(The ecumenical endeavour)
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
'If God calls a man Son you must call him brother'
The Christian Church. It is a good thing to join you today. My warden said to me yesterday that I should be careful and told me a story about an Anglican Vicar preaching in a free church who had a chair thrown at him by an elderly lady who said 'no papists here'. I wasn't sure what to preach about today, in the lectionary we have the Sunday after ascension day, but this week I have been doing funerals every day and this was on my mind, but I also wanted to speak to you about the church and unity.
I think that I am about to preach about all three, because in a way they are linked. Christ has gone before us so what has he gone to? What is heaven like and when is it going to happen. The truth is that we don't really know. We don't know where, when or how. All we do know is that it is like a great big party at a hotel with lots of rooms and when all the guests have arrived it will begin. Heaven will obviously be a place where lots of different types of people are gathered, people with different ways and from different times and places. Of course because Christ has accepted them we will have to accept them as well. It will be full of people very different from us. So if we are going to have to get along with these people who are different from us then, how can we be so particular about who we mix with now? This has got to be a message about death, ascension and church unity. What is it that keeps churches apart? Why is it that Christ's body has been broken for so many years and divided into different camps?
I know that you are a church which has an ecumenical thrust so I probably speak to like minded folk when I say that this must be our concern. How sad it is that we seem increasingly to be moving into even more entrenched positions. There are new spirits of fundamentalism which are gaining ground. Movements struggling for some purity and breaking away from that which is considered not up to much.
I want this morning to outline just a couple of principles which I think we need to hold onto in order to keep our own lives and our churches in real perspective, I think that they may prevent us from some dangers which lie ahead. Our lack of knowledge. We need to remember our own lack of knowledge. This is not a new idea, or anything radical. Augustine said that
'if we can understand it, it isn't God'.
Yet there are many people around who want, and many people around who will give black and white teaching which tells you the answers and what to believe. Then of course anyone who deviates from this official teaching is wrong. The ecumenical movement is in some considerable trouble as a new fundamentalism claims to be able to give people the real truth, to draw together the elite and everybody else if off course. You probably know as well as I do of Christian teachers and Christian churches in Bedford which tell people from other churches that they are not real Christians. To be a real Christian you have to belong to a certain church, behave in certain ways and tithe your income, that last one is very important and of course believe the pure truth as mediated by them.
I remember as a youngster being told that Christ wouldn't accept me as a Christian unless I stopped smoking cigarettes. They didn't even have filter tipped in the Bible so how this great leap of reason was achieved is incredible. What they meant was that they believed this was the case.
Usually when people tell you that God has told them something they mean that they have a strong feeling about something, unfortunately they then take the name of God in vain and attribute to Him their own cultural prejudice. What they are saying is that 'Real Christians are like me' When all this is carried to its logical conclusion we could end up saying real Christians only drive cars with catalytic converters or real Christians eat quiche. What this does is to reduce the Christian church into something which is no different to life in any other organisation or club with like minded people all doing things they all like.
Heaven will not be like this. Many rooms many people. There must be room in our churches for people to be and grow as God deals with them however he may choose. In any case the world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians anyway and the church must have room for those who are trying to work out how many percent Christian they are.
There are people who are slowly ceasing to be Christian, but who still call themselves by that name. There are some people who have been calling themselves Christians who are so bitter and twisted and they would have been better never coming to church in the first place because it has done them no good. There are people who are slowly becoming Christians but they do not yet call themselves such and they are frightened of doing the wrong thing or not knowing what to say. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrines about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper way than they understand. There are other people of other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentration on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.
C.S. Lewis uses the example of the good Buddhist who is led to concentrate on the Buddhist teaching on mercy and to leave in the background certain other teaching. There are also a lot of people who are just all jumbled up! So it is hard to make judgements about the behaviour of Christians and non-Christians. This is certainty the case in the Church of England, you probably know of it in Baptist churches. I hope that we can as churches welcome people without insisting that they have to become exactly a certain kind of person who believes and acts in certain ways.
Yes we believe in the importance of the Christian Gospel, but we want to enable people to have room and discover the kind of people that God wants them to be, not just clones of us. Churches should be mixes of different types, places where difference is accepted and celebrated. I bemoan the fact that as I look around at Anglican churches you can say that church is...... they are that church is ....... they are....... usually they tend to mirror the type of the vicar. Vive la difference.
Melancthon the German theologian spoke about the adipahore the central tenents of the Christian faith (God created the world, Christ is God ) and then the rest, which was negotiable, which we can dialogue about. If we all believe the same thing how are we going to learn more?
Think of your own Christian life. Have you not changed your views and opinions on things over the last five years. You should have! If you haven't that you haven't learned anything. You haven't grown.
The Church is the same, it must be in constant evolution learning more about God. It wasn't long ago that in the Church of England a woman couldn't be on the PCC or read the lesson in church let alone be ordained. Now all of a sudden God has taken the scales from our eyes and said women are equal. Why did it take us so long? Why did the church think slavery was a justified action until so recently? We have grown up a lot in the last century. You should not have to sign a declaration and change your behaviour and act in certain ways to be accepted in church, because perhaps you are right.
Sometimes it can be infuriating but I am very pleased that in our Church Partnership we do not have an official point of view on various theological concepts, but have liberals and evangelicals side by side. Now this might seem obvious but there are many churches where to be accepted you have to agree with the consensus. To do this we do not have to become a church of the lowest common denominator but a church which enjoys the richest gifts that all can bring.
It is a shame that many of the things which separate churches are irrelevant. Think of what divides our churches. One of the greatest divisions at the moments seems to be music. I know people who won't come to my church but travel further afield because they say they prefer the worship elsewhere. Well this is a very dubious use of the word worship anyway, as you are probably aware Paul tells us that worship is what we do outside church, as we offer our bodies as living sacrifices in our daily lives, worship isn't a Sunday service word at all. But anyway what they mean by this is that they prefer the music elsewhere, we don't sing enough choruses and our speakers aren't loud enough. Worship is reduced to who has the catchiest tunes. What will happen if we get to heaven and discover that God does not like our liturgy, or he does not like our style of music?
There are whole movements of churches in the Church of England which have split off and formed groups dedicated to saying their prayers in the old English of the prayerbook. When we get to heaven what language will we use? I can't see it being the prayerbook. What songs are we going to sing? What if God doesn't like hymns? or if he likes only the Spanish language? The truth is that we sing and say liturgy to God, we should not do it just because we like it, it is not entertainment!
One of the other things which has been so divisive is the so called gifts of the Spirit. I am sometimes told, Your church doesn't have speaking in tongues and the ministry of the Spirit. Again these folk are going to be disappointed when they get to heaven because of course in 1 Cor 13:8 it says that tongues and prophecies and words of so called knowledge are all going to stop, they won't be able to speak in tongues in heaven. I don't know how they will cope.
That which has divided so many churches is not even going to exist in God's kingdom. What is going to last—'faith hope and love and the greatest of these is love' That of course is the one thing which seems in such short supply, breaking churches apart through lack of it. If we had love I would not be an Anglican and you a Baptist, URC, Methodist, whatever.
Denominationalism is obviously a bad thing and so any movement to bring Christians together is a good thing. So we need to be a unconcerned about loosing our denominational identity. The Reverend John Whitehorn a URC minister and former secretary of Churches Together in High Barnet says this in a recently published article in the ecumenical Pilgrim Post, he said, 'Denominations are sinful—i.e. They are contrary to God's will. I find them totally incompatible with the Biblical evidence. In the Church in New Testament times there was diversity, but the diversity was not institutionalised by denominational structures and mutual exclusions. Paul was appalled at the beginnings of denominational cliques in Corinth. And what happened when there were serious differences Antioch? Did Paul and Barnabus say 'all right ; you have your denomination and we'll have ours'? No; the matter had to be thrashed out until they could write about 'what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us'. It was unthinkable that there should be rival church leaders with their own followers and congregations competing over the same areas of Palestine, Syria or anywhere else. What was unthinkable then ought to be unthinkable now.
