Nicholas King – Christian Unity Octave 2013

Worcester – Unity Octave 2013

Micah 6: 6-8; Galatians 3:26-28; Luke 24: 13-35

It is the week of prayer for Christian Unity; and it is fashionable these days to say that the ecumenical movement has run out of steam, or hit the buffers, or run aground on the institutional selfishness of different Christian groups, or some other idle metaphor  borrowed from transport. There is something in this, of course: I was reading this morning an account of the formation of the United Reformed Church in the 1970’s, out of the Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches: it was a great sign of hope for many, but although most members of both churches gladly joined the new enterprise, there were some in both churches who could not take the step, and stayed where they were, so that instead of a single new church they now had three! And it has always been a difficulty of the Protestant Reformed tradition that it has been prone to doing the splits; but the other churches don’t do much better.

My own Catholic tradition, for example, puts immense weight on uniformity, but at the cost of authoritarian models of leadership and the suppression of dissent. And other churches, such as the Orthodox and the Anglican, find great challenges, as well as great strength, in their roles as national churches. So it is not surprising that people find themselves getting depressed instead of cheered and invigorated in this Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.

All right – now can we find any reasons for being cheerful about it? One thing that has certainly changed in my lifetime is the ease of relationship between most people who share the Christian faith, and the fact that we can consciously say the Lord’s Prayer together. That may seem trivial, but I remember listening with mild astonishment, half a century ago, to a Catholic bishop as he argued that it was not permissible for us to say the Lord’s Prayer in an Anglican service, nor even to sing the hymns (until my mother, who was present, pointed out that she often sang such hymns in her bath, and what was the difference!).

I also remember working in South Africa in the days when apartheid was coming to its end, and talking to many Christians, of different denominations, who had found themselves in prison because of their opposition to apartheid, an opposition that arose precisely out of their Christian faith; and in prison they discovered how very much they had in common, and what a joy it was in those days to sing those hymns out loud together, even in solitary confinement, so that solitary became communion. I can also remember remote Zulu outstations, where we Catholic priests could not reach on a Sunday, and in our absence the people had no problem at all in attending the Methodist or Anglican service; our 16th Century divisions seemed to them totally irrelevant, in comparison to what held them together.

And there is a further, deeper truth, that Christian Unity is not, really is not, a matter of how many propositions we can agree to subscribe to, but something more important. That more important something is simply our relationship to God, and our faith in (or a better translation might be “commitment to”) Jesus Christ.

To illustrate this, I’d like to look at the three well-chosen readings that we have just heard; and you will be relieved to know that there is not space, if you are to get to the excellent dinner that the Worcester chefs are even now hastening to prepare for you, to say everything about them that should be said.

The first reading is from Micah, Isaiah’s slightly junior contemporary, so he is living at the time of the Assyrian crisis, which promised to put an end to the whole people of God, and not just the Northern Kingdom. In that reading, Micah imagines his fellow-Judeans at last getting his message: “now we realise that we haven’t been faithful”, and making various suggestions about how they might put it right. The suggestions include:

Burnt offerings

Sacrificing young calves

A holocaust of a thousand rams

A thousand rivers of oil

And (worst of all, the climax to this absurd list) “would God like me to sacrifice my first-born son?”

The answer, to all of these, is “NO and no and no”. The answer is what they should already have known (and what you and I should know and all too easily forget):

Deeds of righteousness (looking after widows and orphans and the oppressed)

Loving Hesed, that untranslatable quality of God, which means something like loving fidelity.

Being humble in your walking with God (though alas the translation of the Hebrew is not all that certain). That might be a good place to start our Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The second reading was that famous passage from Galatians, where Paul is coping with the divisions in the Christian Church, caused by his own radical innovation of not compelling non-Jews who believe that Jesus is Messiah, to observe kosher food-regulations, circumcision and Jewish festivals. Paul’s solution is to tell the Galatians to look at the effects of the baptism that they have experienced: they have “put on Christ” (Paul is here using a metaphor from the Greek stage – as an actor “becomes” Agamemnon or Oedipus when he puts on the costume, so they are to “become” Christ). The consequence is that all artificial distinctions, constructed by human beings not by God, simply fall away:

No such thing as Jew/Gentile (religious or cultural)

No such thing as slave/free (economic and social-political)

No such thing as male and female, (just about everything else that’s left)

Because they are all “one in Christ”. There is a really breathtaking audacity here, and we shall do well to savour it with astonishment, as we work for the unity of the Christian church.

The third reading, of course, is that loveliest Lucan creation, the story of the walk to Emmaus; and I shan’t even try to cover it all. Just look at what Jesus does (“eyes on Christ” has to be the watchword this week), and you will find that it is our story.

  • He journeys with the two disillusioned disciples in their pain, and he goes unrecognised.
  • He causes annoyance by asking a penetrating question about their pain, and gets the irritated answer: “are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know what has happened?” (they are talking of course, to the only one who does know what has happened)
  • He listens to their pain about the absence of Jesus
  • He chides them (and in doing so, of course, it is us whom he chides) for our failure to understand what God is doing: “you stupid men and slow of heart!” (so many preachers have longed to start a sermon that way, and have never quite dared)
  • He pretends to be leaving them, and then gives in to their invitation to stay
  • He takes bread and blesses and breaks and gives it to them; so he is celebrating a Eucharist with them.
  • He disappears – and it doesn’t matter, because
  • Finally he has empowered them to go back to Jerusalem, and be reunited with the Church, when only a few minutes ago it was too late to travel anywhere; and that in turn leads to
  • Another, mysterious encounter with the Risen Jesus. We are, as Jesus impatiently declared, slow learners.

So what of our depression about the ecumenical movement? I should like to suggest three observations to give us hope.

First, an attentive reading of the New Testament and of church history reveals that Christian Unity has always been something to aspire to, never yet achieved.

Second, even if all Christians signed an agreement on all propositions to which they could give intellectual assent, there would still be immense cultural differences in the way in which we worship God. Consider what it would be like, culturally, if you journeyed today, in a roughly Southerly and Easterly direction, and a roughly high-low direction, and worshipping at each place: the Greek Orthodox church in Canterbury Road, St Aloysius in Woodstock Road, Worcester College Chapel, Blackfriars, The Catholic Chaplaincy in Rose Place, St Ebbe’s, and the King’s Place just across the river. So don’t expect too much.

Finally, our only way ahead is towards God, with Jesus Christ at our side, and impelled by the Holy Spirit.                     +

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