church and who is not. This is a question that has plagued the church from its earliest days and the ramifications of that debate continue to shape our lives as churches today. Should the church consist only of those who are ultimately destined for salvation and who conform entirely to the teachings and commandments of the church. The Bible would certainly seem to indicate that. The letter to the Ephesians, for example, tells us that the church must be like, ‘the spotless bride of Christ’: it must be “without a spot or wrinkle … holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:22-32). (I wonder how many of us can claim to be without at least one wrinkle this morning!) That is certainly the line that many churches in the ‘rigorist’ tradition – which both the Methodists and Baptists could claim to be, to greater or lesser extents – would assert.

However, those churches in the ‘Catholic’ tradition would disagree. Here Catholic is used in the sense that we use it in our creeds: all-embracing and inclusive (not necessarily Roman Catholic). Something we arguably see in the parish system still maintained by the Church of England. Inevitably, they would argue, the church will contain both the good and the bad, and it ultimately for God to decide who is who! And they too would look to the Bible to support their position and would point to passages like the first letter of John, where the writer tells us clearly: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Or perhaps the parable of weeds among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30) told by Jesus. There the landowner allows both wheat and weeds to grow, and only at the final reaping are weeds separated out and burnt. As we sing at Harvest time:

wheat and tares together sown
unto joy or sorrow grown

And again, both sides would have some of the truth on their side. We are seemingly inevitably left with the situation of one Lord, one Bible but many churches!

We may wish to ask the question does any of this matter? Most Christians don’t really seem to mind: we often find it difficult enough to agree among our own congregation, never mind with anyone else! There have undoubtedly been great leaps forward in ecumenism in the last fifty years or so, and conversations and activities are possible now that would have been unthinkable before the last war. Many of us now take such ecumenism for granted. Increasingly too, those outside the church are very little interested in our ‘flavour’ of Christianity: they judge us on who we are, not the denominational label that we bear. For most of them, a good church is a good church. The diversity in Christianity also arguably reflects the diversity of God – a God who is a god that reveals himself in the wonders of liturgy and clouds of incense, as much as he does in the hymns of Charles Wesley or a good 40-minute sermon!

Yet Christ’s challenge remains: that prayer he prayed before the arrest in the Garden cannot be ignored. Ecumenism is often treated as an optional extra in church life: it’s someone else’s job to be nice to the neighbours, the rest of us are too busy! Or I regularly encounter the attitude of, “I’m happy to meet and work with other Christians, provided that we do so in my church, at my convenience and in the way I’m used to doing things”! If we are truly to call ourselves disciples of Christ, though, we cannot simply ignore his prayer and each of us is called to break down the barriers of mistrust and ignorance that have grown up between our denominations as best we may. We cannot leave it to others or regard it as an optional extra: it is a commission for us all. However, there is another very important reason to heed Christ’s call at this time.

We are undoubtedly living in a period of history where, once again, the world seems intent on tearing itself apart. In our own country and across the globe, people seem determined to maintain and even strengthen the walls that divide us from one another: barriers of ethnicity, class, age, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics and all the rest of it. We have a new generation of reckless politicians, who seem only too willing to exploit our fears and prejudices for their own ends. We have an atmosphere of fear and mistrust in many communities, enflamed by irresponsible journalism, that seems to deny any chance of diversity. It is into this context that God’s Church – all of it – must set an example of how we can be different and yet one.

The answer lies in that well-known passage from Corinthians that we heard read earlier, where Paul describes how the church should be, using the metaphor of the human body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). Paul was, of course, writing to a church that knew a lot about division and the need for reconciliation. And that was just within one small congregation of around 60 people or so!

the-body-of-christ-from-christians-uniteIn his letter, he spoke clearly of the need for the church and its members to have humility: “the body does not consist of one member but of many” (12:14). We need to recognise that we see only in part – as Paul would write elsewhere “through a glass darkly” – and our knowledge as flawed mortals is inevitably limited. We must have the humility to accept that our truth about Christ and his church cannot be harmed by the truth treasured and preserved by others. He also spoke of the vital need to recognise our interdependence: “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (12:26). As God’s Church on earth, we rely and feed off one another and we can see that so clearly in our liturgy, our hymns and in the very faith of the church. And when one part of the Church suffers, inevitably all the rest does too. Finally, Paul calls us to appreciate that in our diversity is strength: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be … If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (12:17-19). Because we do things differently, we can serve God better. To give but one example, in our Methodist tradition, we have placed so much emphasis on preaching that I often fear we have turned ours into a faith purely of the mind. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions remind us of the need to worship God using all the senses: sight, smell and action. Ultimately, Paul rejoices that despite our differences – Jew or Greek, slave or free (12:13) – in Christ Jesus we are all somehow one: one head, one crucified Lord, one hope in the resurrection.