The fact that so many different kinds of congregation can exist within denominations themselves proves that there is no reason for different viewpoints to lead to the setting up of denominations with their competing and mutually exclusive structures.
I don't reject variety; I reject the claim that unity means uniformity.
It does of course mean agreement on the basic beliefs of the Gospel, and so would not favour union with Jehovah's witnesses. But if two different groups of Christians have the same basic gospel and some points on which they differ, they should not assume that the differences cannot be resolved; they should actively seek together for the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that they may reach out to the truth. Actually denominational structures hinder this search for the truth and push us into opposing camps. It is no use just praying that Christians will be nicer to one another, or that they will co-operate a bit better we need to begin to pray for a visible unity which does not concern itself with a denominational badge.'
All of this may sound a bit radical. I hope not, actually it is totally orthodox. The early church father Irenaeus, a second century bishop said about divisions in the church 'No reformation able to be affected by them will be of great enough importance to compensate for the damage arising from their schism.' There was a man who knew what he was talking about.
We are all searching. Nobody has a monopoly on truth, we all lack God's knowledge. We do not like that which we do not understand. Indeed whenever humankind comes across things which it finds different, outside its experience it reacts in very bad ways. We have persecuted and tortured those with views which are different from our own. We attack those who look different or who have different colour skin or sexuality. We are very intolerant and like to be surrounded by like minded people who appreciate the same things that we appreciate.
The idea of a God outside of us is something which is uncomfortable. This God is of course immediately bigger than we are and as such transcends us and our experience dominated thinking. Here is something which we cannot measure let alone begin to understand. No wonder we want to put God in a box.
This is challenging for it reminds us that we are not the centre of God's universe. God created others with equal importance to him as me. More than that, the very people whom I find it difficult to come to terms with are special to God also. Ultimately there can be no room for differences and divisions. There can be no room for schism in the body of Christ.
There are great difficulties for the church here. In our divided state we are not an effective witness. In our ghettos we play as separate football teams and appear to be in competition with one another. Christ's purpose is clearly that we should be one. This was his great prayer for the church. 'By this shall all men know you are my disciples, if you have love, one for another!'
This is a mission statement. If you want to know why the Christian faith isn't communicating with the world in which it finds itself, then the answer according to Christ is because it isn't communicating with itself.
The sad thing is that the church is divided and we must seek to bring it together. Lack of power and strength. I suppose all of this sounds very weak and feeble. Its much easier to be sure about things and to tell everyone what they ought to believe and what will happen to them if they don't. This is the success of the sects and cults and those dubious Christian groups which have all the answers. But alongside our appreciation of our lack of knowledge we must also realise our desire for power and strength which is opposed to God.
If we were advertising for Christians to share in the mission of this church for the next ten years and advertising in the church press, would you be the sort of person who we wanted to look at? Indeed what would we outline as the sort of people who we wanted? I went through the jobs section of the Times yesterday and noticed quite a few kinds of people who were currently in demand in the employment market. They want highly motivated, capable, talented, highly qualified, aggressive folk, with proven experience. These people will achieve. This is human success and we are all in a performance related market.
Even the Church is now performance related and clergy are moving ever closer to a form of productivity assessment with better jobs for those who fit certain criteria and moving on for those who don't. No wonder that the clergy in the Church of England are moving into trade unions. But the church can very easily take on the characteristics of the world around it. Human ambition and achievement are a part of all of our lives, competitiveness to show that I am better than others, so that when I look in the mirror I can see that I really am as good as my CV suggests. Then we can take our place in the centre and demand respect from others who are more lowly than ourselves.
