Different Gifts.

January 20, 2013

Mum&DadPwedd copy

(Isaiah 62, 1-5: I Corinthians 12, 1-11; John 2, 1-11) 

We’re getting ready for another wedding in our family – our younger son is getting married next year.

And like our elder son, he’s chosen to marry someone from the other side of the Atlantic – so it will be an American ceremony, with a celebration for the English side later; and we are  learning how different wedding customs are in the United States from the UK.  There seem to be lots more formal events to include – things like Bridal Showers and Rehearsal Dinners – which we don’t go in for here, and there’s a different etiquette for who makes speeches and when. Another interesting wedding experience to add to our previous one!

I’ve spoken before about the way my experience of leading Marriage Preparation courses  highlighted many similarities between a couple getting married and two different churches entering an ecumenical partnership.  There are similar tensions over what might seem, on the surface, to be very minor differences of family or church customs, but which nevertheless seem to carry enormous emotional weight, and lead to difficulties out of all proportion to their apparent importance. What family customs and religious practices have in common is that they are often deeply rooted in our early family experiences, in the things that provide us with part of our sense of identity and security, and that, as a result, they are extremely difficult to discuss in a rational and detached way.

Our Gospel reading today describes a wedding feast – and in the Bible, a wedding feast is always a symbol for the great Messianic Banquet at the end of time, celebrating the triumph of God’s Kingdom and the covenant between God and his people. In the Old Testament, as we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the ‘bride’ of God was the people of Israel. In the New Testament it is the new people of God, the Church. The marriage feast metaphor speaks of the love God has for his people, and the joy that they have in being joined to God. So, it is a very appropriate image to have before us in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when we rejoice in the covenant relationship that God established with all Christians through Jesus, and the joy that we all share in serving God in the world.

It’s easy to get depressed by the difficulties of ecumenical co-operation, particularly by participation in the numerous committees that seem to be necessary to organise services and events. But we should not forget the enormous advances made in ecumenism since the week began in Catholic churches in 1908. I can remember in my childhood how members of different churches regarded each other with suspicion, and co-operation was especially difficult between non-conformist churches and those from a more catholic tradition. And I was saddened in the 1970s by hearing from Cardinal Hume, when he came to address Churches Together in a Lent Lecture, that, as a trainee Catholic priest, he was not allowed to attend his own father’s funeral, because it took place in an Anglican Church. How things have changed! As an Anglican woman, I have twice preached from the pulpit of a Roman Catholic Church – not something that I could ever have imagined happening as a child – and I know I can take communion in the churches of most denominations without any questions being asked.

The establishment of Local Ecumenical Partnerships, like those in this circuit at St Mary’s Rickmansworth and All Saints Berkhamstead, has enormously expanded lay people’s experience of worshipping with those of different church backgrounds, and occasions such as this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Women’s World Day of Prayer provide opportunities for planning liturgy and attending worship with those of different denominational backgrounds.

But progress towards full visible unity, sharing not only buildings and worship, but theology, ministry and church organisation has been achieved only in a few cases – the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church being the only two major denominations to have achieved it in this country. It seems to have been easier to achieve in places where Christianity is not the dominant religion – there have been united churches of several Protestant denominations in India and Pakistan since 1970.

Recently, while movements for closer covenant relationships between churches have failed, or been relegated to the background, disputes within churches, over issues such as sexuality and gender roles, seem to be leading to greater disunity, and more obstructions in the road to visible unity. It is very sad, like contemplating the probability of marriage breakup in your own family, or in the families of other people you love.MumDad, Granma&Dad?Wedd copy

Maybe what we should be celebrating today is the enormous amount of practical work to serve the vulnerable, the marginalised and the poor which is undertaken by Christians working together, both nationally and locally. The Fairtrade movement and Christian Aid are shining examples of Christians working together nationally and internationally to secure justice and wellbeing for others. Locally, joint efforts by churches over the last 50 years have established Wensum Court homes for the elderly, the Care Scheme, the Credit Union in Rickmansworth and the Foodbank in Mill End and Maple Cross, soon to be extended to Rickmansworth Town Centre.

As St Paul explains in his letter to the Corinthians, God has given different gifts to different people in the Church, but they are all given to be used for the common good. Some gifts may be used in the worship of God, one sort of ‘service’ which can have great differences in style, in order to accommodate differences of taste or personality. Other gifts may be used in teaching, or administration, but the most important are used in practical service to others.

If we listen to St Paul, we learn that we should value all these different gifts equally, just as we value all the different parts of our body equally; and especially that we shouldn’t put a greater value on intellectual gifts than practical ones. The only standard by which we may evaluate gifts is that of love, for God gives us gifts because of the divine love for us, and we share them with our neighbour, because God’s Spirit within us inspires us to love our neighbour as ourselves.