wo-au601_pope_j_20141130164102Now, there is another alternative, of course, and that is one that the Church and God’s world knows only too well. It was the model that the Church has followed for centuries, not least during the bitter years of conflict that followed the Reformation in Britain and Europe.  (An event we shall be thinking about much in the coming months during this 500th anniversary year.) That is the model of bitterness and division. Of the body tearing itself apart, with each constituent part claiming that it alone it is right, it alone has a monopoly of the truth, and that everyone else is a heretic, or a charlatan, or an enemy. And the history of the Reformation shows that once you start down that path, it is very hard indeed to turn back: very quickly every kind of insult, every kind of calumny, and every kind of violence becomes justifiable. Tragically, that is the model of being that Christ’s Church – his body on earth – has too often shown to the world. In a recent survey in this country, respondents were asked whether the Church was a force for good or a force for bad and heart-breakingly the respondents were equally divided in their answers. For too many people, Christianity, and religion in general, are ‘a bad thing’ and even a force for evil because, they argue, it simply promotes division, conflict and discrimination. What a terrible verdict on us all! And when we look at the state of the world today, and wring our hands about all its woes, as Christians we must accept our share of the blame for failing to provide the example it so desperately needs of how to live together in peace.

Our world needs to see that with God diversity in unity is truly possible. That we can disagree but still live and work together to witness to the love of God made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. That is a message, which the world needs not to only to hear from the Church but to see in action. Reconciliation and the healing of God’s world begins here and now, brothers and sisters, with you and me. Let me conclude this appeal for unity in a slightly sectarian manner by quoting the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who expressed what I am trying to say so much better than I ever could: “Though we may not all think alike; may we not love alike.” I pray that we, and God’s world, may know that reconciling love in our hearts this day and always. Amen.

 

We worship a tortured God

Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ (Luke 22:63-64)

crownig-with-thorns-caravaggioAll four of the Christian gospels agree that Jesus was tortured before his death. They all speak of him being beaten, whipped and humiliated. It is a subject that has been depicted on numerous occasions in Christian art and, in some parts of the world, is still recreated or imitated as part of the rites to mark Holy Week. This degrading treatment of Jesus – whom Christians believe to be God made flesh – preceded a death that was itself a form of torture: crucifixion. It was a death that was designed to be as painful and protracted as possible, not only to punish the victim but to serve as an example to others.

crucified-tree-formAs someone who aspires to follow Jesus Christ, I utterly reject all forms of torture. Whatever our theological understanding of why Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross, the story of Christ’s passion serves as the ultimate example of the sinfulness of humanity and as an example to us all. It is a story of men and women who falsely believed that they had ultimate power over life and death, and had the right to treat another human being with contempt and brutality. If we truly believe that human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), then when we torture or mistreat them, we are torturing a body that contains something of the divine within it. How can we say that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, if we treat his most precious creation with contempt? We certainly cannot claim we are doing so because we love our neighbour (Matt. 22:37-39).

These comments are, of course, a response to those made by Donald Trump about torture today. He has asserted – much to the embarrassment of many of those around him – that torture “works” and that, in the fight against radical terrorists, “we have to fight fire with fire”. While the Christian Bible makes clear that crime should always be punished and the innocent protected, it can never justify torture. In the face of the horrific and evil acts of the so-called Islamic State, we must not stoop to their level of sin but re-assert more loudly than ever our commitment to the God-given preciousness of all human life and the sanctity of a body made in the image of our creator.

crucifixion-grunewald-detail-1It is even more distressing that these comments were reported on Holocaust Memorial Day. This is a day when the world recalls the horrific evils committed not only in Europe during the Shoah, but in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. What links all of these terrible exterminations is the belief by those who committed them that a certain group of people were somehow less than human and that their lives were theirs to dispose of as they saw fit. The groups varied – Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Muslims, Tutsis, and so on – but the essential sin was the same: the rejection of the sanctity of all human life.