In secular society people are made to bow in the presence of other people, some mortals are considered more worthy of respect than other mortals. This is the opposite of the way that we should behave in the church. We are supposed to be humble and meek and forgiving and tolerant, just as Christ behaves like that with us.
I remember at college one day walking in and seeing the place a hive of activity, the grass was being cut the dust was being dusted and I asked why the place was so busy and they said that the bishop was coming. The bishop had to be impressed, he had to be treated like an earthly ruler. But Christ said that this was the opposite to the way we should behave. When God looks at you he sees failure. When God looks at your church he sees a collection of failures. None of you are better than anyone else. If you think that your church is better than another church you may find like the churches in Revelation that you are the one who is really failing. So be very careful about judging somebody else. In the Church of England we have been very good at judgmental behaviour.
In our church we practice an open communion table. All are invited. If some people can't come to the table then it isn't a communion anyway and we might as well all go home and watch the Disney show. So I always say all are invited and frequently some don't come forward and frequently they say things like 'Oh I didn't think that meant me' Somebody once said to me do you realise that you just gave communion to a Buddhist? Wesley called it a converting ordinance so presumably it was doing him some good.
A lady once said to me, 'I can't take the bread and wine because I am divorced' Some old Vicar somewhere had led her to believe that she was not worthy, first time in 25 years she had the sacrament.
Christ was accepting, forgiving, allowing people to move on and start again. We can't bear it. We want to make people earn it—they have to work hard and attain a certain level of righteousness. Its our way of having power over others who haven't. Why have we refused communion to children making them pass a test before they are allowed? I am not saying that we are all rubbish, rejects, God doesn't create rubbish, but we have all fallen short, we are all failed and so those who live in glass houses can't throw stones.
If there was anybody who had the right to claim perfection when looking in the mirror it was of course Jesus. Here was somebody who could claim to really be different, sinless, no flaws. Not in a stinted sense, there doesn't come from the picture of Jesus the nature of a man who controlled himself, who would really have loved to let his hair down if only he had had the courage. Here was no puritan who denied his secret longing, rather a man in harmony with his world. He was someone who did not crave material blessings, he was content with a very meagre living. Here was a man who loved women and was relaxed and comfortable in their company, yet there is no scandal attached to his name. His sinlessness is not one of deprivation but from harmony and integration. Yet in Jesus we do not see a picture of one who says, there you are I can do it why can't you. There is no narcissism as Jesus looks in the mirror. There is no demand for being better than everybody else to be a follower, rather the weak are chosen and those who would be recognised as unsuitable by secular standards. We are given the picture of one who willingly accepts so much that we would not tolerate if we achieved that standard of perfection.
The Church of England is probably better at being holier than thou than most. We seem to have an effortless superiority, we assume that we are the best, I'm sorry to disappoint you if you thought that you were! The cross speaks powerfully that Jesus does not demand successful people. People who do admire the successful would perhaps look at the cross and see a charismatic leader who lost it, who took on the system and eventually was destroyed by it. But rather the cross shows Jesus who had a policy of aligning himself with the poor and the weak and the powerless.
In the book of Revelation there is a mysterious description of Jesus as 'The lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world' Rev 13:8 What could be more defenceless and less threatening than a lamb'? Jesus is like a lamb, totally refusing to exercise power. It is an image which again contradicts all we know from life in this world.
Jesus himself made it quite specific when he said to his disciples, 'You know the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Matthew 20:25-27 This is the ministry of Jesus, serving and giving of his life. A despising of those who held power and dwelt in palaces and a choosing of humility and poverty.
