From a Sermon preached at a shared Eucharist with Wilton Baptist Church – during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
It is remarkably easy for our messages to get mangled somewhere in transmission.
One of the curses of email is that’s it very easy to write a message, meaning one thing, only for the person or persons receiving it to miss the nuance and read something completely different.
And if messages are being passed from person to person to person – there’s plenty of scope for subtle re-workings, so that by the end of the chain, the message is barely recognisable.
So, what about the message of the Gospel – what about the story of our faith? How on earth do we know that our version hasn’t been tweaked beyond all recognition since the time of the first Disciples of Christ?
Well, in short we don’t! That IS one of our biggest challenges – and we shouldn’t be surprised that there are so many different versions – so many different opinions with the Church. Christian people have different perspectives, different backgrounds and different personalities – they instinctively react in different ways and are naturally attracted to different aspects of the Faith, and turned off by others.
So we are left with a mixture of messages, all overlapping but not always agreeing.
As a result, all of us have to engage with the process of sifting the evidence, always trying to detect human error and, by God’s grace, seeing beyond it the truth of the Gospel.
But, of course, the way we set about doing that depends on just the same things – the same personality traits – that have led to the disagreements in the first place.
When I was studying for ordination there was a mix of students from the Anglicans, Methodist and United Reform Churches – and it was always fascinating watching the way that other trainee ministers went about things.
Among that mix, there were those – sporting bracelets with “What Would Jesus Do?” – who liked to pronounce that “If Jesus was here with us now, he’d be telling us to do this”
– and there were others who’d answer “Actually, Jesus IS here with us now, and I firmly believe he’s telling us THIS.”
And naturally the “this” that Jesus was allegedly saying was wildly different.
There were some who knew their Scriptures forwards, backwards and inside out – who would turn to the Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles to demonstrate how early Christians lived, arguing that we should model our lives on theirs.
Then there were others who liked to read the works of the early Church Fathers, and the traditions and teaching of the early, institutional Church – arguing that their teaching was timeless and we really ought to be living like THEM.
On top of all that, there were those who wanted the reassurance of some clear, authoritative teaching from the Church of today.
So some students waded through the encyclicals of Pope John Paul and the incoming Pope Benedict for enlightenment. Whereas some of the Methodists and URCs – who had no time for bishops, let alone any Pope – took very seriously the statements of their own church councils.
Two distinct groups of students then, with totally different perspectives, but for all of whom obedience to the teaching of the Church was central to their faith.
So what do we make of all that?
We can’t escape the fact that, even though we’re all trying to work out the real message of the Gospel; even when we use the same methods to do it – somehow we still manage to end up with wildly different conclusions.
And we can either despair of that fact, as an organisational disaster OR we can learn to rejoice in the rich and complex diversity of the human family.
If we, as Christian people, are going to take the message of salvation into all the world – with all the cultural challenges that involves – then perhaps, after all, it is a blessing that the people of God are such a motley crew!
Yes – of course – where there is diversity there is plenty of room for confusion – for more than one message to be in circulation. But perhaps that very diversity can teach us proper humility and respect – for each other and for God. If any of us presume to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – then I think we presume too much.
There IS only ONE who knows the full truth of the Gospel – the one who spoke the Word – God himself.
From all that I want to make two suggestions: firstly that our ability – as fellow Christians in this place – to draw people to Christ, or our failure to do so, is more about the attractiveness of our faith – the way we LIVE the Gospel – than it is about the slickness of the message we offer verbally.
There’s nothing more off-putting than watching someone with whom we disagree fervently trying to ram home their own point of view: whereas seeing that same person acting in generous love towards another person is profoundly moving and uplifting.
And we are engaged in that active witness – whether it be Coffee Corner here or Lunch with Friends at the Baptist Church, our combined “Open the Book” team in school, or any of a range of community groups – I think there is a real sense that God’s love IS being shown through us, among us and between us!
Secondly, what do we make of the notion of Christian Unity?
We are all a long way from being one Church – one institution singing from the same hymn sheet – but actually I’m not sure that really matters.
Far more important that we find a unity of purpose – that we recognise each other as sharing in the same mission – to make Christ known in this place, and throughout the world.
Last weekend we had a glimpse of what that kind of unity might look like.
A group of us, from a wide variety of churches, drew together more than 30 young people – mostly secondary school pupils. Both we, and they, brought with to the gathering a huge variation in belief and preferred worship styles.
But actually none of that mattered – as we all just on with the business of enjoying each other’s company and celebrating the faith which does unite us.
We laughed together, prayed together, reflected together – and, when it came to lighting fires to cook our tea, I think we all prayed again even harder!
It was an utterly exhausting day! And yet, it was also a real sign of hope for the churches of our area. Some of those teenagers are decidedly passionate and, dare I say, inflexible in their beliefs. And so if THEY can just get over it and get on with one another, then surely their elders can do the same.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon us all, because he has anointed us to bring good news” here and now.
Let us work together in that common cause where we can, and alongside each other where we can’t. And let us try to keep each other in our prayers – and not just in this one week of the year.
Lord God, we thank you
For calling us into the company
Of those who trust in Christ
And seek to obey his will.
May your Spirit guide and strengthen us
In mission and service to your world;
For we are strangers no longer
But pilgrims together on the way to your Kingdom