Sadly, there will be those who agree with President Trump. There are always those who are willing to support such actions because they feel that those who are being targeted have somehow deserved their fate. Too many European Christians acquiesced either actively or passively to the evils of the Nazi regime. Be it criminals, IS members, foreigners or whomever, deep-seated prejudices or decades of misinformation too often provide the justification to treat them as less than human. As the Nazis described the Jews, and their other undesirables, they somehow become untermensch – sub-human. The hideous lesson of the past is that the moment we fall into that trap, then the door is ultimately open to every kind of evil imaginable. If we are allowed to use torture against IS terrorists, why not criminals, why not asylum seekers, why not anyone? If the wretch being waterboarded by the CIA in a secret bunker somewhere is not made in the image of God, then how can I claim that anyone is? Either we are all human, or none of us are.

79623As ever, someone else has expressed all this far better than I ever could. In this case the Protestant pastor, Martin Niemöller, who suffered seven long years of imprisonment by the Nazis for daring to speak out in the name of Christ:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 

Poem and image of Niemoller © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.

 

 

Roll round with the year

This was the pastoral letter that I wrote for my church magazines at the beginning of the year.

 At the beginning of the year, Methodists often sing one of the innumerable hymns that Charles Wesley wrote during his long and productive life. It begins like this:

Come, let us anew
our journey pursue,
roll round with the year,
and never stand still till the Master appear.

900px-dunningham_reserve_sundial_coogee_sydneyBecause of its ‘new year’ theme, this is one of those hymns that we sing only rarely. This means that we often forget how to fit the words to the rather complicated tune! It is a wonderful hymn, though, that reminds us of how God is present at all times of the year, and all stages of our life.

As with so many of Charles Wesley’s hymns, the words still challenge the reader, even after nearly 250 years. In particular, the verses remind us of the inexorable passage of time, perhaps in an uncomfortable manner:

Our life is a dream,
our time as a stream
glides swiftly away,
and the fugitive moment refuses to stay.

It reminds me of how I often wish that we could hold on to a particular moment of time and press the ‘pause’ button on life. Perhaps a lovely gathering of friends or family, a beautiful concert, a glorious summer’s evening. Yet, as the hymn reminds us, “The arrow is flown, the moment is gone”.

675px-charles_wesley_2We spend so much of our life worrying about what is to come, and perhaps regretting what is past. The hymn reminds us, though, of the importance of valuing the precious moment that is now. This is something that Jesus exemplified in his life and witness. He lived conscious of the past and the future, but always seemed to treasure the ‘now’. Despite the best efforts of the disciples to hurry him along, he always found time for the people he was with at that moment and enjoyed their company. This is a model that we could all learn to emulate.

As the new year rolls on and the days steadily lengthen, let us all learn from that example and try to treasure those we have around us now and the blessings that God still pours out in all our lives. May we all know his peace and presence in 2017, and always.

Hymn words: Charles Wesley (1707–1788). Sundial picture: By Jeepika – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32368147.

The Journey

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 8th January, 2016 at Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Church at our annual covenant service. This is a very traditional Methodist service, where once a year we renew our commitment to serve God and the world. The readings for that day were Genesis 12:1-8, Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 14:22-25, all of which speak about different kinds of covenant (or agreements) between God and humans.

In any age there are always certain buzzwords that become very popular among preachers and commentators. When I was at theological college, ‘liminal’ or ‘liminality’ was one such word. Everything was about being liminal or on the edge, to the point of ridicule. It was all about ‘being and yet not being’, being church and yet not being church, being present and somehow also being absent. It all got rather tiresome eventually!

One of the buzzwords of our present age perhaps is “the journey”. We are continually being bombarded with the concept that we are all somehow on a journey – be it celebrities, nations or even superheroes. Movies and novels must have characters who are ‘on a journey’ – perhaps a mental journey of self-discovery or a physical journey across communities and continents. Exhibitions must show visitors the artist’s journey. To win Strictly come dancing or the X Factor, you have to show people that you have been ‘on a journey’. Even TV adverts are meant to take their viewers on a journey somehow – presumably from a place where they don’t want the product being advertised to one where they believe they desperately do!