One afternoon in the year 312 the Emperor Constantine had a vision. He was about to face his rival, Maxentius, in battle for the leadership of the Roman Empire. Constantine was not a Christian, but he strongly disapproved of the persecution of the Christian Church. Being a shrewd politician, he probably saw that the church could help restore unity to the divided Empire. He told his historian Eusebius that he had a vision. He saw a cross of light in heaven bearing the inscription 'In hoc signo vinces' You shall conquer by this sign. During the night while he slept he saw the sign with the same inscription in a dream. So he had a standard made, a spear overlaid with gold with a bar across to make the cross. On this he put the 'Chi, Rho' monogram for the name of Christ. On the following afternoon he led his army into battle against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. Under the sign of the cross he enthusiastically massacred his opponents and was soon the senior leader of the Roman Empire. Constantine started a trend.
Since his day many Christian have gone into battle under the cross, and destroyed their enemies in the name of the crucified. Perhaps the most celebrated being the crusading movement in the Middle Ages. For three centuries waves of Christian warriors descended upon the Holy Land to slaughter infidels and to try to win back the Holy Land for the Church. They were called crusaders because they bore the sign of the cross upon their clothing. One way or another the trend has continued with the slaying of Jews , the persecution of the third world, the inquisition. The movement started by Jesus could be written in blood, and always the killing takes place under the sign of the cross, that which should speak of the lamb. A great Jewish novelist, meditating on the age old persecution of the Jews by the Christians wrote
'The Christians say they love Christ, but I think they hate
him without knowing it;
so they take the cross by the other end and make a sword out of it and strike us with it.
(Andre Schwartz-Bart, The Last of the Just.)
This is what the crusaders did, it is what Constantine did. The sign of the world's salvation becomes a weapon of violence in our hands. We have to be careful. We have a Saviour who practised complete self-emptying, our faith can never be one of power. The cross shows us that God's way is never that of power and control. The exercise of power has no place in the Christian Church which is for servants the weak and the powerless.
If you look in the mirror and see someone successful, who is making a good job of their Christian life, who is triumphant, then beware. God calls those who know they are failures, he uses those who are weak, because only in our weakness can the strength of God be made perfect. There is perhaps more to support the doctrine of the fall than any other Christian doctrine. When you read the papers and if you are honest when you look in the mirror, you will know that it is not obvious that humankind is destined for heaven. Moral imperfection characterises all of our lives. Rather than the story of Adam giving rise to the doctrine of the fall, surely our own experience of fallenness has produced the story of Adam and Eve.
I was once approached by a lady after a service who asked that I spent less time trying to convince everybody that they were sinners, because she really didn't feel that her life was so bad. I asked her how she would feel if we were to capture on film some of the worst episodes of her life, dragged some of the skeletons out of the cupboard and put them on a screen at the front of the church. I think you can imagine her response.
We need little convincing that we are in need of salvation. We need to see our weakness to see ourselves as failures, as God sees us and then call on Him for strength. It is our simple acceptance which makes us worthy to be called Gods children. Those who look in the mirror and see weakness, lack of self-confidence, a real battle, you are the lucky ones who realise your need of Christ to carry you through. You are the ones who can accept forgiveness offered from the cross because you understand your desperate need of it. You are those who are willing to accept others and not be judgmental.
What is the theology of the cross, how are we saved by it
The very cross of Christ itself has been a source of division for Christians. You can probably think of Christian organisations who say that unless you believe a particular set idea about the cross of Christ they won't deal with you. The truth is that we do not understand the cross. It is ·
- a picture of God's love
- an atonement in Christ's blood freely shed for us
- a model of self-sacrificial giving and alliance with the poor, oppressed, weak and needy.
The cross is all these things and more as we contemplate the presence of Christ crucified. There is no one doctrine of the cross, nothing which ties it down , because it cannot be tied down or narrowed into our definitions. The cross is more of a wonder something for each one of us to stare and marvel at. To begin to see the kind of God who looks at us as we really are and does this for us. The cross is Gods way of showing us that he is not arguing with us or fighting us, or condemning us but rather accepting us and calling us to follow him. If only we could do this to each other.