This sermon was preached by Rev Caroline on 22 January 2017.
Many years ago, when the newly married Aidan and I were looking at a potential job, we visited the parish concerned on a Sunday prior to interviews. During coffee afterwards a lady, on discovering that I had been a cradle catholic now received into the Anglican Church, replied “Never mind, dear. I’ll pray for your conversion!”
I wonder what your response would be to a comment like that!
Yet this is the type of interaction that is strongly embedded in some circles in Christian culture. A stance that has caused terrible strife through history. A stance that is, praise God, starting to shift. Just last week, Ian Paisley Jr thanked Martin McGuiness for his tremendous work in the peace process in Northern Ireland and the links that he built with his father. He stressed how vital it is for denominations to get over divisions and to celebrate our commonality rather than compulsively opposing what each other says.
The same can be true for perceptions of other cultures and traditions – yet today’s gospel clearly shows us that Jesus’ life and ministry was prophesied to be itinerant to reach all nations. Just one way that this was fulfilled was by him settling in Galilee of the Gentiles and starting the call of his disciples and his mission in an ethnically and spiritually diverse land.
Moving into new places and travelling can cause us to rethink how we define who we are. As we experience different cultures and perspectives, our thoughts about ourselves and others are challenged.
In 1989 I had the privilege of travelling through Eastern Europe at the time that Solidarity had come to power. Later I returned through Eastern and Western Germany just days before the Berlin Wall came down. It was an incredible year in the politics of Eastern Europe.
What has stayed with me from that period of my life is the depth of the human drive for justice and peace. What is also vivid is the human cost and sacrifice that many made to achieve that peace. In my adventuring I had been exposed to sights and conversations that had not been part of my life experience to date.
In Poland and Eastern Germany at that time were depths of poverty and hardship that I had never, at that young age, experienced first hand before.
Faith was a central aspect of the lives of many that I met as well as a curiosity about faith as expressed in other traditions and countries. A hospitality was offered in welcoming visitors to worship at the local church but, in some churches, that was limited by the issue of hospitality at the Lord’s table and confusion as to why this should be when we all believe in Christ. With a heavy heart I was inclined to agree. The heart of faith is the key to hope when the politics and hardships of life are to the fore.
In my young spiritual journey and my growing political awareness as a young adult I was transformed by my experience of living there for a season. A pale reflection of the experience of Jesus who, in front line ministry, was being touched by the challenges in the lives of so many that he met. The conversion he was bringing to the lives of others was dramatic and leaving him rapidly out of step with society. Indeed, the experience of the disciples that he called and who so readily followed him would have left them similarly out of step with the communities that they left to follow Jesus.
Mission expert, Paul Hiebert, comments:
“[Returning] missionaries are shocked to find their relationships with relatives and friends strained and distant. They expect these folk to be excited to hear about their many experiences, but after an hour or two, conversation drifts off to local affairs – to politics, church matters, or family issues. The people at home have no frame of reference within which to fit these tales from abroad. Their world is their town and state or province. Missionaries have lost touch with local matters and have little to say”
What is true for any person of faith is that as soon as we step into the new context of being Christ’s disciple wherever he calls us to serve, we need to be a blank slate laying the stories of our previous context down and being open to people writing their stories on us. When we carry the narrative of who walked with us to faith rather than completely allowing ourselves to be handed over Christ then we leave ourselves open to distractions from the focus of Christ that Paul is describing in his letter to the Corinthians.
One thing that has often bemused me since coming to faith is that so many Christians, when meeting each other play a game of “Who knows who?” and it’s rarely long before you find someone in common. I’m never quite sure how to feel about that – our inter-relatedness as the wider church family is an exciting and wonderful thing. The speed at which we find those connections perhaps suggest there is plenty of room for growth in that family. Despite that, I have often felt that there is a form of filing and categorising goes on in that type of conversation that can be really unhelpful.
Why do we do this? Is there something about checking out each other’s pedigree like the people were doing that Paul is talking to in Corinth? Do we get an impression of the person that we are talking to based upon who they know or worship with? Can that become a barrier to how we see them or does it help us to feel comfortable that we have tradition in common?
What Paul is saying to the Corinthians is that our starting point as we meet others is “Do you know this guy named “Jesus”? Have you met him? Would you like to? Isn’t he amazing? He totally changed my life!”
Ian Paisley Jr was drawing our attention to the greater good of building peace together. To build reconciliation we need to lightly hold in one hand all that is precious to us in terms of denomination and acknowledge difference whilst on the other hand holding firmly onto our identity in Christ and the greater good.
As we come into this, our Week of Christian Unity, let us celebrate all that we have in common as children of God and Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Let us celebrate the joy of knowing Him who came to save us, calls us to follow him and draws us into deeper relationship with our Heavenly Father. Let us give thanks, too, for those who have pointed us towards him in our lives because He is at the centre of theirs. Thanks be to God!