As with so many ideas and concepts, though, the Bible got there long before anyone else! Our scriptures are full of people on journeys: travellers, wandering prophets, pilgrims, refugees, seekers after the truth, missionaries, and many more. The followers of Jesus Christ himself were not initially known as Christians, but rather as followers of ‘The Way’ – literally people on a journey. And before that, God’s people were taken on numerous physical journeys: some of their own freewill; some because they are directed by God; others because they have no choice.

abraham-molnarIn the Old Testament, these travels, and travails, are often punctuated by covenants. By times when God reaches out to humanity and makes promises to them, and in turn asks them to respond to his generous love. Our first reading today, from Genesis 12, is one of the first of those covenants, and is made with one of the first of God’s journeying people: Abraham (Genesis 12:1-8). God calls Abraham – or Abram as he is then – out from his homeland, from all that is familiar and easy, to the perils of a dangerous journey into the unknown: across deserts and wildernesses, into the hostile land of Canaan. But before he sets out, God enters into a covenant relationship with him – a covenant to which you and I are heirs – in which God promised Abraham that, somehow, out of him would come a people, who would eventually become a light to all the nations of the world. And God kept his promise to Abraham.

jeremiahIn our second reading (Jeremiah 31:31-34), the prophet Jeremiah speaks to God’s people at an incredibly difficult time. They have forgotten their covenant with their God: they have worshipped idols made by their own hands, they have valued wealth and power over God’s commandments, they have neglected the poor and needy. And now they are going to reap the whirlwind they have sown, as the Babylonians descend upon their cities and force all those in authority to take the arduous and exhausting journey across the scorching desert into exile. Even now, though, in the midst of such suffering and despair, God’s prophet offers his people the chance of a fresh start: a new covenant, written not on tablets of stone but on their hearts. A covenant based on the most straightforward yet most important of principles: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31:33)

Christians see this promise as being ultimately fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ (Mark 14:22-25). A new covenant, based like all the others upon God’s generous out-reaching to his creation: this time, though, in the person of his only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. A new covenant, which would require Christ to follow a path that he did not choose; a journey that would end at the Cross. A new covenant, sealed by blood and sacrifice, like many of the others. This time, though, not the blood of a lamb or a goat’s, but the blood of God himself – shed to show the depths of his love for each one of us and his deep desire that we might truly take our part in that covenant and respond by loving God and our neighbour as ourselves.

way-to-calvarySo many journey; so many covenants. All of them, though, pointing to the central tenets of our faith. The faithfulness of God throughout all time and space. The desire of God to have a genuine relationship with us, his creation. The need for us to respond to this generous love by trusting God and abiding by his teachings and commandments. Many covenants, many journeys but all beginning and ending at the same place: with God.

It is appropriate that we renew our covenant at this time, as one calendar year gives way to the next and our minds are still full of new year resolutions and hopes. It would be good if those in authority across the world did something similar – reminding them of the ultimate source and purpose of their power – and re-committed themselves to the common good. It is also, of course, the season of Epiphany when we recall the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child in Bethlehem so long ago. A journey on which they continually drawn further and further away from all that was comfortable and familiar, by a force that they could not understand or control. A journey, which changed them forever, and foreshadowed the changing of the world order.

What all of these Biblical covenants and journeys remind me of, though, is that God always keeps his promises. God always travels with his people. Be it symbolically, carried on poles with the Ark of the Covenant for example, or physically, in the person of Jesus Christ. And as we stumble and fall, as we forget his teachings and cause suffering as a result, God is not marching on ahead like some impatient tour group leader. He is there waiting for us to return to him and to find our way once more. In the coming days, months and years, as we face an uncertain future as individuals, as a church and as a nation, let us cling on to that abiding presence, to the promise of the faithfulness of our journeying God.

I will close my remarks todays, as we prepare to renew our covenants together, with some words of Thomas Merton, the 20th Century Catholic writer and Trappist monk. I read them recently with a woman in our Circuit who was beginning her journey as a trainee Local Preacher. This prayer begins the new training manual for all preachers and I think that whoever chose them is a genius, because they say everything that is needful and are incredibly appropriate for the beginning of this new year:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this, you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.[1]

Amen.

[1] Excerpt from “The Love of Solitude” from Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton. Copyright © 1958 by the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. Copyright renewed 1986 by the Trustees of the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust.