Worship Together Online 28th June 2020
Toleration and Inclusion
Toleration and inclusion are the flavours of the month. I hope they will become a permanent shift in the way we behave. Christianity is a revolutionary religion; the world isn't the same place after the resurrection, but is toleration of, in particular, other denominations and an inclusive attitude to other faiths a characteristic, even a hall mark of Christianity? Should we be tolerant just because it's a kind thing to be, or because there is something essentially tolerant about Christianity, that tolerance is a vital part of its nature?
This church has good relations with its neighbours and it's a leading member of Churches together in Hampstead. We are friendly with local synagogues and mosques, and have been welcomed to Passover Seders and Ramadan Iftars. There is no room for complacency, but I suggest we can say we are on the right track and need more of the same.
But this is a misleading picture of Christianity overall; I need not dwell on history, the miserable story of bigotry and appallingly violent intolerance throughout most of the last two thousand years is familiar enough. Worse, the same lack of tolerance and acceptance of difference is prevalent in present day Anglicanism, not so extreme perhaps and not, usually, violent, but depressing and distressing enough. Two local churches, both to my embarrassment and shame, C of E, are not members of Churches together in Hampstead, one because they couldn't afford to be seen sitting at the same table as Roman Catholics and Unitarians, and the other, I think, because they couldn't sit down with women priests.
Despite all this, I want to suggest that toleration should be a central pillar, perhaps even the essence of Christianity, and I think our readings today help to tell us why.
Throughout his ministry Jesus is concerned with what people really think; do you really want to be healed? He asks. You may appear to be pious and good, but what are you really thinking under your skin? What is the point of the showmanship religion of the Pharisees? Jesus' teaching goes to the quick; it's about who we really are and who we really want to be; it's about bringing out our true identity and perfecting creation, by allowing us to realise our full potential as human and divine beings, created in God's own image. Christians should be judged not by their conformity to doctrine, tradition or social mores but by the extent to which they tend to achieve that challenging ambition. Attention to our past and to our intellectual leaders ancient and modern, concern for tradition and social susceptibilities, all matter, but only insofar they help us in achieving that objective; they are none of them, themselves, what it's really about. The test is the extent to which we bring about the Kingdom of God, and it's plain to me that Christianity has no exclusive success in that enterprise.
So, Prophets, as Jeremiah says, and he would know, who threaten war and famine, may have their uses, but the true prophet will be known as the one who prophesies peace, because peace is what God intends for his creation. The genuine prophet is recognised by his fruits not his worldliness, however acute his criticism of his contemporaries or visionary his imagination, may be.
For Paul, enslavement to sin, which for him is just about synonymous with worldliness, is really enslavement to death- the opposite of the true life, which is the realisation of God's creative force. That is the force which moved first as a breeze over the chaotic waters and finally as breath breathed into the nostrils of his last creature, in a world, before the fall, at peace with itself as it is meant to be.
Jesus' words from St Matthew's Gospel, treat recognition of who he is, and thus who sent him, as the essence of faith. When we say Jesus is the son of God, what I think we must mean is that Jesus shows us what God is like; he's a messenger sent by God, but more than that, he's a messenger who is himself the message of love. So to believe in him is indeed to believe in the one who sent him, or the Father, if that family based symbolism works for you. And believing God means believing in what God wants; it means leading, or trying to lead, a life which like Jesus' life, expresses God's love and strives against hunger, pain, injustice and all the things that prevent us from sharing in God's creative works, of being, his love for creation and our fellow creatures. There is and could be, nothing excusive in this. It necessarily recognises the multiplicity of ways in which that love may be expressed, and that true life realised.
The prophet of peace, the bringer of life and salvation will be sent by God whatever his name may be and whatever words and display he uses. So anyone who brings peace, life and love is worthy of respect. If we are intolerant of those whose tradition uses different language or different ritual, or whose God has another name, we are failing to see the wonderful diversity of the ways in which God may act, and worse we shall be fighting against the prophets of peace.
But all this is expressed much better by C S Lewis in The Last Battle, when Aslan who is, more or less, the Christian God (although, as you'll hear, to call him that would miss the whole point) addresses the faithful follower of the evil god Tash. That follower has asked if he, Aslan, and Tash are one:
"The Lion (Aslan) growled so that the earth shook. It is false, he said. We are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I that reward him. And if any man do cruelty in my name, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves, and by Tash his deed is accepted."
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