Parish Eucharist 28th May 2017
John 17 'that they may be one'
Easter 7 Year A 2017 Acts 1.4-16; 1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11; John 17.1-11
In ten days time we shall be voting in a new General Election. The Prime Minister has told us that she called this election because while the country is united, parliament is divided. What we think about this statement may depend on what our political affiliations are, if we happy with the Prime Minister’s position ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we may be happy with this notion, if we are anxious as to just what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ might actually mean - is that a hard or a soft exit - we may be more anxious that Mrs May appears to wish to avoid disagreement in Parliament. Isn’t debate precisely what Parliament is meant to be about!
Written sixty or seventy years after the crucifixion and resurrection, in John’s gospel, Jesus in his last discourse, prays for his friends: "Holy Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Stirring words, yet, in Jesus' prayer that his followers be one, there is tacit recognition that the growing Christian community was not one. Luke records the first Council of the Jesus Movement in Acts chapter 15, many more councils were to follow...
Very much still a movement within Judaism, the first contentious issue to divide Jesus’ followers of the Way, revolved around the question of whether gentile God-fearers who attended worship in the synagogue, would they, in order to join the Jesus Movement, be required to undergo circumcision?
The debate between Paul who had gone to the Jewish Diaspora, where he found many gentile converts among these ‘god-fearers’, and James the brother of Jesus who led the community in Jerusalem worshipping daily in the Temple, was fierce and intense. Here was an issue of real and profound impact on the lives of converts. James and Paul found a meeting of minds, Paul persuaded James of his position and here we are - sobering thought.
At the beginning of the fourth century, Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. He did so - and this is not to say his faith was not genuine - because he wanted to unite the empire around a single religion and belief system, only to be severely disappointed to find that Christians themselves were far from united in their theology and doctrine! In the year 325 he called the Council of Nicea which drew up the Creed which all Western Christians agree on, and which we shall shortly say together - 1700 years later! Another success then!
But Church history is littered with our failures to love and respect one another, to live in unity, to hold together as Jesus prays for us to do. Horrific failures accompanied by appalling spilling of blood seeping down the centuries. How can the world hear Jesus’ good news if Christians themselves are persecuting one another, churches fomenting disdain for those who think differently from them? If we see ourselves as ‘other’ from those who are not Christians?
In the wake of Monday’s bomb in Manchester, how vital we continue to reach out to all our neighbours. Reach out with deep respect to those whom God has also made and loves, yet who are seeking God along other paths. As we remember those caught up in this appalling tragedy let us heed the words of the Bishop of Manchester, that we use our anger to refuse the terrorists what they most desire, the division of our communities. God has bestowed on his creation a staggering array of diverse beauty to stretch our minds and delight our hearts! Let us be thankful for each person whom God has placed beside us who stretches our thinking and enlarges our heart.
We are finite creatures and certainly individually, and even collectively, ‘synodically’ as is the way of the Church of England, in this world we will never arrive at final definitive answers. For ongoing research is continually making new discoveries to inform our understanding. Not only around our reading of the Bible, also around the impact of our beliefs on how we live together too.
Throughout history the Church has always subtly moved its thinking on issues in response to new situations. We in Hampstead enjoy all the potential of our wealthy lifestyles precisely because John Calvin, dour and fearsome Protestant ruler of Geneva in the sixteenth century, precisely because Calvin changed his mind, he changed his mind about usury - the lending of money for interest, a practice forbidden in the Church by that Council at Nicea and in that change of mind and heart - for good or ill we might wonder, the capitalist world was born.
In our own time the Church of England is riven apart over issues around sexuality and equal marriage. It seems we may be approaching breaking point with the consecration by the conservative organisation GAFCON of an alternative episcopate in the North East. As ever, and rather sadly, the Church it would appear is obsessed with sex. If we accept - as the Church does - that same sex couples can before God, be deeply emotionally bonded to one another, why are we then so concerned with the private expression of that love?
As GAFCON go on to say, this isn’t - and never has been - the basic issue. Way back twenty years ago and more, sexual orientation was used as a tool, a plumb line if you will, for measuring orthodoxy. For establishing faithfulness to the authority of Scripture. If you wish to propose that same-sex relationships have an equal validity before God to heterosexual relationships, equal because science has now firmly established that homosexual orientation is a given in creation and not a choice, and because Jesus we may note, was constantly including those the Establishment made outsiders - if such inclusion is your view, then you are rejecting the authority of Scripture.
Such thinking is poor history and a denial of the reality: that every reading of Scripture, be it conservative or liberal, is an interpretation of the text using a range of hermeneutical tools. We all come to the Bible wearing our own particular pairs of spectacles!
This term the Hampstead Christian Study Centre wrestling with Borg and Crossan’s understanding of - and passion for - the apostle Paul! Personally, I’ve always had some difficulties with Paul, and this book has indeed, thoroughly rehabilitated him for me! Like these two American theologians I’m thrilled with what I’m discovering! But it is hard work following their tight exposition of the text - especially after long years of reading Paul through a Reformation lens! When we put Paul back into his historical context of the Roman Empire; when we understand that the English words we are so used to reading in our New Testaments, could equally be translated differently, then we experience potential new meanings in what Paul says. Words like ‘righteousness’, where the same Greek word also means ‘justice’. The Greek word for ‘faith’ which we hear as ‘that which we believe’ also means ‘faithfulness’. For the Jew Paul, ‘faith’ could never simply mean cognitive assent to a particular set of beliefs. Faith could only be claimed when it resulted in radical change of life, in action to build God’s kingdom of justice on earth. The Greek word for ‘redemption’ could just as easily be translated ‘liberation’. Thus verses from the first and third chapters of Romans could read:“I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who is faithful, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith, from God’s faithfulness to human faithfulness; as it is written, 'The one who is just will live by faithfulness. All are now made just by his grace as a gift, through the liberation that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 1:16-17; 3.24).
If we would live united together it is vital we create place at the table for diversity.
In Luke's second instalment, the Acts of the Apostles, he informs us that since the crucifixion the risen Christ has indeed appeared among his disciples for forty days, proving to them - in ways beyond doubt - that he is alive! How the hearts of those first disciples must have thrilled with expectation: Lord, will you at this time give the Kingdom back to Israel? The only - tantalising answer, Jesus will give them: 'Wait for the Spirit'. When the Spirit comes you will know what the work is that I am asking you to do for me. We also cry ‘Come Holy Spirit’. Amen.