The marriage image we find in the Old Testament and Gospel provides further support for the celebration of our unity in service to others: just as a married couple share their lives and their possessions as a token of their love for each other, so we Christians share our lives and possessions with everyone, and especially the needy and the dispossessed.

wcc_logoSimilarly, I think all today’s readings encourage us to share in companionship and service not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of faith. It is an encouragement to interfaith as well as ecumenical unity.

I’ve recently dipped into a book called ‘Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road’. It takes its name from a variation of the ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke. The author, Brian McLaren, asks “How do you think Jesus would treat (them) if they took a walk across the road together. Would Jesus push Moses aside and demand to cross first…would he trade insults with Mohammed…Would Jesus demand the Buddha kneel at his feet? Or would he walk with them and, once on the other side, welcome them to the table of fellowship, ….maybe even taking the role of a servant…making sure each felt welcome, safe and at home?”

McLaren continues: “I have no doubt that Jesus would actually practise the neighbourliness he preached rather than following our example of religious supremacy, hostility, fear, isolation, misinformation, exclusion or demonisation. It seems ridiculous to imagine that he would be insecure among them, considering them his rivals, or that he would find it necessary to extract from them explicit agreement on fundamental doctrines before condescending to cross a road with them.”

And as Jesus does, so must we do, as we are called to be Christ’s Body in the world. True Christian Unity is not about reaching agreement on the minutiae of theology, or the exact details of church order, or who may preach or be ordained. It is about working together with the common purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God through serving our neighbour and transforming the world. And we can do that not just with our fellow Christians, but with all people of goodwill.

Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed – and the Methodists and Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians and Roman Catholics – cross the road?Book cover

They were going to take their different gifts to the marriage feast, where all are welcomed to celebrate the glory of God and the joy of the covenant God makes with all who were once Desolate and Forsaken, and who now know themselves married to the Divine and who love and share and serve the Kingdom of Heaven, to the delight of God.

Let us pray:

A prayer by Ruth Gee, Chair of the Darlington District, fromThe Methodist Prayer Handbook. Day 13.

God with us, Emmanuel;

you cross the chasm of time and space,

you break down the walls of fear and prejudice,

you span the waters of chaos,

you come to us in love.

Sending God;

help us to cross the chasm of hurt and painful memory,

help us to break down the barriers that divide,

help us to bear your peace in a troubled world.

Send us in love,

go with us.


( Isaiah 60, 1-6, Matt. 2, 1-12)

Where did the Magi come from?

The answer to that depends on where you are looking.

If you are looking at the story in Matthew, then the answer is “They came from the East”. Due East and North East of Jerusalem were Babylon and Assyria, the ancient enemies of Israel. The Jews knew from their own history of the existence of a class of ‘wise men’ or magi in these countries, and especially in Babylon. These were priest-magicians, interpreters of the stars and of dreams – practices that were frowned on by a strict interpretation of Jewish law. Later on the same class of magi were found in the societies of the Medes, Persians and Parthians, and were probably the forerunners of the Zoroastrian priests

If you are answering the question from the point of view of biblical source criticism, then the answer is “They came from the Old Testament, and in particular from the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers chapters 22-24.”

In this passage we hear how Balak, King of Moab, is alarmed at the approach of the Israelites under Moses, and summons a magus called Balaam from Babylon to put a curse on them. Balaam comes, like Matthew’s magi, ‘apu anatolon’ – from the East. Balaam, however, is influenced by messages from God, ( dreams, angels and a talking donkey!) and far from cursing the Israelites, prophesies that a King of Israel will arise like a star or a comet and defeat Israel’s enemies. This picture of the magi who listen to God is further elaborated by other passages, especially Isaiah 60 which we heard as our OT lesson and Psalm 72, which refer to the kings of the nations drawn by the light of the Jews, travelling to pay homage to Israel and bring gifts, including gold and incense.

If we are looking from a theological viewpoint, however, the answer to the question is “They came from the needs of the community for which Matthew was writing”. Matthew’s Gospel is often referred to as the most Jewish of our four Gospels. It seems that there were a very strong group of Jewish Christians in the community for which he wrote, who saw Jesus both as a second Moses and also as the promised Messiah and descendant of King David. They adhered to the Jewish Law and traditions, and saw Jesus as part of that. However, by the time the Gospel was written in the later part of the first century, Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed in the aftermath of the Jewish revolt of AD70, and Matthew’s part of the Christian community was in exile, perhaps in the East in the countries where magi priests operated. There the community had been joined by Gentile believers, and throughout Matthew’s Gospel we see a struggle going on to reconcile the beliefs of the Jewish and Gentile Christians about who Jesus is, and to whom he brings salvation.

In the story of the magi, Matthew gives his community a picture of strangers and foreigners, members of another religion and culture, who nevertheless recognised Jesus as king, priest and saviour. Their revelation from God comes through the natural world, the rising of a star. They ask the advice of Jesus’ fellow-countrymen, who do as they should, and consult the Scriptures. But having done so, Herod and his advisers get it wrong – while the strangers from the ancient oppressor, led by natural revelation, get it right, and pay homage to the new born king. A further contrast is provided by the story of the slaughter of the innocents which follows in Matthew; the Jewish rulers attempt to destroy the infant – who finds refuge in the country of another ancient oppressor, Egypt.

Matthew’s tale of the magi, therefore can be seen as apologetic for the pagans and foreigners in his Christian community. His magi, like Balaam, are good, listen to God, and work for the benefit of the covenant community. The incense and myrrh they once used for their pagan incantations are now dedicated to God’s saviour. But they don’t become Jewish. When they have paid homage, they return to their own country ( like Balaam) and there is no indication that they change their ways or their religion. They remain different. So, Matthew is saying ( as Luke says in the Nunc Dimittis) the light of Christ is meant for the Gentiles as well, and the presence of Gentile worshippers – who remain different from their Jewish brothers and sisters in the community of the New Covenant – is part of God’s plan too.

And where are they going to? Do the magi have a message for our generation too?

I have recently been reading a book by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. It is called ‘The Dignity of Difference’ and subtitled ‘How to avoid the Clash of Civilisations’. In the book Sachs reflects on the dangerous state of the world in the 21st century, and in particular on the way in which the clash of different belief patterns – whether they belong to world faiths or to atheism against religious belief threaten to destroy the freedom and prosperity painfully achieved over the preceding centuries. He argues that the only way to deal with this is to make space for difference. This is something stronger than the toleration of religious difference that came after the European wars of religion and as a result of the Enlightenment. This toleration, he says, represented a move from the statement ‘Faith is supremely important, and therefore everyone must have the one true faith’ to ‘Faith is supremely important and therefore everyone must be allowed to live by the faith which seems true to them’.

Toleration followed by pluralism allowed for difference, but still allowed people to maintain the belief that theirs was the only truth. The power of the nation state kept the peace between those whose conception of truth differed. Now, in the global era, he says, that is no longer possible, since the ease of travel and communication in the modern age mean that very small groups of people attempting to impose their vision of truth on everyone can cause major disasters.

Sachs argues that difference is not something to be worked against, but something to be celebrated and recognised as part of God’s plan. It goes further than toleration or pluralism to assert the positive value of difference. Just as in our attempts to preserve the natural ecology of the earth, we try to preserve all the different species of God’s creation, so in the social ecology, we should try to respect and preserve the differences of faith and culture.

This will demand a major shift in attitudes, particularly amongst adherents of the major Abrahamic faiths, who tend to believe that they alone have the whole truth. Sachs argues that truth on earth can never aspire to be the whole truth, and when two truths are in conflict, it is not because one is true and the other false, but because they give different perspectives on reality.

It is hard for us to see God, or good, in those of another colour, faith or ethnic group. But the reality that is God has to be above all religions, because only such a God can be transcendent. God is greater than any religion, and only partially comprehended by any one faith. God is universal, but religions are particular. God is the God of all humanity but no single faith is the faith of all humanity. The one God, creator of diversity, Sachs says, commands us to honour his creation by respecting diversity.

Sachs uses the traditional religious language of ‘covenant’ to argue for an agreement between believers to respect the dignity of difference. Covenants, he says, can only exist between parties who are different ( man and woman in the marriage covenant. God and humanity in the Old and New Covenants of Judaism and Christianity). In a covenant the two parties agree to respect each others’ different characteristics, but to work together for good. Such a covenant has to be based on mutual trust, and not on the threat of enforcement from any outside agency; it has to be made to work through compassion, creativity, responsibility and forgiveness.

Sachs talks about the recognition of the dignity of difference between different faiths. But it seems to me to be an important principle also in this present time between those people who have faith and those who have none; and within faiths and within denominations. In particular, it would make an enormous difference to the Anglican communion at this time if all the warring groups could recognise that no one of them has the whole truth, that God reveals the divine purpose through other channels than the scriptures, and that we don’t all have to worship God or behave in exactly the same way in order to recognise our common loyalty to God and to Christ.

So, as we follow again the particular star by which God brings us to meet with the Christ child, and depart again to our own homes, may we ask ourselves:
Can I recognise God’s purpose in the diversity of belief and practice in the world? Can I be a magus – a wise person – and acknowledge that everyone knows something that no-one else does – and be willing to learn from them? Can I recognise the good, and see God, in one whose faith and ideals are different from mine, while still remaining faithful to the inheritance of truth which my faith gives me?

Can I, like Matthew in the story of the Magi, uphold the dignity of difference?

(Jonathan Sacks. The Dignity of Difference. Continuum. 2002.)