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.

Amen

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Acts 1, 15-17 & 21-26; John 17, 16-19.

“They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17, 16).

What does this mean?

I found a an illustration you might use to demonstrate this verse to children, in Sunday School or a school assembly.It suggested taking a clear bottle, putting water in the bottom, then food colouring, (to make the water visible) then a layer of cooking oil on the top. When the bottle is shaken, the oil and water become mixed up and the oil is invisible. But if you leave the bottle to stand for a while, the oil separates out, and floats to the top. The text says this shows that, though even when they were all mixed up, the oil and water were never really one.

This is then linked to our Gospel reading for today: the text says that Jesus prayed for his disciples, that as they lived in the world, they would not become part of the world. He wanted them to add the gifts he had given them to the world – just as the water added some colour to the oil – but he did not want them to become stained by the world.

It continues that this prayer is for us too. As Jesus was sent by his Father into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. We must live in this world, but Jesus has called us to be separate. Just as the coloured water remains separate from the oil, Jesus wants us to be separate from the world.

I see problems with this passage from John’s Gospel which you might like to think about and discuss. The first is a view of God and of Jesus which sees them as separate from the created world. This view comes particularly to the fore when we use  the metaphorical, or picture language about the process of incarnation and ascension, as we have been doing this last week.

I’ve read several comments this week about the Ascension being the reverse of the Incarnation. This view says that at Christmas, Jesus, a different sort of being, comes into this world. He lives a human life, is killed, then is raised from death, and eventually, at the Ascension, returns to heaven, to reign with God.  So, the Ascension is seen as a sort of ‘return to HQ’ by someone who was an alien in the created world. This sort of explanation however, risks tipping over into the Docetic heresy, which says Jesus’s body only seemed to be human, whereas actually he was a divine being, and couldn’t actually be hurt, and didn’t actually die. Even if it doesn’t go that far, it makes Jesus and God separate from the human world.

This week Alan Wilson, the Bishop of Buckingham, challenged that interpretation. He said that any depiction of the Ascension as the shedding of physicality makes it less than good news.In the way he sees it, Jesus blazes a trail all follow towards their destiny. It illuminates our present humanity.

He says that classical Christian theology calls Jesus eternally Incarnate, and the Ascension is not the reversal of the Incarnation but a radical extension of it beyond time and place. And in case you think that is a modern interpretation, he quotes a hymn of 1862 by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth:

He has raised our human nature 

in the clouds to God’s right hand;

There we sit in heavenly places,

there with him in glory stand:

Jesus reigns, adored by angels;

man with God is on the throne;

Mighty Lord, in thine ascension

we by faith behold our own.

This view sees God being present in and through the world, as God was most perfectly in Jesus. Humanity is raised to divine levels through following the Way of Jesus. The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same idea when he writes: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places…And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things, and of the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

So we in the church are Christ’s body, which is both incarnate and ascended. How then are we supposed to work in the world? Do we belong to the world and in the world, or are we supposed to keep ourselves separate?

In the past, and even today, there are Christian groups who try to keep themselves as separate as possible from normal human society. There are the desert hermits, who escaped from civic society in the ancient world and practised extreme asceticism (Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 36 years is one of my favourites among these!). There are Christian groups who refuse to vote, or serve in armed forces, and who, like the Amish, resist modern inventions.

Other groups reject only certain activities as being ‘of the world’ and so unsuitable for Christians. The Puritans rejected music, dancing, and celebrating festivals like Christmas. Other Christians have forbidden alcohol and gambling, and even playing cards for the same reason.

The mainstream Anglican tradition, to which we belong, has however seen its mission as being in the world, ministering to people where they are, adapting to the local and current culture, in order to reach people more successfully.

But are there limits to that?

Morality and ethics is one area in which there has been constant disagreement within the church about how far it should conform to ‘the world’s’ understanding of what is right and wrong. The campaigns over slavery, women’s emancipation, divorce and contraception are just some examples of the working out of this tension;  and the question marks continue, particularly over the issue of how far homosexuality is acceptable in Christians.

Last month the Archbishop of Sydney preached a sermon at St Mark’s Battersea, a church in South London that is part of a group of churches in the Diocese of Southwark planning to withhold their parish share money from the diocese and pay it into a ‘company, administered by people who believe themselves orthodox Christians. The Archbishop said (using very Johannine language)  “The world has invaded the church. So the contest we have, as Bible-based, Bible-believing Christians, is on two fronts. It is against the world, but it is also against those in the church who have come to terms with the world, who have made their peace with the world, who have compromised with the world, who have given up biblical standards in order to be thought well of in the world.”

But last month again a group of bishops and senior churchmen, including the Bishop of Buckingham and our own Dean, signed a letter to The Times, saying that the church has nothing to fear from gay marriage and should respond pastorally to gay couples.

The church is divided between those who sign the Coalition for Real Marriage’s petition and those who sign the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s one. How can we judge which one is of God, and which one is ‘of the world’ in its worst sense?

Liturgy is another area in which there is disagreement about how far the church should conform to the ways of the world. Yesterday, 19th May, marked the 350th anniversary of the Act of Uniformity, which enforced the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as the only prayer book allowed throughout the Church of England. It was not a new book, but the culmination of 120 years of discussion and change to translate the liturgy of the Anglican church into ‘a language understanded of the people’, as its originator, Thomas Cranmer put it.

But then, naturally, the Prayer Book itself became entrenched, and the liturgical history of the 20th century was punctuated by moves to bring what had become worship in archaic language and out of date theology into line with modern understanding. The ASB and Common Worship were the results.

But for some people they don’t go far enough in adapting the church to contemporary culture. The report ‘Mission Shaped Church’, published in 2004, advocated a move away from the parish based system and traditional church buildings, into what were called ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’, congregations set up in cafés and leisure centres and skate parks, or only for people with common interests, such as embroidery or sport. This approach has driven much of the mission initiative in the Church of England over the past eight years, and has led to the introduction of a new sort of Pioneer Minister, to encourage and lead these ‘fresh expressions’.

But for some people, ‘fresh expressions congregations’ are a step too far in conforming the church to the world.

For the Parish’ is a book which sets out to critique fresh expressions and defend the traditional parish and liturgy.

It says that the Christian Gospel needs to be embodied in a certain form, and that the inadequacies of contemporary culture are unsuitable for mission which is true to the gospel. It argues for the parish church as providing ‘sacred space’, the church calendar as providing a different understanding of time from that which the secular world follows, and liturgy as  one of a series of practices and disciplines of the Christian life in which we learn to love God and our neighbour and learn the ways of heaven. It argues for the occasional offices of marriage and funerals as opportunities for pastoral mission and the daily offices of matins and evensong as a way of consecrating time. It doesn’t argue for a church which is other-worldly; just  a church which is part of God’s resistance movement against the transitory and dehumanising nature of so much that characterises ‘the world’ today.

Christians and the Church are meant to be different from ‘the world’ (as used in John to mean human life separated from and hostile to God.) But they are also tasked with bringing light and life to that world in the name of Jesus, whose glory fills the world. Engagement with the world demands discernment about where in human society God is already at work, and where God is not.

That discernment is the task of the God the Holy Spirit, whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday.