Christian Unity – The Chaplain

Sermon in the week of prayer for Christian Unity 20th January 2013 Oxford Catholic Chaplaincy by Rev’d Dr. Jonathan Arnold, Chaplain, Worcester College.

Isaiah 62: 1-5; Ps 95; 1 Cor 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
7 For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

It is very good to be with you this morning in this week of prayer for Christian Unity and thank you to Father Simon for the invitation to preach. I’m also very much looking forward to Fr. Nicholas King from Campion Hall preaching at Worcester Chapel this evening.

At college each Monday in term I hold a discussion group over lunch. This term we are looking at the ten commandments, so of course last Monday we considered the first one: ‘I am the lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before me’. In the chat, we discussed how, in a multi-faith, pluralist and partly secular society, this commandment was to be kept whilst respecting each other’s faith. Can Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians all believe they are right and yet genuinely respect each other’s beliefs? One answer that emerged was the metaphor that people had been told at school, that we are all like blindfolded people trying to describe an elephant purely by the sense of touch. The person at the trunk end has a completely different idea of what the animal is than the person at the tail end or at the side. This, apparently, is how different people approach their notion of God. Each person has part of the truth but no individual or religion or denomination has the whole truth, and yet everyone is talking about the same God.

Now, I had never come across this analogy before and initially I thought it was fine and it created much merriment. But it also left me feeling uneasy. It seemed to be, frankly, a little bland – that everyone has a little bit of the truth but no one can ever have a chance of a full revelation of God. The idea that there is one big truth that everyone can see a little part of and yet which no one can fully comprehend seems appealing, but we are still left with the questions of who has the truth and who is being deceived, and surely someone must be more right than someone else? And if no one can ever get anywhere near the truth, and everyone’s view is equally valid, why bother looking for enlightenment at all? I rather think that many secularists have done precisely that. Given the plethora of religions and spiritualities out there they shrug their shoulders and say, well might as well believe nothing.

In this week of prayer for Christian unity I find myself unified with other Christians, in all our diversity, in a religion in which I can wholeheartedly believe, as I would expect a good Muslim to wholeheartedly believe in his or her religion, without the need for aggression against another’s point of view, or complacency about all religions. Indeed, having to assess just what we believe and why can be a very positive exercise. One can find that struggling with the more difficult questions of our faith is well worth while and very good for us. When I was researching for a book recently I interviewed the Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan who related an interesting story about when he was at University and how his Chaplain arranged a forum for just this kind of scrutiny of faith:

In Edinburgh, my chaplain there was a young man, Aidan Nicholls. He laid on these talks [entitled] ‘Objections to Catholicism’, and it was just one speaker after another coming in and laying into our faith. It was a dialogue. They presented their objections to faith. Some of them were Marxist, some of them were atheists of a pre-Dawkins type and some of them were of an extreme Protestant type – Ian Paisley type figures. I think a lot of students were absolutely shocked. Not just shocked by the aggression but shocked by hearing strident opposition to the faith for the first time, and saw their faith was not just challenged but undermined by it. But that’s the risk you’ve got to take. Some of us took a different line – let’s deal with the objections head on and try to enunciate our response. I think that’s what happens in these days of increased aggression against Christianity. The Church will get better for it and purify itself. I think it already has become less slovenly in its actions as well as in its thoughts. I’m quite excited about it. It may be unpleasant at times but I feel it’s doing us good.[1]

I like James’ attitude. He has a firm idea of what he believes and has not been shy in making that public, but he is also delighted to hold dialogue with those of differing opinions, not because he goes into a belligerent position of insisting his truth over anothers, nor shrugs his shoulders to say that we are all correct in our own way, but welcoming the opportunity to scrutinize his own stance and to be forced to justify it. Diversity of opinion in our society does not have to lead to aggression or banality. As St. Paul tells the community in Corinth, there are many different roles and positions to take but there is unity in the Spirit. This acknowledges that real truth is to be found in the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ himself, our salvation and our example is one of supreme generosity, as we heard in the story of the Wedding at Cana, providing the best possible wine even at the end of days of celebrations. God’s generosity is in abundance in creation; in nature, in art, and in love and his ultimate sacrifice for us. Of course, it is our tragedy that it is so often squandered by greed, corruption and selfishness or power. Christ assured his disciples that after him would come the Spirit that would lead them into all truth and that same Spirit which came upon the disciples is there for us today. So how do we gain access to this Spirit of truth, to this unity in the Spirit? For, surely the Holy Spirit provides the strength for all Christians to find unity and harmony in our relations, whilst keeping our own identities and characters, and we must not just pray for a closer bond of love in this week of prayer for unity but throughout the year, both in our silent petitions and by our prayer in action, reaching out to one another in that same Spirit given by God.

So where do we start? Perhaps today’s psalm provides a clue. The Psalms speak of our humanity in all its experience and emotion. As the Christian philosopher Roger Scruton puts it, ‘Every single possible religious attitude is expressed in them … The fact that the Psalms are in all our church services, both Anglican and Catholic, gives them a special place …’.

Psalm 95 particularly shows us where we should place ourselves in the picture.

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
3 For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

Our response to God’s generosity is joy, music,  is the bow down and to worship , to sing and be joyful for all the blessings he has given us, and to be one in our gratitude, our praise, our worship, our prayer, and our love for God and for one another, and so follow the two great commandments to love our God and our neighbour.

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

For God has given us every possible blessing in Jesus Christ, who understands our suffering, pain, and loss as well as our joy and our happiness. He is with all of us in everything, and especially in this season of Epiphany we rejoice in his revelation to the world. This week, and every week, may we continue to pray for unity of love and purpose of the diverse Christian denominations throughout the world, and let’s also rejoice in the source of our faith and his generosity to us that has brought us life, and life eternal. Thanks be to God. Amen.




[1] MacMillan interview, 2011.

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